Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Defense of English

On Sunday, both the Times and the Washington Post published opinion pieces about the emphasis on "non-fiction" in the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts. Jay Mathews's piece in the Post was titled "Fiction vs. Non-Fiction Smackdown."

I have been teaching secondary school for two and a half years now, and I think it's time for me to say something about this. In the departments I've served in, there has been a growing divide between what we call "reading" and "English." 

"Reading" is what is taught in elementary and middle school. "English" is what is taught in secondary school. Except now everyone wants high school English teachers to teach "reading," not English.

Here is what I have learned: "Reading" and "English" are not as different as everyone thinks.

The standards movement has made a big push to improve "reading" scores by issuing standards that describe "reading" skills. Since NCLB, two sets of standards have ruled public schools in Illinois: first, the ACT College Readiness Standards, and now, the Common Core State Standards.

The ACT standards include little in the way of content standards for language arts or social sciences. They don't, for example, recommend any historical content or knowledge of literature or literary history. Now, given what happened when some people attempted to create national standards for the teaching of history, this is understandable--no one in K-12 textbook making or standardized testing seems to want to touch "the culture wars" with a ten-foot pole. But it's sort of left English high and dry.

This is a defense of English Language Arts. English should be a class that combines the teaching of reading, writing, and speaking: reading great works of art, in a variety of genres and helping students develop their tastes in print culture by reading for pleasure; writing all different styles, including narrative and expository writing; learning to speak and present in the 21st century.

The Common Core standards are a huge step up from the ACT standards when it comes to finding a better balance between the modes of language arts. Where ACT has two-ish strands--"English" (grammar and expository writing), "Reading" (reading comprehension in 4 different genres), and an optional Writing test (a persuasive essay), Common Core has four: Reading, Language (grammar), Writing, and Speaking and Listening. The standards are simple, economical, and much less repetitive than the ACT standards.

But the emphasis on "non-fiction," which is how everyone is interpreting what the standards call "informational" text, is extremely problematic. When you look more closely at the standards and what they recommend as "informational," it's more comforting, since they include things like The Federalist Papers and Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." 

But all this hysteria about non-fiction tells a different story. You can tell it's hysteria just by looking at the publications in the booths at all the ELA conferences. To find a title, you can do a little magnetic poetry exercise: 1) choose a publisher; 2) choose a strong verb like "cracking" or "unpacking"; 3) add the words "common core" and "English language arts" 4) add a sticker that promises to help teachers learn how to teach non-fiction STAT.

I, like most English teachers, trained as an English teacher. That means that I majored in English Language and Literature as an undergraduate, and I also got a PhD in English Language and Literature. I went to private school for high school, so most of my English teachers were also English majors. Since I started working in CPS, I have discovered a whole other world of English unknown to many English people, the world of English Language Arts Education. These two worlds have different lineages: the routines and values of English Language and Literature stem from medieval and renaissance traditions of humanist thought and training by reading "great" works of literature (h/t to my dear friend and renaissance scholar Elizabeth Hutcheon for teaching me about this.) The routines and values of English Education (also known as reading) stem from universal public education and literacy initiatives that came out of the Enlightenment, followed by the Progressive movement, the birth of the discipline of sociology, and John Dewey. The keystone professional association of English Language and Literature is the Modern Language Association. The keystone professional association of English Language Arts is the National Council of Teachers of English. (I'm a member of both.)

To sum up (from a disciplinary perspective): English is Humanities, and English Education is Sociology. If you look at the committees that wrote and vetted the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, you find many English Education academics, many, many representatives from test-making companies, and only one person from a university English department. (I noted this several months ago and promised more--here it is!)

So now we're stuck implementing new standards, too quickly, without being given much time to talk about them or study them first. (Nothing new under the sun in education, it seems.) And the big education publishing houses, like vultures, are circling with their "quick guides" giving us lessons for teaching students how to read bus time tables and recipes. And language arts teachers are expected to do all of this teaching.

But, unlike the standards would have us believe, English teachers actually teach something besides reading skills. They teach content: their content is LITERATURE AND CULTURE. Let's stop putting it all on English teachers. Maybe students need to learn to read scientific articles in science, timetables in math, history in...history. Maybe, as my friend Julie Price always says, everyone needs to be a reading teacher, not just English teachers.

English teachers teach literature because literature is important. The literary does not exclude nonfictional prose, but we would be hard pressed to call the directions for my new electric teakettle literary, or an example of the art of language.

We want students to be able to read and write. But maybe instead of changing what they read, we should change how they read. Most of the authors and publications mentioned in the New York Times piece, notably Malcolm Gladwell and the entire staff of The New Yorker, are inaccessible to most of the students I teach--they're too complex. Non-fiction doesn't have to be gorgeous and eloquent by mid-century New York Intellectual standards to be literary. Non-fiction can be used to teach literary and rhetorical devices like figurative language, narrative point of view, and plot, but fiction is a lot better way to introduce these ideas. We are mistaking non-fiction for "rigor," my least favorite word in education, when literature, especially fiction, especially poetry, IS RIGOROUS. If you want to really challenge 12th graders, instead of giving them 75% "non-fiction," have them read Pynchon or Joyce. Rigor is making kids think, not giving them something to do that will frustrate them.

Kelly Gallagher, an outstanding English teacher in Anaheim and the author of a million books, gets this right.* What we need is balance. My friends who teach college complain that students don't know how to write about anything but themselves. The solution is not to swing the pendulum the other way. There is no quick solution to getting Americans to read better. There are only small, day-to-day strategies. Non-fiction is not the next silver bullet, unless the target of that bullet is the love of reading, which, ironically, English teachers are very good at killing in kids.

The CCSS makes the claim that adult humans read a lot more "informational" text than "literary" text in their daily lives. Maybe that's because we've stopped teaching them to read for fun. In spite of our efforts, fiction sales are at an all-time high. Let's teach literature again: fiction, poetry, expository prose, persuasive prose, satire, parody--all of it. We live in an age of irony, and we're wont teach our students how to understand irony if we only teach them Newsweek articles. Let's bring literature back.

*I have a small beef with Gallagher about what he calls "literary" and what he calls "young adult" literature, but that's for another day.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Great Backlash, Revisited

I have written before about how we are experiencing a great backlash against political correctness. I experience it every day at my job from colleagues who are "enlightened" and so feel they can say whatever un-PC things they choose.

November 2012
The latest issue of Modern Psychology features a front-page story about how human beings really can judge a person based on their face! Here are some choice excerpts:
Nevertheless, it's a statement about corporate dynamics that an appearance of dominance, not warmth, also predicted which faces belonged to the most successful female CEOs. Will Yahoo!'s sweet-looking Marissa Mayer, dubbed "The Hottest CEO Ever," crack the high-WHR ceiling?
For women, competence can also be conflated with comeliness. Shawn Rosenberg, a political scientist at UC Irvine, presented photos of the same woman appearing in two faux campaign photos. In one, she's professionally made up, and in the other she looks dowdy. Regardless of whether she ran as a Democrat or Republican, she won about 56 percent of the vote—a serious margin—when portrayed by the flattering photo.
What does all this mean for those who don't look authoritative, such as baby-faced men?
Women who were less honest in their youth were judged as more honest-looking in adulthood, even if they weren't actually more trustworthy. These ladies could improve their appearance with cosmetics and hairstyle, which—thanks to the halo effect—made them appear more honest. "Dishonest women may be more likely to look honest than dishonest men because [women] have less power to achieve their goals through other means," the researchers suggest.
Such insights! Regular people prefer beautiful women who wear makeup! Men seem more powerful when they have strong jawlines! And we can prove this with research!! Wow!! (Sarcasm alert)

What disappoints me the most about this piece is not their unexamined, blind acceptance of biological determinism, their shrug-of-the-shoulders at the rampant sexism in our society, or their assertion that it is biologically "normal" to prefer people who look familiar (i.e., just like our families), but the stupid sidebar about stereotyping.

The Power of Stereotypes
Use them, but do so with care.
How the experts manage their own gut instincts and biases:
"Snap judgments are most useful for dealing with strangers and quick encounters," advises Cheryl McCormick. "We've evolved to err on the side of caution," she says, because it was safer in social exchanges with outsiders—to avoid disease, rejection, violence, unsuitable mates, and so on. "I remind myself that these judgments are good for groups, but they don't have a lot of predictive power at the level of the individual. While we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, we can judge the library by its books."
Racial profiling is bad!! Except when you do it to whole groups of people. Nice, Modern Psychology. Feels like 18th century psychology to me.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Conversations with Students: How a Metaphor Dies

Students use a lot of cliches. It's because they don't know that they're cliches yet.

We were reading this great and frequently anthologized mid-century American short story about bullying called "The White Circle."
Question: Why did Tucker try to kill Anvil?
Answer: Tucker probably wanted to teach Anvil a lesson.
IRONY ALERT!! As my clever hubby said, "well, Anvil definitely won't do it again." And that's how a metaphor that began with how teachers use rewards and punishments just up and died.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Instead of "poverty," let's say "insufficient resources"

The brilliance of Gary Rubenstein.

"Poverty is not destiny" is an excuse, perpetrated by the people who say "no excuses." "Poverty is not destiny" means that teachers will be the sole people responsible for fixing poverty. That's not fair.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Ballad of the Nice Yellow Lady: Reprise

Crazy White Lady
To paraphrase Blanche DuBois, sometimes there's hope, so quickly! Last night, I went to my school for a concert given by the group Cuerdas Clasicas, which specializes in Spanish classical string music and Mexican folk music. The group was joined by a mariachi band and an amazing female soloist. The concert was free and open to the public, and my school's community came out by the hundreds to see it. I only saw about 20 of our own students, but there were tons of parents and many adults who were unaffiliated with the school. And many people were dressed in their best swag. I felt embarrassed in my jeans.

This is the kind of thing that our principal is just amazing at organizing. The leader of Cuerdas Clasicas, Rudolfo Hernandez, teaches guitar lessons to our students once a week after school. My principal found the money to purchase guitars for the students to use and learn. Last year, the club was about 5-7 students; this year, it's about 15. Most of these students are mediocre or worse academically, but they come to school most days because of this club. Two of them, twins, have gone from hardly being able to play guitar to playing guitar and mandolin in the hallways. Another one, who failed my class last year, was in the guitar club and played a Death Cab for Cutie song at the talent show last spring.

These are the kinds of things that a great school does and should do. A great school can be a cultural organ for its community. A great school can give students great memories. No one remembers much about their day-to-day classes in high school. But most people have really strong memories of their high school friends and their high school activities. I remember every night of every play I stage managed, and I remember the one time my father came to watch me play volleyball. 

I've talked a lot on this blog about what CPS is missing, and what the school I work in needs. But there are many things that Solorio has. It has a strong, vibrant, beautiful community. It has an inspiring leader who wants the school to be a beacon for Chicano culture. When I wrote that post yesterday, I was feeling pretty hopeless. Last night, when I heard an entire audience singing and clapping along (to a song that I'd never heard before), I found some hope.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Ballad of the Nice Yellow Lady

There once was a nice yellow lady
Who thought she'd be able to change things...

I've written before about the ideology of the "nice white lady." It's a long tradition, perpetuated by movies since Stand and Deliver. Good teachers can change things even when most teachers don't care, this myth says. The difference between Jaime Escalante and the first incarnation of the nice white lady, Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, is that the nice white lady doesn't come from the community that she's trying to change. She just knows that, with the right amount of superiority and stick-to-itiveness, she can change everything.

I'm half Asian, so I'm not exactly white--my students tell me that I can't say I'm brown, but some of them (more than one, less than a dozen) also make racist jokes about Asians, so I feel pretty Asian at my job. There are no Asian students in the school and only four Asian teachers. There's a history of animosity on the southwest side between Mexican and Chinese immigrants. It's been really interesting, from an intellectual standpoint, being a member of a disliked minority. From a personal standpoint, not so much.

But back to the myth. The nice white lady comes into a school, rolls up her sleeves, and starts changing lives. She thinks everyone else is apathetic and she's the first person ever to care about these children, including their parents. In the awesome Mad TV sketch, she starts with a classroom where the students--black, Latino, and Asian--are sharpening their knives with the barrels of guns, kicks some ass and takes some names, and ultimately stands over one of her students, aggressively chomping down an apple, while the student writes an essay and weeps.

OK, I never bought into all of that Dangerous Minds stuff. As a kid, I watched Saved by the Bell, Head of the Class, and 21 Jump Street (when it was a TV show). I knew that TV used to be a lot smarter about what school is really like. But part of the power of that myth got my attention. My senior year in college, I applied to TFA. I wanted to work in the Delta (I was a fool who didn't know what kind of life she wanted). They rejected me, thank god. I wound up at a Quaker boarding school where I learned that I really do love kids, but that they are complicated, and their families are complicated, and it's not easy to change their lives, and it's not my job to do it alone.

And I learned that the myth of the cynical teacher is a powerful and false stereotype. Most teachers are doing everything they can. Most teachers are making a lot of sacrifices for their students--not just leisure but family, sleep, and health. No teacher should be expected to be a martyr. But that's where the "students first" ideology gets us.

And yet. When I moved to Chicago and started grad school, I missed kids. I started eavesdropping on their conversations on the bus. I started reading about ed reform. I thought No Child Left Behind was an abomination. And I decided to go back into the classroom so that I could fix everything.

My friend and mentor Lauren Berlant taught me, when we read Uncle Tom's Cabin in her seminar, about paternalism, which she also called "soft supremacy." Too bad Michael Gerson took that phrase and made a travesty of it. The real soft bigotry in education reform is bigotry about teachers. The reform movement wants us to believe that urban public school teachers are cynical and discouraged. That they've given up on kids. They think the solution to the problem of old teachers is to hire armies of young teachers and use them up until they burn out. Someone I know compared it to D-Day. One line gets mown down, just send in another. Gary Rubenstein talks all about this in his blog.

But I feel tricked. Some part of me still went into the schools thinking I could change them from within. I'm not giving up yet, but I am getting really, really discouraged. We don't teach social-emotional skills (formerly known as "character") any more because it's not on the test. We don't teach health and nutrition for the same reason. There's no room for these in the schedule because 9th graders have to take double periods of math and reading. We say that kids are more than a test score, but it doesn't show in our actions.

At the Quaker school, I learned a phrase that the Quakers use: educating the whole person or the whole child. This philosophy is very Quakerly, but John Dewey said pretty much the same thing. What have we done with curiosity? What has happened to imagination? When will we ever try to motivate with something other than grades and scores? I am beginning to lose hope that we will.

Here's what I care about:
1. The differences between poor/public and wealthy/private education...
2. ...especially when it comes to the teaching of literature, history, and writing.
3. The psychology and development of young people, and how knowing about it can be useful to teachers.
4. Fighting racial and economic inequality, and giving young people a voice in that fight.
5. Building social and cultural capital for the disadvantaged.

Can I continue to care about these things as a CPS teacher? I'm having a real crisis of faith about it. What I have learned is that I'm no nice yellow lady. I'm more of a tiger teacher (minus the obsession with academic achievement to the detriment of everything else). But I respect students and their families way too much, and I have suffered too much disappointment, to believe in that myth anymore.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Conversations with Students and Awesome Article Grab-Bag

Student: Ms. Barton, you are seriously one of the sweetest people I've ever met in my whole life.
Me: Aw, that's sweet of you to say. I wish you would tell my freshmen.
Student: They don't like you?
Me: Yeah, they say that I'm mean.
Student: Well, you gotta be mean to freshmen. We put a freshman in a locker the other day.

Another student later insisted that the student who said the above was being sarcastic when he called me sweet, but I promise you he was not.

The student who called me sweet, by the way, has given me and my co-teacher hip-hop names. I am Dr. Jetlife, and my co-teacher is B-murder. Another student of my co-teacher's has started using this moniker:

Six (day after the election)
Student: B-murder, I knew Barack Obama was gonna get back to bidness.

Some really great articles about education have come out in the last few days. Here they are:
Bill Ayers, "Open Letter to President Obama"
Charles Payne, "Getting the Questions Right on Chicago Schools"
Chicago Tribune Series on truancy, "An Empty Desk Epidemic"

Plus, by Charlie Tocci and yours truly, "What We've Learned about Unions Since the Strike" I think Charlie would agree with me that the articles listed above are way more powerful.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Needs Improvement: An Evaluation of CPS's REACH Students

With the new contract, CPS has rolled out a new evaluation program called REACH students. This program was developed by a committee formed of CPS people and Chicago Teachers Union people. The committee was required by the 2010 Illinois State Law called the Performance Evaluation Reform Act (PERA), a law that was passed as a part of Illinois's application for federal education money under Race to the Top. Race to the Top required states to include pilot programs for performance-based pay, so PERA was designed to pave the way for "real" evaluations so that those ratings could be used to differentiate teachers in order to reward "the best" teachers and fire "the worst" teachers. (Does this line sound familiar from the presidential campaign? It should, since President Obama says it all the time, except when he sort of fudges it and leaves out the firing part. But most research shows that it's really, really hard to evaluate teachers with the purpose of ranking them in this way. I think one stat I heard said that only about 5% of teachers can be considered "the best" year after year, and only about 5% can be considered "the worst." The other 90% fall in the middle.)

So, PERA also made some rules for how the new evaluation systems would be formed. Funny thing is, the Illinois Senate, when they crafted this law, made different rules for the Chicago Public School District than for all the other districts in Illinois. In the rest of Illinois, teachers unions and districts would negotiate over the system, and if they couldn't reach an agreement, the system would default to a generic one formulated by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). In CPS, if CPS and CTU couldn't reach an agreement, then CTU would be required by state law to accept CPS's "last best offer."

CTU walked away from the table after 4 months of negotiations. Publicly and on paper, the strike was about wages and benefits. State law dictates that these are the things over which unions can call a work stoppage. In reality, and not-so-secretly, the strike was about many more things, and the evaluation system was at the top of the list. CTU ended up winning concessions for the evaluations: before the strike, 40% of teacher's rating was going to ultimately depend  on student performance measures, i.e., test scores and performance-based assessments (different, district-created tests that teachers grade themselves). After the strike, that proportion will max out at 30% in year 3 of the new contract.

What is the other 70%? Classroom practice, i.e., observations by "qualified evaluators." Only administrators can become qualified evaluators. Every non-tenured teacher must be formally observed 4 times per year (this is a big improvement from the previous systems 1-2 times), and each formal observation must follow a very strict procedure involving pre- and post-conferences and the gathering of evidence. All of this is to the good: it is much, much harder, under the new system, for an administrator to give a teacher an unsatisfactory rating without proof that the teacher's performance really is unsatisfactory, and the system is designed to be, in theory, more supportive of teacher development. Instead of one observation and rating per year, this system requires that teachers receive some sort of coaching so that their practice can improve.

The rubric that CPS has adopted is called "The CPS Framework for Teaching Adapted from the Danielson Framework for Teaching and Approved by Charlotte Danielson." I call it a rubric because that's what it is--a gigantic rubric. And it's a great rubric--it really does describe some best practices and is research-based. I'm very familiar with the Danielson rubric because AUSL has used it for years, beginning just before my residency year. So we were given time to study it and we used it to evaluate ourselves when we were residents. It was also used to rate us when we were residents--something that Charlotte Danielson reportedly said should not be done. But apparently now Danielson (or "Charlotte," as many of AUSL's leaders call her) is OK with that, since the CPS Framework for Teaching was approved-by-her.

Interestingly, Danielson's 4 ratings have retained their names--Unsatisfactory, Basic, Proficient, and Distinguished. But CPS's evaluation system gives the equivalent ratings different names: "Basic" is "Developing" and "Distinguished" is "Excellent." Both of these changes are revealing. When I was a resident, we were constantly told that "Basic" was where a first-year teacher could be expected to be most of the time. They also had this saying about Distinguished: "It's a nice place to visit, but don't expect to live there." Now, in CPS, it seems like we're likely to experience some grade inflation, if you will. Teachers who would normally get "Basic," the equivalent of a C, might now get "Proficient," the equivalent of a B. When I taught college, I often gave Bs to students I thought deserved Cs in order to avoid the time suck of debating with students over their grades. I imagine that principals will feel the same way. Meanwhile, where "Distinguished" was once reserved for only award-winning teachers, it will now be given to any teacher deemed "Excellent." Now, I know that CPS has always pressured administrators to be very stingy with the "Excellent" rating, so this might not be as much of a problem. But when they try to reintroduce performance pay in the next contract, we'll see which teachers start angling for that Excellent rating.

From the union side, the change of "Basic" to "Developing" (a euphemism that the CTU won instead of having to use PERA's label, "Needs Improvement") creates an upward push to categorize teachers as "Proficient" who might not actually be proficient on Danielson's scale. CPS wanted to say that a teacher who earned a "developing" rating for two consecutive years would automatically be rated "unsatisfactory." This is how the CTU could say that the new system was putting thousands of teachers at risk for dismissal. In the final contract, two "developing" ratings will only turn into an "unsatisfactory" if you don't, in so many words, actually "develop."

In sum, not counting the use of test scores, which I will repeat are, at present, an unreliable indicator of teacher proficiency or student growth, the new evaluation system does a lot more to protect teachers.

But now let's look at implementation. Let me preface this with a BIG CAVEAT: What I'm writing below is not intended in any way to impugn the administrators at my school or any of the other CPS administrators who I know well. In fact, I think it will show the ways in which CPS administrators have had their hands tied by CPS even worse than teachers. After all, administrators do not have a union. They are the only people who work in a CPS building who are not in a union. Thus, they, like teachers, are forced to implement all kinds of policies that have not been well thought-through or are only, as I say below, in the "rudimentary" stages. Their job is tough. My beef is not with them. It is with CPS.

First, let's see how Charlotte Danielson describes a "Proficient" assessment system (Domain 1e):
(1) Teacher’s plan for student assessment is aligned with the standards-based learning objectives identified for the unit and lesson; (2) assessment methodologies may have been adapted for groups of students. (3) Assessments clearly identify and describe student expectations and provide descriptors for each level of performance. (4) Teacher selects and designs formative assessments that measure student learning and/or growth. (5) Teacher uses prior assessment results to design units and lessons that target groups of students.
I've numbered each of the sentences so that we can evaluate CPS's evaluation system, one at a time, and, for the sake of this argument, I've replaced the word "teacher" with "CPS" and "student" with "teachers."
(1) CPS's plan for student assessment is aligned with the standards-based learning objectives identified for the unit and lesson
This is somewhat true. If the objective is to produce "excellent" teachers, then CPS has identified a standard (Danielson's Framework) and they're using an assessment (Danielson's Framework) that is aligned with the standard. So I would give CPS a P (Proficient) in this element.
(2) assessment methodologies may have been adapted for groups of teachers
Again, this is somewhat true. Probationary Appointed Teachers (PATs or untenured teachers) are being observed 4 times, and tenured teachers will be observed once (a minimum) or twice (at least 50% of tenured teachers in a building must be observed twice). The framework for those teachers, however, is the same, and the point scales used to determine final ratings are the same. The descriptors for "Basic" and "Unsatisfactory" don't say anything about differentiating assessment for different groups, but I think I have to give CPS a B (Basic) in this element.
(3) Assessments clearly identify and describe student expectations and provide descriptors for each level of performance.
Expectations are certainly clearly identified--check. But many teachers in the district began this year with little or no familiarity with the Danielson Framework. We had our first PD about Danielson yesterday, after the first round of observations already took place. (It was a very good PD, because our administrators, unlike some, want us to be successful. Our administrators also have lots of familiarity with Danielson already because they have been in AUSL schools for years.) So I would give CPS a P- (Proficient-minus) here. The expectations are clearly described, but they are long and complex and have not been taught to us. We'll come back to that when we get to Component 3d.
(4) CPS selects and designs formative assessments that measure teacher learning and/or growth. 
The answer to this one is yes and no. We have four observations, and we don't get our "summative" final rating until the end of the year. But we still don't know (and our admin doesn't, either) how the four observations are being used to determine the final rating. Will they be averaged? Will growth be taken into account? We don't yet have enough information to say. I haven't yet received my grades from my first observation, so I don't know yet whether they are designed to reflect growth. Let's look at what Danielson says for "basic" in this part of the component:
Teacher’s approach to the use of formative assessment is rudimentary, only partially measuring student learning or growth.
Since this is the first year of the evaluation system, I might actually go along with a word like "rudimentary." The electronic system that admin will be using to deliver our scores and that we'll be using to see our scores is not yet up and running. So CPS gets a B here. One more:
(5) CPS uses prior assessment results to design units and lessons that target groups of teachers. 
Again, not sure about this one yet. I'm supposed to get my first scores on Tuesday, so I suppose I'll find out then what kinds of supports I'll be getting to improve. I feel bad for my administration here, though, because we don't have very much professional development time in our calendar at all this year. Will they differentiate instruction for teachers with different ratings? It remains to be seen. So we'll give CPS an N/A here. Not enough information available yet.

Overall rating for component 1e: B+ (Basic-plus. I averaged the scores using the numbers 1-4 for the ratings and got an average of 2.375.)

OK, phew. That took over an hour to write. Now let's look at the use of assessment in the Instruction domain (Domain 3). The relevant part is component 3d, "Using Assessment in Instruction." Here's the language for a Proficient rating:
(1) Teacher regularly uses formative assessment during instruction to monitor student progress and to check for understanding of student learning. (2) CPS uses questions/prompts/assessments for evidence of learning. (3) Students can explain the criteria by which their work will be assessed; some of them engage in self-assessment. (4) Teacher provides accurate and specific feedback to individual students that advance learning.
OK, let's take these one at a time. Again, I'm going to change the word "teacher" to "CPS" and the word "students" to "teachers."
(1) CPS regularly uses formative assessment during instruction to monitor teacher progress and to check for understanding of teacher learning.
Once again, the system requires 4 formal observations. There can also be any number of informal observations, i.e., "spot checks," where the evaluator can walk into your room at any time. For an informal observation, you're supposed to receive feedback. Every knows that working in an AUSL school turns your classroom into a fishbowl. So yes, I've had people walk in a lot. But I don't think any of those walk-ins have been official "informal observations," because I haven't gotten much feedback about them. (To be clear, this is not a criticism of my administrators!! They are doing their utmost with a system that was not designed by them.) CPS also says that teachers can opt to have their first of the four observations be treated as a "practice." So that means that you can use your feedback from that one to grow. If you take the first one as a practice, then there is a required end-of-year informal observation (at least, I think it comes after all four formals). So this piece remains to be seen, but as it's written in the REACH system, it's not clear what is "formative" and what is "summative." But it does seem like the observations are going to used to monitor progress. So CPS gets a P.
(2) CPS uses questions/prompts/assessments for evidence of learning.
Yes, this works. In our post-conference, we have a form with questions. And administrators have to provide evidence for our ratings. Another P.
(3) Students can explain the criteria by which their work will be assessed; some of them engage in self-assessment.
My students have this text lingo word that is spelled skuuuuuuuuuurrrrrr! It is the sound of a car putting on its brakes and means "back it up!" Teachers had a preliminary "training" about REACH during our week-long institute at the beginning of the school year where we were read a script and asked to sign a piece of paper that said we understood the script. Our next PD about REACH was yesterday. So, in the first quarter of the year, we've received about 2.5 total hours of PD about the evaluation system. People are confused. And in my building the majority of teachers were already intimately familiar with Danielson's Framework. And only 1 hour of the PD we've received was scripted by CPS--the other 2 hours were designed and given by our admin in order to support us. So I really can't imagine how teachers who have never seen Danielson before must be feeling. Plus, we still don't have a clue what the score ranges in our contract mean in real life. The language for "Unsatisfactory" sounds more appropriate to my empirical observations and my guesses based on how much PD has been required by CPS: "[Teachers] cannot explain the criteria by which their work will be assessed and do not engage in self-assessment." I'm an easy grader, so I'll give CPS a B- (Basic-minus) on this one, since some teachers in AUSL schools can describe the criteria and know how to self-assess. Next sentence, please.
(4) CPS provides accurate and specific feedback to individual teachers that advance learning.
OK, CPS created this reportedly awesome online system that evaluators can use to upload their observation data and provide feedback to teachers. I say "reportedly" because IT IS NOT ONLINE YET. It is only in its pilot stage. But most schools have already completed their first round of observations. While we are waiting for the system to go live, we're being given pencil-and-paper grades (which are sitting in my school mailbox as I write) and we're supposed to email CPS if we have a question. The language in Danielson for Unsatisfactory says "[CPS]’s feedback is absent or of poor quality." Now, remember my caveat! This is not a criticism of my administration. They are being asked to use a system that is not yet up-and-running to report our assessment results. How messed up is that? I'll give CPS a U+ on this one.

So, CPS's average score for component 3d is, at 2.19, is Basic.

Wow, that took me several hours to write. And I was only looking at 2 components out of a total of 19. My school has more than 50 non-tenured teachers, at 4 times a year, for 3 administrators. They have A TON OF WORK TO DO. Did anyone think through these logistics?

Two domains, two scores of Basic. Sounds like CPS Needs Improvement. Let's hope they have this up and running by next year, or they might get canned. Given their scores in the past in Component 4a, Reflecting on Teaching and Learning, I'm not optimistic.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Kiss the Ring on the Invisible Hand, or, Philanthropy and Education

We live in a time when our two major parties have two basic views on how to help those in need. Barack Obama and the Democratic Party (mostly) believe that people are disadvantaged by their circumstances and through little or no fault of their own. They believe in having the government step in when people are disadvantaged in order to help those people, to some extent. This view is often called socialist. It is socialist, in that this view believes that the people should give money to the government, which we then trust the government to distribute fairly to those in need.

Mitt Romney and the Republican Party believe that people are disadvantaged because they didn't try hard enough. They believe that the government should not use the people's money to help those in need. Instead, they believe that the wealthy should help those in need by giving them money directly through philanthropy. This view is often called capitalist. It is capitalist, in that this view believes that capitalists (those with money) will have a moral conscience that counterbalances the inevitable inequities built in to the capitalist system of economy. Adam Smith believed this. He called this moral conscience an "invisible hand" that guides the capitalist (landlord) to have sympathy for the disadvantaged (tenant farmer). In my reading of Smith, the invisible hand was a metaphor for God. Not coincidentally, many of the most philantrhopic people are also Christians.

Now, you may be able to guess which side I espouse (even though I explained to a student the other day that I AM NOT a Democrat), but I wanted to write here about the extent to which our public education system today relies on the invisible hand. Our public education system is awash in donated money from foundations, such as the Gates, and from private individual donors. 

I myself have both donated money to schools and received donations for my students. I have asked for donations through the non-profit Donors Choose and for my school directly. Last year, a colleague (the author of this guest post) raised funds to help send students to Six Flags for their physics day. This year, I raised money to pay for my students' fees on the PSAT. I have also won three Donors Choose grants for books, books that my the schools I worked in could not (or, in one case, would not) pay for.

For my birthday, my in-laws gave me a gift certificate to spend some money on Donors Choose. I wanted to spend it in the Chicago Public Schools, and I had over 500 projects to choose from. Beginning last Christmas, I decided to ask my family members to donate to performing arts projects in the Chicago Public Schools. The arts funding in CPS is abysmal, and performing arts are a special passion of mine. So, how did I decide from among these 500 projects? Did I want to donate to a project of a friend? Of a school in my neighborhood? Did I want to donate to a school in another neighborhood that I know has an even higher rate of poverty than mine? Was I willing to donate to a charter school (I considered one charter school where I used to volunteer), or did it have to be a CPS school? 

I ultimately decided on the project that stood out to me the most. It is a great project, its deadline is fast approaching, it is in a truly high-poverty area, and it is for the performing arts. (If you have the means and can donate to this project, please do! It is a terrific project and I would love to see it funded.)

Of course, looking through the various grant applications depressed me in a variety of ways. First of all, so many of them are for basic resources, such as classroom books, paper and toner for printers, or technologies that are now common to most sufficiently-funded schools. There are literally hundreds of projects asking for books. This just shows me how unjust our school funding system is in this country and this state. 

Secondly, the vast majority of the projects were written by charter school teachers or by teachers at schools with affluent populations and strong parent-run Local School Councils. This shows me that Donors Choose is a resource that is known and used by younger teachers and those with greater degrees of social and cultural capital. This is yet another way in which disadvantaged schools are further disadvantaged. The colleague who solicited funds for Six Flags and I are both Ivy League graduates and we both attended private high schools. I am often amazed at how reluctant my other colleagues are to even seek donations for things we want for our school. When you create a fundraising proposal in CPS, there is a space to describe what you will be selling to raise funds (the "bake sale" model). There is no space to explain that you are simply soliciting donations (something our school accounts clerk called "begging"). When a CPS school with affluent parents needs a kindergarten aide because the district didn't give them one, the parents just pool their money together and buy one.

Thirdly and finally, all of this philanthropy makes me dreadfully uncomfortable. I am constantly hitting up my family and friends for donations for my students. They are very nice about it, but it's embarrassing and awkward. Worse yet, students are often required to write personalized thank-you notes to their donors. Donors Choose offers this as an option when you make a donation. I have had my students write thank-you notes, and their thank-yous are heartfelt and lovely. But the procedure strikes me as demeaning for students who, through no fault of their own, simply do not have the same things as students in wealthier communities.

I spoke recently to my friend and sometime mentor Lauren Berlant about it, and here's what she had to say: "Relations of patronage make me anxious. At Oberlin I was a named scholarship kid, and was very verbally and epistolarily grateful to my benefactors, without whom I could not have gone for one day. But if it had been demanded I would have been irritated." My students don't even express irritation. They take having to thank those with greater personal advantage as a matter of course. Worse, they believe that the rich people who give them money have earned and deserve their wealth. (I am a socialist, but I admit that wealth is partly earned. It is also largely the result of advantages with which we are born, and I don't mean IQ.)

Lauren also said: "The important thing is to be a resource for the people without resources. The question is whether we can separate being grateful from being abject and connect it to a sense of fairness and an analysis of how unarbitrary unfairness can be. But from what I can tell the kids who just experienced the
strike have a pretty good sense of inequality and who's served by it." This is true. The strike taught my students to be much more aware of inequality than they were previously.

Lauren finally said, regarding whether I should have my students write thank-you notes for the PSAT donations, "I think if you said, the donor would be happy to hear what happens to you, but also wants you to feel free to focus on doing something that matters with your lives." What a great sentiment. People who donate to schools care about kids--no one is denying that. And that means that they would like to know what happens to the kids in whom they have invested themselves personally. But we shouldn't force our students to kiss the ring, and I have to wonder about the motives of people who believe that they should have to.