Monthly Archives: October 2014

Weekly Roundup 10/25


This week in education, we see more bad news for educators and students. Much of the bad news is because politicians and organizations are pushing their own agendas, rather than focusing on the real problems at hand.

Monday, October 27, the Philadelphia School District will give schools access to $15 million. On the surface, this sounds positive. The problem is, the money is part of the $44 million the district expects to save from canceling the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. This is the same money that is tied up in the court system after the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas granted the union’s request for an injunction; the injunction should have halted the district’s plans to begin forcing teachers to contribute more toward their health care premiums. The district effectively will hand out money that legally is not theirs, a move that PFT president Jerry Jordan says is a “public relations campaign to try to make it appear that it’s the PFT’s fault that the schools don’t have what they should have.” Read the full article to see how teachers are being victimized and villainized once again.

Arne Duncan reportedly wants to raise the stakes for schools of education, driving “bad” schools out of business with new federal regulations governing those schools. This seems like the same old tune from Duncan, and it’s anyone’s guess as to how he will determine which schools of education are “bad.” Diane Ravitch gives a quick response to the report and wonders whether Duncan will “grade these colleges by the test scores of students taught by graduates of schools of education,” which “will certainly make the stakes even higher for high-stakes testing.”

Both Arne Duncan and President Obama are supporting efforts to study the use of standardized tests and to weed out the “bad” ones. Their official statements followed announcements by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools stating that too many tests are poorly designed, take too much time, and can be eliminated. Patrick O’Donnell’s article offers both Duncan and Obama’s statements in their entirety, and teachers should read them. Then, teachers should think about what the statements do not say. They never mention the Common Core. How can we have a conversation about testing and not mention the driving force behind the latest round of testing insanity? Our leaders still don’t get it, as evidenced by their own words.

Would you believe, after reading the previous articles, that there is a steep decline in the number of enrollments in teacher prep programs? Teachers have been predicting the decreasing numbers of new teachers for quite some time; it’s difficult to imagine why anyone would want to enter this profession, with all of the bureaucracy, bashing, and blame flying around these days. A report in Education Week details the decline and points to “supply concerns” in California and other large states. The article fails to mention one thing: practicing teachers are leaving the profession in droves, too.

The real issues in education should focus on the students. Poverty and hunger are two critical components in student performance, but politicians, mainstream media, and education reformers don’t talk about it. An article in the New York Daily News reports on the heartbreaking number of homeless students. While the fights rage on over public schools and charter schools in the city, as the governor’s race heats up, and as teachers come under fire for failing schools, the homeless students are being overlooked in the discussion. We cannot fix education until we fix the problems of our students.

2013 Philly School Rally by peoplesworld

The TRUE Meaning of Solidarity

Most of us have seen it at the bottom of correspondence from our union leaders (those of us who have unions, that is): “In solidarity…” I don’t know that we really think about those words and the importance of them, though. I especially don’t think that those of us who have been in the union from the beginning of our career have stopped to think about what it would mean if we didn’t have a union or a group with which to display our solidarity.

Yet, we don’t always stand in solidarity. Often, we divide ourselves into “regular ed. and special ed.” or “content teachers and itinerants” or “elementary and secondary.” We need to stop. We are educators. We are under attack from what seems like a million different directions, and we are losing ground to charters, corporations, education reformers, and spin machines that have millions of dollars to discount all that we say and do. If we allow the situation and the circumstances to divide us, they will conquer us.

2013 Philly School Rally by peoplesworldThe latest developments in Philadelphia must be a lesson to all public educators, everywhere. I don’t know that any of us truly believed that a contract could be canceled. I think some of us still believe that someone will step in and make this situation right. The problem is, there isn’t anyone standing up for the teachers, other than the union and the parents and students. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted down the proposal to give the governor the power to abolish the School Reform Commission (SRC), and they also failed to pass a measure to force the SRC to advertise meetings 48 hours in advance.

This is why our unions speak to us in terms of “solidarity.” The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers needs us. They need us to write letters and emails to the members of the Senate Committee. They need us to boost their morale through solidarity events as simple as wearing red and sharing the picture on their Facebook page. They need to know that other teachers care about what they are going through and that we know it’s not right. They need to hear from us, when they are not hearing from anyone else. They need us to sign and share the petition urging the SRC to negotiate in good faith. The Philadelphia teachers need our solidarity NOW.

To get more about the story in Philadelphia and what you can do to help, read my blog post, “Solidarity Now.” Stay up to date by “Liking” the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools Facebook page and following them on Twitter. Read the articles that share the TRUTH about the situation, like “Letters: A plea for R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” “Real Life ‘Dr. Evil’ latest to take on Philly teachers with front group,” and “Thousands join street protest before raucous SRC meeting.”

Image via Flickr by peoplesworld

Weekly Roundup 10/17


Another week, and another round of attacks on public education. Surprises in the news include lawmakers targeting remedial and developmental education and Massachusetts halting new charter schools. We are happy to report some good news out of New York and Philadelphia, even as teachers in those states are embroiled in conflicts and protests. One thing became clear this week: we need to stand in solidarity as more stories about the war on teachers and public education emerge.

There’s a new war waging in education, and this time it’s affecting students and educators at all levels, even post-secondary. In Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, Connecticut, and other states, lawmakers believe the answer to students needing extra time and support in college is taking it away from them. For these lawmakers, it makes perfect sense that remedial education is failing and the best way to make lower-achieving students more successful is to remove their access to remedial classes. States are implementing their own solutions to the “remediation problem,” from making remedial or development courses optional to restricting students to a single semester of non-credit remedial coursework. It’s probably not a surprise that the opponents of remedial or developmental education are a political advocacy group called College Completion America, despite the fact that a 2006 study showed students taking remediation are more likely to graduate than equivalent students who don’t. Read the NEA Today article to get the whole story.

Oh, New Jersey. We feel for you, too. One Newark seemed to have fallen off the education news radar for awhile, but it came back on the scene in a big way this week, when Superintendent Cami Anderson stated the district plans to expand some of the changes made under the plan. As reported by Naomi Nix, one of the changes includes instituting private pre-K providers as part of its universal enrollment system. Anderson talks a good game, but parents, teachers, and Newark residents have been protesting One Newark since its inception. The opponents include Newark mayor Ras Baraka, who has been speaking out against the reorganization of schools and who now is appealing to President Barack Obama to intervene in the “‘disruptive and illegal education reforms'” taking place in the school district. Read the article about Baraka’s stance, plus his entire letter to President Obama here.

In the aftermath of the State University of New York’s (SUNY) board of directors approving the creation of 17 new charter schools last week, angry parents demanded an audit of SUNY and their charter schools, Success Academy. In an interview with City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Jess Berry of the Brooklyn Downtown Star reports that Stringer is planning to come up with a protocol for the audits and then audit the charter schools. This is big news, as more and more parents, teachers, union leaders, and others concerned about the lack of oversight in charters are calling for more regulations. In New York, this is particularly promising news for outraged parents who say that the Success Academy schools already in existence are “grossly under-enrolled.” Read Berry’s article that also gives a history of the conflicts between charters, parents, and other citizens of NY.

While New York seems to be adding charters as fast as they can, an October 14 report in the Boston Globe states that new charter schools are unlikely in Massachusetts, as the state halted plans for new charter schools in Brockton and Fitchburg. This decision came on the heels of the Massachusetts Senate “overwhelmingly” rejecting an increase in the number of charters that may operate in low-performing districts. One thing is for sure, with the private groups pushing for the charters in Massachusetts, this debate is far from over. Read the Boston Globe article and decide for yourself.

Pennsylvania education secretary Carolyn Dumaresq petitioned the Commonwealth Court to dismiss a case filed by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia on behalf of 7 parents and the advocacy group Parents United for Public Education pushing for the PA Department of Education to investigate the more than 800 complaints filed by parents in the Philadelphia school district last year. Dumaresq claims that a state investigation is not required because the complaints are not curricular, but the attorney representing the parents argues that many of the complaints focus on insufficient offerings in state mandates regarding foreign language, physical education, and programs for gifted students. This feels like one more way that the state is tying the hands of public school students, parents, and teachers in Philadelphia. Read the NewsWorks article to get the full story.

If you’ve been following our blog and Facebook page this week, you’ve seen quite a lot of content about the atrocities being carried out against the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) by the School Reform Commission (SRC). The SRC’s action to cancel teacher contracts has far-reaching implications, and it is important to stay up-to-date with everything that is happening. Last night (10/16), nearly 3,000 people showed up prior to the SRC meeting and shut down Broad Street to protest the SRC and stand up for the PFT. This report from The Examiner details the events of the meeting, including speakers’ comments and the ways in which various attendees called for an apology and resignation from Sylvia Simms, the SRC member who lashed out at Philadelphia Student Union members when they effectively protested the viewing of the anti-union film We Won’t Back Down during Parent/Family Appreciation Month. Simms reportedly mentioned “failing schools” and “jail” in her comments to students.

It’s very interesting that this week brought about two statements, one from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and one from NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, regarding the amount of time students spend taking and preparing for standardized assessments, yet neither mentions the Common Core. Not once. At first glance, educators and parents may be encouraged by these statements; let’s face it, they both essentially admit that the sheer volume of testing needs to decrease. But, it is impossible in this day and age to call for less testing and never mention the monster behind it all. Is this a maneuver to placate teachers and parents for awhile? Be careful of wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Solidarity NOW

Let me be clear: If we do not stand together as a group millions strong as public education comes under attack, there won’t be anyone who will speak for us. This fight to protect our schools and our students and our profession from government officials, corporate charter school leaders, education reformers, Pearson, data mining, big money, and all of the other forces that are systematically taking over districts must be OUR fight.

It was easy to look at Chicago and lament the closing of 49 elementary schools and 1 high school if you don’t live and work in Chicago. It was easy to look at Philadelphia and feel bad 20120725CTURally-2 by sarah-jifor the kids as the latest batch of schools closed if you don’t live and work in Philadelphia. It was easy to watch the teachers of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, strike as they fought for class size caps, planning time, and the withdrawal of the merit pay proposal based on students’ standardized test performance if you don’t live and work in Reynoldsburg. It’s easy to watch the teachers, parents, and students currently holding rallies and protests in York City, PA, to protest the corporate takeover of all of the public schools in that district if you don’t live and work in York City. It’s easy to watch the students in Jefferson County, Colorado, currently protesting the school board’s potential changes to the A.P. U.S. history curriculum and the teachers taking part in sick-outs if you don’t live in Jefferson County. The list goes on and on.

But, in some states, government officials already have succeeded in abolishing unions. In some states, teachers already are forced to give hundreds of assessments and work for merit pay. In some states, teachers already have to pay nearly or all of their health care premiums. In some states, public schools are being pushed out as public education spaces and dollars go to charter schools. As district officials, state officials, and federal officials hand down decisions, teachers everywhere are beginning to be affected. But, as of October 8, 2014, this is no longer THEIR problem. If you are a public education teacher, this is now OUR problem, thanks to the School Reform Commission (SRC) in Philadelphia.

We officially no longer can sit back and watch what is unfolding in Philadelphia now. We need to sit up, pay attention, stay informed, and stand in solidarity with our public education brothers and sisters. If you need a little bit of history on the state takeover of the Philly School District, click here. And, if you don’t know what the SRC is, you need to know NOW, because they are the group that is working to take away retired teachers’ benefits – as much as $10,000 per year, according to Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) President Jerry Jordan in a Philadelphia Inquirer article. They are offering a health care plan that will force teachers to pay premiums as high as $626 per month and then meet astronomical deductibles and co-pays. They failed to negotiate with teachers after being ordered to do so by a PA Supreme Court and decided instead to cancel the existing contract and enact the contract with these new terms. The SRC did not advertise the meeting properly. All of this occurred without any negotiations having taken place since July 2014.

Protests have been occurring in Philadelphia since the SRC acted, including students going on “strike” to show their support for their teachers. Parents and public school advocates also Proud Marchers by Light Brigadingannounced their solidarity with Philly teachers Wednesday by standing on the steps of the district’s headquarters. All of this was happening at nearly the same moment that a PA Senate committee failed to approve a proposal to give the governor the authority to abolish the SRC, by a vote of 14-9, with no Republicans supporting the proposal. Solomon Leach’s Inquirer article also points out that the Senate Appropriations Committee “rejected a second amendment that would have required the SRC to provide 48 hours’ notice before holding a meeting.” The result? Only the SRC can vote to dissolve itself, with the permission of the secretary of education. Heard enough yet?

There’s more. The PFT is holding a protest outside the School District headquarters today (Oct. 16, 2014), but the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives confirmed it hired a team to appear at the event. Let that sink in for a minute. This group has enough money to pay people to show up to counter the teachers’ protest. In fact, according to a Philadelphia magazine article, this “free-market think tank” would be “informing people about how Jerry Jordan and the PFT leadership are standing in the way of tens of millions of dollars gong back into Philadelphia classrooms.” FYI – the Commonwealth Foundation registered two other websites this week, to put out their agenda and spread their false messages. They claim the teachers have a “selfish agenda” and fail children, teachers, and the poor, and that their group hired workers to pass out information and hold banners “to inform” the public. “The Notebook” noted that Cindy Hamill-Dahlgren, spokeswoman for the Commonwealth Foundation, would not specify how much money the Foundation spent to counter the PFT, Greeed by liz westbut an email showed some “brand ambassadors” were being offered anywhere from $100 to $120 to assist.

If this is the first time you’ve heard about the Commonwealth Foundation, you should know that in April 2013, it was reported that the right-wing think tank out of Harrisburg has plans to attack pubic sector employee unions. According to an article from “The Nation,” Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) wrote a letter on behalf of the Foundation, announcing “Project Goliath,” a “new effort to make Pennsylvania the next Wisconsin or Michigan.” Toomey wrote, “‘I firmly believe the future is in our hands – it’s up to you and me – and it all depends on the level of urgency we give this new campaign of ours, Project Goliath: Conquering Pennsylvania’s Political Giant. Now is the time to fight back. Like David of the Bible, now is the time to come forward and slay Pennsylvania’s Big Labor Goliath! …. First, we are forming an alliance with other successful free-market groups to actively discredit the Big Government Party (a tactic borrowed directly from Wisconsin). Like our friends in Wisconsin and Michigan, many elements of our plan involve a cooperative effort among our allied, but still independent, organizations…. But the overriding key to our whole plan will be our ability to starve the giant.’” The Commonwealth Foundation is reportedly “one of a 59-state network of similar think tanks that have vastly expanded since 2009.” They have raised millions of dollars, they have a stronghold in Pennsylvania, and clearly they are gunning for public education.

Now, several stories on Facebook are starting to emerge as the situation in Philadelphia worsens, from an SRC member telling student protestors, “You belong in jail,” to Pittsburgh teachers wearing red in solidarity with the Philly teachers.

So, what can you do? Share the stories on your social media pages. If you’re sharing recipes TRUTH Twitterand Halloween pictures on Facebook, you need to bite the bullet and start sharing the stories out of Philadelphia and the rest of the country. “Like” the pages of these unions, parent groups, and teacher groups on Facebook so you can easily follow their news. If you don’t have a Twitter account, create one and start following organizations and education warriors like @TruthInTeaching, @PublicEdNation, , @APPSphilly, @NYSAPE, @PegwithPen, @UnitedOptOut, @DianeRavitch, @palan57, @CTULocal1, @BadassTeachersA, @MindyRosier and others who understand the urgent need to save public education and get out the TRUTH.

You need to talk to your local union leaders, if you’re in a state that still has a union, about organizing solidarity campaigns. You need to read the articles (there are three below that are a good place to start) and understand the implications for you, your position, and your district. You need to get involved. Or, the next canceled contract, the next corporate takeover, the next shuttered school, could be yours.

For further reading:
‘Dear America, We Give Our Schools Third-World Level Resources… With love, Philadelphia XOXO’
Philadelphia Teachers Hit by Latest Cuts
PFT pushes back: livetweeting the SRC meeting

Images via Flickr by sarah-ji, Light Brigading, and Liz West

Listen, Understand, Act by Steven Shorrock

Teachers Need to Send a TRUE Message

So many teachers responded to my post, “The Tide Is Turning.” As per the norm since Angela and I started TRUTH In Teaching, the majority of responses came through email and personal messages. Again, I am reminded of the sad reality that teachers are afraid to tell the truth and share their thoughts publicly, because they are being subjected to intimidation and retribution. A very telling theme emerged from the responses: teachers are being told to be positive and to put on a good face for the public.

I wish I could say I was surprised by this, but I’m not. All too often, administrators who are pushing their own agendas and interests encourage teachers to stand united in support of the district and don a facade for the public, especially when negotiations are occurring. The problem with this directive, of course, is that it paints a false picture. It makes school boards believe that teachers are on board with policies and directives that are not in the best interests of students or teachers. It makes parents think that the teachers whole-heartedly accept all of the paperwork, assessments, and curriculum changes that follow the corporate, Common Core, and administrative agendas.

Make Our Schools a Priority by GreenNetizenI am discouraged by the fact that so many educators from all corners of the country are hearing the same messages from their administrators. Making it work and smiling for the parents and public is what has gotten us into this mess. Of course parents and community members are going to sit back and allow students to be tested incessantly and teachers to be burdened with more district-level lesson plan, assessment, and curriculum responsibilities when the teachers appear to think those things are a-okay.

The front office directive of “Be positive (or else”) is irony at its worst. There is a reason districts feel compelled to demand that their teachers be positive. Morale is at an all-time low across the country. Teachers are being tasked with more and more at every turn. Students are spending more time preparing for and taking assessments than ever before. Funding is at its lowest levels and class sizes are at their highest.

But, revoking the teachers’ ability to have honest, open dialogue with each other, parents, and community members, as well as administrators and school boards, in the name of “positivity” is absurd. Holding meetings to tell teachers to refrain from participating in public discussions about the current state of things in classrooms and schools cannot be a better use of time than truly listening to teachers’ concerns. Hiding behind the premise of an “open dialogue” and then telling teachers who have lists of questions that it would be better to meet one-on-one is insulting. And, telling teachers they cannot speak with school board members is unethical. What are districts so afraid of? Why are administrators so afraid of having discussions in a large, open forum? It seems as though they are following the “divide and conquer” mindset. That only works if we allow them to do it.

Again, I encourage you to look to the districts who have not taking things sitting down. Teachers in Chicago, IL; Reynoldsburg, OH; York City, PA; Jefferson County, CO; Philadelphia, PA; San Ysidro, CA; and others have had the courage to publicly speak out against policies that negatively impact their profession, classrooms, and students. Individual teachers are joining the Badass Teachers Association, and many of them also are supporting the United Opt Out movement and Peggy Robertson (we are sharing much of Peggy’s work on our Facebook page for easier access). These teachers are making sure that they share the TRUTH about the things that are occurring in their districts. Instead of facing an angry mob of parents and community members, they are finding overwhelming support from Listen, Understand, Act by Steven Shorrockother teachers, parents, community members, and students. Teachers have found allies in other stakeholders and are still working together to rally, protest, and explain their side of things with TRUTH at the heart of the gatherings.

Censorship has no place in public education. Teachers are professionals. They have a right to stand up, speak out, and share their opinions and concerns. They should not fear a confrontation with an angry administrator for using their First Amendment right. They also have a right to educate the public about the challenges, problems, and issues that are occurring in their classrooms, schools, and districts. Teachers work every day to eradicate ignorance. It seems as though administrative and corporate agendas want to foster it.

Teachers: Which message are you sending?

Images via Flickr by GreenNetizen and Steven Shorrock

Occupy the Schools Feb 1, 2012 by Michael Fleshman

The Abysmal State of Education

It’s been a bad week for education in Pennsylvania. Well, in all honesty, it’s been a bad few years for education in Pennsylvania since Tom Corbett was elected Greeed by liz westgovernor in 2010, but things have come to a head this week. From the new report that PA charter schools “have engaged in fraud and abuse amounting to about $30 million,” to the School Reform Commission (SRC) unilaterally canceling teacherscontracts in Philadelphia, we are in trouble. Add that to the impending November York City vote on a corporate takeover of public schools, and the state of education in Pennsylvania is in dire straits.

In the Education Votes article, “New report alleges $30 million in fraud and abuse connected to PA charter schools,” Brian Washington explains that “Fraud and Financial Mismanagement in Pennsylvania’s Charter Schools” was released by several non-profit groups including the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), Integrity in Education, and ACTION United October 1. The report states that within the past 17 years, “charter school operators in Pennsylvania have abused the system of at least $30 million. It also asserts that state agencies, charged with overseeing charter schools, are not up to the job of weeding out fraud and abuse.” The reports of mismanagement and lack of oversight in charters is nothing new, but this report comes at a time when charters and corporate takeovers are taking center stage in PA education news as well as national education news.

Washington points to the May whistleblowing report from CPD and Integrity in Education, “Charter School Vulnerabilities to Waste, Fraud, and Abuse” that claims charter school waste and abuse has cost American taxpayers an estimated $100 million. Additionally, Joshua Holland reports in “Charter Schools Gone Wild: Study Finds Widespread Fraud, Mismanagement and Waste,” that “the actual amount of fraud and abuse the report uncovered totaled $136 million, and that was just in the 15 states they studied.”

Regardless of which numbers you use, PA is responsible for a large portion of the charter school fraud. In light of these reports, anyone with common sense would think that for-profit charter schools should be turned away by districts and states. However, Corbett and his appointee in York City are doing all that they can to turn every public school in that part of PA into for-profit charter schools. The good news is the community and various education leaders are rallying around York City teachers, parents, and students in an attempt to get the school board to strike down the corporate takeover.

In her statement, NEA president Eskelsen Garcia makes her position clear: “We’re referring to the same politicians who call for ‘public school accountability’ by piling toxic tests on our students, yet seem to look the other way when it’s time to hold all charter schools responsible for their use of public funds.”

Eskelsen Garcia continued, “It’s ironic and disturbing that Governor Corbett continues to push for the privatization of Pennsylvania’s public schools – handing over entire underfunded school districts like that of York City to charter operations with less-than-stellar records.”

In truth, the two charters vying for position in York are Mosaica Education Inc. and Charter Schools USA, neither of which has a good track record. In a September 24 article, Washington points out the flaws with both corporations: Occupy the Schools Feb 1, 2012 by Michael Fleshman“In 2012, Mosaica had a five year contract to run the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy in Muskegon Heights, Michigan, but quit after two years because it couldn’t turn a profit. Charter Schools USA began operating three schools in Indianapolis during the 2012-2013 school year. So far, all three schools have earned an ‘F’ from Indiana education officials.” Students and parents are left wondering where their children can go to school when the charters fail, pull out, or both.

This is why, on a national level, the Annenberg Institute at Brown University is “calling for higher standards for charter schools regarding accountability, transparency, and equity” in their September 2014 report, and Eskelsen Garcia is pushing lawmakers to demand oversight and accountability from charters. Some election hopefuls are calling for more accountability and transparency for charter schools, as is the case with Ohio state auditor candidate John Patrick Carney.

But, oversight is not enough. When charter schools that once were supposed to be a choice for innovation and better educational opportunities (did anyone really believe that all those years ago?) are forced upon districts in an effort by education reformers to privatize education, where are the teachers, students, and parents left? Charters have proven themselves to be ineffective, incapable, and in some cases, illegal. Fixing public education with charters is not the answer. It never was, and it never will be. Rather, we need to be electing officials who truly understand the value of public education and listening to true education experts – the teachers – when it comes to education reform that is in the best interests of students.

FYI – Pennsylvania isn’t the only state wrestling with charter school issues. The debate over charter schools and their effects on public schools is heating up daily, especially in New York City. The following links offer more information about the Philadelphia schools mess, the NYC charter debacle, and the questions surrounding NYC’s charter schools leader, Eva Moskowitz:

Images via Flickr by liz west and Michael Fleshman

Weekly Roundup 10/10

WeeklyRoundup7After a hiatus from the Weekly Roundup last week because of a planned vacation, we bring you a list of 8 of the top stories from this week in education. Teacher evaluations, charter schools, the push to privatize and reform public education, student assessments, money, and solidarity dominate this week’s picks.

New York has been in the spotlight of education news for some time, and it doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. We have been wishing for better news for public educators, students, and parents out of the Empire State, but we have been unsuccessful in finding any. In fact, Diane Ravitch points out that the state appears to want to take away districts’ decision-making powers when it comes to keeping or terminating teachers. When school leaders in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley commissioned a study to review the state’s teacher evaluation system, it concluded that “‘it was irreparably flawed.'” Ravitch explains, “the state apparently wants a system that gives many teachers low scores so they can be fired…. The state is trying to take that authority away from schools and districts by creating a mechanical formula. The formula doesn’t work, and no such formula works anywhere in the country.” We see this as one more way education reformers and the government are trying to standardize education, including evaluating teachers who deserve better. Read Diane’s take on the situation in her blog post.

We’ve all heard about how much time is lost to assessing students, but it’s another thing to see the numbers in print and analyze them from a logistical standpoint for each district. In her Answer Sheet blog, Valerie Strauss breaks down the numbers of hours students taking the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exams can expect to be sitting in their chairs. For third grade, 9 ¾ hours; for grades 4-5, 10 hours; for grades 6-8, 10 ¾ hours; for grades 9-12, 11 – 11 ¼ hours. The amount of time spent is in PARCC’s newly released guidance to schools, which also recommends PARCC tests be given to students twice a year, once three-quarters of the way through the school year, and the other near the end of the school year. No matter how you look at it, too much time is being spent on assessing kids instead of teaching them. Read the entire blog post and see how one teacher envisions the testing in his school will go.

It’s no wonder, with all of the time students are losing to assessments, that parents are beginning to push back against the standardized testing. In Florida, parents are hosting webinars explaining how to skip the tests, convincing school boards to eliminated district exams, creating anti-testing networks, and more. Unfortunately, as the parents and their efforts gain steam, a Florida lawmaker says unraveling the testing system would have “significant negative consequences on student learning, education funding, and, ultimately, a graduate’s ability to find a job in today’s global marketplace.” Read the Miami Herald article to see how parents and other lawmakers are combatting this type of thinking.

Charters are just one of the issues causing problems with funding of public education and local school districts. With all of the chatter about charter schools saving money and saving students, this report from EdTraveler takes a long, hard look at charter school funding formulas and the “savings” of enrolling students in charters. The blog post also points out studies that have shown charter schools result in a decrease in student achievement as well as a draining of funds from public education. Read the post in full to get more informed about charters, since they are dominating the news of late.

So, if charter schools are getting funds from public schools, why would they want more money? Peter Greene, one of our favorite education bloggers, explores this issue in a recent post on his Curmudgucation blog. In both New York and Washington, DC, charter schools are suing for more money; both suits were filed by a coalition of charter schools behind the premise of charter parents claiming that charters are underfunded and their students are being denied their constitutional right to “sound basic education.” Read the blog post to see how Peter details the age-old bait and switch of charter schools.

In a week that saw Arne Duncan give more than $40 million to charter schools, we are curious about how Duncan’s policies have affected public schools. Diane Ravitch points to his record and a New York Times article by Motoko Rich that details the ways in which even schools showing “dramatic improvement in recent years are now declared failures.” Rich and Ravitch make no bones about the “destructive force” of Arne Duncan. Both the article and blog post are worth a read.

Jefferson County, Colorado students and school board members have been in the news for the past few weeks, and we’ve been sharing up-to-date information about the fight over the AP US History curriculum on our Facebook page and in our Weekly Roundups. This week, it became clear that the Jefferson Country School Board is going to face an ongoing fight with students, parents, and teachers who continue to unite to fight the radical board policies in school walkout, rallies, protests, and overflowing school board meetings. Now, Governor John Hickenlooper has voiced his opposition to the board’s proposal. The latest Education Votes article about the situation gives a thorough overview of the situation and is an important read during this time of increased civil disobedience in support of public education across the nation.

Another story we’ve been following for some time is the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, teachers’ strike. The strike ended yesterday (Oct. 9), as teachers overwhelmingly voted to approve the tentative agreement between the Reynoldsburg Education Associatoin and the school board. We are encouraged by the way in which teachers, parents, students, and community members joined in solidarity to stand for reduced class sizes. Read the Education Votes article to get the details of the agreement and to see how teachers are planning to move on from the strike.

Bad Grade by Robert Hruzek

Robo-Graders: One more reason to end the testing madness

The school year is gaining steam and the testing madness is getting under way again. All across the country, districts already are assessing students, using both practice assessments to get them ready for the “real” tests this spring, and district assessments to see if they are on track for the practice assessments to get ready for the “real” tests this spring. I can’t help but think about the April 2014 Boston Globe article “Flunk the robo-graders” by Les Perelman and wish, once again, it would stop.

Bad Grade by Robert HruzekThe issue? Robo-graders fail to score student essays proficiently; yet, the scores determine student’ proficiency levels and teachers’ evaluation scores and, in some states, teachers’ merit pay. If the robo-graders cannot score the tests properly, the test scores should not be used to evaluate anyone or anything. And, if Pearson and the other testing companies will not even allow access or “open-ended demonstrations of their robo-graders,” states should not award them contracts. Period.

One month into my first teaching job 12 years ago, my district sent me to a conference led by a state trainer; she had been scoring PSSAs (the Pennsylvania assessments at the time), and Intermediate Units brought her in to lead conferences on scoring for new teachers, teachers in grades just beginning to be assessed, and so on. I guess the thinking was, if teachers learned what the scorers were looking for, they could teach their students to write proficient responses. And, if teachers knew what the scorers were looking for, they could score district and practice assessments more effectively. All of this meant that we were teaching to the test, of course, but nobody mentioned that.

Now, 12 years later, humans are being taken out of the grading equation, as Pearson and other testing companies roll out their robo-graders to remove one of the two human essay scorers. We already have taken good writing and grammar instruction out of schools and curriculum and replaced it with “formula writing” as we are pressured to teach kids to “beat the tests.” Now we are taking people who can read and communicate coherently out of scoring essays. In what world does any of this make sense?

Get Ready, Get Set, Write by Melanie HoltsmanIn truth, the robo-graders are scoring student essays on length and word usage most of the time. No English teacher worth his salt will tell students that it’s “quantity over quality” or to “just use a lot of big words,” and yet that is exactly what students are going to have to do in order to score well: “Robo-graders do not score by understanding meaning but almost solely by use of gross measures, especially length and the presence of pretentious language.” Perelman goes on to say, “Papers written under time pressure often have a significant correlation between length and score. Robo-graders are able to match human scores simply by over-valuing length compared to human readers. A much publicized study claimed that machines could match human readers. However, the machines accomplished this feat primarily by simply counting words.”

Need an example? Perelman gives a fantastic one in his opening: “‘According to professor of theory of knowledge Leon Trotsky, privacy is the most fundamental report of humankind. Radiation on advocates to an orator transmits gamma rays of parsimony to implode.'” Confused? So was I. That’s the point. This is gibberish. Yet, the robo-graders from Pearson would consider this “exceptionally good prose.”

But, the problem isn’t just with Pearson. When three computer science students, two from MIT and one from Harvard, developed an app that generates gibberish, “one of the major robo-graders, IntelliMetric, has consistently scored above the 90th percentile overall. In fact, IntelliMetric scored most of the incoherent essays they generated as ‘advanced’ in focus and meaning as well as in language use and style.” What are teachers, students, and districts to do, when states are contracting with these companies and expecting students to score well?

The answer is the one I have been advocating for quite some time: Stop the tests. The list of reasons to discontinue the use of these high-stakes tests is growing (I can think of about a million), as researchers begin to determine the invalidity of the tests and the processes associated with them:

  1. The robo-graders are not at all capable of scoring the student essays.
  2. Dr. Walter Stroup determined, after analyzing every Texas student’s math score, that 72% of the test scores remained the same, regardless of the student’s grade or the subject being tested. He concluded that the tests do not actually measure what the kids learn in the classroom; rather, they test how well kids can take a test.
  3. Dr. Denny Way, senior vice president for measurement services at Pearson, made a public statement, after Stroup’s determination, confessing that the tests are only 50% “insensitive” to instruction, so Pearson sells products knowing full well that they don’t measure half of what goes on in a classroom.
  4. In April 2014, the American Statistical Association condemned the use of student test scores to rate teacher performance because teachers account for only 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores

No other industry continues to use products knowing that they are ineffective and flawed. No other professionals are measured using such flawed testing materials and processes. No parent uses a product to measure any aspect of her child if she knows the results are unreliable. Would you use a set of bathroom scales or a thermometer if you knew it was broken?

#IChooseToRefuseSo, why are we doing this to our students and our teachers? Why do states and districts continue to hand out money to Pearson and other testing companies when it is becoming all too clear that not one of their products is up to snuff?

The testing madness has to stop. Go to school board meetings. Email or call your state leaders. Email or call your national leaders. Visit UNITED OPT OUT. Vote for education this November. Stand up for our students and teachers.

Still not convinced? Read “More incoherent babble: Rating a generated essay

Images via Flickr by Robert Hruzek and Melanie Holtsman

VOTE by Theresa Thompson

Vote for Education

At this time of year, it becomes even more critical that we carefully consider the candidates running for public office – from the school board level to the gubernatorial races to the US Senate and House seats – and choose those that truly stand for public education. But, we wonder whether such candidates exist.

Undecided by Phil HilfikerWe see candidates running for school board seats in the Indianapolis Public School system who have raised as much as $65,000 for their campaigns and wonder where their money is coming from. We see governors taking a stand for Common Core, stripping public education funding at historic rates, and then doing a complete 180o as polls show the public is unhappy with their records and statements about public education.

In our own state of Pennsylvania, Governor Corbett is all but out of the governor’s mansion, and we all know that Tom Wolf is the better choice. (At this point, it seems as though almost anyone would be the better choice.) Wolf is endorsed by PSEA and teachers certainly are behind him. Our hope, though, is that he stays true to his word about using a 5% severance tax to help fund education and holding charter and cyber schools more accountable. He also came out against the corporate takeover of schools in York City, PA, but there have been some reports that have surfaced about Wolf’s ties to some of the stakeholders in that district who are pro-charter. At the very least, political watchdogs and the citizens of PA need to keep a close eye on Wolf after he wins the election.

Yes, politics is a dirty game. And, we know that teachers can’t easily stop working in the classroom to run for office and make the changes we’d all like to see. But, wouldn’t that be nice? We look to the kindergarten teacher running for Congress and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who may be running against Rahm Emanuel for Mayor of Chicago, for inspiration. We see former teachers running for school board seats, too. These definitely are steps in the right direction.

So, what can teachers do on a more practical level? Well, teachers (and anyone else who wishes to visit) should regularly check the Education Votes site from NEA. While NEA certainly isn’t perfect, and teachers often find themselves disagreeing with various NEA presidents from time to time, they do feature teachers from around the country explaining which candidates they support and the challenges they face in their own section of the public education world.

We also can pay more attention to the candidate debates and listen very carefully to the words (read: spin) candidates put out in their ads. As with anything else, being informed is half the battle. Take a few minutes to read about the candidates, to listen to the debates, and to talk with colleagues and your local union leaders to see which way the candidates are leaning in the battles over charter vs. public schools, testing, education reform, pension reform, and everything else that affects teachers as professionals.

VOTE by Theresa ThompsonYou may not be able to change the leadership within your district (unless you quit and run for a school board seat), but you can vote. And, you can talk with your neighbors, friends, family, and other community members about the issues that affect you, your classroom, and your students every day. It seems the only sure way to win the fight for public education is to work from the top down. Vote for candidates who seem like supporters of public education, and then hold them accountable after the election. Our kids are depending on us.

Images via Flickr by Phil Hilfiker and Theresa Thompson