Category Archives: Education Votes

On Meeting Tom Wolf, Surviving Corbett’s Cuts, and Voting

I met Tom Wolf Wednesday, Oct. 29. He was running late, so I couldn’t stay for the entire campaign trail event, but I made sure to shake hands with him, look him in the eye, and tell him that I am a teacher and that we need him. He responded by saying, “We need you, too.” I continued by telling him we need him to keep his promises.

I am not naïve. I know that politicians are politicians. I know that Mr. Wolf has made promises and plans to cut some taxes and raise others. I know that he needs to do all that he can to remedy the path of destruction left by Tom Corbett. I also know that he has no idea what lies ahead until he takes office and that some surprises may come up to prevent him from doing all that he has said he will do. He’s human, and he will inherit a state that’s been left in shambles.

Education Protest March 4 2010-27 by Patrick GiblinBut, I also have firsthand knowledge of what Tom Corbett has done to my state and our public education system. As proponents and opponents throw their truths about education cuts back and forth, I only can speak about what I know to be true. I was in a classroom for eleven years. None of those years was perfect, as far as statewide high-stakes assessments, new regulations, new evaluations, new budget changes, and new technology initiatives took hold. But, the four years during which Corbett held the reins were the worst.

In those four years, we lost positions to attrition. Thank goodness nobody was furloughed (at least to the best of my knowledge), but the lost positions helped to account for the increased class sizes and the loss of itinerants, so that teachers now travel between buildings at a dizzying rate. We also lost principal positions to attrition. Some buildings do not have a principal on site during the day. Schools are left without leaders in an age of school violence, bullying, and increased time needed for evaluations.

In those four years, teachers took a pay freeze. Teachers retiring at the end of the year lost money, teachers who spent time earning extra credits for advancement on the pay scale lost money, and teachers who were counting on raises to help cover the money spent out of pocket on classroom supplies lost money. I was one of the teachers who spent more of my own money during those four years. Tissues, pencils, erasers, novels, hand sanitizer, paper, glue sticks, markers, and other supplies we used on a daily basis came out of my checking account. As my classroom budget was cut, and I worked under a pay freeze, I spent more and more of my own money to keep my classroom going the way that I wanted it to, in order to have an engaging learning environment.

In those four years, classrooms lost assistants, libraries lost assistants, and buildings lost assistants. Even more damaging was the fact that students lost services they desperately needed as wrap-arounds and personal aides were slashed. Students who relied on those paraprofessionals and support staff suddenly were left to navigate through the school year on their own. Discipline issues became a problem and students spent more time with guidance counselors and principals after they lost their support in the classrooms.

In those four years, my class sizes grew from an average of 22 to an average of 30. My largest class was 38 students, and I did not have enough desks in my room to accommodate all of them the first week of school. When I managed to borrow desks from fellow teachers, we worked in close quarters until two desks broke and I was told there were no replacements. I again relied on my colleagues for help and found enough desks to squeak by until the end of the school year. I worked with students and changed my lessons and daily activities to accommodate the large numbers, but those kids definitely would have been better off in smaller classes.

In those four years, we lost our after-school tutoring and mentoring programs. Students lost a program that included activities, tutoring, and snacks. We also lost a program dedicated solely to tutoring. When everyone was so concerned about test scores and student achievement, the two programs that were in place to help students academically were lost.

VOTE by Theresa ThompsonI don’t need studies or campaign ads telling me what a disaster Tom Corbett has been for my profession or my state. I have seen it and lived it. Tuesday, teachers MUST vote their job, not their party. Teachers MUST vote, period. I can’t imagine what will be left of our state or our schools if we have to endure another four years of Tom Corbett.

For more, follow the #Vote4ED posts on Twitter and visit http://educationvotes.nea.org.

Images via Flickr by Patrick Giblin and Teresa Thompson

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

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