Learning the Hard Way by amerigus, all non-com creative commons uses granted

My daughter sees a math tutor, a bright young med school student from Pakistan. She told me last weekend my daughter still struggles, but she was shocked to hear that “every single kid” in her class has a math tutor. I was shocked to learn this too, but for another reason.

Over a decade ago, the federal government sought to “fix” low-performance in schools, but not by increasing learning, rather by increasing standardized testing and leveling threats against those whose scores don’t magically rise. In NY and NJ, newly implemented evaluations say teachers who show progress on student’s standardized test scores are more likely to retain their jobs, and in some cases might “win” cash bonuses.

My daughter attends a high-performing suburban school where well-educated parents have kids laser-focused on academic performance. In these districts, the question is not how many kids get into college, it’s how many get into the Ivy League. So all that private tutoring, usually ranging in price from $50-$150 per hour, is going to be skewing the bejesus out of state-mandated teacher evaluations.

In classes where many of the students get private, one-on-one instruction time, the teacher evaluation numbers can be thrown way off, creating supposed “superteachers” — but only on paper. And if judging teachers via their students’ test results gives inexact data out in the burbs, what’s it doing in NY’s urban settings?

I teach in a crime-addled community in the inner city, where working class, immigrant and impoverished families produce a mix of kids who face violence, drugs or gangs, and that’s just for starters.

Seeing the new evaluations coming, two of the best math teachers in my school left last summer. Both relatively early in their careers, they transferred to schools in neighborhoods where students will score higher on tests. They knew from experience that students three years behind grade level when they enter a school are highly unlikely to make up significant ground.

Another matter is the “mainstreaming” of special needs students, placed in crowded classes because of funding shortfalls or long backlogs in evaluating and classifying kids with ADD/ADHD, emotional disabilities or other issues. From day one, we see so many of these kids cannot focus long for “desk work”, demanding inordinate teacher time. But because they are as-yet unevaluated, they are considered “general ed” and will again skew teacher evaluations.

Because of other home factors such as neglect, abuse, depression or homelessness, success in school is increasingly supported by “wraparound” services like counseling or  health checks which look at problems more holistically. These services barely exist in my school, while suburban schools in the region can offer weekly one-on-one counselor meetings for every student.

The high number of transient families in the inner city means students are constantly entering and leaving school. But if a new student arrives just before the state exams, it still counts fully, skewing the measurements. Likewise, students instructed all year by a math or ELA teacher could leave just before the tests. With this, administrators can game the system by intentionally making last-minute shuffles.

The new teacher evaluations, which led to a week-long strike in Chicago last September, are ensuring the NY kids who need great teachers the most are now more likely to see them flee, or switch to a non-tested subject area. Low performing schools will continue to repel talent, but in high performing schools, teachers will be artificially and arbitrarily rewarded thanks in part to the tens of thousands spent on private tutoring.

The English teacher in my daughter’s school who was recognized for showing the most progress in her grade last year confided in me that she has no magic formula, she has been teaching the same exact way for over ten years, but that each crop of students simply varies in performance.

What Happens When the Motivation is Money
In recent years, principals in low-performing schools were directing math and ELA teachers, under threat of placement onto school closure lists, to make up 1.5 years progress in a single year, a tall order for kids so behind in basic skills already. But the pressures put on teachers exploded this year when Governor Cuomo won Obama’s “Race to the Top” bonus bucks, a competition that rewards states who link testing to teacher evaluations.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the failure of standardized testing like the Atlanta cheating scandal that made one of Obama’s most highly touted educators into an accused felon. A DC City Council hearing announced Friday is probing whether heavy-handed school “reformer” Michelle Rhee knew, or should have known that some of her “most improved” were cheating, the predictable consequence of changing teachers’ motivation from a desire to help kids to fear and greed.

Now, as looming federal cuts suggest impending educator layoffs, the testing will continue, spending tax dollars to compile data found to be unreliable for personnel decision-making. In NY state politics, current budget proposals also fail to address spending inequity, class size, or teacher retention, inching us towards austerity for those in school while profits unconscionably increase for outside “vendors”.

Commodifying Education
The cost of testing has doubled in recent years, as industry lobbying increases to serve school “reform” groups that embrace testing. Wall Street investors have long drooled at opportunities to increase education vendor profits. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp secured a lucrative contract to build a database with every NYC school family’s private information, just after hiring former NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. This seems pretty creepy after over a hundred News Corp employees were arrested in a bribery scandal that illegally phone-hacked thousands, including British royalty.

One of the principal architects of the federally mandated (yet underfunded) No Child Left Behind program, Diane Ravitch, declared NCLB a failure and is today one of it’s most vocal critics. So is Stanford Professor Linda Darling Hammond, the top education advisor to Obama during his 2008 campaign who the President abandoned after inauguration. More lately, Hammond is publishing studies showing how NCLB testing is producing evaluation error rates of over 1 in 4.

Common Core is Corporate “Bunk”
But it gets even crazier. Responding to the charge that testing narrows learning to a bare minimum in a race to the bottom, the new Common Core Standards, introduced in 45 states, will ensure everyone is exactly doing the same “highly rigorous” learning, by promoting ideas like “higher-order thinking” or cutting fiction from reading lists.

The school “reform” movement contradicts it’s own cry for choice and competition by making every school “common”. And in even balder hypocrisy, big business suddenly condones top-down government regulations that stifle creativity and innovation.

NY parents, students and teachers are visibly unhappy with the rushed adoption of the protocols, leaving them all impossibly scrambling to cover concepts to previously taught in higher grades. Even state officials admit they expect major declines in scores, this the very first year teacher evaluations are tied to them. Instead of being phased in gradually, Common Core is being “dropped on” this year’s kids, giving 7-26% less time than prior years, depending on grade.

Fred Smith, a well-credentialed testing expert vivisects the new tests here in the Washington Post, pointing out that hidden “field items” use the tests to make our kids focus-test next year’s material for the commercial test vendor without parental notification.

Carol Burris, an acclaimed principal from Long Island likens it to a plane being built in the air. Burris previously co-authored a letter in protest of inaccuracy and waste in the teacher evaluation system which has been signed by 1,535, or almost a third of the state’s principals, since the NY Times first covered the “revolt” in 2011. But Burris presented a scathing indictment in this week’s Washington Post, presenting data to suggest the Common Core promises are simply “bunk”.

Making a Masters Degree Worthless
Since implementation, the NCLB money diverted from school budgets to enrich privatized testing companies could have funded an army of certified teachers. The same Masters degree required for every classroom teacher ensures he or she is already fully capable of teaching AND evaluating their students, yet this task was outsourced years ago to corporations like Pearson, Scholastic, Harcourt and McGraw-Hill.

A resignation letter penned by a veteran teacher and published in the Washington Post makes this point well:

“My profession is being demeaned by a pervasive atmosphere of distrust, dictating that teachers cannot be permitted to develop and administer their own quizzes and tests”or grade their own students’ examinations. The development of plans, choice of lessons and the materials to be employed are increasingly expected to be common to all teachers in a given subject. This approach not only strangles creativity, it smothers the development of critical thinking in our students and assumes a one-size-fits-all mentality more appropriate to the assembly line than to the classroom.”

In Are State Evaluations Helping or Hurting Schools? a former “Superintendent of the Year” reminds us that the new numbers game and it’s perverted incentives make teacher collaborations less likely. But students are also able to manipulate the numbers game. Recently a parent told me she thought her son should have been held over in sixth grade because he failed every academic subject and was clearly not trying. He was promoted because he scored a two, a minimal threshold on the state ELA and math exams, so he told his mother he planned to goof off again this year, gambling he can “test out” of the grade once more.

Then too, students who were held over because of low scores complain of stress and anxiety as the tests approach yet again. This agitation often manifests as misbehavior, cutting, fights, avoiding work or lashing out and was measurably on the increase last week as our classes were readied for testing time.

The Aftermath
After the testing, motivation only worsens. In the “lame duck” period following the tests, many students feel like all the important work is over and try to slack off — all the way through to June. Our kids have had annual state testing since third or fourth grade, and every year it gets more difficult to counter the anti-climactic vacuum of intense pressure coming from on high.

To compound this, the students have their math and ELA teachers removed from classrooms to score tests for 5-7 days, just during this critical post-test period. This doubles the learning time lost to the exams, before we even consider practice testing. I worked with a first year ELA teacher who struggled the entire year to bring order and structure to his classroom, only to have it dashed when he was out for over a week grading the ELA. In his absence, the paper balls were flying, but even when he returned, bored and disillusioned students rightly questioned why their teacher was not there teaching.

As an everyday teacher for seven years and a parent of two pre-teens, I see how high-stakes NCLB testing saps the joy out of school for kids. I had to cut two more lessons from my curriculum last year when they permanently expanded state testing from four days to six. More testing means less learning, less doing, less discovery. Parents may be just realizing the extent of this — here the Village Voice and Wall Street Journal report on parent boycotts and opt-outs in districts around the state.

With no research showing the practice to be helpful, it’s no wonder President Obama, the US Secretary of Education and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel all sent their kids to a school that does not use testing to inform teacher evaluations. Reeking with hypocrisy, NY Commissioner of Education John King has his kids in a private Montessori school.

UPDATE: A slew of educators and parents are describing this year’s ELA as epic a “fail” as last year’s “talking pineapple” debacle. Among the complaints, Pearson’s recycling of stories which give a clear advantage to some kids and skew results. Also corporate plugs and product placements, and extraordinarily high numbers of kids unable to finish in time, making lots of children cry. See ChalkFace or NYC Public School Parents blog for the gory details.

Cross posted at