Teaching Children Adopted from Foster Care–Cautionary Notes for Educators

In a planning meeting today a colleague shared an activity she experienced in a professional setting that she said was so powerful she would use it in her graduate classes from now on. It is a sharing of one’s Naming Story: How did you get your name?

I’m afraid I was quite rude and interrupted her in the middle of her excited explanation and said that for people adopted from foster care this would be a horrible activity. Other educators around the table didn’t quite see my point of view (which is informed as they all know from being an adoptive mother of kids from foster care). My colleague tried giving me examples of how it would be okay. She used herself as an example and said how she shared that her family’s last name was changed as they were processed at Ellis Island. I said that she only knows this story because she grew up with her first family—her only family. She probably shares the same last name as at least one of her parents. Our (adopted) children do not share our last names as they came to us having used their birth names for many years; they did not want to change their names, and we did not want to over-write such a key part of their identity.

I know for sure that my children would feel super isolated and conspicuous if they had to do the Naming Story exercise, especially as a get acquainted activity. Would our 16 year old who is deeply ashamed that her first mother could not/did not/would not care for her want to stay in that room and listen to the stories of all the families who passed down stories to their children about their naming? What a visceral reminder she would have that she was not cared for in the ways she deserved. Not having your first mother is, of course, the “primal wound” (Nancy Verrier), and one that forever is part of one’s identity.

I was immediately reminded of what I learned about non/inclusive education when our now 16 year old was in 8th grade. She had a wonderful, project-based science teacher in a school where children are given many opportunities all day for thematic, hands-on/minds-on learning. These types of learning occasions often involve something personal. There are so many decisions for teachers to make when learning grows out of the personal, the familial, the community. This is the email exchange I had with the science teacher, “Tom” in a 10-day mid-December period:

Dear Tom,
Tonight’s after dinner conversation:
Me: What homework do you have tonight, “Sophia”?
S: For science I have to bring in photos of my family.
Me: Oh, really?
S: But not THIS family. My birth family. 
Me: Oh, really?
S: Yeah, we have to show genetics. 
Me: Oh, really?
S: I think I can use the picture of …..

This is all to say that this sort of assignment might be quite challenging for children who are in foster care or have been adopted. Sophia said she is going to bring you some photos tomorrow and “see if they are alright”. Her options are fairly limited, (she has a treasured box of artifacts from her past stored under her bed) although she did text her bio grandfather to ask if he has a photo of her bio mom from when she was a child. We would have to get that printed out if he sends it.

I hope this lesson goes smoothly, and I also hope there is no public display of these artifacts that would position her as “other”: everyone’s “family” looks like them, except for the adopted kid who doesn’t look at all like the people she lives with and now is supposed to call family…..Also, as a child of color in a transracial adoption it is hard to know what such assignments might stir up for her (and others in her situation). 
Again, she seems fine, but I’d hate for this to trigger something…..(holidays are also sometimes challenging times for children from foster care….)
I’m taking the liberty of resending the curriculum advice to teachers re adoption. (There is a brief mention of genetics units, but not any really good examples of other ways to approach it.)

All best,
Celia


Hi Celia,

Thank you for note.  I encouraged the kids to bring in photos of all family members, and asked, if possible, for photos of biological family members. I spoke with Sophia about it, and asked if this was something she wanted to do.  I am happy if kids want to opt out.  Maybe they could study the family photos of a favorite personality, or just use the example of my family.

I planned to keep these documents private.  This is a one-day activity, to get on top of the concept that certain physical traits are inherited from parents – and then passed on to the next generation.

I should have put out this request earlier for parent feedback, prior to giving this assignment!

Let me know what is best for Sophia.

 –Tom


Hi Tom,

Sophia has decided not to bring a photo in of her mother even though she has some to choose from. This assignment has been emotionally difficult for her because she doesn’t live with her genetic family.  

Celia & Flo


Thanks Celia – I understand.  Sophia is excused from this assignment.Tom


Dear Parents,

…. This week, after pre-assessing what students already know about the topic, students are examining some basic genetic physical traits (eye color, hair color, ability to roll tongue) to learn about basics of genetic inheritance. To help us explore this, I’ve asked the students to bring in family photos, and to survey parents on these very traits. I realize that for some students, the issue of biological inheritance is complicated by a number of factors (adoption, non-biological parents, access to and relationships with biological parents). I am excusing students who choose to opt out of this activity, and will have an alternative activity for them. Please contact me if you have any questions or concerns about these activities. We will then learn the basics of meiosis; how genetic information of the parents is transferred in the fertilized egg of the offspring, and learn the role of probability in what is the ultimate expression of a particular trait.

Why genetics matters to our students, and how it affects their world will be a particular focus for us.

–Tom


Tom—

Science today was hard for Sophia. Questions arose about her father — about whom she knows very little. This was quite painful for her. She expressed feelings of exclusion especially when looking at other students’ pictures and feeling her own loss so keenly. 

We hope you will give consideration to her experience in the years to come.

Celia & Florence


HI Tom,

Thanks for talking with Sophia today. It meant a lot to her. 

Also, she told me she is worried about getting a zero for not bringing in the photos or the family worksheet. I tried to explain that you are not counting those against her grade, but for some reason this is a hard concept for her. 

She also said she is going to bring in a photo of what all her siblings look(ed) like as young children. She has a picture of a sister whom she has met twice in her annual visits with her mother; the child is 3 and gets to live with her mother…..a source of a great deal of pain for the other children who were removed and sadness that they do not get to grow up with her. I think it means something to her to bring the photos in so I imagine she will bring them to you to show you. 

Thanks,
Celia & Flo



For Tom, it didn’t seem to cross his mind that our 12 year old might feel very stigmatized to not have photos. He didn’t seem to understand that “opting out” positioned her as “other” in the class. To us it was as if she would be wearing a big sandwich board on her body that said, “Rejected by Birth Family.”

It truly shocked me that this really fantastic, very experienced teacher, thought it was fine to have children who could not participate in his activity go off to the side and do an alternative activity. I learned something in the nanosecond that I read his words: Having an alternative activity is some teachers’ idea of “differentiating” or “accommodating difference.” From this perspective it is sufficient to make sure everyone had a learning activity that gets the teaching point or objective across.

I am not exempting myself here as I have learned the very hard way about activities I have done in my own classroom that positioned some students in ways that were horrible for them. I know about quite a few of these teaching mistakes because my students were brave and told me. (And I am very confident that not all the students I have hurt through my pedagogy have had the confidence and courage and stomach to come and talk to me about how what I organized positioned them in ways that were painful and damaging.)

Yet, I feel compelled to offer my public critiques of some typical lessons that position children who have been adopted from foster care in ways that make public the loss of their first family. I make it a practice to not “teacher bash” so want to be clear that I have the utmost respect for the educators referenced in this post, but I do want to analyze their pedagogy in the hope that others will read this and find ways to interrogate their lessons for how children adopted at an older age from foster care or internationally, might feel when their personal stories are made public.

I am reminded of a news article on my university homepage published last year lauding a New York City elementary school teacher who prioritizes multicultural understanding and community building in her classroom. One of the techniques she described is to have an adult family member come in on the child’s birthday and to tell the story of their birth. I imagine she has not adopted any children from foster care. If my adopted child were in that classroom, what would I come in and tell? What parts of our children’s stories would be appropriate to share? How would my child feel that her story was so different from other children’s stories? Would we say, “Jenni’s first mommy loved her very much but because she had so many problems she really couldn’t take care of her, so lots of people reported her mommy to the state, and a social worker and some police came and took her out of her mother’s home, and then her great-grandmother’s home, and then her grandfather’s home. In between all these kinship placements, little Jenni was in foster care, thrust into the homes of strangers whose homes all smelled different and who had vastly different rules.” Would we say that as the kinship homes were evaluated for their “goodness” (read: compliance with white, middle class norms) little Jenni and her siblings were interviewed by social workers to decide what was best for them? Would we say she carried her clothes in a big black trash bag from house to house to house? Would we say that one day, after she’d been adopted, she got to go back to her grandfather’s house and found her little Lambie—her blanket stuffy that she still sleeps with now at age 13? Would we say that many nights Jenni still cries for her mommy and wants to know why she doesn’t schedule open adoption meetings with the children? Would we tell the class that mommy has two new babies that she has maintained custody of? Would we ask Jenni to talk about how that makes her feel?

All three of these instructional activities were discussed by very reasonable people who are in so many ways exemplary educators. (And believe me, I know I have ENORMOUS gaps in my knowledge and pedagogy, mostly probably related to social class, race, and linguistic diversity. I could write PAGES about my mistakes. And then more pages. And I’m sure some of you reading this blog can and might and should give examples in the comments section of my blog, if you have been in my class and witnessed my many mistakes and missteps.)

I am not writing this to berate or belittle, but only to educate and to say: Please think of kids who were adopted – especially from foster care — when you plan your curriculum.

#teachslaverebellions

This week in the Bronx, a white teacher reportedly told her Black students to lie on the floor; she then stepped on their backs. As this is February (the shortest month of the year) we all know it is Black History Month. (“Hispanic” history month is mid-September through mid-October.) Various newspaper accounts say that advocates and parents are incensed about this apparent “lesson” on enslavement and are demanding sensitivity, anti-bias training for teachers. The New York City Department of Education says some teachers have been through such a training and more trainings are scheduled.

However, as much as I share the outrage of advocates and families, I cannot imagine a professional development training module that can adequately address a lifetime of mis-education. Sure, the professional development curriculum could invent scenarios and ask teachers to weigh in on if they think the lesson plan is racist, humiliating, historically inaccurate, intellectually meaningless, anti-Black, lacking in complete thought about people’s humanity. But the cruel truth is that few people educated in U.S. schools have ever had Black histories, and indigenous histories, and Latinx histories, and all Asian and Pacific Islands histories, and LGBT histories, and children’s histories and workers’ histories integrated into their history lessons in school.

Why do we need all these special add-ons anyway? Because our (history) teaching is not integrated. Yes, Black children’s bodies were forcibly integrated into white schools, but we never integrated the curriculum. The Chinese Exclusion Act may be dead, but the lives of Chinese in the Americas (and all “others”) has never been integrated into the curriculum.

The history of non-whites, and non-heterosexuals, and non-men is sometimes added in small doses but rarely have these people showed up in full strength and with agency. What does get taught are the most power-stripped aspects of history. Therefore, in our schools we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, but not Malcolm X and certainly not the Black Panther Party. Children read the “I Have a Dream Speech,” but never the 10 Point Program. (Which, for those of you unfamiliar with this document is still highly applicable and relevant today. See for instance, Point Number Five: “We want decent education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society. We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of the self. If you do not have knowledge of yourself and your position in the society and in the world, then you will have little chance to know anything else.” (Rethinking Schools))

School children learn about Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, but not about Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser and Robert Smalls. Furthermore, they learn that John Brown was a crazy man rather than a white anti-racist hero. In other words: Rising up and fighting against the chattel enslavement of Black human beings and their children, and their children’s children is not discussed, or if it is discussed is labeled as violent and crazy.

What kind of upside down (AKA white supremacist) history teaching is this? We teach students that the REVOLUTIONARY WAR is to be celebrated and we sing songs about 1776, and even commemorate it each year with fireworks, but we don’t honor the Black organizers of armed resistance as they bravely planned uprisings to fight against the wholesale kidnapping and sale of entire communities of people that then reaped centuries of blood money profit off their backs? (For which we STILL have not paid reparations. See W.E.B. DuBois’ page-turning history of Black Reconstruction in America.)

When we concentrate our Black history teaching about the ways that Black people in this country have been oppressed, we risk leaving students with the view that Blacks are mostly the victims of white supremacy. (It is akin to teaching about the Holocaust and not teaching about the Warsaw Uprising.) Why not focus on Black liberation and Black revolution? Why do we celebrate the “American” revolutionaries (almost all white, you notice?) and not Black revolutionaries?

(Okay, I admit, I know the answer to that.)

I support Black Lives Matter at Schools and hope you will also.

The PARCC Test: Exposed [excerpts deleted under legal threat from Parcc]

The author of this blog posting is a public school teacher who will remain anonymous.

I will not reveal my district or my role due to the intense legal ramifications for exercising my Constitutional First Amendment rights in a public forum. I was compelled to sign a security form that stated I would not be “Revealing or discussing passages or test items with anyone, including students and school staff, through verbal exchange, email, social media, or any other form of communication” as this would be considered a “Security Breach.” In response to this demand, I can only ask—whom are we protecting?

There are layers of not-so-subtle issues that need to be aired as a result of national and state testing policies that are dominating children’s lives in America. As any well prepared educator knows, curriculum planning and teaching requires knowing how you will assess your students and planning backwards from that knowledge. If teachers are unable to examine and discuss the summative assessment for their students, how can they plan their instruction? Yet, that very question assumes that this test is something worth planning for. The fact is that schools that try to plan their curriculum exclusively to prepare students for this test are ignoring the body of educational research that tells us how children learn, and how to create developmentally appropriate activities to engage students in the act of learning. This article will attempt to provide evidence for these claims as a snapshot of what is happening as a result of current policies.

The PARCC test is developmentally inappropriate

In order to discuss the claim that the PARCC test is “developmentally inappropriate,” examine three of the most recent PARCC 4th grade items.

A book leveling system, designed by Fountas and Pinnell, was made “more rigorous” in order to match the Common Core State Standards. These newly updated benchmarks state that 4th Graders should be reading at a Level S by the end of the year in order to be considered reading “on grade level.” [Celia’s note: I do not endorse leveling books or readers, nor do I think it appropriate that all 9 year olds should be reading a Level S book to be thought of as making good progress.]

The PARCC, which is supposedly a test of the Common Core State Standards, appears to have taken liberties with regard to grade level texts. For example, on the Spring 2016 PARCC for 4th Graders, students were expected to read an excerpt from[deleted under legal threat by Parcc] According to Scholastic, this text is at an interest level for Grades 9-12, and at a 7th Grade reading level. The Lexile measure is 1020L, which is most often found in texts that are written for middle school, and according to Scholastic’s own conversion chart would be equivalent to a 6th grade benchmark around W, X, or Y (using the same Fountas and Pinnell scale).

Even by the reform movement’s own standards, according to MetaMetrics’ reference material on Text Complexity Grade Bands and Lexile Bands, the newly CCSS aligned “Stretch” lexile level of 1020 falls in the 6-8 grade range. This begs the question, what is the purpose of standardizing text complexity bands if testing companies do not have to adhere to them? Also, what is the purpose of a standardized test that surpasses agreed-upon lexile levels?

So, right out of the gate, 4th graders are being asked to read and respond to texts that are two grade levels above the recommended benchmark. After they struggle through difficult texts with advanced vocabulary and nuanced sentence structures, they then have to answer multiple choice questions that are, by design, intended to distract students with answers that appear to be correct except for some technicality.

Finally, students must synthesize two or three of these advanced texts and compose an original essay. The ELA portion of the PARCC takes three days, and each day includes a new essay prompt based on multiple texts. These are the prompts from the 2016 Spring PARCC exam for 4th Graders along with my analysis of why these prompts do not reflect the true intention of the Common Core State Standards.

ELA 4th Grade Prompt #1

[deleted under legal threat by Parcc]

The above prompt probably attempts to assess the Common Core standard RL.4.5: “Explain major differences between poems, drama, and prose, and refer to the structural elements of poems (e.g., verse, rhythm, meter) and drama (e.g., casts of characters, settings, descriptions, dialogue, stage directions) when writing or speaking about a text.”

However, the Common Core State Standards for writing do not require students to write essays comparing the text structures of different genres. The Grade 4 CCSS for writing about reading demand that students write about characters, settings, and events in literature, or that they write about how authors support their points in informational texts. Nowhere in the standards are students asked to write comparative essays on the structures of writing. The reading standards ask students to “explain” structural elements, but not in writing. There is a huge developmental leap between explaining something and writing an analytical essay about it. [Celia’s note: The entire enterprise of analyzing text structures in elementary school – a 1940’s and 50’s college English approach called “New Criticism” — is ridiculous for 9 year olds anyway.]

The PARCC does not assess what it attempts to assess

ELA 4th Grade Prompt #2

[deleted under legal threat by Parcc]

It would be a stretch to say that this question assesses CCSS W.4.9.B: “Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text.”

In fact, this prompt assesses a student’s ability to research a topic across sources and write a research-based essay that synthesizes facts from both articles. Even CCSS W.4.7, “Conduct research projects that build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic,” does not demand that students compile information from different sources to create an essay. The closest the standards come to demanding this sort of work is in the reading standards; CCSS RI.4.9 says: “Integrate information from two texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.” Fine. One could argue that this PARCC prompt assesses CCSS RI.4.9.

However, the fact that the texts presented for students to “use” for the essay are at a middle school reading level automatically disqualifies this essay prompt from being able to assess what it attempts to assess. (It is like trying to assess children’s math computational skills by embedding them in a word problem with words that the child cannot read.)

ELA 4th Grade Prompt #3

[deleted under legal threat by Parcc]

Nowhere, and I mean nowhere in the Common Core State Standards is there a demand for students to read a narrative and then use the details from that text to write a new story based on a prompt. That is a new pseudo-genre called “Prose Constructed Response” by the PARCC creators, and it is 100% not aligned to the CCSS. Not to mention, why are 4th Graders being asked to write about trying out for the junior high track team? This demand defies their experiences and asks them to imagine a scenario that is well beyond their scope.

Clearly, these questions are poorly designed assessments of 4th graders CCSS learning. (We are setting aside the disagreements we have with those standards in the first place, and simply assessing the PARCC on its utility for measuring what it was intended to measure.)

Rather than debate the CCSS we instead want to expose the tragic reality of the countless public schools organizing their entire instruction around trying to raise students’ PARCC scores.

Without naming any names, I can tell you that schools are disregarding research-proven methods of literacy learning. The “wisdom” coming “down the pipeline” is that children need to be exposed to more complex texts because that is what PARCC demands of them. So children are being denied independent and guided reading time with texts of high interest and potential access and instead are handed texts that are much too hard (frustration level) all year long without ever being given the chance to grow as readers in their Zone of Proximal Development (pardon my reference to those pesky educational researchers like Vygotsky.)

So not only are students who are reading “on grade level” going to be frustrated by these so-called “complex texts,” but newcomers to the U.S. and English Language Learners and any student reading below the proficiency line will never learn the foundational skills they need, will never know the enjoyment of reading and writing from intrinsic motivation, and will, sadly, be denied the opportunity to become a critical reader and writer of media. Critical literacies are foundational for active participation in a democracy.

We can look carefully at one sample to examine the health of the entire system– such as testing a drop of water to assess the ocean. So too, we can use these three PARCC prompts to glimpse how the high stakes accountability system has deformed teaching and warped learning in many public schools across the United States.

In this sample, the system is pathetically failing a generation of children who deserve better, and when they are adults, they may not have the skills needed to engage as citizens and problem-solvers. So it is up to us, those of us who remember a better way and can imagine a way out, to make the case for stopping standardized tests like PARCC from corrupting the educational opportunities of so many of our children.

What Merryl Tisch Does Not Understand

I want to explain something in the most easy way I possibly can. I want to explain it so anyone can understand it. It is important that everyone who has anything to do with education in New York State understands it.

On Wednesday September 16, 2015 the New York State Board of Regents, under the leadership of board chancellor Merryl Tisch created a process whereby teachers can appeal their effectiveness ratings. The formula for the ratings recently changed, with test scores moving from making up 20% of a teacher’s rating to student test scores now making up to 50% of a teacher’s rating.

New York State has been using a “student growth” formula for their calculations of how much “value” an individual teacher has added to the “achievement” of a class of students. Because I am trying to keep this post as simple as possible I will not go into a long explanation of the problems with Value Added Measures in general, or the Growth Percentile Scores in particular. (Read the linked articles for explanations of what the mathematical models can measure and what they cannot measure.)

What is extremely important for all New York State educators and families to understand is that the Chancellor of the Board of Regents does not understand a very basic aspect of a policy she has foisted upon us. Quoting from Geoff Decker’s piece on Chalkbeat:

“In the interview, Tisch said she sympathized with Long Island teacher Sheri Lederman, who is suing the State Education Department over her 2014 evaluation. Lederman’s students scored well on state tests and her superintendent gave her glowing reviews, earning her an ‘effective’ overall rating. But the “’ineffective’ rating she received on the portion based on her students’ test scores prompted her to file a lawsuit, which is now making its way through the State Supreme Court.

‘It disturbs me greatly,’ Tisch said of Lederman’s case. ‘One of the reasons we’re putting in place this appeals process is to deal with those kinds of aberrations.'”

“Those kinds of aberrations”. Let that sink in. Chancellor Tisch, in charge of guiding educational policy for the entire state of New York, understands the fluctuation of Value Added and Student Growth Scores as “aberrations” rather than as a function of how the formulas actually work. Sheri Lederman’s lawsuit in New York State does not rely on an argument that her rating was based on a mistake or aberration.

Tisch’s misconception that Lederman’s growth score ratings are an “aberration” could be easily corrected if she read the New York State Department of Education’s Court filings and oral argument in the Lederman case. Indeed, it is the official position of New York State that Lederman’s rating was not an aberration, but actually a consequence of how the model is supposed to work.

How can we help Chancellor Tisch (and the 10 Regents who voted with her and Governor Cuomo) understand the very basic idea here? Value Added Measures/Models or Growth Scores are not stable enough to rate individual teachers from year to yearPeriod. Full stop. There is nothing more to know here. Pass it on.

I NEED YOUR ADVICE!

It is getting harder and harder to stand up in front of 75 student teachers each August and welcome them into the wonderful profession that has been my life for 37 years. I wanted to be a teacher since 4th grade, when I had Mrs. Debbie Smith. She used an integrated arts, thematic approach, although of course I did not know that at age 9. All I knew is that the year began with self-portraits that hung all year on the back wall; we learned about the history and geography and agriculture of where we lived–we learned that through choral reading of poetry and from children’s books. We took countless field trips and each time returned to the classroom and used a different art medium; we did chalk drawings, used finger paint, made puppets from papier mache and then did puppet shows. Each week we explored different parts of the world and focused much attention on the newly independent countries in Africa. It was from Mrs. Smith that I learned about apartheid in South Africa and first began to know that people can organize to fight injustice. We also did tons of map work (I love maps to this day) and learned about all different types of projections. When it came to music, we learned the music from those parts of the world. And of course, there was reading. So many books to read and we had so many ways to share our excitement about them — but we were only allowed to write one book report a year; the rest of the ways of reflecting on the books had to be multimodal (a word I didn’t know then!). And then when we did country projects we had to always find a new way to express what we had learned. I recall making a couple of Jeopardy games for the class, and standing up in front of the room at the green chalboard playing the game host. The year of learning is etched in my body, in my mind, in my heart. It was Debbie Smith who guided me as I used project-based, place-based, integrated arts methods as a teacher for 15 years.

So when I greet the new master’s students who want to be teachers, for many, many years I did so with incredible enthusiasm: “Welcome to the best profession in the world: where you get to sing and dance, and love and play and read and write and create and bring things to the world the world has never seen. There is nothing better than being a teacher!”

Only now. I dread late August.
How can I prepare new teachers for what awaits them?
Still, we try, and we don’t let on how much we worry about them.
We try to help them negotiate the insane external demands that have NOTHING to do with learning and everything to do about compliance with external mandates that are not based on student learning, but on some strange theories of “close reading” and lexile levels. Has David Coleman ever sat side by side with a child who crosses the reading bridge and magically begins to make sense of print? I can tell him, it does not come from a close reading of the author’s intent. It comes from deep interest in the subject matter (I taught one child to read by reading all the books in the library about sharks and writing a book about sharks. Three months later, he could read almost anything!) It comes from sitting side by side while you encourage the child to believe in him or herself when s/he does not yet believe in her/himself. It means playing the believing game (Peter Elbow) even when you worry, ‘When will s/he break the code?”

None of this is measurable through the metrics that the corporate school deformers have convinced the government and the philanthropists are “objective’.

I worry so much about the young teachers who are going out to this hostile atmosphere that tells them hungry children can learn just as well as well-fed children. That is a lie. There are many, many lies that make up predatory, corporate school reform.

And many of the lies are based on the Big Test. The tests that are not vertically aligned so cannot measure learning from year to year. The tests that are developmentally inappropriate and way too long. The tests that are supposedly for assessment of achievement (never learning, did you notice? learning is never mentioned anymore) but then are magically supposed to also measure teacher effectiveness. No matter that the corporate school reform own researchers (Gates, MET study, 50 million dollars) found the tests actually CANNOT measure teacher effectiveness. Lies, more lies, and damn lies.

I am sick.
I am ill.
I am enraged.
(And, for the record, I am not delusional that there was ever a golden era in U.S.public education. For poor children and children of color it has never been right.)

How to fight the insanity is all I think about. And then, when I think the news can’t possibly get worse, I get an email that takes my breath away. Breaks my heart.

Dear readers, please reply to this blog posting and offer advice to this first year teacher. Per (Marge Piercy’s gender neutral pronoun from Woman on the Edge of Time — “per,” short for “person”) writes:

It’s [PER’S NAME]. I hope you’re doing well!! I miss being at TC and around all the supportive people there SO MUCH. How I’d give anything to go back to life before graduation and the real world right now…

I‘m writing to you because I need your advice on what I should do. You were my teacher at TC, after all, so I figured you might know what I should do best. As you may (or may not) know, I am now finishing up my first year of teaching third grade at this public school in STATE. It’s been a crazy year to say the least.

Last month I was asked to give my class of eight-year olds the new, Pearson state tests. I was asked to dedicate several weeks of my classroom instruction prior to the three-week exam window prepping kids them for the test (i.e.. conditioning them to write things such as “I know this because in the text it says…,” training them to filling in three bubbles when the question asked for three answers, and whatever other garbage counts as good teaching these days. I did this, despite knowing that it’s not what being a good teacher meant. The week before the exam I spent a lot of time reflecting on what being a good teacher meant, and what it meant, specifically, to be a good PUBLIC school teacher, who thinks about the needs and wants of children, rather than the needs and wants of a big corporation that controls them.

So, anyway, I went to my principal the week before the March tests and I told her that I was not going to distribute the exams to my class. She tried to rationalize why it is that I should do this, and at the end of our hour-long conversation I said, “I told you I made up my mind. I am not going to give it out, so do whatever it is you have to do now.” The next morning she shows up in my classroom and hands me an official letter of reprimand stating that my behavior was insubordinate and unprofessional. Mind you, it was not unprofessional because I was standing up for my kids, and their rights, just the way the superintendent had asked me to do the day I signed my contract in his office. The official letter of reprimand also stated that I could lose my position as a teacher in the district if I did not hand out the tests. I contacted the union person and she said I had no choice but to give kids the tests, and so I did, because I have TC loans to pay back. I wasted a good three weeks of teaching time in March handing out these developmentally-inappropriate, ridiculous exams to my kids.

Now that we are nearing the end of the school year I’ve started looking into seeking certifications in other states. I realized, however, that I have to now put down that I have a “disciplinary action/ official reprimand” issue on all of my applications. So my first question is, does this mean that I might not get certified in another state now?

My second question has to do with the state tests that are still to come. There are two more weeks of testing coming up in May. AKA- another two weeks of valuable teaching time gone entirely down the drain. This puts us at FIVE weeks of instruction wasted on tests so far this year. How wonderful, right? My second question is, would it be the worst thing for me to stand up for what I believe is right versus what is wrong and not hand out the May assessments and say screw it, even if I get fired? Do you think I would ever have a fighting chance of getting a teaching job elsewhere (even if not at a public school) if I did this? Maybe if I did this someone would learn a thing or two about what it means to be a teacher.

I know I’m a good teacher, regardless of what anybody else has to say about it.

Maybe I’m just being completely irrational, but then again, maybe I’m not. Maybe everyone has just forgotten what public education means. Maybe there’s no such thing as public education in twenty-first century America? Maybe there never was such a thing? Maybe public “education” was all just a lie. I don’t know. I need your help!!!

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Pearson Fails the Standardized Test

11117452_10155447621575008_1023280288_nI’ve lived and taught in New York State since 1993 when I moved from Chicago to be a professor at Syracuse University; I moved to New York City in 1997. I follow state and city educational policy closely and when Mayor Michael Bloomberg initiated giving letter grades to restaurants and schools, I began to investigate the formula and the New York State achievement tests that counted so heavily towards the final grade. There were a few names that continually popped up as offering expert analysis of the flaws of the tests and thus the fatal flaws of the evaluation formulas. One is a colleague of mine at Teachers College — Professor Aaron Pallas — who often blogs at Hechinger Report.. Another name that kept popping up was Fred Smith who worked as a testing specialist for the New York City public school system. Smith retired as an administrative analyst and has since served as a consultant on test projects. He is a member of Change the Stakes, a parent advocacy group opposed to the harmful impact that testing has had on education.

When the news broke last night of the massive Pearson server error in Colorado for their on-line achievement tests, I immediately wrote to Fred to ask what the implications would be for the validity and relibility of the test results. How standardized can the standardized measure be when some of the students got part way through the tests? Why is Pearson taking on so many contracts for state (and PARCC) testing when they keep having such troubles? Here is his reply:

How much more can test publisher Pearson do wrong and keep getting lucrative contracts to furnish statewide testing programs? Today it’s Colorado. Tomorrow Minnesota. And we in New York have seen repeat performances of poorly conceived and implemented exams supposedly aligned to the Common Core.

Pearson’s slogan, “Always Learning” takes on new meaning in the context of its obvious trial-and-error approach to testing. This was true even before the latest push to initiate computer-based exams. Now we’re on the cusp on the new and improved, latest and greatest adaptive assessment era.

Having delivered paper and pencil pineapples to us and age-inappropriate reading and math material leading us to the dawn of the coming age, the publisher and the states, who become Pearson’s defenders, will never admit that the tests themselves and the measurement process have virtually become a clumsy experiment that stumbles along as mistakes are made and compounded—but always explained away as a few glitches.

The disruption of Colorado’s attempt to inaugurate computerized Science and Social Studies exams in no less than 179 school districts is the latest example. Bugs, excuse me, “technical difficulties” and “functionality challenges” caused computerized testing in Colorado to “not operate optimally” for several hours Tuesday morning, according to the Colorado Department of Education. But CDE seemed to have answers even before they understood the extent of the problem.

So some 34,000 children started taking the social studies exams in grades 4 and 7 and others started on science in grades 5 and 8 before the interruption. They were allowed to continue the exams. The remaining 28,000 students were told not to begin. Meanwhile CDE hadn’t figured out which schools were which.

Teachers spoke about how the system completely crashed, stranding students in the middle of the exam. What happens to them? Do they come back and take a new test (unlikely), or do they re-take the exam? Do they pick up where they left off? These questions and the decisions that are made about resuming the tests will confound their results.

Having seen parts of the exams and later coming back to finish them will make the experience of the interrupted children different than that of the rest of the test population and will introduce factors that may impinge on their scores. Can these children go back and change their answers? Will they go back to their classrooms and talk to other kids in the same situation and gain knowledge of the correct answers? Will they talk with children waiting to take the exam and give them intelligence about what’s coming? Who knows? The crashing of the system invites variables into the mix that are irrelevant to student knowledge of science and social studies and that muddle the meaning of the results (aka the test’s validity).

In addition, there were reportedly other mechanical difficulties, not just log-in problems. They included the inability to drag and drop items as certain items required. You can be sure that CDE will assert that nothing in the administration of the test and the eventual generation of results has been compromised. But these are supposed to be standardized tests—and, as such, given under uniform conditions to all students. To the degree that the problems cited interfere with that objective, questions will endure about the meaning of the results for each student, about measuring the achievement of each and about setting a baseline by which to evaluate growth over time. There’s no getting around the fact that the issues involved negatively impact the validity of the exams.

Swimming for Shore in the Hudson River

More from me, later, but for now, I have an anonymous guest blogger with a timely posting. S/he is not able at this time to be named, so I have the honor of providing a platform.

Chancellor Merryl Tisch is confused, and she has questions that need answers. “Will the opt-out movement hurt kids who need help the most?”  “I’m not really sure…I think, quite frankly, everyone is all over the map here.”   Is Governor Cuomo’s budget passing going to mean that 50% of teachers’ evaluations will be based on test scores? “Nowhere in the new law do they actually state 50% based on state tests.” Technically, that’s true.  Given the uproar over the new education legislation making it easier to fire teachers based on student test scores, and harder for teachers to get tenure and maintain certification, however, it’s safe to assume something big just happened and it is making people very upset, and she is doing her best to respond to all that stress.  While she may wish to dismiss it as “noise and nonsense,” the controversies over testing, in WNYC’s Brian Lehrer’s words, “continue to grow.”

Thankfully, help is on the way. For example, over at the Perdido Streeet School blog, they cut right to the chase: “The problem with overtesting is not just how many tests are given in the school system – it’s the high stakes that are attached to them that cause stress, pressure and anxiety for both children and educators in schools.” The New York Times  also paints a pretty clear picture of what those high stakes do in places where the tests matter more than anything else, say, in a Success Academy Charter School in Harlem. It’s grim stuff, and as many pointed out in the wake of that article and an insider’s view of life in one of those schools posted by Diane Ravitch on her blog, it makes you wonder how they get away with it, for surely if that were happening over at Dalton or Horace Mann there would be an uproar. Tisch apparently wants to appease some public school personnel and parents, for she said there might be “tweaks” to the new law that would exempt certain schools and districts from regulations, you know, the ones doing a “good job” and getting good results. Where she would draw the line is unclear, but regardless, it sounds even more unfair than what is currently unfolding.

Tisch has been reading Professor Aaron Pallas’ Hechinger Report posts to no avail, and seems even more confused by his attempts at clarity using medical analogies. Feeling his comparisons to health care “essentially echo my point,” she doesn’t seem to get that what he said was that her use of medical analogies don’t support her case. He said we have scientific evidence on the benefits of vaccination, but not on any benefits from high stakes standardized testing. There’s some new research that annual checkups don’t have systematic benefits to health outcomes. That doesn’t mean a doctor might still save your life in the course of a routine exam, something that happened with Pallas’ wife. The issue is quite clear: “Parents and teachers already know quite a bit about the academic performance of their children and students.”  At the end of the day, test results as they are currently being misused are just numbers lining up on a curve, and the effects attributable to a teacher amount to approximately ten percent. David Berliner, another renowned expert on the subject, also turned to the medical comparison in a lecture at Teachers College last week. One of his dozen reasons why test scores should not be used to evaluate teachers or teacher education programs is precisely because of those small effects. “The paradox of teachers and physicians is that they often have large effects on individuals, but small effects on aggregate measures of their abilities.” A doctor might save your life, just as a teacher might leave an impression to last a lifetime, but those won’t show up in big data. Professor Celia Oyler at Teachers College has also provided the solid research evidence Tisch should be reading up on, explaining why the use of VAMs in teachers’ evaluations is just plain wrong.

It seems Tisch has been looking for help in all the wrong places. Her talking points all come straight from the reformers’ cheat sheet Anthony Cody put up on his blog that warned about “rabbit holes” and the dangers of “trying to explain the technicalities” of testing. She’s constantly trying to “pivot back to how testing helps parents and kids.” As blogger Edushyster warned, when parents bring up all their legitimate concerns about the consequences of this heavy-handed accountability, you might “attempt the rarely attempted triple pivot, pivoting off of said parent’s pivot from your original pivot.”  You don’t want the parent to “hijack the conversation” while you get “pulled into the weeds.” The way things are going, you might end up swimming for shore in the Hudson River.