Tag Archives: joel klein

How Reformers Have Hijacked “Data”

This is my response to the letter I recently received from a colleague, with whom I am exchanging letters on various education-related issues. The original text of her letter can be found on her blog.

Dear Donna,

Long time, no write! I was very happy to read your letter and look forward to using this space to debunking the myth of data that has been perpetrated upon teachers.

There are two types of data.

You have data, which, when properly interpreted and used, encourages individualized, relevant, and urgent teaching. This is the kind of data we should all – reformers, traditionalists, principals, and parents – embrace. Here, “data” is a term that ought to frighten us on the scale of words like “puppy,” “kitten,” and “rainbow.”

The other type of data has become so important, and its use so encouraged, that its status can only be expressed thusly: Data. “Data” sounds like “data” (with the short a or the long a!) and it even looks like “data.” Where Data and data part ways, though, is in their use to students and teachers. It is Data that is undermining teachers like you. In fact, that this four-letter word is allowed to be uttered about and around children as frequently as it is is one of the great annoyances of education reform in this country.

Any dedicated teacher who truly wants to inspire the greatest achievement in her students understands the value of good data. I get this kind of data from quizzes, conversations with students, observations of what they’re saying and doing, homework, and exit slips. When I interpret the data, I am able to determine what my next steps should be for individuals and the whole class. This is what is meant by “data-driven instruction.”

You see how nice it is? Don’t you want to cuddle up with some data and figure out how it’s going to help you better teach your students? Of course, you already do, and you do it reflexively. I know you do because you understand its value. Any teacher who uses data would be considered in tune with student needs and is actively considering every student’s unique situation. This takes skill and dedication and teachers who use data to figure out next steps ought to be celebrated because they are truly tailoring their instruction to meet students where they are.

Data with a capital d serves a whole other purpose and has an entirely different value, neither of which have been determined yet! It seems that Data is mainly used to point out just how awful teachers like you and me are. That’s because Data essentially amounts to student standardized test scores. Unfortunately, too many know-it-alls in the reform dialogue don’t know what to you, me, and most is self-evident: all students are not the same!

Based on the Data on you, a teacher of beginner ESL students brand new to the country, published by New York’s papers, you are one of the worst teachers in the school, if not the city. I suspect if any Data was available on me, a teacher of self-contained special education, I’d be right there with you. The incredible fallacy of Data is that it doesn’t account for student needs and environmental factors the way the data we collect does. So that makes Data a prickly issue for those of us who know the term has been hijacked.

Now we have clarified the differences between “data” and “Data.” For a teacher who wants to encourage the greatest in her students, there are few tools that she has at her disposal that are more important than “data.” Unfortunately, when a reformer says “data,” they really mean, “Data,” and it is their failure to understand the difference that harms students and teachers.

Interpreting data is part of our job, but being chastised for Data shouldn’t be.



What I Remember

There’s a must read out there for every teacher who ever felt de-valued by value-added measures. It comes from a colleague of mine and I love the way she basically just up and says, “Uh-uh – I’m a lot more valuable than your stinkin’ numbers. Here are all the reasons why.”

Donna is now asking all of us like-minded (read: right thinking) folks to post examples of the value we’ve added unrelated to test scores. I’m doing that today. Thanks, Donna, for the inspiration.

I don’t remember your test scores, but I do remember the way you loved learning photography and how it helped you emerge from your cocoon.

I don’t remember your test scores, but I do remember a photograph you took while in my class appearing on the front page of the newspaper.

I don’t remember your test scores, but I do remember your shock and pride at winning the award for improvement in English.

I don’t remember your test scores, but I do remember you trusting me enough to confide in me that your best friend was being abused even though you thought it would get you in trouble and end your friendship. (In all honesty, this was one of the bravest acts I’ve ever seen from a child).

I don’t remember your test scores, but I do remember you graciously accepting my apology one day after I embarrassed you in front of the whole class.

I don’t remember your test scores, but I do remember our frank conversations about keeping you safe.

I don’t remember your test scores, but I do remember the time I made you laugh so hard, you had to go take a walk in the halls, and the way we all cracked up when you came back.

I don’t remember your test scores, but I do remember you crying when we watched a slideshow at the end of the year. (The reputation you had from everyone else – as being a nasty child – was mostly a myth).

I don’t remember your test scores, but I do remember you writing me a note saying you want to be like me because I see good things everywhere.

I don’t remember your test scores, but I do remember you quietly emerging as a top student.

I don’t remember your test scores, but I do remember you organizing a birthday surprise for me.

I don’t remember your test scores, but I do remember when I caught you in a lie about who did your homework for you and that it never happened again.

I don’t remember your test scores, but I do remember you overcoming intense and pervasive shyness, facing your fears and stepping outside your comfort zone, like when we went on the field together before the Mets game to answer questions in front of everyone.

I don’t remember your test scores, but I do remember you showing up one morning in tears and clutching a book order form because your mom wouldn’t buy you a 2 dollar book. I remember your gratitude when I bought it for you.

I don’t remember your test scores, but I remember everything that matters. I remember you.


Blame the Teachers

When did it become fashionable to pick on teachers? Why did it become fashionable?

What kind of society is ours? One in which those who choose the challenging, essential work of teaching are scapegoated, red-lettered, and bashed as the cause of all the world’s problems?

Kids are poor? Blame the teachers. Kids don’t eat breakfast? Blame the teachers. The Dow is down? Blame the teachers. Gas costs $4 a gallon? Blame the teachers. It’s raining? BLAME THE STINKING TEACHERS.

Who will draw the blame when the day comes that those sages who make the decisions realize that their decisions stunk? Can’t you see it now?

Reformer: “Well, yes, we measured them on test scores, but look at what that got us. The kids don’t know anything, anyway. Blame the teachers.”

I guess my point is this: if you’re a teacher, thank you for doing everything in your power to ruin the world. (Who else could I blame?)

How the Grinch Stole Education! (And Lost it Back!!)

Happy birthday, Dr. Seuss! Thanks for inspiring me to write this tale:

Every kid down in School-ville liked their teachers a lot. But the Grinch, who lived just north of School-ville, did NOT!

The Grinch hated teachers! In every single season! No need to ask why. No one quite knows the reason.

In whatever the paper, the Times, Post, or News, the Grinch spouted hatred in his educational views.

Staring down from his office with a wrinkled, furrowed frown, the Grinch conspired to turn education upside down.

“And they’re doing art projects,” he snarled with a sneer. “This is the apocalypse! It’s practically here!”

Then he grunted, with his Grinch fingers briskly drumming, “It’s no time like now for reform to be coming!”

For before, all the school girls and boys would wake bright and early. They’d walk into the classroom with a disposition not surly.

But then! Oh, that Grinch, and his planning of plans! He decided, “No more! I will stop this if I can!”

So the Grinch, so much wisdom, said, “My idea’s the best, the best the best!” “The only way to teach is to the TEST, the TEST, the TEST!”

And all the school girls and all the school boys could come to school now with the least bit of joys.

They couldn’t smile, they couldn’t dance, they couldn’t jump, they couldn’t sing. They could color in bubbles until the bell rings!

“And those teachers,” said the Grinch, as he rapped upon his window. “I must figure out a way for them to go!”

And so it was the plan of that sticky old Grinch, to measure their value and see if scores inched.

“If they inch forward,” he said, “you’re doing your job. If they centimeter back, you’re a no good slob!”

What value would be added by the Grinch’s device? A system where virtually nothing was nice.

If not for the school girls and boys, the teachers would have quit. They’d have cried long before, “It’s enough with this spit!”

But in fact, no they didn’t go down without a fight. They plotted and planned all through the night.

And finally when the Grinch was suspecting it least, there rose up an anguished roar from the ivory tower’s feet!

And there, charging, up to the Grinch’s domain were students, parents, teachers, and people all the same!

They cried, “Out with the Grinch! Get out of our schools!” The Grinch only bellowed, “Silence, you fools!”

“Only I know what our schoolchildren need: It’s testing, and testing, and testing. You see?”

Over their roar they failed to hear, until they got near, what the Grinch was so stridently arguing. Some parents declared, as they climbed up the stairs, “You can bet that we will be suing.”

They hollered and fought to reclaim the lives, of the boys and the girls who’d someday change lives.

“Our future depends on a sound education! Why are you ruining the chances of the School-ville nation?”

The battle ensued, they drew a line in the sand. The politicians, too, all took a stand.

They realized it was time to give the schools back to School-ville. They said, “Wait a minute, what we’re doing is evil!”

And finally, it happened, that the Grinch was defeated. But never could the memories from School-ville’s minds be deleted.

They always recalled those dark days with shame. When they were just pawns in the politics game.

And when they regrouped and reestablished their school, it was only the Grinch who looked like the fool.

When Value-Added Means Being De-Valued

Saturday morning, when the cold reality of irresponsible journalism and public defamation smacked colleagues former and present alike in the face, several contacted me to share their disgust, embarrassment, and anger at having their names and faulty data in the newspaper.

A popular sentiment was a lack of desire to remain in the profession. I told each person the same thing: these numbers say nothing about the quality of teacher you are.

Unfortunately, the cavalier attitude of the “journalists” who printed the data and drew conclusions from it – despite the DOE counseling them strongly not to do so – was in a matter of hours able to sow doubt not only in the public’s faith in teachers, but teacher’s own doubts in themselves.

I maintain that the data provided is horribly flawed, and much more so by the inexcusable and unprofessional failures of the news outlets to lend any meaningful context to the scores, such as presenting class breakdowns of the number of students receiving free lunch or the number of English Language Learners (and their profiencies) each teacher tested.

When did it become trendy for a value-added measure to result in a teacher having their own value subtracted? I make no bones about standing by my colleagues in and out of school who are being painted as poor teachers and having their own sense of worth de-valued when something false is presented as truth.

It’s a Start

I watched with great interest this afternoon as Brian Williams moderated a teacher town hall discussion on MSNBC, a special presentation of Education Nation. With reform dialogue reaching a fever pitch lately, from Marc Zuckerberg’s donation to Newark to Michelle Rhee’s seeming impending ouster from Washington, D.C., to of course, the release of the movie Waiting for Superman, education is pretty much on the forefront of American consciousnesses like it probably never has been.

The program, which hosted 200 teachers in the audience and a rotating panel of educators from across the country, started off as a shill show, and no real dialogue commenced until about 10 or 15 minutes in.

The discussion was limited to presentations of arguments about tenure, charters, parental involvement, poverty, and other hot-button education issues. But as so many in my PLN pointed out: no one seemed willing to offer any solutions.

Perhaps the most heartening development to me about the two hour forum was the fact that we teachers finally had a public, individual voice that wasn’t coming from the union. At the very least, we may have been shown to be human beings, rather than insensitive machines collecting a paycheck and taking it to the bank every two weeks. As many in the forum pointed out, one of our major concerns as professionals is the fact that while education reform has become a topic that everyone from Bill Gates to Oprah Winfrey feels they deserve a say in, it remains a topic where the most important voices – teachers’ – are withheld from the table. Today was a start, and if nothing else, we can hope our views have been, to a certain extent, been introduced to the public in a constructive way.

But there’s something that has been gnawing at me since the conclusion of the show. Never mind the failure of MSNBC to identify their panelists as charter school employees or Williams’ reticence at guiding serious discussion about the points being raised by the audience.

If our voices are to be heard, shouldn’t the people who vilify us like their life depends on it be there to rebut? Where was Arne Duncan? Joel  Klein? Mike Bloomberg? Geoff Canada? Eva Moskowitz? Gates? Zuckerberg? Winfrey? One woman questioned the absence of Diane Ravitch, as she is a vocal opponent of current reform movements. I’d argue it was more important for teachers to articulate their points for themselves, and that her attendance was far less vital than those who operate their vocal bullying at every turn.

Teachers have voices, opinions, and issues worth fighting for, and it’s exciting to know our ideals may finally galvanize in a productive way. However, I wonder: if a teacher scrapes his nails across the board, and nobody’s in the classroom to hear it, do they make a sound?

NY Post: 2+2=5?

I woke up this morning to find the top story on the New York Post’s web site was about the inflation of NYC test math scores. The article doesn’t really contain any information that news to me, but I figured it  would be a good catalyst to share my own similar experiences.

The article centers around a Brooklyn teacher hired and trained to mark the state tests. Referring to the scoring guide, the Post indicates the mistakes a student can make but still receive partial credit.

Now, to be fair, I did not see the fourth grade test this year, nor the scoring guide. So I can’t speak totally to the validity of the Post’s reporting about them. I have, of course, seen scoring guides from the past, and have even taught my students how the holistic rubric scoring system works, and how they are able to receive points even if their answers are wrong.

Here’s an example the Post pulls from the scoring guide, an instance in which children are allowed points based on methodology and not answers:

A kid who answers that a 2-foot-long skateboard is 48 inches long gets half-credit for adding 24 and 24 instead of the correct 12 plus 12.

I can tell you that would, in my professional estimation, be an accurate depiction of what a scoring guide would typically tell a scorer.

Commenters to the article are using this opportunity to blast the UFT for putting tenure and teachers ahead of students. These people miss the point entirely. The very basic fact, as all teachers know, is that tests are dumbed down. If it’s not because of the questions, it’s because of the answers. This isn’t news to those of us on the inside who are genuinely angered by the reliance on these tests that, you see, measure very little. As the Brooklyn source says,

“The kids who really need the help are just being shuffled along to the next grade without the basic skills to have true success. They are given a hollow success — that’s the crime of it. The state DOE is doing a disservice to its children.”
Uh, gee, ya think?
I’ve never scored the tests officially, but what the Post reports is not an isolated incident. Let me share some of what I heard from my own colleagues who scored tests this year and in previous ones.
  • In one scorer’s room this year, there was a class set of ELA tests where one of the written responses was the same in every answer booklet. It seemed clear to my colleague and the other scorers that the teacher/proctor modeled the response and either dictated it or had students copy it. The set was flagged and removed from the room.
  • Colleagues of mine were told that, on the ELA, even if a kid’s written response makes no sense, partial credit would be given for as little as one sentence.

Believe me, these things infuriate us as teachers. Here, I’m not talking about my oft-repeated stance that it’s unfair to the children to force them to take high-stakes tests that determine their worth on the basis of two days out of the year. What I’m saying is something I’ve felt since the beginning of my career, but have never really brought up in this forum. These tests, which are so obviously watered down for the purpose of inflating scores, do not at all indicate a student’s readiness for the next grade. I’m sorry: many are not ready. Yet, off they go.

Something we often talk about at work, and not in a joking manner, is how interesting it will be to see what our world is like when this generation is in charge. They have been rewarded for substandard work, don’t learn grammar or spelling, and in many cases, loathe reading. This is not the fault of teachers, or of students, or even parents. It’s the fault of a system that just is not working.

What flummoxes and scares me more than anything is who is winning the PR battle with parents on this issue. It’s the city, far and away. Parents are led to believe that test scores mean everything. A colleague told me parents of one of her students threatened to send the student back to her original country if she didn’t pass the tests. A school that crows about their improvement and success on test scores is lauded for being a great school. Sorry: no.

The reality, as I’ve written before, is that these scores are meaningless. No one’s course in life will be determined by how they fare on a 3rd grade test.

We continue to head down a troublesome path. We, the professionals, know it, but our opinions are not of any importance to people concerned only with bottom lines (no matter how poorly they indicate reality).

For the city, I guess 2+2 really does equal 5.

Update: 12:00 PM

I was remiss not to mention this in the original post. I knew it, of course, but Ms. Flecha reminded me. We will not have raw scores (the three digit ones) until July. School ends June 28. Another indicator of how meaningless these tests really are – the kids will be gone by the time we even know how they did. So, what’s the point?

A Jumbled Mess

I have quite a few educational thoughts buzzing in my brain of late. I’m trying to determine the most tactful, least injurious ways to tackle some of the latest hotbutton issues: 

  • Charter Schools – I’m currently reading Whatever it Takes by Paul Tough and will follow it with The Death and Life of  the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch. I’m becoming particularly interested in the charter debate as my friends go to work in them and with my discovery of the shiny new Charter Bug blog. I have very strong opinions on the matter, but I’ve been asked to educate myself further before I so resolutely define myself as either a supporter or detractor. Plus, if these places are the wave of the future (for better and worse), I better be versed in them. (Side note: after devouring the Eva Moskowitz/Harlem Success article in New York Magazine, I fought with every fiber of my being to resist firing off a scathing rebuke of the tactics and ideologies employed there, knowing that it’d be inappropriate to do so without knowing more. My compromise was to introduce you, my readers, to the article, hoping you’d find it as intriguing as I did, and knowing full well I might someday return to it).

    Which way should I go first?

  • Fairness in Schools – I’d like to consider administrations’ motivations for certain things, be they having us submit superfluous amounts of paperwork, requesting observations, etc. Also, I’ve had reason to think about administration-teacher interactions on the whole, not through anything personal, but through the experiences of colleagues. Perhaps it’s the end of year frustrations that are making me think of these things, and maybe it’s best that I bite my fingers for a bit on them.
  • Climate of NYC Schools – With the city having just decided on a budget (without the state having done so), schools, and all city agencies, are in a major state of flux. This opens up the Pandora’s Box of tenure, seniority, merit pay, and accountability debates. The Chancellor recently wrote that all hires made after the fall of 2007 could be in jeopardy of losing their jobs for next year. This would put me and a great deal of my friends and colleagues at risk. It’s a major issue that warrants exploration and discussion. Currently, it is the singlemost pressing issue of my career, and it has the potential to set me on a path I never anticipated at this stage – which could mean something good or something bad.

So, I shall return. Know that my absence from my readers has been on my mind, and I have a lot I want to say. I’m just trying to figure out how to approach things. I want to make sure I know what I’m talking about before I ask you to devote any time to reading my thoughts. I’ll be back, and I hope to see you then.

Link: The Patron Saint (and Scourge) of Lost Schools

The charter vs. public school debate is really percolating lately here in the big city. I highly recommend you read this New York Magazine article about Eva Moskowitz, the leader of perhaps the most visible NYC charter schools system.


Happy Birthday! Have a Carrot Stick!

A fourth grade student, and potential charge of mine next year, gave me the third degree yesterday about what one of my students told him – that I bake cupcakes for the class. Only now am I beginning to realize that next year the cupcakes may be wheat germ based with an applesauce filling and soy frosting, covered with wholesome flax sprinkles. (Or maybe I’ll just crush some Doritos on top).

I had to laugh at this commentary. I photographed it from the paper, but it’s probably available on the TimesLedger’s web site.