Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Teacher Career Ladders

Teaching-- a field where you can start at the middle and work your way up to the middle.

Many commenters on many sides of various tracks periodically note that one of the problems with the teaching profession is that there is no career path. You start out teaching a bunch of kids in your classroom, and thirty-some years later, there you are, still teaching a bunch of kids in your classroom. You are probably better at it for any number of reasons, but you're doing the same job, with the same responsibilities for the same classroom teacher pay.

Lots of folks (again, from all sides of all tracks) note that this is certainly not one of the more attractive features of a teaching career, and that we could probably hang onto teachers more easily (those of us who actually want to, anyway) if we could offer some sort of career advancement. Unfortunately, here are the teacher ladders that have presented themselves to date.

The Escape Ladder

The problem with a career ladder is that it adds non-teaching tasks to a teacher's day. There are some traditional career ladders open to teachers that involve moving up to administrative or supervisory jobs. If I had to guess, I would bet the two most common reasons that teachers do not climb that ladders are 1) being an administrator looks like a miserable job and 2) they don't want to leave teh classroom.

Administrative jobs have been so hamstrung and depowered that they have lost the luster that usually makes advancement appealing. The usual desire to climb a career ladder goes something like this: "At my level I can see problems to solve that would make The Work go better, and if I climb up a rung or two, I'll be able to effect those changes and make the place work better." But in schools it looks like you have to climb a ladder to the clouds before you can actually get your hands on the power needed to straighten out much of our mess.

Even lesser jobs, like taking on dean of students or athletic director, mean less classroom time. Career ladders lead not to another, higher step in a teaching career, but to another career entirely, a career where you no longer get to do the work you went into the biz to do in the first place. Teaching, even after a few decades, requires a huge hunk of your regular day, and all of your school day-- nobody is sitting in the lounge thinking, "Boy, I just have so much time left over after handling classes-- I need another project to fill up all this empty time."

The Vapor Ladder

Nevertheless, many teachers take on extra projects and responsibilities anyway. Committee chair. Heading up the implementation of New School Program #1452. Taking responsibility for applying the lessons from that cool in-service.

All of these in-house teacher-leader career steps have one thing in common-- the teacher holds the job at the pleasure of the administration.

Teachers all across the country can tell similar stories. Teacher brings back great idea to school with desire to implement, and administration says, "Sure, but you can't have any money, you can't use our facilities, and you'll have to meet with people on your own time. Whip up an implementation plan and we'll tell you whether we'll let you do it or not (Spoiler alert: not)." Teacher gets job of heading up a program and is free to lead as long as she does exactly what her administrator tells her to do. Teacher heads up and leads a program implementation, only to come to school one day and discover that somebody else is now leading meets that she is not even notified about; nobody even bothered to tell her she wasn't in charge of Project X any more.

In other words, teachers are given tasks, but not ownership. They're allowed to ride in the front seat of the bus, but they can't drive. A real step on a career ladder gives you ownership and the power to chart a course, to make your mark by using your judgment to make things better.

The Invisible Ladder

Every organization has it. There's the organizational chart that's written on paper, and then there's the real organizational chart, the one that describes how the company really works.

Schools are no different. In your building, there are teachers who have unofficial roles. "Call Ms. Clearheart if you need help with that software." "Stop by Mr. McWhittlebutt's room if you need some extra paper supplies." "See Mrs. Johnsonville-- she has the key to that closet." "Check with Mr. Gallonoches about that-- he's always in charge of that event."

There's a certain amount of regard and responsibility that comes with these unofficial jobs, and they can be really important, a part of your institutional tradition.

But they don't come with any of the trappings of a real career ladder. They usually don't pay more, and since they're unofficial they are more vapor jobs, jobs that can be taken away by administration for any reason at any time.

The Ladder of Imaginary Excellence

Reformsters often propose a career ladder based on excellence-- teachers who demonstrate their awesomeness can move up a step, get more pay, bigger desk, maybe a tiara. Perhaps we could give them a big raise and have them teach 300 students, or just oversee a bunch of teacher apprentices.

I understand that many reformsters feel compelled to fix what they view as major design flaw in the teaching profession-- people who get a raise every year (well, unless they're in North Carolina) whether they did anything swell to earn such an advancement. Even as I'm compelled to note that the private sector is filled with examples of people who get huge bonuses even when they've, say, crashed the entire economy, I get their point. I think there are compelling reasons to do it the way we do, but that doesn't really matter because (I'll type this for the gazillionth time) we do not have any system at all at all at all that can tell us which teachers would deserve advancement in a merit-based system.

And even if we could, there's another issue-- financing such a system. No school board is going to go to the public and say, "We have so many excellent teachers that we need a five mill tax hike to pay them properly."

Plus, the idea of a system in which teachers climb a career ladder by taking on more supervisory jobs gets us back to a career ladder that leads away from the classroom.

Can It Be Done?

Okay, I started to lay out my ideas here and it tripled the length of this post, so I think I'd better mull it over and save all of that for another, better-focused day. Suffice it to say that my idea would require some major structural and cultural changes. Also, getting rid of administrative jobs. At the same time, we could probably do a little with simple things, like office space and autonomy.

So it's not easy, and it's especially not easy if what you're really trying to do is come up with a system that would let you scrap tenure and reduce the total cost of staffing. But I can agree with those from all sides of all tracks that the current version of a teacher career ladder looks suspiciously like a step-stool, and is probably not optimal.

So, Charters Can Cheat, Apparently

The New York charter school that had the highest jump in ELA test scores is also the charter school that decided to score their own tests.

English scores at the Teaching Firms of America Charter School (a school that is under the gun to show the state that it shouldn't be closed) jumped from 20% proficiency to 40% proficiency. And according to NY Chalkbeat, the principal doesn't find anything odd about it.

Founding principal Rafiq Kalam Id-Din II said he was confident that the English gains are an accurate reflection of how far his students have come.

“The growth is the result of authentic instruction,” he said. “That’s what happens when you don’t do test prep.”

In NY, charter schools aren't part of the test-grading consortium that scores exams for public schools, but they have a similar system set up which most reportedly use, so that nothing looks, you know, suspicious. Like a doubling in test scores after you score them yourself.

Id-Din said he decided to allow his staff to score students’ answer sheets because he wanted teachers to better understand the state’s test-development and grading process and because it saved money for the school.

Does it really matter who runs score sheets through a scantron machine? Well, no (and we should note that the school saw no such leap in its math scores). But the ELA test of course includes writing elements, and if your students respond to a prompt just the way you taught them to (in your totally authentic non-test-preppy way) well, wouldn't that constitute a bit of an advantage.

Should anyone be worried about going to jail, Atlanta style? Of course not, silly. This is a charter school in New York, and everything they did is perfectly legal and okay. A reporter from a NY news outlet indicated on twitter that the NYDoE had told him they had no intention of investigating.

And the story is clear-- nobody anywhere is accusing these guys of tampering. But all I can think of is how subjective writing scoring is, and how much better my students would do if I were grading them based on the same assumptions and techniques involved when I taught them.

Maybe the school didn't cheat, even a little. Maybe scoring your own writing samples from your own pupils written according to your own teaching standards doesn't result in an inside track to scoring excellence. But we will never know any of those things because what the school did IS PERFECTLY LEGAL AND OKAY BY NY RULES!

In other words, maybe this school did not cheat. But now we understand a little more clearly just how easily they could, if they wanted to.

PA: Charter Vampires on the Loose

In Pennsylvania, opening a charter school, particularly a  cyber-charter, has long been just like printing money in your garage (only you won't get in any trouble for it).

The current plight of the Chester Upland School District highlights just how screwed up the whole mess is, and how charters are set up to suck the public system dry. Yesterday's news roundup at Keystone State Education Coalition has most of the best coverage of the story, but let me pull up some highlights for you.

I'll remind you that before CUSD ever started to get in trouble, the state of Pennsylvania has been distinguishing itself by some of the most inequitable funding in the country. This is a bi-partisan screwing of public ed. Democratic Governor "Smilin' Ed" Rendell used stimulus funds exactly as he wasn't supposed to, as a replacement for regular state funding of education, and his successor Republican Tom "One Term" Corbett slashed education on top of the auto-slashing that occurred when those stimulus funds went away. Bottom line-- funding of our poorest schools is in free-fall, because they get very little from the state.

As it turns out, CUSD gets negative support from the state. That's because the hugely generous payment formula for charters has resulted in CUSD losing more money to charters than they get from the state of Pennsylvania.

Each school district pays charters based on their own per capita costs per student. That's right-- what the charter collects has absolutely nothing to do with what it actually costs to educate the student. Perhaps that's how it's possible to pay the six top executives at cyber monster K12 a grand total of $16.4 million. Perhaps that's how Vahan Gureghian, King of the Keystone Edupreneurs, can end up building (and now selling) an $84.5 mansion in Palm Beach (not to be confused with the 30,000 square foot manse he built in upscale suburban Philly).

Gureghian operates one of the largest charters in PA, located right in Chester County. So it's only a mild stretch to say that Chester Upland Schools are in danger of being shut down so that Gureghian can live large. But like many charter operators in PA, Gureghian has friends in high places. Here's a fun story-- one of Gureghian's schools was in trouble for test cheating, but the school was allowed to investigate itself.

Chester Uplands is a perfect example of how students with special needs have become the cash cows of the charter biz in PA. This is a special kind of creaming. Francis Barnes is the receiver for Chester Upland schools, and he's a pretty frustrated man these days as witnessed by this open letter he sent to many media outlets. He outlines how the profitable selection process works.

The key is that while all CUSD students with special needs come with a hefty $40K for a charter school, they are not all created equal. Students on the autism spectrum are expensive to teach; they make up 8.4% of CUSD special ed student population, but only 2.1% at Chester Community Charter School, and a whopping 0% at Widener and Chester Community School of the Arts. Emotionally disturbed students are also costly; they make up 13.6 % of special ed at CUSD, 5.3% at Chester Community, and zero at the other two. Intellectual disabilities make up 11.6% for CUSD, 2.8% for CCCS, and zero for the others.

Speech and language impaired, however, are pretty inexpensive to educate. CUSD carries 2.4% of the special ed population in this category, but the three charters carry 27.4%, 20.3% and 29.8%.

That is the charter trick. Get the students for which your paid the most, but which cost the least to educate, and ka-ching! you are off to your gigantoc mansion.

New Governor Tom Wolf is trying to fix the system, but due to PA's super-duper budgeting process (the budget is due at the beginning of the summer, but our elected leaders don't generally get it passed till Halloween) that is stalled. The state tried to get special relief for Chester Uplands, but the judge said no.

You cannot swing a cat in Pennsylvania without hitting a school district that has had to close a school building because of financial problems caused by bloodsucking charter schools (combined with our seriously messed-up pension situation, but that's another day). But Chester Uplands is poised to become the first entire district in Pennsylvania to be shut down entirely by charters, leaving a few thousand students to go... well, who knows what happens to them when the public school system has to close its doors. The charters certainly don't want all those unprofitable poor kids with special needs.

This is what it means to say that charters save only some kids, only the kids they choose, only the kids they deem worthy (aka profitable), while abandoning the rest of the students to a public system that has been stripped of resources. This is why I don't support charters as currently practiced-- because they violate the spirit, history, and purpose of public education which is to serve all students, not just the ones that help you finance a big mansion. And there is no laying this at CUSD's door-- no amount of responsible financial management would have saved them as long as the system is twisted and tilted to favor the vampires that drain public schools dry.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Why a Teacher "Shortage"?

This originally ran two weeks ago, and yet we're still talking about the issue. It's almost as if there's some sort of real problem.

August is apparently our month to contemplate a teacher shortage. Or reports of a teacher shortage. Or a completely fabricated teacher shortage. The issue has had play all the way from the blogoverse to the New York Times to the Ed Week blog department.

What nobody seems to be able to answer is why, exactly, we're having this conversation? What is causing the shortage-- or at least the repeated reporting of one. What is the actual problem?

It's Teachers Bailing Out

One repeated argument is that the shortage isn't anything special, but teachers and reform-resistors are exaggerating in order to argue that bad policies are driving teachers out of the field. Every anguished "Why I Am Leaving Teaching" column is just a crowbar with which to whack away at the reformster machinery.

This is an odd argument, like saying to someone you're beating up, "Oh, you're just crying because you want me to stop punching you in the face." Well, yeah.

But it's not just teachers making the point. The state of Arizona ran a study on recruitment and retention and came up with suggestions like "treat teachers with respect."

It's the Economy, Stupid

There's a teacher shortage because the economy is better. Because there are so many great jobs out there, this argument goes, college students are saying no to teaching.
There are three problems with this theory.

First, the recovery has added a disproportionate number of crappy jobs. "Why become a teacher when I can go work at McDonalds," said no college student ever.

Second, this theory could be best supported by a historical argument. Simply show the figures indicating that every time the economy gets good, we have a teacher shortage. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Third, what this theory describes is not a teacher shortage, but a teacher pay gap. When National Widget Works can't hire all the widget engineers it needs, it takes steps to make the job more attractive by improving pay, benefits and work conditions. Is it possible that the only real shortage is a shortage of willingness to do what it takes to recruit?

Well, It's Complicated

Once again, nuance and detail are trampled by a herd of rhetorical bulls. Many states report shortages in STEM area, in special ed, and in ELL. Some states have trouble recruiting to rural areas. On the other hand, nobody is reporting a pressing shortage of elementary teachers. And I don't think anybody on any side of this issue is claiming that we have more than adequate numbers of non-white teachers in the field.

It's Manufactured

Just as it's argued that teachers are over-selling the shortage to score points against reformster policies, we can argue that reformsters are using shortage rhetoric to promote their own policies.
The most obvious example is New Orleans, where officials fired over 7,000 teachers and then said, "Dang! We have a teacher shortage. We'd better ship in lots of low-cost Teach for America temps to help us with this dreadful shortage!" Nevada has embraced its teacher shortage as a way to speed former cocktail waitresses into classrooms, and West Virginia boasts a guy who feels qualified to teach biology because his wife's a nurse.

If your state is run by folks with little love for the teaching profession, then reports of a shortage are good leverage for alternate certification plans to put people in classrooms who don't even have a college degree. That leads us to--

It's a New Definition of "Teacher"

Some places "solve" their problem of a teacher shortage by simply redefining "teacher" as "a sentient human able to occupy a classroom." By this definition, there are hundreds of millions of teachers in this country. See? No shortage at all.

It's the Busted Pipeline

I've talked to the president of a college that was founded as a teacher's college and is now radically slashing its education department. She echoed many national reports-- students are not going to college for teaching.

Nobody knows why for certain, though there are certainly popular theories. Teachers have been badmouthed and the profession denigrated. Today's college students have had nothing but teachers who had little autonomy, were tasked with test prep and spent time in clerically-intense data collection, and it just doesn't look like fun.

Teaching was once a stable job, paying decent-if-not-awesome wages, offering job security and promising a good prospect of finding work. All of that has changed. Ironically, the opening of alternate certification means that a teacher shortage and a tight job market can exist side by side (again, think New Orleans with 7,000 out of work teachers and a teacher shortage all at the same time).

So, Is There Really a Shortage?

It's true that rhetoric about teacher shortages serve the interests of both reformsters (We need more alt cert and TFA) and the resistance (Look what they're doing to our profession). But just a look at the numbers shows us that some regions are looking at empty jobs they are having trouble filling.

But does that mean a shortage? Nope. It's one more version of the widespread corporate refusal to deal with demands of the invisible hand. We didn't send jobs to China because we couldn't find the workers in the US, but because we couldn't find them for what corporations wanted to pay. Tech companies have yelled "shortage" in order to import cheaper labor.

The invisible hand is very clear. When you can't get what you want for X dollars, you need to offer more. The world is filled with human beings who have the ability to morph into any kind of worker you want-- if you offer them motivation. Good lord, even Frank Bruni, not exactly a whiz on the topic of education, gets it at least a little (even if he doesn't understand why he's part of the problem).
If you're having trouble filling a teaching position, make a better offer. It really doesn't get any more complicated than that.

Originally posted at View from the Cheap Seats

TN: We've Found the Unicorn Farm

Tennessee officials are cheerfully announcing the advent of awesome new assessments that will be "not a test you can game." The tests will be delivered at the end of the year by winged unicorns pooping rainbows while playing a Brahms lullabye on the spoons.

“We’re moving into a better test that will provide us better information about how well our students are prepared for post-secondary,” Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told reporters recently during sneak peek at some of the questions.

Fans of the new standardized tests continue to be impressed at how these tests solve the problems of education in the 1970's. Assistant state commissioner of data and research Nokia Townes says that the tests will require "more than rote memorization," which puts them on a par with the tests I started giving my students thirty-five years ago. But that statement also indicates that officials still don't understand what "gaming the test" means.

Standardized tests are, by their nature, games. Where you have multiple choice questions, you have one correct answer and several other answers designed to trick and trap students who might make a particular mistake, so by their nature, they are not simply trying to capture a particular correct behavior, but are also testing for several incorrect ones.

But Tennessee officials are distracted themselves, focusing on unimportant test features. The questions have drop and drag! Which is, of course, simply a bubble test question with dragging instead of clicking or bubbling. The questions require multiple correct answers! Which is just a bubble test with more options and two bubbles to hit.

Because standardized tests are a game, gaming them will always be possible. The tests involve plenty of tricks and traps, and so we teach students how to identify those and spot when testers are trying to sucker them in a particular way. We learn specialized testing vocabulary (this is what "mood" means to test manufacturers). We learn what sorts of things to scan for in response to certain types of questions. In short, we teach students a variety of skills that have no application other than taking the Big Standardized Test.

Nothing has changed, really. The advantage of a standardized multiple choice test is that it can be scored quickly and cheaply. The problem is that it can't measure much of any depth. At its worst in the bad old days when Hector and I were pups, it measured recall. In the new and improved days since, it measures whether or not the student will fall for particular tricks and traps-- which may or may not have anything to do with how well the student understands and applies the understanding. And since our focus under the Core is almost entirely on performing certain operations and not at all on content, we're not really testing a student on what she knows, but on whether she can perform the required trick (of course, we're also testing whether or not she's willing to perform the trick, but we never, ever have that discussion).

The article says that the "oldest and most potent criticism of tests" is that "they force teachers to 'teach to the test' and focus unduly on memorizing facts and testing tricks that students promptly forget after completing the test."

Memorizing facts? Maybe. Testing tricks? Those will always and forever be part of test prep for standardized tests because those tests must be speedy and cheap, and the only way to do testing speedy and cheap is by building it out of testing tricks. And any testing tricks that manufacturers can use to create a test, students can learn to take it. 

Content-Free Curriculum

Coming back to school (first student day yesterday, thanks) reminds me once again of the huge hole in the heart of current Core curriculum. The lack of content. The sad fact that there is no there there.

Yes, someone is going to pop up to say that the Core (both in its original incarnation and all the old wine in new skins versions that have promulgated throughout states where "OMGZ NOES! We has no Common Core!" versions of the Core still roam free) is NOT a curriculum, which is part of the trick. Because the Core really isn't a curriculum in a classic sense; the ELA standards are a sort of anti-curriculum in which teachers are forbidden to care about the content, and must only worry about teaching students to perform certain actions, certain tricks, on a test.

Content exists, and teachers a free to select what they will. Teach Romeo and Juliet or  Heart of Darkness or Green Eggs and Ham-- we don't care because it doesn't matter because the literature, the content, has no purpose beyond a playing field on which to practice certain plays. I've accused the Core of treating literature like a bucket in which we carry the important part, the "skills" that the Core demands, but it's more accurate to call literature the paper cup-- disposable and replaceable. We just want you to be able to "find support" or "draw conclusions." About what just doesn't matter.

Back in the early days, we had folks arguing that CCSS called for rich content instruction, that it absolutely demanded a classroom filled with the classic canon. At the time I thought those folks were simply hallucinating, since CCSS  makes no content demands at all (the closest it comes is the infamous appendix suggested readings list). But I've come to believe that those folks were reacting to the gap that they saw-- "Without rich content, this set of standards is crap, so apparently, by implication and necessity, this must call for rich content. Because otherwise it's crap."

I think the absence of content is also the origin of the "new kind of non-bubble non-memorizing test" talking point. The old school test their thinking of is the kind that asks you to pick the year the Magna Carta was signed, or identify the main characters of Hamlet. But the Big Standardized Tests cover absolutely no content at all. I could throw out all my literature basal texts and never teach a single item from the canon, a single work of literature all year, and still have my students prepared for the BS Test by studying test-taking techniques while reading an article from the newspaper and answering questions about it every single day.

This is also the secret of Depth of Knowledge instruction. It doesn't matter what you teach, as long as you use it to develop certain mental tricks.

Look at it this way:

A student could graduate from high school with top scores on the BS Test and have read nothing in high school except the daily newspaper. The student's teachers would be rated "proficient," the student's school would be high-achieving, and the student could proudly carry the Common Core BS Test "advanced" seal of approval, without that student ever having read a single classic work of literature or every having learned anything except how to perform certain tricks for answering certain questions when confronted with a text.

This is not a high standard. This is neither college nor career ready. Core supporters are going to say, "Well, the local school is free to-- and should-- fill in the blanks with classic literature and great reading." But the test-and-punish reformster system that we live on does not care a whit for content. If students cannot perform the proper tricks on the BS test, students, teachers and schools will be punished. If students cannot identify Huck Finn, MacBeth, James Baldwin, or Toni Morrison, it won't make a bit of difference to the system.

This tilting of the playing field does not just make the Core content neutral; it makes the Core content hostile. It dismisses the value of literature without so much as a conversation. If you are talking to a Core fan who insists otherwise, ask them this question-- Can I prepare my students to be proficient on the BS Test without reading a single important work of literature? The answer is "yes." If they say otherwise, they are lying.

Tribune Discovers Dyett Hunger Strike

It only took eight days for Chicago's leading "news" outlet to discover that Dyett High twelve community members were staging a hunger strike. But yesterday afternoon, the Chicago Tribune finally covered the story.

Mind you, they didn't cover it all that well. They reported the 13-student enrollment class without any context, as if it were the result of "plunging enrollment" and not a phased closure (with CPS encouraging students to get out of Dodge).

They reported the two other proposals uncritically. They didn't explain Little Black Pearl's non-past operating schools, and I am becoming really curious about who is behind the athletic school proposal which is always only linked to Charles Campbell, the Dyett interim principal. They did not mention that CPS entertains his proposal even though it was late.

The Trib reported the community proposal, but put "leadership and green technology school" in quotation marks as if this were some sort of crazy idea that community members just pulled out of thin air, as if it were like a school for chinchilla ranchers or underwater basket weavers. And Trib-- you left off "global."

And the Tribune made sure to note that the group on hunger strike has always been tied to the Chicago teachers' union (you know-- Those People).

Still, they did report on many of the group's major concerns-- and they acknowledged that the hunger strike is going on.

Now-- here's what you need to do.

1) Click on over to the article. Remember, every click on an article is a vote saying "I want to read more coverage of this."

2) Comment. I'm not sure if any comments are actually getting through, but make sure the comment section includes the rest of the story.

An action like a hunger strike is only as effective as the public reaction to it, and that depends on the public hearing about it, so the Tribune's end of their news blackout of the event means that progress is being made. Keep the pressure on. Spread the word. And remind the Tribune that the worlds needs to know about what's going on.