One after another, a parade of childhood friends filed into a bar on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We were there in honor of our mutual friend’s birthday. After thirty minutes of slow greetings–how’s the family, where are you living now–we cheered and drank to our collective history.
My friend J.P. and I attended elementary, middle, and high school together. Over the years, we ran through each other’s homes as if they were our own and maintained affection for each other as life waved us in different directions. After college, we both found our way into education: he is a certified math and physical education teacher at an elementary school on Long Island, I was an English and technology teacher in the city who joined academia to research education. Both of us became animated and fervent as we described what is happening in education in New York State and nationally. As it turns out, a teacher from our elementary school had recently penned a widely read commentary about the twists and turns of local politics, the media, and school budgets. Stirred by his stance, we traded our own insights and stories. Our pint glasses tilted evermore steeply into the air with each anecdote.
My friend said something that resonated with me. “You know,” he began,”it’s taken years for many of us to begin to understand what is going on. To pay attention. There are a lot of new teachers now and they have no idea about any of this.”
So true. And the same might be said for many parents and citizens whose connection to education is made mostly through headlines, hearsay, and taxes. In my role as a parent of a child in a public school, a professor of education, and an adviser to several education-related organizations, I have begun to realize that perhaps what is needed is not some impassioned tirade about how corrupt government is, how attacked teachers are, or how profitable some companies are becoming as public money is funneled their way. Rather, I offer this primer on three inter-related educational issues for readers who wish to deepen their understanding of what is currently afoot in schools.
The Common Core
The Common Core Standards is something many of us might have encountered via news reports or in our districts. While the standards are often framed as having come from states, there is much controversy over that claim. Critics have questioned both credentials of the standards’ authors as well as the final document itself. An education blogger raised valid questions about the authors of the standards after researching each of their backgrounds. She claims that they know far less about pedagogy than they do profiteering. In another case, a respected literacy researcher chronicled how the standards became something very different than what they were intended to be. Diligent attention to ensuring the standards aligned with decades of literacy research was scrapped, he says, as unrealistic timelines took hold and the needs of testing companies and publishers took over.
Putting aside who wrote the standards or the quality of their final form, it is important to know that the Common Core are not full-blown academic standards as some people think. They are a set of standards that focus on literacy and numeracy skills and are written more thoroughly for English and math teachers than for, say, science and history teachers. Teachers in New York State have to significantly reshape their curricula to align with the Common Core, which includes the lessons they teach, the projects students engage in, and the assessments they give. Such reshaping work varies depending on the subject one teachers. Science teachers have to review and understand the Common Core Standards, which are vague at best in terms of unique literacy practices in the sciences. Then, they also have to integrate the state content standards for science all while many states are planning on adopting a whole set of completely new content standards.
What makes it especially difficult for many educators is the fact that amidst all this newness of curricular standards, new tests are being rolled out that are said to align to the Common Core. Such tests have not been thoroughly field tested yet they are high-stakes for everyone involved. Typically, high stakes tests like these would be piloted in low stakes settings before being required in this way. In the case of Common Core, that kind of vetting appears to have been skipped. This has led to reports of really young students stressing out and parents protesting the way officials are implementing the Common Core.
As static documents, the Common Core provide some shared language for how literacy and numeracy might be reimagined as the work of not just English and math teachers, but of all teachers. Having a common language for such conversations with colleagues across grade- and subject-levels can be helpful. Though the document is itself far from perfect, the outcry one hears tends to have more to do with the pace of their implementation in curriculum and testing, leading to claims that the tone and climate created by the state’s roll-out has created a toxic environment that is doing more harm than good.
Teachers are not only responsible now for figuring out how the Common Core Standards, their content standards, and the new tests will be addressed in their classrooms, but they are also subject to completely new–and separate–teacher performance standards. In New York State, most districts are using what’s referred to as the Danielson Framework for Effective Teaching or just “Danielson” for short. The Danielson Framework was intended to create a shared language for educators to discuss and improve their practice. It consists of four main domains, twenty-two components, and seventy-six elements. As with the Common Core, the document itself is complicated. Just processing what the teaching standards mean takes a great deal of patient work and reflection. The real work lies in a teacher deeply reading and reflecting upon the standards in order to determine the best ways to integrate them into the uniqueness of his or her own curriculum and classroom.
One of New York Governor’s main topics of focus this is the teacher evaluation system, calling the current one “baloney” because most teachers were rated as effective this past year while a third of students are not graduating ready for college. In his own words:
Now 38% of high schools students are college ready. 38%. 98.7% of high school teachers are rated effective. How can that be? How can 38% of the students be ready, but 98% of the teachers effective? 31% of third to eighth graders are proficient in English, but 99% of the teachers are rated effective. 35% of third to eighth graders are proficient in math but 98% of the math teachers are rated effective. Who are we kidding, my friends? The problem is clear and the solution is clear. We need real, accurate, fair teacher evaluations.
Some have asked if putting students’ graduation rates solely on the shoulders of individual teachers is fair. There are two main reasons to question its fairness. First: time. If some public school systems in New York State have been struggling for as long as the governor suggests, then surely any solution needs to be approached gradually and consistently over at least twelve years–the length of time it would take my son in kindergarten to reach his senior year of high school. Were I still teaching twelfth grade students who had attended over a decade of poor performing schools before they arrived in my classroom, what kind of impact could I be expected to have while working with over one hundred students for forty minutes a day? Some impact for sure, but not the kind of pedagogical light switch effect some expect. Recently, I have taught many in-service teachers who bemoan the injustice of an evaluation system that holds them accountable for a systemic failure. This is not, I should emphasize, a reason to “write off” such students or to offer excuses. It is to underscore common sense: teachers should be evaluated gradually over a twelve year period with increasing responsibility for their individual students’ education–not have their feet held to the fire before the whole scope of the reform has even really begun.
Second: place. Students spend the majority of their young lives outside our classrooms. One of the problems in the way we talk about education is that we discuss it as if education itself worked in isolation from other social realities, including the state of communities, families, and economy. The “crisis” in education cannot be separated from poverty and race relations. However, because issues of race and class are such political lightning rods, the way we have settled on talking about education is as if it is its own separate entity and we replace the socio-political quagmires like living conditions, crime, and prejudice with more politically palatable things like standards, accountability, and data. The former topics clearly situate education as part of a social ecosystem, the latter isolate education from society while reducing the complexity of what it means to teach and learn to a series of abstractions and numbers.
One of tropes of the current education reforms is accountability. It is a word that appears inherently noble and objective, but depending on how it is realized in the world the result can be quite the opposite. Politicians and reformers have argued that in order to improve education, greater accountability is needed. Any parent would want to know that their schools are being held accountable and that there is a fair and transparent process for both charting the future of schools while also addressing concerns as they arise. Accountability, however, tends not to refer to establishing deep authentic partnerships between schools, communities, and families. Rather, accountability has referred to the use of the kinds of standards, tests, and evaluations described above. It has meant creating robust digital systems that collect data from tests, performance assessments, and census data in order to create “report cards” of how schools perform and even publishing thoroughly imperfect evaluations of teachers in newspapers. To claim accountability when the instruments of accounting are so imperfect and immature is overeager at best and dishonest at worst.
True accountability would approach the state of education wholistically in both words and numbers. The governor’s speech does the former fairly decently. In words, he avoids reducing his stance on public education to purely reductive quantitative or categorical terms. He refers to the importance of early childhood education, to “wraparound services” that address health and wellness needs of students, and even alludes to the problems of over-testing, bureaucratic bloat, and commercial money-making. However, the hard numbers used to operationalize accountability resort back to those tied directly to the standards, tests, and evaluations based on the Common Core and teacher evaluation framework. When expressed as confident quantities, even the most imperfect measures appear inarguably true.
Accountability does not have to mean there is a single authority who imposes some measure from on high. As an educator, I have co-designed syllabi, assignments, and assessment rubrics with my students. In doing so, my job is to ensure that certain goals and standards are addressed but also to work with my students to articulate fair and authentic demonstrations. By approaching accountability this way in my classroom, I have found that students better understand what is expected and perform with conviction, with heart. Were officials to reconsider how they engage with districts, schools, and communities, they might find that there are approaches to accountability that would not only resonate with stakeholders but also be far more effective over time.
The tone and pace of the current reforms is due, at least in part, to the fact that our politicians and officials are staring at a countdown clock. The funding that fuels much of the reform in New York and other states comes through the federal Race to the Top initiative, which provided over $700 million to the Empire State alone. Whether states were prepared or not, once they received their federal funding the clock started ticking. Regardless of what potential good might come from collective interest and investment in education, this temporal imperative has created a situation in which decisions are being made rashly, stakeholders are impatiently and inauthentically engaged, and no one has the time and space to do their jobs well. Officials rush to act, to scale education reform measures, without taking the time to slowly hear what their constituents are saying. They’ve given themselves no time for authentic dialogue and are learning a lesson I hope we do not soon forget: scale without sustainability is meaningless.
If we are to better support our children, our schools, and our elected officials, we need to change the ways we talk about education. It is a topic that, when it does come up, can be greeted with conversants’ passionate views. These views are always, to some extent, rooted in our own experiences. Such perspectives are as dearly held as they are incomplete. We must do more. Begin by acknowledging the complexity of what it means to teach and learn, by talking about education slowly with whoever will listen, by presuming that most of the people involved in reform truly believe that what they are doing is right and best for children, and by sharing your voices publicly through news outlets, parent advocacy groups, and voting booths. You might even consider sharing a beer with an old friend at a bar.