By Dan Lupkin
Special Education Teacher & UFT Delegate
P.S. 58, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn
Parents and teachers are often set against each other by politicians engaging in demagoguery and cynical “divide and conquer” tactics, but the truth is that our interests and passions are far more similar than they are different. What it boils down to is that teachers (many of whom have kids in the public schools) and parents are working towards exactly the same goal: facilitating the growth of the children of New York into brilliant, confident, kind, self-actualized human beings ready to succeed in the world on their own terms.
Politicians, particularly those pushing a particular brand of privatizing, testing-obsessed, anti-union “education reform”, have provided ample proof in word and deed that their goals are different from ours. They have not given birth to or nurtured these students*, nor do they understand the blood, sweat, and tears that a teacher invests in a student over a course of a year or more. This crop of “education reformers” are not educators, they are business people, and their expertise is in the management of data points on a graph. As such, a student (or a teacher) is not viewed as an individual, but as a scaled test result, a growth score. The schools are seen as spoils to be disassembled and distributed at bargain basement prices to allies and campaign contributors.
In my experience, parents and teachers across New York City agree on many of the vital education issues facing us today, though we don’t always realize it. On issue after issue, politicians like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York State Education Commissioner John King (and their local equivalents in most large cities) impose policies that fail and degrade the children of this country. Not surprisingly, these dangerous policies are decried passionately by the stakeholders who know our students as individuals, as learners. These issues are the ideal soil in which to sow parent/teacher solidarity, to work together to protect the students. Among the most pressing of these concerns are politicians pretending class size doesn’t matter, massive waves of school closings, and high-stakes testing. These are natural opportunities for collaboration between parents and teachers, instances in which the politicians are just wrong.
For example, parent groups like Change the Stakes speak for a wide swath of parents who think the use of high-stakes testing is out of control, but who are flagrantly ignored by policy makers. In my time as a classroom teacher, I have spoken to dozens of my students’ parents about standardized tests. I’ve witnessed anxiety and dread on countless occasions from parents concerned for their children’s futures. They know their kids as complex individuals, as I do, and they decry the dehumanizing, oppressive nature of the testing/test prep regime, which will be used to reduce their child to a series of data points, and ultimately, a single number.
And the students? Keep in mind, I am a special education teacher. High stakes testing is stressful and problematic for even the most academically successful students, but for my kids, it is a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. Chairs get overturned, foreheads get dropped onto desks in frustration, and anxiety and feelings of inadequacy cause emotional outbursts and behavior problems that pop up elsewhere during the school day. The “learned helplessness” of overtaxed special education students (some of whom are also English Language Learners) can take many forms, from filling in all the bubbles randomly as quickly as possible to get the test done to agonizing for an hour over a single question, staring desperately at the text and hoping for the letters and phrases to re-arrange themselves in a way that makes sense. The phenomenon has only gotten worse with the roll-out of the new, longer, often more difficult Common Core aligned assessments in New York State.
We, as teachers, are required to teach in this way at least part of the time. I haven’t spoken with too many colleagues that thought that the days spent administering, and months spent preparing for these tests was worthwhile (actually, none that I can remember). Teachers are, to a tremendous degree, opposed to the ever-increasing emphasis on these tests, and the credence politicians put in them. The same can be said of parents. And yet, as the most immediate representatives of the schools systems that employ us, teachers can be recipients of animus from parents and students rightly outraged by this cruel farce of a testing regime.
Teachers are left to implement the inane test-prep lessons, putting aside all the authentic, genuine learning we have planned so we can “cover the material”. We administer these lengthy tests, always anxious that if something goes wrong, our careers could be ended in a heartbeat. We have been made complicit in this inhumane testing regime. We have no choice: this regime is imposed on us from the top down by number crunchers looking at polls and re-election prospects. The process is as loathed by teachers as it is by students and parents. High stakes testing can therefore be said to be a nexus point at which parents, students, and educators can and should unite to fight our common enemies and defend our schools.
Educators and parents have, in some cases, united to oppose high stakes testing and the injurious effects it has had the children of this country, but there is another, related area in which there is ample opportunity for collaboration, one which some may find surprising: teacher evaluation.
Part and parcel of the top-down “education reform” movement, the teacher evaluation system that will take effect in the New York City public schools for the 2013-2014 school year (similar to plans already in place in many other cities) WILL hurt children, despite claims to the contrary. The evaluation plan, known as Advance, which was imposed by State Education Commissioner King on June 1st as the result of an arbitration between the New York City Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers, is the first to officially evaluate (and fire) New York City public school teachers based on the scores their students get on New York State standardized exams.
There may be parents who support it because of ideas they have about “accountability”. They may have internalized the archetype splashed across the front pages of tabloids of the “bad teacher”, who we could get rid of if not for those selfish unions. Perhaps they think that only “bad teachers” will suffer under this system; that their child’s beloved teacher, their treasured, long-standing neighborhood schools will be unaffected, or even improved by these measures. Some of these may even be the same parents outraged by the toll the standardized testing regime is taking on their own children. Allow me to state this unequivocally:
The reliance of the “Advance” teacher evaluation system on standardized testing will have disastrous consequences for, among other things, the quality of instruction in New York City’s schools.
This system with the suspiciously Orwellian name will, in fact, reverse the progress that many schools have made in introducing modern, progressive, holistic pedagogy into their classrooms. Mayor Bloomberg and his allies would no doubt quibble with this, but it’s common sense. Teachers, carried along kicking and screaming, WILL do more test prep. How could we not? Our jobs depend on it.
At P.S. 58, as at many other schools, it is a truism that when testing time comes, the real teaching suffers to some degree. Mine is not a school that is on the chopping block because of test scores, so test prep season isn’t as long or all-consuming as it is in many other places. We are encouraged to think of everything we teach our students from the first day of school as test prep, and that it need not all be formulaic essays and multiple choice questions from a test-prep book. Our pedagogy emphasizes collaboration, metacognition, and creative thinking. We encourage inquiry, group work, experimentation and creativity across the curriculum, but those skills are not assessed on the New York State tests, nor are they a part of the various practice tests that we give. In other words, the way we teach and the way the state assesses are not in sync. These are not choices made by P.S. 58 administrators or teachers, they are diktats from above.
There is a fair amount of cognitive dissonance for both teachers and students as we are required to, in effect, turn off our brains, forget our training and our passion, and become test-prep zombies for significant chunks of time. This is a gray, boring pedagogy, one despised by parents, students, and educators alike, but non-compliance with the testing regime would constitute insubordination and likely result in immediate termination for any employee of the Department of Education. We need to get kids to make a jarring shift in strategy and mindset- in our classroom, we have one way of doing things, but forces outside our control dictate that your ultimate value will be based on a test scored mostly by machines, partly by people grading hundreds of test using a universal rubric created in an opaque corporate headquarters somewhere. Collaboration, creativity, and experimentation are not part of the equation.
At no other time would I consent to teach like this, but if I completely ignore test preparation, I would not only be imperiling my own career, but my students, colleagues, and school would suffer. These days, the list of things in the school system that depend on the students’ test scores is long, but it includes the existence of entire schools and districts at the macro level, and students’ ability to get promoted to the next grade or earn entry into their middle school of choice on the individual level. We do our best to shield our students from the towering inanity of high-stakes testing as much as possible, but we are working within tight constraints.
The proliferation of this zombie pedagogy has penetrated every school to a greater or lesser degree because principals have long been held hostage to their students’ test scores. The letter grades that determine whether or not a school will stay open are determined, in large part, by the results of these tests. As such, pressure has been placed on teachers regarding their kids’ test scores for years now, but officially at least, those scores have not been used to fire teachers, at least not in New York City.
That ends with Advance. Although at first glance, the New York State test scores should count for either 20%, 25% or 40% of most teachers’ evaluations, depending on a mind-numbingly complex list of factors, Commissioner King’s binding arbitration says that
To translate, whether the aforementioned 40% is comprised entirely of different readings of New York State test scores (which principals can unilaterally decide to do) or it includes DOE-designed “performance assessments” or additional “third party” standardized tests, if those scores (referred to above as the “measure of student learning subcomponent”) are deemed to be sub-par, the teacher must be rated “ineffective” overall. One “ineffective” rating, and there is a token attempt at helping the teacher improve. With the second one, the teacher is fired. Even if a teacher were to get stellar ratings from their principal during the epic cycle of classroom observations^ that are supposed to represent 60% of the teacher’s evaluation, they would still be fired. Based solely on test scores. To put it more another way, 40% = 100%.
Excellent teachers can and inevitably WILL lose their jobs based on test scores. This evaluation system has delivered the coup de gras to our right to a fair hearing before being terminated based on performance in most cases, so there is built-in incentive to balance under-funded school budgets by trading in experienced professionals for cheaper newer, replacements. The “reformers” and the billionaires who fund these measures picture the ideal future, when it comes to teachers, as a conveyor belt of recent college grads who studied something else at a prestigious college, but want to have a meaningful life experience for two years before going off to a “real job”. Teacher turnover isn’t seen as a problem, but as a solution. For example Chicago, which has laid off thousands of experienced teachers in the last few years, has continued to hire brand new teachers through the Teach for America program. Cheap, inexperienced teachers who won’t stick around long enough to collect a pension or ask difficult question could be seen as an ideal proposition for business leaders looking at spreadsheets, but parents know that teaching is an art, a science, and a craft that takes years to master.
It goes without saying that teachers educating the poorest and most vulnerable students will be hit hardest, as test scores correlate strongly with a student’s socioeconomic status (SES). The skyrocketing inequality in the country as a whole, and in New York City in particular, has concentrated already deep pockets of poverty. A hungry child may not achieve what the authorities consider to be a school year’s worth of progress between September and May; students with heavy responsibility for raising younger siblings, starting from an early age, may not be as prepared to fill in those particular bubbles on that particular day as students who get tutoring and chess class. The obvious disparities are meant to be alleviated by a handicapping system in the grading formula which makes mathematical allowances to account for factors like Special Education or English Language Learner (ELL) status in student performance. It is no surprise that the so called “reformers” sought to rectify this issue with an equation, but there is no code that the city enters into the grading system when a child has been staying in a shelter, or didn’t sleep the night before the test because there were gunshots in her neighborhood, or has no books in his house. Evaluating teachers on test scores makes them, in effect, scapegoats for deeply rooted poverty.
The introduction of test scores into teacher evaluation brings very much to the fore the motto of the Movement of Rank and File Educators: Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. People don’t do their jobs well when they are miserable and paralyzed with fear. I have worked in schools where I have been given respect and autonomy, and in schools that were toxic. Anyone want to guess in which school my teaching was better? We are human beings, and are susceptible to stress, anxiety, and fear. Educators have been working under the gun for some time now, but this undoubtedly represents an escalation. Any educator will tell you that students are profoundly affected by the emotional state of their teachers- it sets the tone in the classroom, something the “reformers” constantly remind us about when it comes time to burn in effigy the lazy, unmotivated teachers-who-don’t-care-about-their-students’-success that we hear so much about. A teacher who walks on eggshells, terrified at every turn that they are going to lose their job, does not do their best work; a teacher who is demeaned, who has no autonomy, does not have the space to plan and execute the type of engaging, stimulating lessons that everyone wants.
The system may or may not, in fact, improve test scores, but as anyone who has ever spent a significant period of time in the classroom (not to mention most parents) could tell you, the connection between those scores and a quality education is tenuous, at best. “Reform” oriented politicians, the billionaires who bankroll them, and the astroturf organizations who front for them have been ramming through policies that are harmful to children for some time now. Experience meeting with a diverse array of parents/guardians would indicate that they are NOT interested, despite the countless millions spent on propaganda and the official seal of approval, in what these “reformers” are selling; there is a now an important poll out which, unsurprisingly, concurs with common sense.
Our union leadership long ago yielded to the “reformers” regarding the increased use of high stakes testing, and these days, is content to juggle the precise percentages of our overall job performance that is to be derived from this arbitrary, highly unscientific data. They, in addition to our elected leaders, need to hear from both parents AND teachers that the status quo is unacceptable, and that their plans to further emphasize the use of high stakes testing will be met with fierce resistance.
Despite all the attempts that have been made to divide and conquer, parents and teachers make natural allies; we have made investments in our students as individuals, and we see the learning process up close, in enough detail to know that a standardized test is no way to judge the success of a student, an educator, a school or a district. If we think public education is important, if we think that every student deserves a quality education and to be treated like a human being, then we have no choice but to resist; to resist skyrocketing class sizes; to resist the dehumanization of teachers and students; to resist the many-headed hydra of high-stakes testing, which takes the form of, among other things, the impoverishment of classroom instruction, massive school closings, and the “Advance” teacher evaluation system.
If you think firing half the teachers in the city and closing massive numbers of schools based on high stakes testing is going to benefit students, I have a bridge to sell you. If, on the other hand, you want a professional in the classroom with your children, one with the support and autonomy needed to effectively educate, that same bridge conveniently brings parents, students, and teachers right to the Mayor’s doorstep to demand that our students, our teachers, and our schools are respected, valued, and supported. “Advance,” despite what you may have heard, is not “fair,” nor will it work to the benefit of the students of New York. The parents and educators of this city and of this country cannot allow ourselves to be pitted against each other for the financial and political benefit of the 1%- we must forge alliances, and through them, take concrete action to protect public education. Politicians, from Walcott through Obama, have done tremendous damage to our schools. It’s time for us- the parents, educators, and students- to take them back.
*Many prominent proponents of these “reforms” for the public school system prefer to opt out of them in style.
**Teachers, paraprofessionals, service providers, and many administrators. At least, many administrators who have experience as teachers feel the same way.
*** Including, but not limited to, a school’s principal, the State Legislature, and a hastily convened committee of staff members and administrators assembled in each school to give the illusion that Advance is not a “one size fits all” system.
^These observations (referred to in King’s statement as the Other Measures subcomponent) are another lengthy topic for another day. Suffice it to say, they utilize an interpretation of the Danielson Framework which has been perverted from its intended use as a system of professional development, and turned into a weapon to use against individual teachers in a way that the woman who designed of the system finds problematic.