Tuesday, April 30, 2013

High Stakes Testing Must Go

My letter to the Education Committees and Superintendent Barresi, who is outraged...just outraged. So are we.

It's not Pearson; it's not McGraw Hill. It's the high-stakes testing culture. It's not our kids; it's not our teachers. It's the culture -- and I hold you responsible for the culture of high-states testing.

We have been putting more and more emphasis on standardized tests, stretching their purpose out of recognition. Standardized tests are designed to be a snapshot in time -- one piece of assessment information about our students. That's all. But now third graders will soon be flunked on the basis of tests, teachers will be evaluated, schools graded. Already we are denying high school diplomas...all on tests that were not designed for these purposes.

To believe that standardized tests are objective is to believe in the Tooth Fairy. Human judgement frames the questions, chooses the distractors, writes the 'correct' answer. Human judgement chooses the passages and the prompts. Human judgement then scores open-ended questions and sets 'cut' scores. There is nothing remotely objective about standardized tests. 

To believe that spending millions of the state's money in contracts with out-of-state testing companies, no matter who they are, is a wise use of limited funds is naive and mistaken. With tax cuts being pushed by our leaders, there will be less and less money for schools...but can I expect the testing budget to be cut?

To believe we can cynically throw the blame and our outrage on these companies denies our culpability. Who contracted with these companies? Who passed the laws to abuse standardized tests for their own purposes? Who worships at the foot of the almighty test? Before you blame the corporations who can't deliver on your test-culture mission, look in the mirror.

Then, come to a school where students sat at their computers, ready to take tests. Apprehensive, yes, but confident and ready. Come to a school and watch the computers lock and freeze. Watch kids sit, as some did, for hours, waiting for their screens to come back. Come and tell these kids they won't graduate because of the test score...tell them they'll spend another year in third grade.

Outraged? Yes I am; but my outrage is focused on policymakers who cynically colluded with for-profit corporations to twist and subvert the purpose of assessment, to funnel millions of dollars out of our state, to force accountability on everyone but themselves. 

Continuing to abuse the purpose of standardized tests will bring more outrage -- outrage you can't deflect. 

Let's start some accountability at the top. 

What will you answer to children and their parents and teachers who are living this nightmare of your making?

Hoping for an uneventful day of more testing tomorrow...

Saturday, April 27, 2013

What are We Reading Today?

I recently read a blog posting by Gary Anderson, "What Students Read When They Can Read Anything" and I eagerly read through the list to find new titles. That's what readers do -- look for that next book, and the one after that.

I knew I wanted to have my students list their current books, and a perfect opportunity arose when my friend and fellow Oklahoma Writing Project Teacher Consultant, Jason Stephenson, visited our class last week. I wanted Jason to have a souvenir of our visit, and I wanted my students to feel likethey were contributing to his visit.

So, we started a "Today I'm Reading" list first hour, and students contributed to it all day. I know we didn't catch everyone, but this is a very typical representation of what happens in my classroom.

My students have complete free choice with their books. They can choose to read above or below grade level (whatever that means). They can reread favorites, they can read books they've been assigned in other classes. They can read fiction or nonfiction. Memoir, science-fiction, romance, young adult literature. The only catch is, they must read books. Magazines will not build the stamina needed in college, or on all those tests kids are subjected to. Books...with lots of opportunity to build comprehension, make adjustments, activate prior learning. Books.

Then we turn on the music, we get comfortable, and we read.

When I talk to skeptics about my class one question always comes up. Sadly, it reflects a lack of respect for students and their abilities as readers: "Well, if you let them read whatever they want, won't they read trash?" Meaning "Won't they avoid any challenge? Won't they pretend to read like they've pretended for their entire school career? How can we trust high school students to read well if we let them choose?"

Well -- here's what my students were reading on Thursday, April 25. 2013:

1st Hour
The Inferno
American Psycho
The Time Traveler’s Wife
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Lovely Bones
The Dark Between
The Glass Castle
Fellowship of the Rings
Looking for Alaska
Playing for Pizza
Crazy Love
Life as We Knew it
Water for Elephants
Clockwork Angel
The Storyteller
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Beneath the Lion’s Gaze
Thirteen Reasons Why
Keeping Faith
The Crazy Horse Electric Game
Pet Sematary
2nd Hour
A Monster Calls
A Thousand Splendid Suns
Shattering Glass
The Great Gatsby
Beautiful Chaos
Beauty Queens
Maximum Ride
Eat Pray Love
Seeing Redd
Top Dog
Freaks Like Us
I am the Messenger
Soul Screamers Vol. 2
World War Z
My Sister’s Keeper

4th Hour
The Guardian
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
The Other Wes Moore
The Rescue
The Fault in Our Stars
A Wizard of Earthsea
Beautiful Creatures
The Fellowship of the Ring
Fallen Angels
I Am Seal Team Six Warrior
The House of Tomorrow
The 19th Wife
The Rules of Survival
Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have
Silver Linings Playbook
I Hunt Killers
The Pledge

5th Hour
I am the Messenger
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Fault in Our Stars
American Sniper
True Grit
Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead
15 Months In SOG
The Confession
Want to Go Private?
Right Behind You
Rangers Apprentice Book 6 : Siege of Macindaw
Unwholly, I Hunt Killers
The Maze Runner
Something Borrowed
Norwegian Wood
The Storyteller
The Golden Spiral
Romiette and Julio
Hate List
The Sirens of Titan
The Slayer Chronicles
Soul Surfer
Shattered Mirror
Something Like Normal
Chain Reaction 
Blood on my Hands
World War Z
The Secret History
The Future of Us
How to Be a Hepburn in a Hilton World
The Great Gatsby
A Walk in the Woods
Speaker for the Dead
Clockwork Princess
The Book Thief
The Seven Storey Mountain
Beautiful Ruins
Stranger in a Strange Land
Destined “House of Night Series”
The Five People You Meet in Heaven

I challenge even the biggest skeptic to find trash here...great YAL, popular fiction, nonfiction, classics...probably much better books than the majority of adults are currently reading. Because I know who is reading what, I could tell you stories about each book...about how book recommendations travel through a class, about how we are currently obsessed with Barry Lyga and Neil Shusterman at the moment. About my student in sixty hour who has several of us reading Murakami.

I'm proud of my students. Each book, each page, is a victory. From my intellectually-disabled student who is almost finished with the Hunger Games series, to the boy who's reading The Inferno -- for pleasure, every student is reading and growing and thinking. Every student has learned the power of the right book at the right time. 

I am in awe.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

HB1880 -- Good News and Bad News for NBCTs -- and Future NBCTs

HB1880 changes the way new National Board Certified Teachers will be rewarded for attaining NBC. I am thrilled that we'll have our program back. The two-year moratorium has nearly crippled us. The image I use to describe what's happened is an old clinker that's been left to rust in the front yard, nearly covered by the tall's rusting from neglect, but it's still got the potential to be that sleek vehicle it was two years ago...this bill will give us the key to turn the ignition. But at a cost to new NBCTs. My letter to the bill's author, Ann Coody.

Representative Coody,

I’m sorry I missed you at the NBCT Reception Tuesday; I saw you across the room but got delayed before I could say ‘hello’.

Thank you for continuing to search for ways to support the National Board program, and Education Leadership Oklahoma, the agency that is our ‘home’ in all ways.

I appreciate the intent of HB1880, which you authored, but I have some concerns and questions. I hope you can clarify my confusions.
  • ·         On page 8, you set out the conditions for current NBCTs – they will receive the $5000 bonus for ten years. Does this begin with the 2014 year? Will renewed NBCTs be eligible for the life of their renewed certificate? What about NBCTs who are ready to renew in the next few years? Will this bill allow them to combine the last years of their original certificate and years on their renewed certificate to equal ten years? That will make a huge difference in the decisions of thousands of NBCTs across the state.
  • ·         I appreciate your designating January 31 as the deadline for payments of stipends. That’s in the current bill and has been violated for the last two years. NBCTs jumped hoops and still didn’t get their stipend payments in January…or February. Some didn’t receive their money until March. I’m trusting this will not be the case in the future.
  • ·         But, my biggest concerns and most serious questions focus on the changes for new NBCTs once we get our program up and running again.
  • ·         $1200 as a step raise equals around $850 after taxes. Or around $70 per month. This amount will hardly make a difference to a teacher who’s trying to stay in the classroom, which is the intent of this program.
  • ·         In order to earn the $50,000 current NBCTs earn, an NBCT would have to work for 41.67 years…just to earn the same amount I earned in ten for the same certification.
  • ·         On page 9, the language of the bill states new NBCTs will earn the step raise of $1200 if their ‘National Board Certification has not lapsed.’ National Board certification is only current for 10 years. After that, an NBCT must renew, at a cost of $1250. Does your bill require NBCTs to continue renewing their certification in order to receive the step? It certainly appears to be the case. With the small pay-off for NBC, will the state pay the renewal fee for NBCTs? Right now we pay this fee out of our own pocket, understanding the state has made a substantial investment in our teaching.
  • ·         So, let’s return to that teacher trying to earn in step raises what current NBCTs earn: $50,000. That teacher, working 41.67 years, will be required to renew that certification four times, at a cost of $1250 for each renewal…forcing the NBCT to work four more years to make up the money lost in fees.
  • ·         And my biggest concern: Who pays for these step raises? Will the state send districts enough money to cover all the new NBCTs’ step raise? Or, is this going to be an unfunded mandate to school districts? Will they be forced to find the money in their squeezed budgets? If so, NBCTs will be a liability for a district instead of an asset. Who will pay FICA, since the state has shorted districts for the past two years, and that money has come out of OUR checks?

You have sold this bill as a positive move for teachers since the step raise will count toward retirement. TRS only counts the three highest-earning years toward retirement. So, if a teacher’s NBC lapses because she chooses not to renew, her salary actually will decrease – if I read page 9 correctly. But as she continues to teach, her years of experience will quickly trump whatever bump the NBCT step gave her, making NBC less attractive.

Only three years of NBCT step raises will count toward retirement: $3600. I’ll be contacting TRS to ask how much of a benefit $3600 will be for a teacher. I fear I know the answer.

I see your changes to the system as a bad deal for teachers who are waiting to go through the NBCT process. This process was more rigorous and challenging than my master’s degree, and for some candidates, takes three years to complete…the last two years at their own expense.

If you’re trying to discourage teachers from going through this process, making the salary step equivalent to a master’s degree – and then taking it away if NBC expires –  will do just that.

I’m hoping we can talk through some of my concerns, because the best thing about your bill, the thing I love, is that we get our ELO program back! We can go out into the front yard and climb into that rusty car we’ve left neglected in the weeds. We can climb into the driver’s seat and turn on the ignition…and hope it starts to purr.

Having the ELO program back, running our Summer Institute, having support meetings again fills my heart with joy. Our program has suffered through this moratorium. My Region 11 Candidate Support meetings used to include 50-60 candidates and NBCTs, all working together to become better teachers, to reach our students. They were exciting, vibrant meeting with professional conversations about students and student learning. This year my meetings have dwindled to three or four, or sometimes six teachers.

We need our program back, and, and even with my concerns, I see your bill giving us back the keys to that rusty car. We know how to drive it, and we know we can make this work.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

When we read, we learn. When we learn, we grow. National Board at work in my classroom.

"Consistently, one hour a day, forced to read (our choice for once), students get to read something of their choice in school. There are probably many kids who don't get that time at home. The fact that North provides that opportunity for all students -- it's absolutely awesome." -- R4P student, 2013

"When we sit down to read we are bound to love it more and more - it's a fundamental action of our being...we learn, if not traditionally, then we learn in a non-conventional sense, but we must read is to learn." -- R4P student, 2013

Both semesters this year I've asked students to chart their attitudes about reading three times during the term: first week, midterm, and finals week. We just past the half-way point of this last semester, so we charted and reflected again. I love reading what kids make of the data they see, and I know I would not have thought of this way of including them in assessment except for my work with National Board for Professional Standards. My journey with NBTS and Education Leadership Oklahoma changed the way I teach, the way I look at myself and my students, and has led to deeper student learning and achievement. The support I was given by my state Legislature was instrumental in these changes in my classroom, and instrumental in my students' learning and reflecting on their learning.

At the beginning of this semester, things looked grim. Seven students HATED reading, three hated it, and one couldn't commit between 'hate' and 'don't like.' One student was very vocal about the fact he HATED reading and didn't intend to change his mind, even though siblings and friends had told him I would change his mind.

I asked students to reflect on what they saw in the sticky-note chart, and we began our work. Students are engulfed in a reading environment, surrounded by books and by readers.

Any one day, we will experience all of the English Language Arts Strands: reading, writing, speaking, listening (producing), and viewing. Reading every day, writing reflections about reading, talking about books, listening to classmates talk about books. Producing and sharing multi-media book shares. We read and read.

I knew I had nothing to fear from those 'haters' because I knew most of them would find books they liked and they would change their opinions...even just a bit.

Nine weeks later I destroyed our 'presurvey' chart on the whiteboard and had everyone place a new sticky on the board. We saw dramatic changes. My new students were surprised; my returning students knew this would be the case...they understand the power of choosing your own books, and in finding that one book that changes your mind about reading.

It's not enough to have students create the chart...if NBC taught me anything, it taught me the power of reflection and authentic assessment. I have learned to include students as partners in assessment. So, I displayed the two charts and asked students to look carefully and comment on what they see. They never never never let me down.

Themes develop. Students consistently mention time and choice. They appreciate both -- because, let's face it, time to read and freedom to choose what to read are seldom part of a high school student's day. One student said it for everyone: "Once people start reading and find their perfect book, they get on this reading kick and gain confidence in reading." Confidence often plays out in higher test scores: "My ACT score for English alone went up after taking this class twice."

Another strong theme is learning about books and genres, and finding that one book...that first book...that 'home run' book, as Jim Trelease, calls it. My returning students talked about this phenomenon at the beginning of the book, perfectly confident our 'haters' would find 'that book.' And most have done just that. One student put it this way: "The difference is we have gotten to read. The more kids read fun books, the more enjoyable it makes reading. Analyzing books can ruin even the best books, so it makes sense...this class provides a break." Another, even stronger statement: "[We've] finally been allowed to read books that [we] actually like...Reading for Pleasure attempts to undo what we've been taught since elementary school: literature at school = boring."

This idea of finding a book that can make a difference builds on Peter Johnston's view of  a 'dynamic-performance' view of learning. I have many students enter my class,  utterly convinced they'll fail. They see themselves, not as capable, confident learners, but as 'bad readers.' They don't think anything can change this. They are fixed in their view of their own learning and reading. Other people are good readers; they aren't. Students who've taken R4P more than once deeply understand the truth. We need to be open to the search. We need to let books find us. And when they do find us, we become strong, confident readers. In nine weeks, nearly everyone has found that book, and has a new view of themselves as readers now.

My one hold-out is the young man who is waiting for this magic he's been told about. A classmate jokingly suggested strangulation for messing up our chart...but I know this student -- he is a skeptic, he's smart and funny. His attitude is positive and his intentions are pure. He is really trying to find some joy in reading. He's worked hard searching for a genre he likes. He understands his current position: "Differences [in the charts]? I am alone in have brainwashed everyone. You are taking over the world. 'I pledge allegiance to the flag of Mrs. Swisher.' Seriously, I'm like two positions away from anyone. Now what? I must resist. I know that everyone in class is coming after me. After that last battle, I lost a leg. C took it. as long as I'm quiet they might not notice. Oh, God. They heard me...." How can I NOT love a kid who can tell me a story like this? How can I not spend time helping him find his home run book?

National Board, both my own process of certification and renewal, as well as my ten years working with candidates, has challenged me to look for student impact in everything I do. Because I know how valuable reflection is for me as an educator, I have deliberately woven opportunities for my students to reflect on their own learning, and what happens in class.

I trust my students to be learners and readers. They never let me down. Policymakers and administrators may not see what's happening in my room, but WE know magic happens.