Monday, October 28, 2013

Metaphorically Speaking

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to serve as part of a two-girl support crew for three of my friends who ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC. The weather was gorgeous, the company was delightful, and the event was logistically flawed but nonetheless magnificent. On my way home in the car,  it occurred to me that teaching and marathons have more than a few commonalities.

Teaching is like running a marathon because…
  •       …even when you do it well, you will be in pain and agony, and you’re going to need to end the day wrapped up in a blanket watching bad movies and eating sugar.
  •       …without the right preparation and training, you may finish, but you’ll be sucking wind the whole time, and you may end up hurting people.
  •     …many folks are watching you, and they all simultaneously 1) admire you for trying and 2) think you’re an idiot.
  •       …if you don’t have a support team, you can still make it, but you’ll cry more, and you’ll probably end up in the hospital.
  •    …when all is said and done, what matters is not your time or your self-discipline or your sweat; what matters is the open-hearted courageousness of the attempt, the people you loved and who loved you through it, and the beautiful bits of humanity that you witnessed along the way. 
     So run! For crying out loud--run for your life! Go! Go! Go!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Supply Side

I first stepped into a teacher supply store when I was a senior in college. As part of my pre-service internship experience at a local high school, I had to create a classroom bulletin board for freshmen on propaganda. This was the late 1980s, and online shopping did not exist. I remember walking into that teacher store thinking that this made it official: I was a real teacher now. Secondary folks were never much of a market for teacher stores (they definitely catered to elementary folks), but those places were a lusty den of markers in every size and color, chalk as far as the eye could see, and paper products—oh, the paper products! In a teacher store, all teachers feel a sense of inner peace and order in a chaotic universe.

I bought one thing on that trip: a set of templates for making bulletin board letters. It came in a cardboard box the size of a Candyland game, and it included two styles of lettering: one plain and one fancy. I liked the plain. I have used those letters for countless endeavors over the years—school, yard sale posters, Sunday school, Christmas decorations, vacation Bible school, kids’ crafts—you name it. The box has lost its structure, and the whole mess lies flattened together in one scattered pile of shame, but I love it. It shall never leave me. I may end up in a long-term care facility someday, old, decrepit, lacking memory and solid food, but those letters are coming with me—because they may need a bulletin board there or something.

Teacher stores are rapidly going the way of the dinosaur. Online shopping (coupled with giant craft retailers like Michael’s and Walmart taking on some of the classic teacher supply load) has gutted the small teacher shop world. I am as guilty of using those newer resources as the next teacher, but I mourn the quietly disappearing teacher store. I mourn A+ Student! pencils, I mourn the wooden-apple A+ Teacher! jewelry, I mourn the 4-for-a-dollar rulers in every school color combination, not because I ever bought that stuff (OK, I bought the rulers)—but because I knew I could. I knew it was there. I knew there was a place that said, “You’re a teacher, and we dig it. Want some stuff?”

I miss you, teacher store, and I always will.

O Teacher Store! My Teacher Store!
(a truly terrible tribute with apologies to Walt Whitman)

O Teacher Store! My Teacher Store! Our fearful trip is done, The mall has weather'd every rack,
the supplies we sought are won, The laptop is near, the clicks I hear, the people online sharing, While follow eyes the steady keel, the parking lot grim and daring; But O bulletin board! Bulletin board! Bulletin board! O the bleeding drops of pen-red, Where on the deck my Teacher Store lies, Fallen cold and dead. O Teacher Store! My Teacher Store! Rise up and hear the bells; Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
         For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths—for you the schools
          For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces shouting;
             Here Teacher Store! Dear mother!
               This arm beneath your head!
                 It is some dream that at the mall,
                   You've fallen cold and dead.

          My Teacher Store does not answer, her lips are pale and still,
          My mother does not feel my arm, she has no pulse nor will,
          The mall is GameStop safe and sound, its journey closed and done,
          From fearful trip the craft store comes in with object won;
               Exult O sentence strips, and ring O art supplies!
                 But I with mournful tread,
                   Walk the sidewalk my Teacher Store lies,
                     Fallen cold and dead.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Too Young To Be a Curmudgeon: Married to the Mob

Author's Note: As promised, occasionally I will flip out unnecessarily, and none of us will see it coming. This week, a kind and loving husband in North Carolina wrote an editorial defending his wife against tyranny...and it really pissed me off. Enjoy the October entry for Too Young To Be A Curmudgeon!

When commiserating with my teacher-friends about our long-suffering spouses and all of the crazy things they do to support us, I often liken our profession to organized crime:  “Being in education is like being in the mob: people on the outside—they just don’t understand.” I am certain that the spouses of people in other tough, civic-minded jobs (law enforcement, social work, health care, the military, and so forth) share some of the same qualities: they accept the long hours, the money their spouses spend on job-related equipment, the fear for a spouse’s physical safety, the feeling of neglect on the weekends. Difficult jobs complicate lives.  The men and women who support their men and women in those jobs are a major factor in the success of their spouses’ careers and in the lives that those spouses’ jobs affect. We love them, and we can’t do it without them.

An editorial is making the rounds on Facebook and other Internet circles this week. In it, a banker-husband from North Carolina expresses his frustration at the way society and the teaching profession treat his teacher-wife and his happiness that she has decided to leave teaching for a private sector job. Two things are crystal clear to me after reading that essay: 1. The gentleman loves his teacher-wife very much. 2. I am so glad that my own banker-husband loves me very much and does not share his views.

I think that what bothers me about his piece is not what it says about the banker-husband’s feelings (he does not want to see his beloved frustrated and sad—any caring spouse can relate to that); what bothers me is what it says about his wife and her attitude in working with students and what she thinks teaching is. She certainly (and indirectly) pushed my buttons, and I stipulate that I may be making too many inferences here, but once something like this starts hitting the airwaves and undermines what we do as professionals, I am going to say something.

Here are the inferences I have drawn about his wife’s perspective based on his editorial:

1.      She feels victimized by various governmental and school board policies that make her job more difficult.
2.      She wants to teach classes that are grouped by ability level.
3.      She is frustrated that she has to do so much work outside of the school day (especially grading).
4.      She is upset that she did not get promised pay raises from her state government.
5.      She cries when she is really frustrated about her job.
6.      The other teachers want to leave, too, but they are trapped by their retirement savings.

I shall address each grievance briefly as if I am talking to said wife, my fallen comrade.

1.      You are no one’s victim. Policies affecting society have always been difficult to manage in any government job, and you have the power as a citizen and as a teacher to influence them. The minute you put yourself into the victim role (and your husband, out of his love for you and his desire to protect you, embraced that as well), you surrendered your autonomy and power to others. Teachers have been managing ridiculous mandates for much longer than 7 years, and working in any publicly funded profession is always going to involve that. You knew that during student teaching, and, likely, even after your first EDUC 101 class.

2.      Yes, differentiation is a huge, nightmarish task. Here’s the problem: there is no such thing as a classroom of kids at the same ability level. They are all different, and they always have been. We just never acknowledged this, especially during the Industrial Revolution, when preparing students for a factory world was our main goal. The term differentiation now simply acknowledges that fact. Our job has always been to meet students where they are and move them forward. That has always been what ethical teaching is, and it has always involved differentiation, even when we did not call it that. It has also always been a huge, nightmarish task. You knew that during student teaching (or you should have).

3.      You’re frustrated by grading on your own time? Welcome to the year 1905. People have been frustrated by grading since grades have existed. Why? Because grading sucks. Always has, always will. It’s one of the ugly parts of a tough job. You knew that during student teaching.

4.      Brace yourself: I agree with you on this one! If the state promised you pay raises, then you should get them. That said, you knew you were going into a publicly funded profession and that those professions are always at the political whim of the officials in place at the time. Budgets are political. Sometimes people don’t get pay raises. Perhaps you’ve heard of the government workers who are on unpaid furloughs during the government shutdown. The private sector jobs you covet? Perhaps you’ve heard that a lot of them haven’t been getting pay raises for the last decade or so either. Times are tough. Advocate for yourself with your public officials. Make noise. But remember: you knew that during student teaching.

5.      I cry when I’m frustrated, too. My BFFs cry when they get frustrated in their jobs whether they are in education or not. You are in a tough job, and it takes a psychological toll. Crying when that toll is overwhelming is actually a healthy thing to do. If you end up fearing that you are dealing with something like depression or an anxiety disorder, seek counseling. I am sincere in saying that. When I became overwhelmed, that’s what I did. Maintaining balance in your life is your responsibility, not your profession’s. I suspect you felt similarly overwhelmed often during student teaching, as most of us do, and I suspect that the veteran teachers in that situation empathized and let you know: “Yes, this is difficult. If you take one of these jobs, this is how it is.”

6.       Not all teachers want out. Some teachers want to stay in this profession, and some want to leave it. I think that’s on par with perhaps every other profession in the universe. The people who stay tend to be, in my experience, dedicated to kids, do not see themselves as victims, love doing most (but not all) of the tasks involved in this job, and have learned how to navigate their way through a difficult profession. Please do not lump us all into your whiny canoe. Scratch that—go ahead. Lump us all into your whiny canoe. We’ll do what teachers do: Make a plan to prevent the canoe from sinking and save everyone on board and then execute that plan despite all odds. You knew that during student teaching, too.

Why do I keep mentioning student teaching at the end of each of my responses? Teaching is one of the very few professions where you get an extended trial period to see whether or not you can cut it. All of the challenges of teaching are handed to you on a silver platter, and veteran teachers take great pains to make sure that novices feel supported but know the score. To say, seven years into the game, that you are the victim of that profession is childish and demeans those of us who said, “Yes, this is the most difficult thing I could ever choose to do, but kids matter. Kids are worth it, and I am going to try to take care of them and myself so that I can do right by them.” I, like your husband, am glad that you are going elsewhere. I never talk people into staying who want to leave. You want to leave? Go. We need people understand that this job is about students, not teachers. Student teaching has its limitations, but all of your complaints were evident from the start, and you chose this job anyway.

When I was student teaching, a member of that school’s English department (not my cooperating teacher but a revered member of the group) gave me advice that I have never forgotten. He said, “Teaching is the kind of job that you can literally devote your entire life to doing and never be done. You can grade all night, every night. You can never take a vacation, never stop working, never stop thinking about working, but because we are dealing with human beings, you will never feel ‘done.’ You will never feel the satisfaction of a job well done because you will never feel ‘finished.’ This will always be true, and it can consume your life. That’s why you need to go ahead and have a life. Have a family. Take breaks from work because you’re going to feel overwhelmed by it anyway, and you may as well have a well-rounded life while you do it. And remember: the job is always worth doing.”  Other veterans have told us all something similar when we were younger, and we took these jobs anyway. The choice was ours. No one is responsible for my life except me. That goes for you, too.

My responses to this teacher likely sound harsh, but I am fed up to here with teachers who see themselves as victims and who wear that victim crap as a badge of honor. You chose this profession, you choose your attitude in it every day, and you decide whether to remain in it or not. That’s what adults do—make choices. Being martyred by society or by people who love you doesn’t move any policy conversation forward, it doesn’t alleviate any of the stresses of the average school day, and it doesn’t make you a better person than anyone else. It’s OK that you can’t take the pressure anymore and need to get out. That may be the healthiest decision you’ve ever made. But you don’t get to portray the rest of us as hapless, put-upon weaklings on your way out the door.

As for my own banker-spouse, he knows why I do what I do, and he is on board with whatever I need to make it happen. He knows that my job is not about me—it’s about the children of our community. It’s about the future of this republic. He hugs me when I cry, he gets angry when public policy battles place schools in ever more precarious positions, and he wants everyone to be nice to me. But he knows what I signed on for (he was there during student teaching), and he knows how important my job is. Most critically, despite being an eyewitness to all of the slings and arrows of this career choice, he never, ever sees me as a victim of anything. He sees me persevere and teach well despite everything that tries to interfere. He thinks I kick ass. He gets it. Thank God. I love him, and I can’t do it without him.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

I’ve got spirit; yes, I do. I’ve got spirit; how ‘bout you?

"Daisy Buchanan" (by request from my English 11 class)
on Blast from the Past Day, Spirit Week 2013

Some of a teacher’s professional responsibilities are clear. They are listed on the job description and in the negotiated agreement. They pop up now and again as “other duties as assigned.” Some responsibilities, however, are tacit. They require no contract, no paper trail, and no assignment. They just are. If one violates these unspoken rules, one receives no penalty, no demotion, no verbal reprimand. But everyone knows a ball has been dropped, that one has not risen to one’s highest levels of professional practice. One such responsibility is school spirit. You either have it, or you don’t, and the haves are in a much better instructional place than the have-nots.

Part of working in a school means being part of that school’s community. Community spirit is what holds the environment together when times are tough. Students understand this intuitively, but adults often treat school spirit as an afterthought, as mere silliness, an excuse to wear jeans on a Friday. School spirit is much more than that. The pep rallies, the school colors, the Spirit Weeks—they all serve a much larger purpose. They give everyone in the building a sense of connectness, a reason to be energized about waking up at 5:00 am, a reminder that our profession is a human one.

Not everyone takes school spirit as seriously as I do. Not everyone subconsciously shops for clothes in school colors out of habit. Not everyone tries to get her department to dress up together for Famous Duo Day by organizing group concepts like the Stepford Wives, O-Ren Ishii’s Crazy 88s assassination squad in Kill Bill, U.S. First Ladies, Hogwarts witches, and Twilight vampires. Clearly, I go too far. The street cred I get from students in doing so goes a long way, but not everyone needs to be one wig away from a Spirit Week 12-step program (especially if the school colors are hideous—if that’s the case, one must find other ways to be supportive).

But the connection matters. Coming to after-school events when I can matters. Showing up at the pep rally even though I could hide in my room and get grading done matters. Encouraging students to participate in clubs, sports, and spirit days matters. The more connected students feel to the school community, the more likely their attendance (both the showing-up kind and the paying-attention kind), the more likely their positive attitudes, and the more likely their success.

So I throw on the garish, double-knit athletic jersey that accentuates all that is middle-aged about my body. I will intentionally tease my hair, wear theatrical makeup that makes me break out, and wear painful (but costume-appropriate) shoes to make the kids laugh during Spirit Week. When I signed on to teach the children so that they could grow into fulfilled, intelligent, happy people, I also signed on to occasionally embarrass myself for their amusement. Silliness is my professional responsibility, and, America, I live to serve!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Common Knowledge, Part 5: The Finale

I made it! I rambled on about education policy for five days! I must say that this whole process is liberating and fantastic, and now that I’ve gotten all of that off my chest, I can move on with my life…until policy, policymakers, or the public piss me off again. But until then, happy weekend!

Education Reform Vocab List (Quiz today!)


Assessment: The activities that a teacher, school, state, or nation uses to gauge whether the desired learning outcomes occurred. When I was in medical publishing before I began teaching, we were always careful to edit for the distinction between an “assessment” (one measure of patient progress) and an “evaluation” (taking all of those measures together to synthesize them into a multifaceted report or discussion of patient progress). In education, the terms are used much more interchangeably (and that still annoys my medical-editor inner child), but hang on to that distinction because I’m going to argue for it later in this post.
Assessment takes many forms, and the two main categories that educators use to classify them are “formative” and “summative.” 

Formative assessments are those (typically) daily classroom assignments that students have received since time immemorial. Reading assignments, writing assignments, vocabulary assignments, grammar assignments, etc., constitute the daily nitty-gritty of the American English classroom. Summative assignments are those that typically come at the end of some unit of study. The “unit” need not be the broad, weeks-long variety. It could be the end of a two-day “mini-unit” on figurative language that occurs within a larger unit on, say, Native American literature. Tests, quizzes, major writing pieces, big projects, and so forth make up the English summative assignment world.

When we examine controversies in assessment, typically the one we all fixate on involves standardized assessment. Standardized assessment just means that the test questions and scoring procedures are the same for all test takers. The way that plays out most commonly in public debate involves U.S. student scores on a standardized test and how they compare to, say, Taiwanese students taking the same test, or perhaps students all across the state of Mississippi taking the same test as a graduation requirement. The two main types of standardized assessments differ greatly. Criterion-referenced tests involve a set of questions, each of which has a point value assigned to it. Thus, if the test has 100 questions, and a student misses 15 of them, then the student gets an 85. If the failure threshold is a 65, then every student could pass if he or she scored at least a 65. Easy, right? 

Then we have the other type, norm-referenced tests. Norm-referenced tests compare student results across a group of peers and distribute scores according to those comparisons (Ye Olde Bell Curve). Most of the standardized tests that bother educators and the public in terms of their fairness are tests that involve norm referencing, the SAT being perhaps the chief of that tribe. Here, the math gets fuzzier and, many claim, biased and unfair because the student does not receive a predetermined number of points for a set amount of knowledge.

The criterion- versus norm-referenced test issue became a serious concern during the early days of No Child Left Behind (NCLB, the law that never met a norm-referenced test it didn’t like). States were to use the National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP) as their guideline for how rigorous their new state tests were supposed to be. NAEP is a norm-referenced test, which means that the bell curve is going to involve a percentage of students who fail that test. Thus, if a state preferred to use a criterion-referenced test, then statistical comparisons for rigorousness between the NAEP and that state test are, needless to say, challenging. Of course, if a state chose a norm-referenced test, comparison against the NAEP is much easier, but to be similar in its level of difficulty, the state test would always have a percentage of failing students. Note: The state test would always have a percentage of failing students.

Our charge under NCLB was to make sure that 100% of students were passing the state tests by 2014, but for a test to pass muster with the U.S. Department of Education, it would always have a percentage of students who fail. See the problem? See why I came home after learning this fact in 2002 and nearly punched a wall? When schools say that NCLB “set us up to fail,” we’re speaking literally, not metaphorically. In the end, of course, some states got away with murder in terms of the “rigorousness” of their state tests anyway (not my state—mine held it together for the most part), and NCLB is on a respirator now, but still—note what this situation says about the lack of thought, logic and fairness in NCLB. It’s no joke.

Not all assessments are created equal, and not all standardized assessments are created equal. The reason standardized assessment is so common and compelling for lawmakers and the public is simple: it is down and dirty. You get a numerical result, and you have passing and failing scores. People like the simplicity of that, even people who rail against Race to the Top, NCLB, and so on like it. You don’t believe me? Watch any family when its child’s SAT scores arrive. They instantly believe those scores. They instantly value them. They rarely dispute their accuracy or rail against the College Board (but don’t worry—I’m drinking enough College Board haterade for all of you).

Standardized testing does give schools some information about learning; the PSAT in particular actually provides feedback to students, and I appreciate that. The problem is that teachers will tell you that classroom formative assessments and smaller classroom summative assessments are the most accurate reflection of student learning. Lawmakers don’t like that because they think there’s too much individual bias in that type of assessment, and it doesn’t boil down to one assignment, one score, one piece of math by which the student/school/state/nation lives or dies. Real assessment is multifaceted, multimodal, and occurs over time. This is not the case for standardized tests. The score seals your doom or carries you off to Harvard. I shouldn’t have to tell you that’s absurd, but this is education policy; it is historically absurd.

The word “testing” to label this controversy is misleading all on its own. We “test” kids all the time with the classroom assignments we use. It’s the big, high-stakes variety that has everyone upset, and that is because we know deep down inside that no one indicator says how well someone knows a particular concept or does a particular job. For so long, we have let those big tests be a part of our lives that, even though we know it’s wrong, we invest time, energy, and (most dangerously) confidence in their results.

Let’s examine, for example,  the SAT. Decades ago, a group of esteemed college presidents sat down together and said, “We need some sort of standardized indicator to tell us which students are most likely to be successful in college. We know that the 4.0 grade point average of a top student in a New York City private school is not the same as the 4.0 grade point average of a student in a Kentucky public school, and we need something to help us sort out this admissions issue.” Thus, the SAT was born, and thus have millions of students had their college eligibility and choices (and thus lives) affected by it.

The data have clearly shown, time and time again, that there is, in fact, a “best” indicator of college success. But it’s not the SAT. Guess what it is. Go ahead. Guess. It’s grade point average, the very measure the SAT was designed to trump. GPA is not a flawless indicator of college success, but it has remained the best one of all of the options in all the years since the test first arrived. (The logic behind that? A top achieving personality is going to achieve wherever he or she is and will work hard to meet whatever standards to which he or she is held.) But what do we do? We continue to let colleges make our kids bow to  the SAT. We continue to pay a zillion dollars in SAT review support. We continue to worship at the mighty dot-com altar of the College Board. Why? Because we have always done it that way, the stupidest reason for doing anything.

Thus is the whole ridiculous enchilada of assessment, grading, testing, all of it. The best information a teacher has for how a student is learning involves those daily classroom formative assessments. Big projects are great, but their real value is what we learn as students complete all of the small pieces along the way to the final product. “Tests” are fine, whatever, but I learn more from what a student is doing in the moment with me. In English, what is the best way to see how well a student is reading, writing, and thinking in one assessment? Student writing. No comparison. All the evidence is there. What is the first thing some states removed from their state tests because they were taking "too long to grade"? Student writing.

When my own state did so, my fellow English teachers and I lost our minds. The state told us that they could test student writing knowledge through multiple-choice questions. Really? What we knew from state testing up to that point was that the writing piece was saving our struggling student populations. Why? Because we can’t teach kids who have always shut down on multiple-choice tests their entire lives to suddenly understand all of the concepts we teach by discriminating among four short answer options, but we can teach writing, and we could teach writing so that students demonstrate their understanding of reading in it. Our struggling students were passing that state test in English because they could write and show what they knew. The writing was their ticket to graduation, as it should be. When they took writing away, we started developing more critical issues with pass rates for our struggling subgroups. It was a less valid test without writing, and it was taking kids down with it who, if they had a better assessment that included writing, would have passed.

This is why teachers get angry about assessment. The notion that we learn anything of serious value from those big standardized ones is nonsense, yet we continue to march to the beat of that drummer. At some point, I’ll write about grades, too, which is the same issue under a different textbook cover: we do these things this way because we have always done them that way. Doing the better thing is harder and more difficult to explain to the public, so we don’t do it. Well, I object. I want formative assessment to mean something. I want us to work from the standpoint of evaluation instead of assessment (I told you I’d bring those terms back). What are the student’s successes in multiple areas? What are the student’s struggles in multiple areas? Myself and my fellow teachers would welcome that tougher, more complex job of letting you know how well students are learning through an evaluation process. Stop trusting the College Board, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and all of the other corporate testing giants who have sold you this bill of goods on what your kids really know. Trust us (and trust yourselves and your kids) enough to let us do it the right way.

Lesson to learn from assessment:
Teachers don’t hate the way our nation wants us to handle assessment because we are terrible teachers who can’t raise students to high enough standards. We hate the way our nation wants us to handle assessment because it is not a true reflection of student progress, it ends up having too much power in determining a student’s life options, and it means nothing instructionally. Changing to a system of real evaluation would take everything we have in us to make it happen, which is why it likely will not happen. But I won’t play ball with false testing gods anymore, and I hope you won’t either.

Oh, hey! I promised you a quiz, didn’t I? Assessment pieces should be reflective of the instruction that occurred, they should be as authentic (real world tasks) as possible, and they should be multimodal, so here’s your quiz:

  1.   Whenever someone tries to sway you concerning important education issues from this point forward, get a second opinion, and a third. That includes not taking my word for anything.
  2. Advocate for public education funding with your elected representatives as often as you can. We always need the money, and your kids are always more important than your wars. Quit believing partisan arguments on this issue, and just make sure that we get the cash.
  3.   Whenever you want to start trashing teachers, schools, or policies as a whole, substitute the words “teachers,” “schools,” and “government” with the actual names of the people with whom you are angry. You’ll find this is much more accurate and helps to thwart conspiracy theories.

You’re saying, “Wait. This isn’t a real quiz. You can never even know if we did these things.” I’ll know, my friends. Believe me, if you do what I’ve asked, we’ll all know.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Common Knowledge, Part 4

Disclaimer: You knew I’d flip out on the general public at some point. OK, not the general public, actually a very small number of vocal people. I know that the overwhelming majority of parents and the public support their kids’ public schools. We have a few behavior problems, though, and classroom management is my business.

Welcome to Day 4 of my education policy throwdown! I’ll try to keep this one short because tomorrow’s post concerns testing, and we all know how ugly that may be. Hang in there, folks—Friday’s coming.

Education Reform Vocab List (Quiz Friday!)


Curriculum: The specified content of classroom instruction (lessons, pacing guides, assessments), most often created by individual states or local districts. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are not a curriculum; they are a set of standards through which curricula are created. Curriculum exists to assist teachers in helping students to achieve the standards. Curriculum is controversial because teachers, administrators, parents, community members, religious groups, political parties, and just about any other subgroup you can imagine all have different beliefs about how and what we should teach in order for a child to be considered “educated.” These controversies are fueled not only by beliefs that clash because of differing world views but also because of differing views about what the word “educated” means in the first place.

Some people think that an education is a set of knowledge and skills that one needs to be able to get a job. Other people think that an education involves a broader conceptual understanding of information that allows a student to pursue higher levels of study, like college and graduate school. Still others think that an education involves inculcating children into the beliefs and traditions of their culture, including influencing their religious and political views. In public education (which, by its nature and its moral imperative, must be inclusive in all it does), we juggle the competing demands of all of these ideas to some extent. Clearly, though, satisfying all of these definitions in one, consistent curriculum is impossible, but that doesn’t stop various factions from demanding that their particular definition should dominate.

In my view, education must be a balance of these definitions, but it must err on the side of one element: thinking. The goal of education should not be to teach students how to think like their parents or their teachers or their priests or their government; the goal of education is to teach students how to think for themselves. Public school curriculum, therefore, does not exist to compel teachers to teach what parents want their students taught, to reinforce religious beliefs, or to appease particular political parties. We must encourage students to problem solve, to listen to diverse opinions before reaching a conclusion, and to understand various points of view. All of these skills involve schools exposing them to views that are not yours. If you do not agree at least fundamentally with that statement, then no set of public school standards, no public school curricula, no public school textbooks are ever going to be OK with you, and you need to reflect on that.

One of the frustrations I have when I see curriculum protests by people who are not educators is the fact that so many people think that, because they once attended school, they have a rich understanding of which curricula are best for students. Anyone who has ever undergone the exquisite agony of curriculum writing knows just how simplistic and ridiculous this notion is.

Let me tell you what curriculum writing is like, at least in my experience. You love teaching, You love kids. You sign up to give up weeks of your summer to help to make your county curriculum even better. Yes, you get paid, but you know that in addition to the workshop pay you will receive for those two weeks or so, you will also spend untold hours at home revising it, polishing it, and fretting about it because you know the stakes are so high and you’ve become so attached to the lessons. Plus, you and your team will think of other items that need writing or revising that you didn’t think of until you all sat around together and discussed them, so you do those things on your own time, too.

You focus on concepts, you backward map how the units should play out, you organize the units, and you write some model lessons (you obsess about these because, let’s face it, you’re going to use them yourself—you may as well layer them with your own personal OCD). You focus on the readiness levels of all potential students. You create accommodations suggestions for students with learning disabilities. You create extension activities for students who need a greater level of challenge. You scrutinize texts for bias and sensitivity issues. You toy with texts at varying levels of complexity to see how well each one works conceptually with the units. You decide on which formative and summative assessments are best and how many of them are appropriate and when. You ask everyone around you a million questions about accessibility, about questioning levels, about the zones of proximal development that may be in play. You think about all of the geniuses in the field—Wiggins, McTighe, Ericson, Vygotsky, Bloom, Piaget—and wonder, “Oh, God, would they think this SUCKS?”

The weeks you spend with the other teachers certainly have fun and lively elements. The people are almost always cool and curriculum-nerdy like yourself. Snacks typically abound. You get to go out to lunch together here and there (something teachers don’t get to do on school days, so it’s a big deal). But your head hurts. You go over those standards (state standards, CCSS, whatever) again and again and again. Something will be wrong with the air conditioning, and that will make your brain headache even worse. You will divide up the work with your grade-level team, and you will obsess for days about making sure you don’t drop the ball on your portion. You and your team members give each other feedback over and over and over again. The arguments--oh, the arguments. And it’s never done! That damn document is never done! At some point you just have to let it go, and the pain of that moment is brutal. What if the lessons are bad? What if the county teachers hate them? What if the county leaders hate the stuff? Why did I do this?! Why didn’t I just go to the beach?!

Then school starts, and the curriculum is released. You wait for the reactions. All of the reviewers, both formal and informal. All of the agendas. All of the politics. All of the instructional viewpoints. All of the feedback comes in, and you know that, 10 months from now, you will go back in and make revisions based on all of it. Again and again and again. It’s rough, and it takes someone who knows his or her stuff to do it well. For the past couple of years, I have only done isolated curriculum writing jobs for the state and for our state’s public television corporation because I had to have a break from the intensity of county curriculum writing. It’s an amazing experience, but it ages you (maybe next year, if I bring my Geritol).

Thus, when community groups start lecturing educators about objections they have to various curricular elements, my first inclination is to punch them in the face. I won’t do this, not because I’m nice (honestly, they usually deserve it), but because it would get me fired, and I love my job. The truth of the matter is that those groups typically do  not know what curriculum entails,  have never read the books they’re trying to ban, and have never had to create meaningful instruction on anything, yet their go-to strategy involves hostility and hysteria. I cannot respect that.  

Now, like I said, we listen to all of the feedback. We really do. Feedback and questions are different than having parent groups try to ban books or stage town halls to complain that the CCSS aren’t promoting their personal values, their personal agenda. Of all the ways teachers are demeaned in our society (public attitudes, political scapegoating, and sure, our salaries), this lack of acknowledgment that we know more about creating curriculum and choosing texts and other resources than the general public is the one that most sticks in my craw.

This is our profession. We have had an advanced education and specialized training to get to this point. I don’t know of any John Q. Citizen who has ever told a surgeon which scalpel to use or told his or her attorney which court precedent to cite in a brief. Most citizens do not know enough about instruction to demand a ban or an end to anything. Instead, I encourage you to learn. Ask questions. Ask a lot of questions. Politely. Then ask again. Like we do in curriculum writing. That’s how you learn, and that’s how you make curriculum better. Please, take your hostility and hysteria elsewhere.

Lesson to learn from curriculum debates:
Curriculum and instruction are incredibly complex, and understanding and implementing them appropriately requires skill and expertise. The public should have access to as much information about these issues as humanly possible because their children are our “consumers,” but until citizens acknowledge that education is a profession that requires skill and expertise, our public school discourse is doomed. Listen to your educators.

Advocating for children need not mean behaving childishly. Curriculum is an ongoing, exasperating, gut-wrenching labor of love. We’re working hard every day for your kids, and we have a job to do. That job is to help them to learn to think for themselves so that hostility and hysteria are not their go-to strategies for anything.

Tomorrow: Assessment. Because Fridays were made for testing!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Common Knowledge, Part 3

Disclaimer: This post involves the English Language Arts standards of the Common Core State Standards. I cannot speak for the other areas, especially math. I can’t speak for math because I can do very little math. I can add and multiply, but I can’t subtract or divide. I’m a positive person, you see.

This is Day 3 of my 5-day education policy extravaganza. Today, I “define” the Common Core State Standards, which have come under some bizarre fire, especially from some fringe Christian groups that have decided that these standards are a sign of the End Times. I am not of that school of thought. I myself tend to view the Common Core-related book banning that some of these groups are proposing as a sign of the End Times, but I’m an Episcopalian. That explains a lot.

Education Reform Vocab List (Quiz Friday!)


Common Core State Standards (CCSS): A set of academic standards for students in grades K-12 that was sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. It is the standards piece of Race to the Top (RTTT), the federal grant initiative designed to encourage national education reform. These standards came about for various reasons but mainly because of the inconsistencies in standards and assessments among the different states during the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). I am 100% behind a national set of standards. The states collectively dropped the ball on this aspect of NCLB (the variance in rigorousness alone was mind boggling), and this is their consequence. States’ rights folks, stand down. You had your chance on this one, and you blew it.

Standards are the academic goals we have for students at the end of a course of study. They are the guiding statements around which curriculum is developed, but they are not “curriculum” itself. The CCSS English Language Arts standards have as their core a set of 10 “Anchor Standards,” each of which takes a different form in each grade level. The goal is for students to have built their capacity in each of these areas to the point that they are considered “college and career ready” by the time they graduate. [Side note: One fun aspect of RTTT is that each participating state must share everything it creates with RTTT monies with all of the other states, so as we all try to figure out these new academic standards, we share an ever growing repository of resources and camaraderie among us that we have never had before. That is super cool.]

The standards were ghost-written by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and were guided heavily by a gentleman named David Coleman (now President of that money-grubbing, soul-sucking SAT machine, the College Board). Like President George W. Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy, Bill and Melinda Gates are well-meaning private school parents. I, like many other educators, am deeply suspicious of both the Gates’ agenda (which appears to view public education as a charity to pity and fix versus as a cornerstone of American democracy to improve) and Coleman’s agenda, which I still cannot decipher. He’s a tricky one.

That said, the English Language Arts standards are first and foremost backward-mapped: they start with the “end game” (what we want high school graduates to know, understand, and be able to do) and then map those skills and concepts in reverse to ensure that student learning is “scaffolded” along the grade levels. This makes my concept-based, backward-mapped curriculum writer’s soul sing. The standards are also quite rigorous (and by “quite,” I mean OMG RIGOROUS), and I support that, too. I think they are likely to need revision once we see how they play out across the grade levels (something that should happen periodically with all academic standards but rarely does), but I am on board. I do not support every aspect of RTTT, but I support the CCSS. It is a challenge I am willing to tackle because it is a much nobler pursuit than that road-to-nowhere, NCLB.

I have had various roles in my state and county during CCSS implementation.
  •   I co-facilitated statewide professional development for school systems during the first year of CCSS implementation.
  •   I have written model units for the state to show teachers how to use the CCSS.
  •  I have co-written an online course for teachers in my state to help them understand the instructional shifts in the CCSS.
  •  I have written and facilitated numerous professional development sessions on the CCSS and its implementation for my county’s teachers and administrators.
  •  I have presented to local parents on the topic of RTTT and the CCSS.
  • I have piloted various projects for my county school system geared toward CCSS implementation.

I put that in a nice list for you because, unlike many of the CCSS's worst critics, for the past three years, I have lived and breathed the stuff. I have thrown out everything (literally and figuratively) I used to do instructionally to dedicate myself to increasing the rigorousness of my instruction, to focus more deeply on writing, and to have students read more complex texts (all key pieces of the CCSS philosophy). These changes have not been pretty—crying, screaming, running myself ragged are all involved—and it is no easier after three years. But you know what? As a teacher, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

With the CCSS, I have thrown out the rulebook. I no longer assume any one approach will work in a given situation, I no longer assume that any one expert has the answer to my problem, and I have shot my ego all to hell. You see, in the years leading up to RTTT and CCSS, I ended up acquiring some labels that left me feeling a little shaky about myself and about whether I’m really much of a teacher.

Once the words “National Board Certified Teacher” and “Teacher of the Year” were tacked onto me, I began to feel like a bit of a sham. What did I do that was any better than any of the other hardworking teachers I know? What made me so damn special? Nothing. So I tried to get to the bottom of it: Was I good? A good teacher? A good person? I started questioning everything I’ve ever done in the classroom and beyond. Just as I was trying to get to the heart of who I am, along came the CCSS.

The CCSS liberated me—because I let it. Under NCLB, I took on the task of teaching the “tested grade” in English in our state with zeal. My school would not go down for reading scores if I could help it. I did help it. Ultimately, when my school did go down for something under NCLB, it was graduation rate, not reading (don’t get me started on how ridiculous the NCLB rules are on graduation rate—we can chat about that in another post). I helped to hold down the fort on that situation along with many other dedicated folks in my building.

During that time, though, I let myself change in ways I do not like. I subtly modified the way I was teaching to suit the parameters of the very narrow assessment my state uses (which, by the way—and unfortunately, is one of the better state tests out there). I didn’t even realize I was doing so until I reflected back on those years. I don’t think any student was ever poorly served by me in my classroom, but I let NCLB change me, even if just in small (but still important) ways, even subconsciously. I wanted to be a good girl; I wanted to save the day. What a load of crap.

Once the CCSS arrived, because I had important roles at the state and county levels in these changes, I felt a great deal of latitude in being experimental in implementing them. I did what I wanted. I worshipped no instructional gods any longer. And I will never go back. I will never, ever go back. I now reach for those crazy-tough standards every day, and I try new ways to teach them every day. I risk failure all the time because I don’t view “failure” in the same way anymore. I don’t care what the assessments end up looking like or whether I am teaching to them. (Honestly. I don’t. Maybe that will change, but I hope not. I do better when I follow Kevin Costner’s advice to Tim Robbins in Bull Durham: “Don’t think, meat. Just throw.”)

I am serving students and their individual needs better than I ever have. I am no one’s perfect little Martha Stewart teacher. I’m just doing the best I can with what I know, and I know more every day. As long as I teach, this is the kind of teacher I want to be. If my bosses don’t like how this all shakes out, they can fire me, they can ding me on evaluations, they can do whatever they like. I don’t think they will do those things, though. So far, my leaders seem to like the work I’ve done, and they could not be more encouraging—I bet many leaders would respond that way to people who truly want to blow the doors off their instruction. Regardless, I have no control over them. I do, however, have total control over myself and my classroom. And again, I will never, ever go back.

During my “Teacher of the Year” time, many kind parents said to me, “I’m so glad you’ve been my child’s teacher.” I taught those students as best I could, and they were better readers and writers because I taught them well. But if I saw those parents today, I’d say, “You want me to teach your kids now. I’m starting to get good at this.” I’m starting—and that feels incredible.

So I may never invite Bill and Melinda and David to Thanksgiving dinner (you three are still on notice until I figure you out), but the CCSS makes me think more deeply, work even harder, and reach even higher. This is a part of the education policy game that I support, and I came to play.

Lesson to learn from the CCSS:

Yes, they are ridiculously rigorous. Yes, we have little concrete information about how they will be assessed or what we’re going to do about that. I say, “Who cares?” These standards are kicking my butt, and I am a better teacher because I let them have their way with me. Get on board. It’s a wild ride.

Tomorrow’s post examines the public policy and public controversies surrounding one of my favorite parts of my job: actually teaching stuff. It also involves some of my biggest beefs with the American people. I didn’t really chew anyone out in today’s post, so if you’ve missed that, check in with me tomorrow!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Common Knowledge, Part 2

All this week, I am providing an informed (but certainly biased) vocabulary list for people concerned about public policy regarding schools. Yesterday’s blog post set the stage for the current wave of education reform by examining No Child Left Behind, that little legislative devil with the best intentions. Today, I chip in my two cents on Race to the Top, a program with big dreams that (so far) usually turn to heartache.

Disclaimer: Congress and its two dominant political parties are going to take it on the chin today (and they all deserve it), but let me be clear: I am not one of those folks who sees our government institutions as cold, faceless entities that don’t care about the people. I know that Congress and all elected officials are “We the People.” We can vote them in, and we can vote them out. We are 100% responsible for their election, their job performance, and reelection, regardless of whether we voted for them in the first place. That’s how representative democracy works. Additionally, as the daughter of a man who dedicated his career to serving his nation by working for its government in Washington, DC, I know that non-elected federal employees are not lazy, soulless bureaucrats who hate America. They are patriotic citizens who give up bigger paychecks in the private sector to work for us while the rest of the nation whines about everything they do. So go ahead—yell at them, but keep it clean, people. They love this nation, too.

Education Reform Vocab List (Quiz Friday!)


Race to the Top (RTTT): A program sponsored by the US Department of Education that was created to encourage reform in K-12 education. States submitted proposals for what they would do with any money they received for RTTT, and the US Department of Education picked “winning” states who each received varying portions of the overall pot of federal dough. RTTT states are required to participate in certain elements of reform (the Common Core State Standards, new systems of teacher evaluation, etc.), but states have some latitude in how those changes are implemented. That’s one of the aspects of this program I really like: the states work within the same parameters (and yes, there is a larger federal role here than before), but innovation is emphasized in what I believe are important ways. This grant program was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the legislation used to attempt an economic turnaround when President Obama first entered office). Different states signed on to this program at different times. A few states elected not to participate. My state is participating, and I am glad it chose to do so.

Ultimately, RTTT is designed to philosophically replace No Child Left Behind (NCLB) if and when Congress decides to do its job and pass an education bill. Arguments about what constitutes “accountability” for students (i.e., testing), teachers (i.e., job evaluation), and school systems (i.e., what the new testing targets will be and how not meeting them will be punished) play a huge role in the delays associated with these reforms in Congress. Given the amount of empty debate on those topics, I believe that these issues have become the smokescreen that policymakers hide behind so as not to act on education at all. Work it out, folks. Working it out is the job we elected you to do on our behalf. We are dealing with children’s lives here; time is of the essence.

Part of the problem on the congressional end is that this program is perceived as “President Obama’s education plan,” and Republican legislators are having none of that. Certainly, the president was the instigator of it. By the time Congress agrees on whatever the ultimate version of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is, however, both political parties will have had their way with its particulars to the extent that both parties will own it. Neither party will accept this ownership, in all likelihood, but it will be mutually theirs nonetheless.

This seems like a good time to let both political parties have it. Democrats (of which I am one, a serious one, an I-love-Abbie-Hoffman-Bill-Clinton-and-Gloria-Steinem one, a President-Obama-smells-like-Christmas-morning-and-cinnamon-rolls one), I love your bleeding-heart platitudes about “the children,” and I know you want to do right by American labor. I can count on you to fund programs for children living in poverty, and you’ve got my back on school funding most of the time. But for crying out loud, stop getting bogged down by unions (of which I am a member, by the way) on accountability issues, and stop being as beholden to standardized testing as all the other lawyers. Your elitism is showing, and you should be ashamed of yourselves. One last thing: leadership on education. Get some.  No one is a bigger weeping pacifist than I am, but I’m willing to yell at people and make things happen. Decide what your priorities are, pick someone bold enough to act on them, and then follow through. Bill Clinton (one of our finest I-get-shizz-done-even-though-everyone-hates-me presidents) and I metaphorically sit together and shake our heads at you. Man up.

Republicans, I want to love you. You wear your ideological hearts on your sleeves, and even though I usually disagree with you on policy, I appreciate that honesty, even when it’s cruel. You are not taking any guff from unions on accountability, and I bet you’d help me fire people. But here’s the problem: You treat any government expenditure that is not directly tied to national defense as wasteful spending. You think that only people of your perspective know anything, which makes you unwilling to make meaningful compromise, and that’s not how democracy works. I want your entire party schooled in public policy 101. Sticking to your inflexible guns doesn’t instill you with integrity; it makes you arrogant children who are holding your collective breath until you get your cookies. Shame on you, too.

So, you two, we have no education bill, we have a crappy holdover law that doesn’t serve kids and passed its sell-by date long ago, and we have the tattered shards of a grant program that could go somewhere if you would give it some juice. Do something. Both of you. Don’t make me turn this car around.  

In the meantime, the public needs to calm down. The number of people who hate RTTT and how it will influence the next education bill (and I mean wild-eyed, Daryl Hannah-in-Kill Bill hate) is astounding, especially since Congress has not revealed what it will ultimately be yet. If you are one of those haters, remember: Daryl Hannah is a psychopath in that movie. Don’t be a psychopath. Check yourself.

Lessons to learn from RTTT:

1.      If public schools were adequately funded (which is the responsibility of all of us voting American taxpayers, including you), we would not have to play ball to the extent that we do with federal reform movements that you may or may not like. If you don’t like this fact, then fully fund us at the state and local level. States jumped on board RTTT because the millions of dollars it offered were too good to pass up. We need money to run schools, and we don’t have enough money. The federal government has long proscribed what it wants schools to do while providing little or no funding to do it. As a result, states’ rights advocates continually yelp about schools being a state issue, yet those same people are not willing to pony up the cash at the state or local level. Their unwillingness to fully fund us put us in this fine federal mess, and I am tired of hearing them complain about it.

Our overall education budgets have federal money as a relatively small portion of the overall pie, but we need more pie. The needs of our millions of students are too enormous not to involve enormous amounts of cash. The reluctance of so many citizens to acknowledge this fact is my main argument in my ongoing, big-picture cocktail party diatribe, “This nation doesn’t really care that much about kids.”

I am begging you to prove me wrong on this, America. Pony up the dough. Make me eat my words—because I mentioned pie earlier, and now I’m really hungry.

2.      People continue to malign what they don’t understand. As RTTT came down the pike, public discussion of it focused solely on rotten teachers. Many teachers developed persecution complexes that they might actually have to provide documentation that they do their jobs. Political action groups started dallying in conspiracy theories. Thus, the fact that so much of RTTT still involves no clear public consensus should not be surprising. Every group involved sees itself as the victim of this situation, and until that paradigm ends, bad policy will rule.

I was thrilled when RTTT came along. I wanted to show NCLB the door long ago, and I thought this new program showed promise (honestly, I still do). I understood that national academic standards were the logical consequence of the fiasco of NCLB, I am all about a new system of teacher accountability (even if these initial ones are not what I had in mind), and I was delighted that the federal government was at last saying, “Hey, we need you to change, and we know that’s expensive. Here’s some money.” But the money has run out, teacher evaluation is a nationwide mess, and we’re seeing political action groups organizing to try to do things like ban books that appear in the appendix of the Common Core State Standards document. Really, America? We need to get a hold of ourselves: Congress, the President, and We the People. I want this to work. Pull it together.

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss the standards piece of Race to the Top, the Common Core State Standards. If you talk to certain political groups, they’ll tell you that means that I’ll be exposing you to a crisis in American values, an indoctrination to the “gay agenda,” and, perhaps, that I’ll end by crafting piƱatas from the heads of  your child’s teddy bears. Needless to say, you won’t want to miss it!

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