More Teacher Voice

A take from Indy (by Tina Ahlgren & James Larson) is well worth checking out and a harbinger of things to come in that state.

…many good teachers think those of us pushing for education reform blame them for their schools’ failures. We’re not. We’re actually making the opposite case: Good and great teachers are responsible for their schools’ successes.

8 Replies to “More Teacher Voice”

  1. Bashing Teachers in the Name of Education Reform
    by Stephanie Salter
    (originally published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, November 28, 2010)

    As I read the Tribune-Star’s recent Page 1 news packages about the governor’s push for education reform, I kept seeing faces.

    Faces of all the women and men I know who make their living as public school teachers. Faces of so many of the kids these teachers work with, nurture, rescue, educate, empower and, more than you’d imagine, come to love.

    A quote by Tony Bennett, Indiana State Superintendent of Public Education, has stuck with me with particular power: “I’m tired of hearing all the reasons why something may not work. What we’re doing now isn’t working. It’s time to try something different.”

    I looked at the list of 29 Vigo County public schools. I imagined the nearly 16,000 children and teenagers inside them and the 1,650 or so teachers, administrators and support staff spending seven to 10 hours each day working to make those kids better readers and writers, helping them learn to solve math problems and grasp scientific principles, and enabling them to try to grow up and be productive citizens.

    I pictured walking into each of those buildings, opening the door to every classroom, interrupting the teacher’s presentation, the test or student report, looking each and every adult and kid in the eye and saying, “What you are doing isn’t working.”

    That science fair for which you are preparing? The math contest? The debate tournament? The creative writing project? The history, social studies, political science, economics or typing quiz you’re taking? Forget them.

    The chief of Indiana’s public education system (and, by proxy, the governor) says what you do, day in and day out, for more than nine months a year, is broken. It doesn’t work and needs to be overhauled to the point of near-abandonment.

    The chief calls what you teachers have dedicated your lives to, what you students do in response to your teachers’ efforts, “a mess.” He compares your system of operation to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He has a PowerPoint show — stocked with everything he finds wrong, but devoid of anything you do right — to prove what a mess you’ve made.

    And he and the governor have numbers. Short on context or edifying comparison, long on political spin, the selective statistics damn Hoosier public schools and the people who teach and learn in them.

    As sharp a salesman as ever came along, the governor knows the buzzwords and hot-button phrases that cause lots of folks to see red and to believe a fix is fairly easy. In the passionate and impatient Bennett, who seems never to have met a bona fide public school he liked (as opposed to a “public charter school”), Gov. Daniels has found the perfect instrument for advancing his vision of many aspects of government, including public education:

    Remake it as closely as possible in the image of a highly-competitive, ultra-efficient business.

    That means that in one of the least-monolithic arenas of our culture — compare the needs of students in Hamilton County and Marion County, for example — small, medium and large are supposed to fit all.

    Can’t meet the benchmarks du jour? Then you and your student body don’t deserve to stay in the game.

    Like stockbrokers or attorneys bent on making partner, wise teachers are supposed to accept that their pay and promotions should be tied to “results.” Those results depend on test scores, which seem to change with each legislature and which capture a one-dimensional, grainy snapshot of a growing, evolving child at a moment in time that may or may not resemble the same moment for all the other children in all the classes in all the schools.

    “Healthy” competition is the name of the winning game, just as it is in a successful, for-profit company.

    The problem is, the bottom line of publicly educating children has never looked like a dynamite or dismal third quarter, a boatload of legal clients, a leveraged buyout or a disappointing IPO.

    Few people remember now, but the idea of shifting school funding from local entities to the state was portrayed as a great relief for the locals. No more fretting over fluctuating property tax revenue and allocations for schools. But ask most local school superintendents how that’s worked out, as their districts have become the money-sucking enemy in Indianapolis, their budgets have been cut, and more and more of them must beg their local citizens to vote for regular tax increases that will help keep the lights on and the math textbooks current.

    Ask the superintendents again when the full effects of Indiana’s constitutionally mandated tax caps are felt in a few years.

    To hear the governor and his chief of public education talk, you would think Indiana is in the sub-basement of every national standard that exists. Such a sales approach makes radical restructuring (or demolition) so much easier. After all, who wants to keep a “failing” system in place? What person in his or her right mind wants to support an oil spill?

    Never mind the individual faces, histories and value systems of more than 50,000 members of the state’s teachers unions. Better to vilify them as a whole, hinting that those who do not buy the current administration’s version of reform must be lazy, burned out, power-hungry or clinging to old-fashioned, inefficient methods.

    Couple the vilification with statements from Bennett, such as, “We do not need any more money in this system. We need courage to change.” Allow him to reduce the complex problems experienced by most public education systems throughout this country to a fake choice in Indiana between “funding school corporations” and funding “the education of students.”

    Repeat all of it, over and over again, and you can sell a lot of unproved reform to legislators and their constituents. You can demonize a lot of dedicated people, too, and belittle their life’s work.

    I doubt it will do much good because Americans prefer one-line “truths” to complicated explanations these days, but next Sunday, I’d like to provide some of the context the governor and superintendent never seem to include in their presentations. I’d like to try to balance their litany of failures with the very real successes of Indiana’s public schools, and maybe offer some mitigating background information that requires more learning time than a pithy sound bite or a slick PowerPoint display.

    Not a teacher or administrator I know thinks this state’s public education system doesn’t have problems or that all the remedies require more money. What they do think is that they are not an oil spill and that likening them to one is an insult they don’t deserve.

  2. The same can be said of Andrew Rotherham.

    Robert King continues his excellent series about the kindergarteners at Indianapolis School 61 this week in Secrets of Success. King writes that "two factors seem to connect these success stories: involvement in a preschool program, or a parent and/or other adult at home who took the time to work with them before they entered kindergarten" as he profiles eight success stories.
    Previous articles in the series include:

    A kindergarten’s revolving door at Indianapolis Public School 61
    IPS kids repeat kindergarten at a high rate, but does it help?
    Kindergartners’ 1st test shows who’s set to read
    A difficult start for one child at IPS School 61
    Challenges clear for School 61 kindergartners
    Playing it smart

    Thank Steve Wood over at Educator’s News for the summary and links.

    As you read the stories, forget about reform/TFA-Good or Evil/Rhee-Liar or God and think of the people in the stories and their work and lies.

  3. Phillip:

    Only you would find an article that made light of the fact that some schools are failing students by reminding us that real people are working in these classrooms, and that’s enough for us to pause and rethink reform. Awesome. Everyone, be sure to remind your boss that you are a human being struggling to do good the next time he gives you a poor performance evaluation. Maybe that will confuse him long enough for you to change the subject.

    “The same can be said of Andrew Rotherham.”

    What exactly can be said? That he’s not remembering that teachers are real people that have difficult jobs?

    “As you read the stories, forget about reform/TFA-Good or Evil/Rhee-Liar or God and think of the people in the stories and their work and lies.”

    Yes, because we will better help our students the less we think about how to improve their teachers and schools.

    You are destined for great things at The Answer Sheet. Not here.

  4. I agree that the educational system in this country is not working. There are many reasons for the decline in the quality of education. Some things that are negatively impacting the educational system are declining test scores, cuts in educational funding, very few available resources in inner city schools, a lack of parental involvement, and teachers experiencing burnout. Due to overwhelming stress, a lack of continual professional development and unattainable expectations, teachers are becoming complacent and nonchalant. Also, relationships between principals, educators, students, parents and communities are weakening. There is no longer a sense of community. Teaching is complex. Without us, there would be no doctors, lawyers, engineers, or other professions, but we are the lowest paid and often, the hardest workers. Until the entire educational system is revamped and our legislators make education a priority, we will continue to see a decline in the quality of education that our children are receiving. The success of education relies upon building quality partnerships. It is not about one teacher, one principal, one school, one textbook or even one student. It is about the collaboration of everything and everyone for the benefit of all. Disparages in the level of education that is being taught in both public and private schools in this country is alarming. Until we as educators share ideas, network, and advocate on the half of our students to work together to close that gap, students (who hold the key to the world’s success) will be lost.

  5. The evaluation process that is used by most districts to not fully provide for the true success that educators bring each day to their profession. Most of the evaluation process focuses mostly on what we did not do, rather than what we accomplished. This process brings a negative connotation to the job that we do each day as teachers. Teachers are constantly asked to offer positive feedback to our students, so it would just make sense for teachers to be positively evaluated.

  6. More from Indiana.
    Have you heard Indiana’s schools are failing? It’s a lie

    TERRE HAUTE — In Gov. Mitch Daniels’ recent state budget PowerPoint, he put up a comparison chart: The percentage of Indiana public school students who’ve attained an advanced level of math achievement versus “the world.” Hoosiers lag behind the national average, trailing such states as Massachusetts, Oregon and New York, and such nations as Poland and Latvia.

    The chart is just the sort of pithy and memorable comparison the governor and his state superintendent of schools favor in their ongoing public relations campaign for radical education reform. Never mind that the chart’s data are from 2006, that Indiana is flanked by Kansas and Delaware and trailed by many other states, or that Latvia and Poland have different testing benchmarks.

    Never mind, especially, that current Hoosier students are doing better than the U.S. average in regular-level mathematics.

    The chart is typical of Daniels’ and Superintendent Tony Bennett’s modus operandi: Pick out the flaws and weak points — or at least those that appear flawed and weak without real context — and offer them, repeatedly, as representative of a public education system Bennett calls a “mess” and compares to the BP oil spill.

    It is a shrewd and effective strategy because education measurement — on which consensus is often patchy — is all about context. Accurate measurements are based on decades of analyses and bona fide comparisons of similar systems, not sound bites or apples-to-ice-skates match-ups. They take time to present and are mind numbing to non-educators.

    To compound the task, legislative majorities, governors, presidents and U.S. secretaries of education come and go, and education standards shift accordingly in the political winds. Measurement standards are a moving target and differ among states and the feds.

    If Daniels and Bennett want to persuade the public that Indiana students are dismally behind such states as Florida — with all its charter schools — in reading, it’s simple: They pull out a sliver of a National Assessment of Educational Progress report, focus on scores for fourth-graders and pronounce Hoosier kids’ efforts “stagnant” because the report shows that the percentage of Indiana fourth-graders who’ve managed basic reading levels has hovered between 64 and the current 70 percent since 1992, while Florida’s percentage has zoomed.

    Never mind (again) that the entire national percentage is not only lower than Indiana’s, but also it’s “stagnant.” Never mind that Indiana’s eighth-graders out-performed the nation’s eighth-graders — and Florida’s — in reading.

    When Daniels and Bennett speak of Indiana’s diverse, 292-district school system, they often use the kind of terms (and propose the kind of remedies) that apply to genuinely broken urban districts such as Baltimore, which had to choose radical reform in 2007 to rescue its failing system.

    In truth, Indiana schools are “in the middle of the pack,” according to Terry Spradlin, director for education policy at the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University. “This is not a failing system,” he said.

    Low-keyed, objective and overflowing with data from CEEP analyses, Spradlin knows a ton about Indiana public education and its place in America. He articulates the system’s problems and strengths. Of unproven reforms he cautions, “We have to be careful and not go too far … Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We’re not awful. We’re not bad. We’re mediocre to good.”

    Most people agree that Hoosier schools can and should improve, Spradlin said, “The debate is always about how to drive school reform — and the debate will go on. There is not one silver bullet, not one panacea.”

    Another alleged outrage offered by Indiana critics are “ghost students,” no longer enrolled in their former schools but costing Hoosier taxpayers $94 million last year. If you look no further than Bennett’s version of the story, you wonder who should be sent to jail first. But there is method in the seeming madness of “de-ghosting” the ghosts.

    The process was adopted years ago to help schools and school districts in poorer areas absorb the funding shock from students who leave — for example, as a neighborhood’s fortunes go south or when a big factory shuts down and scatters families. Rather than cease the funding for a lost student or students — and negatively affect the courses and activities the diminished school can offer — de-ghosting spreads the pain over a period of years in districts serving the highest levels of students in poverty. First it was five years, now it’s three.

    Maybe the practice is outdated or needs to be retooled, but that is not Daniels’ and Bennett’s approach. They offer it — without its history, intent and built-in limits — as a glaring example of the mindless waste that supposedly permeates the current school system.

    Lies and statistics

    To understand why it is so difficult for people who work within public education to defend against sound-bite vilification, one only need study numerous reports and performance analyses, as I have done since opening the door to this subject a couple of weeks ago.

    Added to the alphabet soup of IEP, AYP, ISTEP+, NAEP and ACT is a disorienting landscape of shadowy numbers, the world Alice found down the rabbit hole. Take the subject of “student instructional expenditures.”

    Daniels and Bennett want the Legislature to require all Indiana school corporations to increase the percentage of those expenditures — the money spent in the classroom — from 61 percent to 65.

    Sounds so reasonable and easy to execute, doesn’t it? Which is exactly how Daniels has presented his modest proposal.

    “Only 61 cents of every dollar spent in our schools makes it to the classroom, even under liberal interpretation of what counts,” he said two years ago, when first proposing the idea. “Each one percent of improvement would mean over $100 million new dollars to hire more teachers, pay them better, make class sizes smaller, reduce the cost of textbooks, and so on. That’s a huge opportunity, and we must seize it.”

    Who could argue with that?

    Well, the Indiana Association of School Business Officials could, and for good reason. The IASBO is made up of the chief financial officers and other numbers crunchers in the state’s school districts. A detailed association position paper not only took issue with Daniels’ “only 61 cents” condemnation, but it pointed out that redirecting money from the state’s other education expenditure areas would be, largely, illegal.

    Once again, some context is necessary.

    There are four spending categories for public schools: Student Academic Achievement; Student Academic Support; Overhead and Operational; and Nonoperational.

    The first two categories include money for teachers and aides, instructional materials, textbooks, principals, attendance monitoring, social workers, counselors for guidance, health and psychological issues, speech pathology, audiology and curriculum development, among other things. Money for these two categories is what Daniels means when he refers to what “makes it to the classroom.”

    However, the other two categories, Overhead and Operational and Nonoperational, include some things that are fairly crucial to an education: The operation and maintenance of school facilities, security, pupil transportation, food services, technology, school district budgeting, payroll, accounting, acquisition and construction of new facilities, non-teaching equipment and debt service obligations.

    As the IASBO report makes clear, state law prohibits most of the money in the latter two categories from being pulled out and shifted to “the classroom.” Further, the latter two categories are still funded through property tax revenues, which no longer may be used to fund the first two instructional/classroom categories. Change the law to allow monies to be shifted from the latter to the former, and you’ll have to make up the void in the latter with additional property tax levies.

    Also, for the record, the percentage of monies spent “in the classroom” that is taken from the Special Education Preschool Fund and from what is, by far, the biggest education funding pool — the schools’ General Fund — is 85 percent, not 61 percent. The governor chose to use the low-ball figure even though it’s based on all funding pools, including those that can’t be shifted to the classroom.

    You’re exemplary but you fail

    Finally, here is an astounding but common example of what public school teachers and administrators are up against in the propaganda war declared upon them. Cinda Taylor, the principal of Terre Town Elementary School, wrote to me last week about the Kafkaesque Catch-22 created for her school by Congress’ controversial Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards and those of Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress (ISTEP+).

    Taylor’s reference to “P.L. 221” regards Public Law 221, passed in 1999, which made ISTEP scores the dictator of all things good and bad for Indiana public schools.

    “Terre Town Elementary is considered by the federal government of the United States of America as a ‘failing’ school or ‘on improvement,’ based on the spring ISTEP+ results,” Taylor wrote. “Our school made AYP in every category except Special Education (English/Language Arts and Math). Recently, we received our P.L. 221 category placements based on the spring ISTEP+ results. In actuality, Terre Town Elementary School’s scores fall into the Exemplary Progress category, however, our placement has been capped! Due to our Special Ed. subgroup not meeting the [federal] target scores, the state says we cannot be placed in any category higher than Academic Progress due to our AYP results at the Federal level … How can a school be considered ‘Exemplary’ at the state level and ‘Failing’ at the federal level because of one subgroup? (Please keep in mind the same scores from ISTEP+ are being used to calculate both classifications.)”

    If you got lost in the alphabet soup, this is how Taylor and her staff were sabotaged:

    Congress says a specific percentage of a school’s students must pass the school’s state measurement test (ISTEP+ in Indiana) or be designated “failing” or “on improvement.” The test pool includes any “subgroups” of 30 or more kids, such as an ethnic minority, recent immigrants who don’t speak English, or special education students who are cognitively disabled. This year, the federal pass percentage is 72 in English, 71 in math.

    Everybody but the special education students at Terre Town excelled, scoring in the 90-percent-range Exemplary category on ISTEP. But the school’s overall federal success was doomed when less than 72 percent of scores from its large group of special ed kids was passing.

    That’s the Kafka. Here’s the Catch 22: Indiana law says that if a school’s federal AYP mark is not met, then it doesn’t matter how well most of the student body performed on ISTEP. The entire school cannot be rated any higher than dead center, or “Academic Progress.” Next year, when the new Tony Bennett labeling system of A,B,C,D or F replaces Exemplary, Academic Progress, etc., all of Terre Town’s hard work and high ISTEP scores would rate it nothing more than a C.

    Taylor closed her note: “It is absolutely heart wrenching to see my staff in tears upon hearing the AYP results!!!! They work diligently to provide quality educational experiences for our students. Is it logical to classify a school as ‘failing’ because our Special Education students cannot meet the same target scores as a student in the regular classroom?”

    As I delve deeper into the world of public education measurement, I see that logic often has no bearing at all on what is done to the system in the name of “the children.”

    Undoubtly, the fellatio graduate will come out and disparage Ms Salter based upon his unsuccessful two year stint in TFA.

  7. Another fun read from Phillip.

    1) You really don’t need to quote every article you see in its entirety; the link is quite enough.

    2) What is the “mess” we are referring to here?

    “The “mess,” as detailed on the slide, was a litany of failures. Among them: 23,000 third-graders who can’t read at grade level; 25,000 drop-outs every year; and half the state’s schools that failed to meet federal improvement standards in English or math.

    Also on his “mess” list was the de-ghoster, along with a system that bases teacher pay and tenure on seniority rather than performance.”

    ( )

    Asserting that the governor is focusing too much on the negative is missing the point, given that there is enough negative for us to worry about. Painting a rosy picture of the system there with the positives will do nothing to further help schools and students. The latter *will*, however, make us feel better about ourselves, and of course that’s more important than fixing schools, yes?

    3) What’s more, your editorialist’s positives she offers are essentially, “we’re failing about as much as everyone else!” If this is your rallying cry, good luck to you.

    4) The $94 million spent on “ghosts” *is* a glaring example of waste, even if there was a reason to institute the wasteful measure in the first place. Allocating funding based on where kids *used* to attend is a policy that helps the adults more than the children, by allowing staffs to retain teachers and programs while a smaller group of students gets to benefit from them. There are likely better ways this funding can be utilized.

    5) Finally, this editorial is also from the same author as your last one, which was similarly worthless:

    Phillip humorously asserts that I am “disparag[ing] Ms Salter” when I show that her editorials are oblivious to facts and dripping with shoddy argumentation, and I agree. He also makes another reference to sex, which is getting kind of creepy at this point.

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