Responding to NYT’s Editorial “Don’t Give Up the Gains in Education”

Today, the New York Times published an editorial asking that Congress keeps the yearly testing requirement that NCLB put in place.  I do not disagree.  A single yearly test can do much to guide a school, and as a teacher, I truly do value when I get good data on my students.  (Qualifier: Not all tests produce reliable or good data.)

I am, true to the title of this blog… Seeing Shades of Gray ( the name of which is, of course, problematic right now, thank you E. L. James trilogy and Universal Pictures movie).  I have written to my legislators to protest the Common Core and its testing, but I support the Common Core Standards as a goal (not a whipping post) and I yearn for a single, viable annual test for my students.  The problem is there is too much testing and the standards, produced without much educator input, appear unalterable and rigid.  But all that is fodder for more posts.

I have been angry all day.  All week.  Well, really, for about four years now.  Four years ago, Governor Walker did much to damage schools.  That damage continues as this year’s budget will decimate education here, regardless of “tools” that have demoralized and pauperized many teachers.  But my newest anger is that people like Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Assembly Education Committee Chair Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt argue “failing” schools in Wisconsin will face sanctions such as closing.  They are dismantling public education and ushering in privatization.  So that anger– and the four years of really trying to study education– fed this response.   (If it actually gets published, it will be shorter because of NYT rules.  This is the original draft.)

I can attest to the value of data from a yearly test.  In my roles as instructional leader/ department chair, I have valued data as a triangulation point to consider with teacher observations and classroom assessment success.  I bemoan when I don’t have consistent testing data to inform me.  I can also attest to the remarkable value in highlighting where a school is effective and where it is not.  Gaps were hidden until NCLB, and as the gaps are still ever-present, they must be scrutinized and attacked and tests can help.

But you point out a key element: sanctions led to over-testing, and dreadful overtesting at that.  Elementary students take expensive and high-stakes tests monthly in most places, and often twice a month.  This produces more data than can be effectively processed, creates remarkable anxiety for children, and lines the coffers of companies like Pearson, who, for example, was paid $32 million for a five-year contract with New York alone.  Schools pay dearly for tests in every way.  A bad test score is bad press.

As NCLB has progressed, all of this has seemed a subterfuge to privatize education.  Those test scores and sanctions often mean that schools are taken over and, quite often, turned into charter schools.  While charter schools’ original mission in the 90’s was to provide interesting and personalized alternatives to public ed, that mission has been twisted.  Now significant numbers of  charter schools are operated by for-profit chains that are more selective of their enrollees than public schools can be, more devious in dismissing students that may bring down scores, less transparent to oversight, and more removed from local governance.

NCLB was designed to label schools as failing.  Teachers are now denigrated daily.  Enrollment in teacher preparation programs is plummeting.  Viable and vibrant public schools are shuttered.  And the root cause of most failing public schools– the root cause goes unaddressed.  Poverty.  America has chosen fit to spend 1.7 billion (Brown Center on Educational Policy) on testing while cutting nearly every social program that fights poverty.  It is a true attestment to the dedication of teachers and the problem-solving of public schools in this nation that while those severe cuts have happened, the gaps have narrowed.


My Overdue Letter to Time Magazine

December 30, 2014

Dear Time Magazine,

Time Magazine's November 3, 2014 Cover
Time Magazine’s November 3, 2014 Cover

No, I will not be renewing my subscription.  Your sensationalistic November 3rd cover fed a public fire of anti-teacher rhetorical and sentiment churning for the past four or five years.  Your cover, black and white in both its design and message, wounded.

I eagerly read Nancy Gibb’s editorial response hoping the response from fellow teachers would have an impact, but I saw no acknowledgement the artwork was a mistake.  Nancy Gibb’s sentence, “We view education as crucial to America’s success, and it concerns me if teachers who have not had a chance to read our coverage have heard it mischaracterized” assumes outcry was solely due to the article, which was, in truth, more nuanced than the cover.  She ignores the cover, the most visible and displayed aspect of the magazine.

Teacher tenure does deserve discussion, and if Time really did value, as Nancy Gibb’s states, its mission to “spur discussion of important issues,” Time would include interviews from educators and it would look at issues such as the financing of the various movements to chip away at public education.  “Making the story free for all readers on” does not spur informed discussion; it simply makes the monied interest’s message more available.

So, no, Time.  I will not renew my subscription.

Plickers Engages Students

Plickers is the most engaging free app I have come across in years.  It gets more kids involved in class than anything else I could do.

An amazing substitute teacher, Tim Fahlberg,  who has some background in technology, used an engaging and really easy to set-up system, Plickers, when he worked for me a day this year.  The kids loved it, and Tim was kind enough to explain it all to me and get me started.

Plickers is where kids hold up a card to give a response to any posed multiple choice question and the teacher scans the room (I use my iPad, but a smartphone with a camera would do) to collect all the answers, which are printed from templates available from the site (I used colored cardstock).  If you have the ability to project, you can project the “Live View” student list while you are scanning and instruct kids to put down their cards when they see their name is checked.  The software tallies up who answered  what and shows it on a chart (hope you can project it!), where the real instruction begins.

When there are two close answers, the true class discussion begins.  I have mostly used this for AP Lit and their multiple choice, and so I ask the kids to go back to their text and find evidence that D is correct or C is correct, or we see that vocabulary is the culprit and we talk through the words and revote.  Kids get immediate feedback and I see their thinking patterns and can talk through errors they are making.  One beauty of this is that the tool is responsive to that moment.  It find it easier to see the differences between hours than I do when I grade by hand, where assessments blur together.

When we have done Plickers, going through the answers takes two to three times longer, but when I queried the kids, they said it was worth it: they get more feedback and better feedback than any other method.

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I used to use cards like those shown and would visually survey the class, but Plickers is better because it is impossible for kids to look around and see what other kids are answering and change their answer, and it provides anonymity for kids.  No one knows if Sam answered A, B, C, or D.  The graph feature is wonderful, and the app tracks who answered what.

There are some missing features of Plickers: it is hard to group and organize questions in order (consider entering them in reverse order), it doesn’t tally up multiple questions in a spreadsheet, and there are only four options.  When I contacted Plickers to tell them how pleased I was with their product, pleased enough to pay for more services, they sent me to their How do we make Plickers better page, which allowed me to upvote some of the modifications I would want to see.

I have also used Plickers to poll my class, based on suggestions from Tim Fahlberg.  You can ask groups if they need 1, 2, 5 minutes more or are done.  Instant answers.  For me, I asked about paper revision plans, and that helped me strategize next steps.

Want some resources?

Here is a slideshare by Kristen Vollmar that has concise directions on how to set up Plickers, including the essential fact that kids can’t cover up the code at all

Some general ideas on use from Richard Byrne at Free Technology for Teachers or from Stacy Barnes at May the Tech Be With You

A YouTube how-to video from Tech in 2.

Teach music?  kindergarten?  math? more music?  Do a search– and maybe some amazing teacher has posted ideas for your discipline.

Plickers is easy, free, and engaging.  I am pretty sure I will find more and more ways to use it.

Time Magazine and a Boat Hitting My Car

Time Magazine’s November 3, 2014 Cover

Time‘s cover this week incensed me, to be sure.  It reminded me of moment this summer when I was in central Wisconsin visiting a friend.  We all were at a public beach and I came back out to the car to get a pair of sunglasses, and as I was rifling through my car, I heard someone say, “Hey– she’s at the car.”

A man who was putting his boat into dock came over to talk to me, shuffling apologetically.  He pointed out the long black mark on my bumper and driver’s side and said he had grazed my car when parking his boat carrier.  I looked over the damage, thinking it superficial but afraid of being hasty.

He spied my “My Heart is in the Public Schools and My Children Are Too” bumper sticker and, reading it, asked me if I was a teacher.

The moment.

The moment I used to associate with pride, but now associate with fear.  Fear of the reprisal, the judgement, the scorn, the pity, the condescension.  I am proud to be a teacher, but I don’t volunteer the information anymore.  I don’t know many who do.  My friend reprimanded her husband on vacation once for telling the people they just met she was a teacher.  She, too, has come to dread the moment.

My moment stretched.  The man looked my two-year-old Toyota Camry over and said, “Nice car.”  Was that nice car as in “oh, my, look at what you over-paid teachers can afford?”  or nice car as in “I just hit your car with my boat and I am trying to make you like me so you will be nice”– and I still don’t know.   I rubbed at the black mark, found it came off, and, consulting with my friends, walked back to the beach.

That night at dinner, I heard my friends’ family talk about how bad teachers should be fired.  I ate quietly, because I love my friends’ family and my friends and it wasn’t the time, but I thought about the year not-so-long-ago my team teacher was fired over spring break.  That was a stressful year.  I thought about the so-so and failing educators I’ve seen driven out by good administrators.  The process is there, I wanted to say.

I have thought about that dinner when the Colorado teachers had a sick-out to protest the pressure the AP teachers are feeling to sanitize US history.  Teachers need protection.  They need process.  And good administrators do indeed have the power to fire.

So when I grabbed Time Magazine, I thought of when my car got hit by a boat and I felt familiar worry and angst.  I am tired of being a punching bag.  Tired of scorn.  And I wish the public knew the real facts of the different “reform” movements, though they can be captured a bit in these alternative covers, gleaned off Twitter’s #TIMEfail. Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 11.17.07 PM  Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 11.18.07 PMScreen Shot 2014-10-25 at 11.33.41 PM

PS: I just visited a site by Susan DuFresne asking for a Twitter storm on Oct. 26th.  Hence, the posting today.

PSS:  I first thought about responding to this by asking what exactly a bad teacher is… but Jose Vilson beat me to that question, and some more.  You should read it.  And, as always, if you want some great insight into controversies in education, read Jersey Jazzman.

Lessons in Teaching from My Mother’s Brain Tumor: Grace

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Mom on her birthday in high school.

Tomorrow is my mother’s birthday. Tonight I had the small-town pizzeria treat we have often shared on her birthday, but with her college roommate, not her. Mom died May 22 at age 70 of a Glioblastoma Multiforme, an aggressive brain tumor diagnosed in June.

Back at school this fall, I sometimes ponder how I survived last year at all. I had just quit my last school after 13 years, having been hired in my home school district, when we found Mom was sick. A whirlwind summer of neurosurgery and radiation left me scattered, and I went into a new school with new colleagues and new preps, and with only two weeks sick leave and no right to Family Medical Leave. I was my mom’s primary caretaker, though blessed with siblings and a host of family friends to help.

I’ve pondered a few lessons for this blog, but tonight’s is this: Grace. Simple grace. Sometimes it was giving myself grace, and not taking the extra minutes to fix the formatting on the worksheet, allowing some formative check-ins be small group discussions rather than exit cards, saving me grading time.  Grace. I can’t be all I want to be at all times. Mother. Daughter. Wife. Friend. Teacher. Me. Give myself grace.

Some of the grace came from administration, especially in May. Do I need to take my study hall time and grade papers? Go ahead. Need a tucked away office to buckle down during prep? Take mine. You just got a phone call you need to attend to? We’ll have someone in your room in two minutes. I hadn’t built a relationship with these people as I was new and just surviving, but they extended grace.

Most of the grace, however, came from students. It came in extreme moments when they heard my cell phone ring: silence fell quickly because any call was meaningful. Once, returning a computer cart during passing time, a student overtook me, my ringing phone in hand, saying she knew it was important. Grace came in small moments, too, when I would get caught in a theme of a poem (try teaching “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” the week you research hospice) or stumble in my words, my mind numb. Most of the time, grace was extended in patience when AP prompts did not come back immediately, or tests took a bit longer to grade. Grace. My students gave me grace.

I say this now as the school year starts and thoughts bounce in my head. At a department meeting two weeks ago, we talked over late policies. Our school is moving to not giving zeroes for late work, and not allowing grades to be impacted by work behaviour. Many teachers disagree, reasonably, even lovingly. Teaching responsibility has been a key element of our craft.

But I think grace. Believe in second chances. Allow kids to get out of holes. This doesn’t mean I won’t hold students accountable. I will spend some time tomorrow calling each and every sophomore’s family of those who did not read the last assignment in a timely matter. But I will have an alternative assignment ready… grace.

There is research to back that up– so many of the great grading gurus expound new approaches to scoring work, and an interesting article in the Atlantic this month argues why boys need grace so much more.

But the main reason I know grace is right is my students tell me so. Last week, students were given a prompt choice for their first story to tell about a favorite teacher. Many told of teachers who were engaging or who gave candy, but a clear theme was grace. Teachers who loved kids after they caught them cheating. Teachers who extended second chances. Teachers who asked why instead of assuming laziness. Teachers who made sure a kid understood the material, not simply shrugging when work wasn’t done.

My mom believed in responsibility, and so do I. But grace is a bridge, a parachute, a ladder. It gets us from crisis to success, it tempers the terrors, it digs us out of holes. I have oft needed grace, and so I extend grace.

A comment from NYT’s “Can’t We Do Better” Friedman Post

I read Thomas Friedman’s post “Can’t We Do Better” and enjoyed this posted comment from NYT and Readers’ Picks.  You might, too.


I’m a professor of math at a Big Ten university. I follow these discussions and I am utterly disheartened. Nearly everything being said is irrelevant and unverified. So Shanghai students can shine like the sun at fourteen years of age and ace all the tests. How many of them go on to become serious scientists, inventors or entrepreneurs? The glory of our system was that it allowed students to follow a passion, to pursue one subject even at the expense of other subjects. The desire to pursue that one passion then motivated the student to learn what was needed to gain entrance to the programs they wanted to study in. Asian systems and many others always excelled in producing students who performed splendidly in standard tests and lagged in producing creative scientists, artists, writers and other creative personnel. We are pushing our system in that direction and we are noticing that no one is going into science any longer. Well that is predictable. Our students are a little at a time moving up in their performance in standard exams and moving away from the professions that created the new industries that fueled our economy. Alas we are becoming more like everyone else, but fortunately slowly enough that we just might survive this wrongheaded plunge toward the standard the stressful and the uninteresting,

Responding to NYT Editorial

Today’s New York TIme’s editorial read “Advertisement for the Common Core,” and it was. You should read it.

There are two key things to consider, however:

1. This is all based on a reliance and appreciation for tests and test data. What do tests truly measure? What are the costs and benefits of tests? Do tests mirror and assess what is best and needed in American education?

2. The editorial asserts “the nation as a whole still has a long way to go to match high-performing school systems abroad,” again leaving out the key fact that if you remove scores associated with poverty, we already are at and often surpass those schools’ levels.