Michele Somerville is the mother of three adolescent children, a writer and an educator. She has 15 years of teaching experience in NY (elementary, middle, secondary and university) schools. The author of two books of verse, WISEGAL and Black Irish. She has published verse in numerous journals. Her reflections on religion have appeared in the New York Times and her essays on books, religion, education and politics are reposted regularly on Huffington Post. Her book of essays, "Catholic Under Protest" and a second printing of her book-length poem WISEGAL are will be published in 2012. At present, her educational efforts include work as an activist/educator with at risk students; private tutoring of students of all ages and levels in Language Arts, reading comprehension and writing; and writing "Bored of Ed" a memoir of her experiences in/with the New York City public school system.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Bored-o-Ed: An Educator's Plan to Fix the NYC Public Schools, Part 3: Rein in the Tyranny of Homework and Extend the School Day



It wasn't until I became a parent that I came to see the extent to which homework can siphon the harmony out of family life. I'm a big fan of academic rigor for children. Childrenshould work hard in school, but all too often I watched my own children bolt reluctantly from informal, impromptu dinner table lessons in order to complete homework. Very often homework foreclosed on the opportunity to continue on in discussions of politics, art, reason, faith, table manners and global events. Too often meaningless homework kept them from finishing that discussion of Walt Whitman's work as a medic in the Civil War, the Protestant Reformation, black holes, a mayoral race, or why--really--a four-year old could not have painted that Picasso. Drawing, playing guitar and recreational reading often took a back seat to homework.
I currently tutor in an after-school program where I help students (grades 1 through 12) with homework, and much of the homework I see appears to be busy work. Having been a classroom teacher, I know that there is a certain amount of pressure from school administrators and school systems to assign a certain amount of homework each night. Sometimes the talent of teachers and schools is even measured, in part, by the volume homework assigned.
Many of the secondary school students I know receive three or four hours of homework each night. Excessive homework all but does away with recreational reading. Students who consistently fail to keep up with homework are more likely to give up on school entirely because a quotient of humiliation often attends with unpreparedness. When their school days are done, adolescents and children should be otherwise occupied; they should be exercising their bodies, and learning to dance and to play instruments. They should take part in organized sports, meal preparation, and household chores. They should play, interact with family and friends and engage in community service.
Homework should have a clear purpose, but too often it does not. Reinforcement of skills and concepts already apprehended is the proper goal, but I see plenty of homework, each week, that demands the involvement of parents or helpers. Help is not a bad thing; but it can muddy the waters. If a homework assignment is designed to allow a teacher to gauge proficiency, extra help is likely to interfere. If the aim of homework to diagnose, extra help can create an erroneous impression of mastery.
In institutionally racist school systems extra help increases the imbalance between the haves and have-nots. It goes to reason that children who benefit from standardized test preparation and private tutors can expect to have an edge. A decent high school tutor earns upwards of $100.00 in New York City. Middle-class children who attend public schools in New York often receive lots of extra help; poor children--not so much.
Teachers who are forced by school system policy to teach curriculum (and not students) have little choice but to send some students home with work they are unable to complete independently, because even in tracked classes, students learn at various and often unpredictable rates. Students with whom I work sometimes report that "the teacher didn't teach" something, when what they really mean is that they failed to learn something. Even very young children do this, and they frequently appear to feel as if not knowing how to do the homework is their fault. No kid likes homework, but those who continually receive assignments they can't complete wind up feeling stupid.
Usually a period of feeling out of place, incompetent, inadequate, or unsuccessful exists for a while before a student finally decides to throw in the towel. Students drop out of school for many reasons. In my opinion, feeling stupid is at the top of the list.
If I were queen of the schools, I would have students do homework in school.
Schools should remain open later, and especially those attended by children living at or below the poverty line, should make homework help and enrichment programs available to all students.
At one school building in my own middle-class neighborhood, the corporately supported "elite" (recently co-located school) school hosts after-school programs for its students, but the three (black and brown) schools in the same building, for the most part, do not. The "elite" students use the building's pool and basketball courts after dismissal, but the black and brown non-elite students do not. Why?
Poor parents and guardians in New York often encourage their children to return home directly after dismissal. Some are afraid to have their children at large during early evening hours in their own neighborhoods. They cite fear of gangs, fear of problems in transit, fear of kids "hanging out on the streets," and fear of the police. In New York City, the more prosperous the school, the more likely it is to host a variety of after-school programs, because it is parents who tend to fund and work in these programs. Most middle-class families, whether in cities or suburbs, enroll their children in clubs, lessons and organized sports. Their children grow up presuming they will attend college and learn early that both extracurricular and curricular experiences influence college admission outcomes. This thinking, the expectation of college and academic success, is less prevalent among poor students in struggling schools, the very ones who most need longer school days. after school enrichment, homework help and tutoring.
I often hear people blame parents (who putatively fail to impart discipline and civility at home) for the failure of schools. I happen to believe this widely cast aspersion is facile and inaccurate. Furthermore, not nearly enough is said about how difficult this type of criticism makes it for parents, guardians and caregivers of children who attend hell-hole schools to become more involved. We know that parental involvement improves schools, yet the schools most in need of it tend to have the least parental involvement. Why? Because parents in struggling schools are often discouraged from getting involved. When parents feel disparaged by school personnel, they steer clear of their children's schools. Parents living in poverty, uneducated parents, grandparents rearing grandchildren, homeless parents, partners of incarcerated parents, undocumented immigrants and English language learners are less likely to feel welcome in schools their children attend, but there can be no doubt that these parents have plenty to contribute and that their children's schools need their help.
Let's say, for argument's sake, that it is true that schools fail as a result of the breakdown of the nuclear family and problems associated with crime and poverty. Is it not in the best interest of taxpayers, cities and school systems to step in and create more home in school? Are children whose guardians are not able, for whatever reasons, to serve as their educational advocates and learning partners less deserving of the kind of support the children of college-educated, middle-class parents receive? Does a responsible citizenry and public education system faced with this problem just throw up its hands and consign these children to the schools-to-prison pipeline, or to a future on Public Assistance? Or do we acknowledge that more is needed, and resolve to expand the role schools play in the lives of students. If home is a big part of the problem and we all want schools that truly work, we must recognize the obligation of school systems to step in to do some of what home ought. If we refuse to do this, we "cut off our noses," as my very smart mom used to say, "to spite our faces."
When my mother was a child growing up in a large family in uptown Manhattan during the 40s and 50s, she and her siblings all attended after school programs in the parochial school they attended. There they attended dances, worked on neighborhood projects and learned to play basketball. Every school in New York City should be hosting secular versions of this model. School buildings should be used at night--by students. Teachers should be available for tutoring after dismissal, and the school day itself should be about three hours longer.
Free school breakfasts and lunches are outward signs that we already grasp, on some level, the importance of stepping in, at school, to do what is more properly done at home. We acknowledge that hungry students do not perform well and that it is in the best interest of all taxpayers to graduate as many healthy, well-educated, workforce-ready students as possible. We give food away; why not give away tutoring, swimming instruction, second language instruction, vocational training, and instruction in the arts?
Keeping schools open at night would make it possible for struggling students to have more of what middle class children have--whether that be homework help, nutritional snacks, guitar lessons, or studio art. It would foster community, allow students to work more seriously in the arts and would go a long way to alleviate the pressure on parents who, whether due to homelessness, poverty, illiteracy, trauma, illness, youth, disability or lack of English language fluency, are not able to help with homework, afford lessons or coach sports teams. Students would come home with less homework, less stress, more energy, more positive feeling about their educational experiences, lighter book-bags--and, who knows? Maybe with enough time to curl up with a good book.
This would cost more--in the short run, but the alternative to doing school right will prove far more costly.
Read Parts 1 and 2 of this series.
Next: (Part 4) Reshape and Expand Pre-Kindergarten
Michele Somerville has worked as a teacher in New York for 20 years. She is the parent of three children who have attended NYC DOE schools.

Follow Michele Somerville on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NYpoet

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Caveat Emptor: Charter School Totems and Private/Public Education


Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, closed her schools in New York, on Tuesday October 8th so as to allow students parents and teachers to join a demonstration to defend public school privatization. 20,000 showed up. That's quite a turnout. I did not take part in this demonstration, but I did attend a talk given by educator, education advocate and charter schools opponent Diane Ravitch that evening.
Ravitch started out as a charter school proponent, but has since changed her views. She makes an excellent case against "privatizing" public schools in her best-selling book Reign of Error. Most (not all) of her claims about the charter school movement echo opinions I've formed in my travels as a NYC DOE (New York City Department of Education) parent, former classroom teacher and tutor currently engaged in tutoring New York City elementary, middle and high school students.
I too once supported charter school innovation until I saw, up-close, how corporate involvement promised to exacerbate the already egregious condition of institutional racism in New York's schools. I supported charter schools until I began to see how they tend to hang (all but the savant) special needs students out to dry, and how they promote a dangerous anti-union message.
One of the chief complaints about charter schools is that they fail to welcome English learners, behavior problems, children whose parents can not be involved, and children with special needs. It's also worth adding that families that are homeless and parents who are illiterate or unable to use computers never even find out about charter school lotteries.
Students with behavior problems, English as second language learners, and students with developmental disabilities are admitted to charter schools by lottery, but once they are deemed unable to "succeed," charter schools often remand these children to the conventional schools from which they came. This kind of rejection is harmful for children. Furthermore, there is something truly pernicious about the alacrity with which charter schools skim the cream off of the very schools that have little choice but to accept charter school castaways when they wash out of "success academies."
As the parent of three children who have attended NYC DOE schools, I understand what it is to be committed to the public schools. As the mother of son with autism, I remember the great relief that came with finding an appropriate educational setting for my bright, but hard to educate, child. Parents who spoke with New York Post on the day of the pro-charter school march seemed coached as they aimed to dispel the idea that charter schools are reluctant to educate students with special needs.
One mother explained that her pre-school son's speech delays threatened to result in a special education designation. She credits her son's charter school with helping him to avoid being classified as a special education student, and with helping him to succeed. 
"He was really successful in kindergarten. He had just turned 5, and he made such remarkable progress. They decided to advance him to second grade this fall, and he's still performing at the top of his class."

If this little boy is performing operations with rational numbers at the age of seven, he is advanced, and it is probable that he would have "succeeded" in any school. This mother is proud of her son for skipping a grade, as well she should be, but she doesn't know what the boy's fate would be had he attended a decent conventional public school. And what if her black son had not been academically successful at the charter school in question? What if he had bounced out and landed in her community school's special education program? Would this mother still be extolling the "privatization" of schools?
Another mother spoke about her daughter: 
Abi Fenelon was desperate to find a good school for her autistic daughter, Sunyyah Foristall. She secured a spot at the Community Roots Charter School in Fort Greene.
"She was lost. The Department of Education told me my child will never be above grade level and will not attend college," Fenelon said.
"Now, she reads in the seventh-grade, middle-school level. My daughter plays guitar and violin. She writes music . . . She is the poster child of what a great public charter school can do."

"She is the poster child..." That says it all.
I do not doubt that some unenlightened NYC DOE staff may have offered an ignorant assessment of this girl's potential for college scholarship. I do not doubt the child was "lost" in the NYC DOE CSE (Committee for Special Education) system, and I do not doubt that the mother knows a great deal about this talented girl's level of contentment--which is a lot.
But I doubt very much that this exploited mother knows all she should about her daughter's academic progress, because "poster children" and their parents often need to be "managed."
As the mother of a former "poster child" for an ASD Nest program, I know how this works. My son was diagnosed with Aspergers at the age of three, and I too have felt the kind of relief these two parents describe. My son was lucky enough to land in the first grade class of New York City's first ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) Nest program. He progressed well in this elementary school. He entered a sixth grade in a middle school ASD Nest program putatively modeled after the elementary level Nest program from which he graduated, but this program turned out to be a poorly run, discriminatory, disgraceful mess.
Although my son seemed happy enough during his first year, it quickly became clear he was not progressing academically. The school's first attempt to addressing this took the form of requesting that I revise (dumb down) my son's IEP (Individual Education Plan). That fall I found failing marks on quizzes, misplaced homework, missed assignments, days of nothing at all recorded in his homework planner, and an abundance of incomplete classwork in his book bag on a regular basis.
Imagine my surprise, when I learned at the conclusion of his first marking period that my son had made the Honor Roll! This, at a school that was considered to be one of the better schools in the best public school zone and district in Brooklyn.
Parents of the children in this program were surprised and happy to learn that their children were doing so well. I too enjoyed seeing my child enjoy a feeling of success, but the smoke and mirrors aspect of the grade charade left me wary and suspect. If they were lying about my boy's scholastic performance, what else were they failing to be forthright about?
I soon realized that grade inflation was being used to create the illusion of success at the program. I learned that year that special education students receive more per capita dollars from the state than do general education students, and that students with Aspergers make excellent cash cows, and that ambitious administrators who recognize this can double-dip to excellent effect by collecting the extra special education dollars for enrolling these often highly intelligent students.
Shortly before pulling my son out of this middle school, I discovered that teachers working with him relied on a strategy for "assessing" (aka "testing") children that would guarantee a target grade. In my son's case, this target grade was "B." It is good to get B's, but the process of hammering him over and over again on the same content until he got it right made him anxious. I remember how his fervor for studying Thomas Paine's Common Sense was extinguished by the having to repeat his oral presentation on Paine over and over again until he got the B. The irony is that my son and most of his classmates a were more than capable of being on the Honor Roll--eventually, in time--without the help of grade inflation.
But their new program needed them to be "poster children" right out of the gate.
Does the mother of the violin playing middle school girl who has autism really know whether her child is progressing? My guess is that when it comes to her daughter's proficiency, the mother of that violin playing "poster child" knows what the school wants her to know.
What would this girl's experience be if she were not a "poster child" for charter school education? What if she were a male child with autism, prone to outbursts, and did not play a musical instrument? In other words, what if she were autistic and not a "poster child?" Would she wind up kicked to the curb as is the case with so many children who can't "cut it" at charter schools?
Furthermore, if charter schools really do so well with educating children with special needs, does it not make sense for many more children with autism and other developmental disabilities to attend these schools? Why aren't the charter schools clamoring for more?
This trotting out of black, Latino and special ed success stories is exploitative and sinister. It bears the stench of that "some-of-my-best-friends-are" logic. By parading a handful of children before news agencies in the service of defending school privatization, charter school leaders reveal more about their desire to appear committed to diversity than about their genuine commitment to it.
These testimonies of pro-charter schools parents are powerful, but they are tainted by the pandering that engenders them. Of course the mother of the violin-playing girl who was told her child could never go to college and the mother of the boy so smart he skipped first grade are willing to extoll their children's schools! They've been in the belly of the beast!
But once a child becomes a totem for privatization of public schools--Caveat emptor. "Privatization" of schools, if left unchecked, will weaken the public education system as a whole. Children like the three mentioned in today's reports on Tuesday's march across the bridge--the black, the brown, the developmentally disabled--will be the first to be thrown under the (corporately-funded school) bus.
 

Follow Michele Somerville on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NYpoet


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Bored-o-Ed: An Educator's Plan for Making Schools Work: Bring Up the Teaching Profession's Intellectual Game

I was teaching the novel Jane Eyre to honors sophomores about 28 years ago in one of New York City's top high schools when a student raised his hand: "Why are you a teacher? You seem smart enough to be a doctor or lawyer." He was being a smart-ass. But he was also being smart.
Something happened when highly intelligent women began to have a wider range of professional options--when women interested in medicine were not automatically consigned to nursing--something good!--but there can be no question that the teaching profession took a hit. Despite that more men now become teachers, teaching children is still seen, to some extent, as women's work, as we might expect in a culture which tends to undervalue women's contributions in general. In 2013, neither women, nor men being graduated at the top of their college classes are entering teaching in great numbers. It is doubtful that schools will improve until this changes.
What has not much varied even since Plato held a teaching job is that the best teachers tend to be those of high intelligence who are passionately engaged in rigorous enrichment outside of the classroom. I'm talking about thinkers and intellectuals, not city workers racking up junk scholarship credits in costly teacher education courses designed to help education professors peddle their fresh-off-the-press "publish or perish" projects on the school system's dime, while offering matriculants a boost as they ascend the pay scale ladder.
Everyone knows that the New York City Department of Education is notorious for wasting millions of dollars each academic year, but many do not know that much of that waste takes the form of graduate school tuition for teacher education programs that not only lack rigor, but which often interfere with innovative, inspiring teaching.
Certainly some study in such areas as psychology, classroom management, administration and instruction of students with special needs can be helpful to classroom teachers; certainly some is necessary for teachers working with very young children and students with "disability," but ironically enough, school systems' over-investment in teacher education programs often forecloses upon teachers' intellectual growth. A middle school social studies teacher should study political science, history, international relations or philosophy at a graduate level. Teachers should not be made to serving as pawns in the racket of keeping floundering education programs afloat.
One often hears about the preponderance of unemployed Ph.d's and the grim dearth of employment prospects with which they contend. Philosopher and Notre Dame professor Gary Gutting proposed, in a June 7, 2012 New York Times opinion piece that appointing some of these Doctors of Philosophy to teach children might be a good idea.
Some might argue that teachers should have teaching certifications, as physicians do. Not a bad argument--on the face. The most elite college-preparatory schools in the United States not only decline to require their teachers to have education credits, they actually discourage 5 through 12 teachers from obtaining them. These schools embrace a 'teacher as scholar' ethos. In New York City, teachers at the weakest schools have certification, and teachers at the strongest do not.
I spent a lot of time in my children's elementary school classrooms when they were younger, and for about eight years, I watched their fine teachers struggle with teaching writing. (It's writing, not rocket science, I often thought. Why don't schools just hire writers to teach writing?)
Teachers in my children's school were required to use a particular pedagogy which was not without merits--but it was cumbersome; teachers complained bitterly about it, and students found it tiresome in the extreme. Teachers were pretty much required to muddle through it and often they were "successful" in training their charges to churn out formulaic, standardized test-appropriate paragraphs.
The fifth-grade teacher who taught my oldest daughter to write a proper essay was near enough to retirement to brave teaching reading and writing imaginatively. He dispensed with the graphic organizers and templates and "just right" independent reading texts in favor of a methodology whereby he, a thinker, and an avid reader, taught his fifth grade students how to "read like writers," as he calls it, and write like readers.
There's an old NYC public school faculty room joke that's probably 50 years old: English teacher #1: "Have you read Tale of Two Cities?" English teacher #2: "Read it? I haven't eventaught it!" It is difficult for a teacher who does not have an lively reading and cogitating life to teach children to read like writers and write like readers.
This tyranny of mediocrity was not limited to reading and writing either. It extended to "'rithmetic." I recall commiserating, one afternoon, with a schoolyard dad about the previous night's fourth grade math homework. I was a poet who stopped taking math half way through high school. I expected to struggle with fourth grade math homework. My co-complainant, a piano-playing licensed architect who had been teaching advanced math at one of New York City's most competitive public high schools for two decades couldn't figure out the fourth grade math homework either! We laughed, but it was sad. "They just make it harder on the kids," he said.
I know one school principal whose command of standard English was so weak she would have strained to pass one of my City University of New York Freshman English classes. Yet, she was somehow able to parlay a short term of undistinguished classroom teaching, weekend and summer school coursework (on the taxpayers' dime) into what she now refers to as "a Columbia University doctorate."
I'm sure some excellent work is done at Columbia University's Teachers College but these credit hours do not come cheap. One needs 32 credits for a Masters degree. These credits cost upwards of $1,200.00. I'd like to know who paid the $75,000 plus for that aforementioned Columbia doctorate? Who pays the upwards of $30,000 it costs to complete a Masters Degree at Teachers College? Certainly not the NYCDOE teachers themselves. I have a hunch it is the taxpayers.
Do we also bankroll the cost of furthering the education of teachers who would study Arabic, Particle Physics, Zoology, Constitutional Law, or Art History at Columbia? Probably not.
Why not?
Log-rolling.
Because private school educators teaching grades 5 through 12 eschew teacher education courses, the very survival of these programs--especially ones housed in private universities--depends upon public school teacher enrollment. A subtle quid pro quo arrangement underpins this alliance. Schools implement the education professors' methodologies, and, in return, education programs confer advanced degrees to candidates (who would not otherwise be "graduate school" material ). These advanced degrees make it possible for teachers to obtain pay increases. Everyone wins. Except the students.
By the time they get to middle school, students are smart, and they need smart teachers. Students at all levels respond well to educators who show signs of having vital intellectual lives outside of the classroom. Posting genuine scholars, scientists and artists in children's classrooms would expose public school students to a higher standard of academic rigor than they currently enjoy, while helping to infuse the teaching profession with the prestige it deserves.
Consider the virtuous circle aspect; if teaching in public schools were to become prestigious (again), a higher caliber of college graduates would be drawn to the profession. More intellectual rigor all around would bring up everybody's game.
By the way, I answered that kid in front row. For all teachers I got all up in his grill: "I am smart enough to be a doctor or lawyer. Teachers are smart."

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Bored-o-Ed: An Educator's Plan For Making the NYC Public Schools Work



If I were Queen of the New York City schools--or Chancellor, even--I would have a plan for fixing them.
1. Require all students to have Physical Education daily.
If I could change one thing alone, I would change this. Currently New York City Public School students have Physical Education twice a week.
The very first thing I learned as a classroom teacher was that like puppies, young and adolescent children need to run--crap over everything, chew up your favorite shews and wreck the joint. An investment (money, time and inspiring, sensitive personnel) in training Physical Education teachers to truly educate would pay off immediately. At present, even at the best schools in New York, truly excellent Physical Education instruction is rare.
What if, in struggling schools in neighborhoods compromised by poverty and crime, first period were basketball. What if the instructors were gifted athletes, retired perhaps, who raise sports to something of an art form instead of time-clock punching City workers who preside over immense, dull, humiliating "gym class?"
What if we taught Yoga, Tae Kwan Do, Fencing and Hip Hop in school? What if students had Physical Education electives during the school day. What if we had Physical Education electives taught by inspiring teachers especially designed to accommodate psychologically and otherwise, students who are battling overweight? What if we were to deem it proper to nestle substantive nutrition curricula into Physical Education classes?
Like the Greeks did. (Only less naked.)
Every September for a dozen years, I have sat in one of my children's September Curriculum Conferences and listened while some smart parent raised her hand and asked: "Why are the children getting gym only twice a week?" The answer was always a variation on the notion that more "instructional time" for academic subjects was needed.
This logic is entirely dunderheaded. Cutting educational time to make way for engaging physical learning would increase the value of instructional time. Cut ten minutes off of all academic subjects to make time for genuine physical education, and you'll see academic performance improve almost immediately across the proverbial board.
I was 22 and looked 14 in September of 1981, the year I became a teacher. I was hired a week before school by a desperate principal/nun to teach all subjects--Math, Science, Social Studies, Reading, Language Arts and Religion--in the self-contained sixth grade class in a Title I (read: poor) school in the Bronx. I had no certification, no classroom teaching experience, no education coursework, and no advanced degrees. I would have no teacher's aid, no student teacher, and no prep periods. As for recompense; I'd work for a salary low enough to render me eligible for food stamps--at least under a 1981 Congress. With 42 students in latency and entering puberty I had little choice but to find ways to contend with restless students.
That first year, I played Jackson Five "tapes" allowed those aforementioned 42 sixth graders dance in the rows between units. When on rare occasions, I resisted the urge to make time for this, I tended to regret the decision. Perhaps because I grew up with three brothers, I came to classroom teaching recognizing that boys, more often than girls, need to run around. More Physical Education would go a long way toward putting an end to the pathologizing of boys, and reduce the number of children who require medication for attentional disorders.
The bottom line is fat bored kids make lousy learners.
In a September, 18, 2013 online piece in The Atlantic, "The Case Against High School Sports" Amanda Ripley reports on the evolution (or devolution?) of high school sports. She points out that, historically, it was immigrants and poor children who first joined sports teams; this as a way of keeping them out of trouble. Small business-sponsored neighborhood club teams, religious youth organizations and PAL (Police Athletic Leagues) took (mostly male) children of many backgrounds off the streets and taught them teamwork, provided them workouts and provided reinforcement in the areas of fine and gross motor development; sequential thinking, problem solving and focus.
One would not want to replicate these programs exactly; there were abuses, and still are--pervert priests, drunken coaches, sicko football fan fathers living through their sons--but a 14 year old fat kid sitting in an empty apartment playing virtual "Grand Theft Auto" is abusive too.
I toured middle schools about eight years ago when my twins were completing fifth grade, I wound up not sending my children to the one school that impressed me in teh district where we live. Why did this one school impress? The principal knew the name of every child in the school. Not just that: when we dropped in on a dance class in which an actual dancer was teaching, we touring parents and prospective students found an actual dancer teaching, an actual dancer who had managed to get adolescent boys, a few of them a chubby, a few of them what we in Brooklyn describe as "street," to (and happily so) dance.
I didn't need to see anything else. #DoingItRight.
Next: 2. "The Best Way to Teach The Test..." on Bored-O-Ed.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Beware the Beast of Standardized Testing Frenzy


In September of 1988, I got a long-term substitute job teaching eighth grade English in a weak public middle school in a poor part of Brooklyn (New York City). I started in September, on the fifth or sixth day of school, in a position from which four substitute teachers had already fled, in horror, apparently, each after a day of teaching.  Most of my students, ages 14 and 15, were reading on about a fifth grade reading level. None could write a cohesive, grammatically correct paragraph. Few could discern between a sentence and a sentence fragment. Going was hard and slow, but after two weeks or so I managed to get most of them on the line. What this means in practical terms is that after two weeks half were handing in homework (up from zero %), they were reading short passages and had learned to produce mostly thoughtful and reasonably error-free three and four-sentence reflections on short texts they had read.
I was ready to start reeling them in when two things happened at once; I ordered copies of Autobiography of Malcolm X for my classes -- and the principal began to require me to postpone normal instruction in order to do standardized test prep every day.
I failed to fully grasp, at the time, that the test for which the students were supposed to prepare was one on which none of them were capable of faring well.  The test was for entrance into NYC specialized schools; I suspect not a child in that school was anywhere near being able to test into (the well-reputed) Bronx Science High School. For the first few days, I just did the test prep. I was new. I was on probation. I had no leverage. What choice did I have?
The materials themselves were godawful. There were spelling and grammar mistakes, erroneous definitions in vocabulary sections, and reading comprehension questions that made no sense. After three sessions of test prep, my students reverted to their former disinterested, class-disrupting selves. They started to see me, the teacher who had toughed out those two weeks and come through the other side, as the principal's tool. I quickly realized they were right. I was.
This principal had been commending me in the extreme for the progress my students had made in just a few weeks. So impressed by my students progress was she that the principal had already paraded district supervisors (unannounced) into my classroom on three occasions in order to demonstrating her own ability to turn a school around. For this reason, I expected an exchange between educators might take place when I went to talk with her about the matter of test prep lessons. There was no conversation. I didn't even sit down. "You'll teach test prep every day until the students take the test."

When the messenger came to the door each morning with the day's stack of booklets enough for four sections. I'd direct him to the tower of booklets by the window. He'd leave the books. It became routine, and the tower quickly became an outward sign of my refusal to obey my principal. Three feet of paper accumulated. (This in a school in which students were prohibited from taking books out of the building. My own class didn't even have a full set of textbooks students could use in class.) The students cracked wise about the stack as it grew and some started to come around.
During prep periods, I'd go through the booklets and scoop up vocabulary words. Those I would teach in a fast-paced, military-style drill (which the student) for five or ten minutes at the end of each reading writing lesson. This was effective. Students learned a lot of vocabulary fast and liked it.
But the prep periods started to disappear. Instead of coverages (wherein one substitutes for an absent teacher and can either use the time to teach -- which I usually did -- or to catch up on paperwork) the principal assigned me to fill out high school application forms in a file room. Although I thought this a poor use of the the time of an English teacher with four years of full-time elementary and secondary school classroom experience, two years of college teaching experience, many publications and a Masters degree; I welcomed the punishment, at first, because it allowed me access to my students permanent record cards. It was in the course of this busy work that I learned that every one of my eighth grade students had been left back at least once. In some cases, children had repeated two grades.
After a week or so the principal summoned me to discuss my stack of booklets by the window. I told her I'd get rid of the booklets but that I wouldn't do test prep every day. She informed me she'd would give me a "U" (for an "unsatisfactory" rating) if I failed to do the test prep, reminding me that a teacher with a provisional license (which I had) would have great difficulty securing a permanent position in what was then called the Board of Education.
That famous e.e. cummings line -- "there is some shit I will not eat" -- sounded in my head, all morning two days later, the day I quit.
I thought of these students yesterday as I watched Michael Bloomberg and New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott take credit, in a televised press conference, for very slight improvements city students' performing on standardized tests. They have little to be proud of. Given the energy and emphasis Bloomberg et al invested in his strategy for educational reform, and given the amount of legitimate instruction he very likely sacrificed at the altar of the great white hope of standardized testing, those test scores should have been much, much higher!
When a teacher teaches to the test, he or she fails to teach what is not on the test. As most classroom teachers know, preparing students for standardized test is usually a lot easier than teaching students to think, do math, read intelligently and write. The frenzy for "teaching to the test" is already creating safe havens for pedagogical mediocrity, and is already offering uninspired, uninspiring teachers and administrators an easier way to nail down tenure and ride out teaching until pension time is nigh.
I am not anti-testing. I have helped my own children to prepare for standardized tests. I help other people's children prepare for standardized tests. Sometimes I am paid for this. Drilling children on math facts, teaching vocabulary, reading comprehension practice -- they are all good for learning. But a strong and appropriate curriculum at any level calls for a balance among introduction of new material, reinforcement and assessment. The more inventively conceived and imaginatively delivered lessons are, the more successful the learning at hand is likely to be. Test prep frenzy siphons imagination and inventiveness out of good teaching.
Ironically, it is not even classroom experience that yielded the minor improvements of which Bloomberg is inexplicable proud. It is more likely test scores crept up a bit as a result of Bloomberg's successful attempts at increasing institutional racism in the schools. Parents of children in under-supported, struggling schools don't hire after-school tutors as (mostly) white middle-class parents in stronger schools do. If anyone deserves credit for boosting New York City students' scores on standardized tests, it's those private tutors!
Black and brown students were not part of Bloomberg's standardized test success story. They didn't fare any better on these tests. Their scores went down. No surprise there. Privatization pay-offs go mostly to white middle-class schools. The mayor's pet barons don't want to pump money into so-called "failing" ("failing" being code for "black and brown") schools. Black and brown children whose parents can't secure charter placements are all-out casualties of Bloomberg's reforms.
I have been saying for years that the English Language Arts city-wide tests are not good tests. If we all learned anything from the inane pineapple question on this year's eighth-grade English Language Arts test, we learned that more intelligence needs to be brought to bear in the designing of these tests upon which so very much is predicated.
Students do not enjoy test prep, and while some boredom builds learning stamina, the tedium of mediocrity is very different from the tedium of rigor. Standardized test prep frenzy disseminates harmful levels of dumbed-down thinking throughout schools.
My two teenagers are studying on college campuses for a few weeks this summer. One called me at the start of the second day, earlier this week. She was extraordinarily excited. I expected to hear her wax prosaic about the food in the cafeteria, the beautiful campus, her roommate in the dorm, the freedom -- but the very first thing she said was: "Guess what Mom, I'm reading Aristotle!"
Most students, even underprepared ones, even the victims of systematic educational malpractice, crave rigor.
In 1988, when I began to prepare my students to read Autobiography of Malcolm X, I was shocked to discover that not one of my students had ever read a full-length work outside of school. Reading books was something other people, smart people did. The anticipation -- the knowledge that they would soon read a 300-page book that might not een bore them -- created a certain fervor, a light. Which standardized test frenzy quickly extinguished.
Even very young children should be required to endure worthy tedium but the story of the pineapple is neither Autobiography of Malcolm X, nor Aristotle's Poetics, and students know it.
Ask any NYC DOE student in grades 4 through 12; they'll tell you they feel like pawns in the game of politics that has spawned and now feeds the beast of standardized testing frenzy. Recently a large group of students at the public school some regard as the best school in New York City were found to have cheated on Regents exams. Students in the better NYC DOE schools generally get very high grades on these tests without any preparation, and most students at Stuyvesant, where the cheating scandal occurred, get perfect or near-perfect scores on these tests. Yet these highly intelligent, well-prepared students cheated.
I think we see in this a symptom of the pernicious and widespread malaise created by standardized testing frenzy, whereby it becomes everything. If we keep feeding the standardized testing beast, it will eventually gobble up genuine learning at every level. The system will wind up dumbed-down. Cheating will become a norm.
Especially highly intelligent students know that when their teachers begins handing out the preparation booklets for the upcoming standardized test, some more valuable lesson is, by necessity, being foreclosed upon.
When students are enraged by this, their anger is justifiable, because they know some educrat "suit," or perhaps their mayor, whose child had access to the finest schools, is "working" them.
Cheating, really.


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