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If you are not familiar with #Edchat, it is a Twitter discussion on specific topics held every Tuesday at Noon and 7 PM EST. A full explanation may be found at this Link: https://tomwhitby.wordpress.com/2010/06/23/edchat-revisited/. I am revealing in this post that I am the one who makes up a bulk of the #Edchat Topic choices. We do get some outside contributions, but each week I try to lift relevant topics from the Twitterstream and current Educational Blogs to explore further in an #Edchat discussion. It has been a successful formula thus far. My dilemma however, is always when is it a good time to revisit a topic. I recently received a comment from an educator that stated he always found the topic choices very interesting, but eventually we would need to discuss Standardized Testing or High Stakes Testing as a topic. Actually, #Edchat has discussed this topic in the past. The problem I have however is that in trying to keep the pulse of education concerns, Standardized Testing is the one topic that has an overwhelming majority of educators mentioning their opposition on a daily basis. Educators seem to be in agreement that Standardized Testing is a major roadblock to Education Reform. One growing opinion seems to be that the emphasis has become the tests and not the education.

Assessment has been and always will be part of education. A simple explanation: As educators we use Formative assessment to make sure we are succeeding with our students as we go. Do they get it? This allows for adjustments along the way. The Summative assessment tells educators how successful the complete endeavor was. After all is said and done, have the students gotten it?  Educators do this to determine the next step, so they may continue to build on this education. This is the teacher’s assessment of learning for the purpose of the determining of what comes next. The curriculum is the roadmap of where to go. The assessments tell the teacher if the students are there yet. Teachers can always take students beyond the original destination.

Now we should look at High stakes testing. Its purpose is to accumulate data on education. Data requires simple, objective answers that are easily converted to numbers for analysis. As a former English teacher, I often envied Math teachers whose test answers were either right or wrong. As an English teacher I was always trying to figure out shades of right or wrong with essays. That oversimplification of math testing is less true of Math today with the changes that have been made requiring more of an explanation of reasoning. I hope no math teachers were offended.

The purpose of High Stakes testing seems to be changing. If it was originally intended to assess where we were with student learning in order to offer directions for places to improve, we may have strayed from that goal. It is now used to: determine funding, determine remediation, determine school closings, determine careers, and as a stretch, determine elections. These reasons have little to do with what educators use testing for.

Of course there is a simple solution; Teach to the test. That would give everyone what was needed. A problem with this however is that it will not work. It will not work because it does not consider all of the other factors involved in a student’s education; poverty, environment, culture, and even family relationships. How do we ask questions for the purpose of converting these factors into data in order to take all of this into account? Of course a more obvious reason teaching to the test won’t work is that it is not educating any one. Teaching to the test is preparing kids for a Jeopardy round, not life.

Now here is where I begin to sound like a conspiracy theorist. I, along with almost everyone in America, recognize that we are in a dire economic period. I understand we need to cut costs and increase revenue, and we will all need to sacrifice. One of our greatest expenses is education. Education has been highlighted as a political concern. It is apparent to some of us that the call for education Reform is code for cut taxes. The high stakes tests are not being used to examine and address changes in methods and curriculum as much as to vilify teachers. This call for reform by some is not a call for education reform, but rather a call for labor reform. It is a call to do away with Unions and due process for teachers. These tests are not being used to free teachers to innovate, but rather to begin to dismantle public education for the purpose of privatization for profit.

How can so many educators on every level be so opposed to high stakes testing and still it thrives?  How can the mixed to dismal results of a Charter School movement still allow politicians to call for more Charter Schools? How can the influence on education by Poverty, Race, Environment, and Family go unrecognized as factors in need of reform?

We do need to reform education, but we need a better understanding of what changes will have a meaningful effect. There are many things that unions and teachers can do to affect change, but the greater changes however need to be made in methods and focus of curriculum. The emphasis of needed skills for a growing technology-driven society will be another game changer.

Assessment is needed and has a purpose in education. We need to focus assessments on the learning and not the Labor. The vast majority of educators are intelligent, dedicated, people-oriented, sharers. They may need to be given guidance and professional development in the latest methods and technologies, but they are the best source we have to support our education system. Firing teachers, closing schools, busting unions, and dismantling Public Education may be Reform to some, but to many others this is a destructive path. We need educational leaders to stand up and be heard on this. Voices of education need to be heard over those voices of business and politics and vocal disgruntled taxpayers. ( We are probably all disgruntled about taxes.)

Now I have to put up an #Edchat Topic dealing with High Stakes Testing. Your comments are welcomed here.

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I recently read in the Washington Post that the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education issued a report recommending that students preparing for a career in teaching should spend less time in course work and more time in real classrooms for clinical practice. According to the article, the report states that this would be more in the model used for medical Doctors. The report advocates less coursework and more practical experience for pre-service teachers. Of course the overriding theme of this article implies that the failure of our system is with the failure of the teachers, so it must be the failure of the way that teachers are prepared.

I see an additional problem in that the report in the recommendation for evaluating the student teacher on the performance of their assigned students on standardized tests.

“All programs held to same standards; data-driven accountability based on measures of candidate performance and student achievement, including gains in standardized test scores. Data drives reform and continuous improvement.”

This however, will require the attention of a second Post at another time.

Before any committee recommends less time in course work and expanding time in the classroom experience for teacher candidates, it should explore the in-school experience as it exists in today’s model. I do not know what other schools require for their student teacher programs. I do know what is required for my students. It is fair to say that my entire opinion on this subject is based on that background and may not necessarily apply to other student teacher programs or programs in other states.

Students seeking a career in education are not required to master one area of content, but two. They need to be experts in their subject area and they need to be experts in the area of education. To accomplish that, a reduction in course work might be counter-productive. The in-class experience might best be improved in quality as opposed to quantity. The way it is set up now is a “crap shoot” for student teachers, and the colleges have little control over the student-teacher experience.

The college controls the courses candidates are required to take. They are also responsible for holding candidates accountable for 100 hours of class observations of real classes as an eligibility requirement for student teaching.  Once the student begins student-teaching the bulk of that experience is in the hands of the Cooperating teacher. That would be the teacher to whom the student is assigned for the student-teacher assignment. On the secondary level that would be half of their time in a middle school setting and half on the high school level with separate cooperating teachers. The college is connected to the student teacher through the weekly seminar class to deal with the reflection of experiences and guidance through day-to-day problems.

The weak link in the chain of the student-teacher’s experience often lies in the relationship with the cooperating teacher. Most cooperating teachers are well-intentioned and want to do their best in their role as a mentor for an aspiring teacher. However, this is not true of all cooperating teachers. The flaw in the system seems to be more in the selection process of the cooperating teacher as well as the training for cooperating teachers.

The idea of student-teaching is to place a student with a working teacher as an apprentice. The student teacher is expected to teach classes as a teacher from the onset of the assignment. This takes place over the length of a college semester. The student teacher is responsible for teaching and assessing students under the guidance of the cooperating teacher. This all works well, if: the student is prepared, the teacher is prepared, the student is receptive, the teacher is giving, the student is professional, the teacher is flexible. This is a short list of the many “ifs” required for a successful student teaching experience. Little of this is controllable by the college.

Teachers are not trained to be cooperating teachers and it is not an ability that one is born with. They are volunteers or in many cases they are volunteered. They are not compensated by the school district and the compensation from the college usually comes in the bartering of course credits or small monetary stipends. Cooperating teachers are required to turn over the duties of teaching to a student teacher while still having the responsibility for their own students’ success. In today’s climate that may impact their own assessment for maintaining their position (job), if the successful performance of their students is not indicated on standardized tests.

To further complicate the situation we must ask: Are the philosophies and experiences of the student teacher and cooperating teacher a match? Do they see eye to eye on the integration of technology in education? Do they agree the needs and use of formative and summative assessment? Has the cooperating teacher remained relevant in the world of education? Is the student teacher given respect from the cooperating teacher or viewed as a teaching assistant? Will the student teacher be allowed to create original lessons or will he/she be required to teach lessons of the cooperating teacher?

Colleges try to offer guidelines for cooperating teachers on most of these concerns, but the primary goal of a cooperating teacher does not lie in the interest of the student teacher, but rather with the students of their own classes. I do realize and I do explain to my students that it is how one handles the experience that benefits one’s education. I do believe that, but even I need to question things when students relate some of the experiences they endured under less enlightened cooperating teachers.

Now, I must address the recommendation of the enlightened committee. If I understand this, they are recommending fewer courses to master two areas of expertise. They are promoting placing students into a mentoring environment with cooperating teachers who are not trained, not screened, not adequately compensated, and being held personally responsible for the effect that student teacher has on the assessment outcomes of their students. Is this the model our medical profession trains physicians with? Maybe we should consider quality of the program instead of quantity. More hours of a flawed system of mentorship does not necessarily create better teachers or physicians.

Most Cooperating teachers do the best job they can to help and mentor their student teachers, but there are many improvements which would help them in this noble endeavor.

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It was only two days ago that I attended the Education Nation Town Hall meeting in New York City that was hosted by NBC and sponsored by a bunch of businesses. The entire event took place in what amounted to an elaborate Tent. There were several hundred educators there of all ages and from many schools, representing both Public and Charter School educators. I commented on the shortcomings of this meeting in my last post, so I will not cover that ground again. There was one striking comment however, from one young educator that sent chills down my spine, only to have them go up my spine by the applause that followed her statement. As an educator of 40 years, I was truly awed and upset. Her statement was that she did not need Tenure. She only wanted to be evaluated on her teaching and she was confident she would have a job the next year. She saw no need for Tenure (down the spine). TEACHERS then applauded (back up the spine).

The sound of fingernails on the blackboard for that statement ripped into me. What she was asking for is what Tenure IS. It is a guarantee of due process. It guarantees that the only thing you can be fired for is that which you are responsible for in your teaching duties. What you CAN be fired for under the Tenure law is: Misconduct, Incompetence, Insubordination, Physical or Mental Disability, Neglect of Duty, or a Lack of Teaching Certificate. Additionally, it cannot be a blind accusation, it must be documented. It is also presented at a hearing with all parties under oath. This guarantees fairness in firing people. Why would any teacher say they don’t need that? If the world were as this young teacher assumes it is, having all teachers judged on the merits of their teaching, it would be a wonderful world. History shows us that it has not always been so. Forty years of experience gives me a firsthand account of history.

If it were not for Tenure, I know I would not have survived 34 years in the Public School System. I would have been fired, not for a lack of teaching skills, but for being a vocal advocate for learning and fairness. I stood up publicly and confronted administrators, Superintendents and Board of Education members when I did not agree with policies they were mandating which were not in the best interest of kids. These administrators were not bad people, just misinformed. As Educators we deal with ideas and everyone has opinions about ideas. Some people are threatened by certain ideas. If we, as educators find truth in those ideas, we use our best skills and passion to teach them. If someone in power disagrees with those ideas, our effective teaching becomes a threat. As educators we work under people who are political by the nature of their positions. Sometimes administrators prefer dealing with the person pointing out a problem as an easier task than addressing the problem itself. In this era of economic despair budgets are being cut. Education Reform too many is code for cut my taxes. With senior, experienced teachers making the highest salaries, what better way to cut expenses? Teaching quality be damned. Tenure protects educators from these attacks. It insures our academic freedom as an educator. Again, it only guarantees due process; it does not guarantee a job for life.

Now let’s talk about why people attribute Tenure to “BAD TEACHERS”. It is the most convenient of excuses for administrators who fail to do the right thing. It is not always their fault, but nevertheless some people are not being held accountable. In order to get Tenure a new teacher is supposed to be observed by several administrators over a three-year period. If at any time during that period a non-tenured teacher does not meet the standard, he/she can be summarily dismissed without explanation. It is reasonable to assume that after three years of administrator observations that an accurate assessment of a new teacher can be made. It is after three years that the recommendation for tenure is made. If no decision is made by the administrator, it does become automatic. That only occurs if the administrator allows it to happen. A big problem in the process is the time administrator’s need to complete the observations that they are required to do. Administrators don’t always get to it. It is not intentional, but many things must be prioritized over the course of the year and observations do not head the list. This is further complicated by the administrator turnover rate. As administrators come and go a clear picture of observed teachers is not always there. There is no continuity for observations or personal conferences. If a teacher is brought up on charges of any kind to force a firing, administrators often do not have the documentation to prove the accusations. It is a quick step to say, I couldn’t fire him because of Tenure. A more truthful statement would be I couldn’t fire him because people did not do a follow-up for the process to prove incompetence. The biggest problem in my estimation however, is that not all administrators are cut out to be leaders who make tough decisions. They do not want to be a bad guy and say we have to let you go after your three years of service. This makes the capable leaders weakened in their attempt to do the right thing.

That being said we need to address the problem. It is not Tenure, but the lack of enforcement of the process that grants Tenure that has the most flaws. The observation process also needs to be addressed. Administrators as well as teachers are often upset when an incompetent teacher fails to be removed. Tenure allows incompetent teachers to be removed as long as it is done fairly. Bad teachers make it bad for all teachers. A union however, has a responsibility to defend all teachers to make sure the rules are equally applied to all.

I am most upset at the scab-picking and bickering by teachers. The ugliness of this reform movement is in the name calling of teachers by teachers: Public school teachers against Charter school teachers; Young teachers against experienced teachers; Non-Tenured Teachers against Tenured teachers. The common word in all of these pairing is teacher. We need to work together for positive change and work to build ourselves up, not tear each other down. Teachers are of the most educated people in our society. We can’t point fingers at folks who teach differently or have different educational philosophies and say they are incompetent, FIRE THEM! We need to push this reform to include teaching teachers and parents as well. We can’t hold people accountable unless we train them for what they are accountable for. Learning is ongoing. We need to professionally develop all of our teachers continually. It is not an expense, but an investment.

By the way, I became a teacher at a time of declining enrollment in New York. I was granted Tenure, but I was excessed (not rehired until September) every year for my first nine years of teaching. I knew I was a good teacher, but had to live with the fact that I had to leave while others, that I deemed not as good, remained in their positions. I still support Tenure and I still support seniority.

If we are moving forward with reform let’s do our best to identify the real problems as educators. We need to take a more prominent role in a discussion that is being hijacked by business people and politicians. I understand that this topic will draw on many emotions based on one’s perspective in the system. Please try to stick to the facts and not address the myths on this. Your comments are welcome.

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