Wednesday, February 26, 2014

KFOR Interview...Pink, But NOT Pretty

Yesterday we got an alert on Facebook that OKC news channel KFOR was going to be interviewing Superintendent Janet Barresi, and she would be taking questions generated on the website…that message was shared over 100 time and we all jumped at the chance…220 questions were posed, including whether or not other candidates for State Superintendent would have the same opportunity to share their views. KFOR told us this was not a campaign appearance (yeah, right!), but only a Q&A with a state policy maker.  I occasionally returned to the page to browse through the questions, and they were good questions…informed, pointed. Smart.

I had previously written a blog including several questions teachers wished the mainstream media would ask her. I linked that to KFOR’s page…just to be helpful.

Yeah, right. It was another fluff piece with the Superintendent using her ‘concerned’ voice, wearing a lovely pink sweater or jacket that reminds too many of us of Professor Umbridge from the Potter films. Her advisors need to remind her: “Never wear pink!!” Too evocative.

So, the interview. I did recognize questions…they were not necessarily softball…but not hard-hitting journalism, either. The interview focused on the Third Grade Flunk Law.

A great new blogger gave her response here…I recommend reading this too.

First, to me, the most breath-taking answer…Superintendent Barresi stated, categorically, that, “really at the end of 3rd grade you stop reading, learning to read, and in 4th grade you read to learn. “ That bromide is often repeated, but never with the bald statement that students STOP LEARNING TO READ before they are nine years old.  I’m 68, and I’m still learning to read. I’m a reading specialist and I’m still learning.

I understand the ‘learn to read, read to learn’ statement…I have seen kids struggle with all the discrete elements of beginning to read…phonetic awareness, context, vocabulary, among them. Once students become more confident with these elements, they, indeed, do begin to use reading as a tool for information, not just an exercise in and of itself. There is a shift, and it is right at the 3rd-4th grade level, where textbooks become an important part of a child’s day. BUT no child stops learning to read after 3rd grade. NONE. Sorry I’m yelling…I will try to calm down.

Isn’t learning to comprehend more and more complex material learning to read? Isn’t gaining command over more and more technical vocabulary learning to read? Isn’t extracting fact from opinion learning to read?
Barresi’s arrogant statement, delivered in that pink jacket, with that big smile, in that sincere voice, is wrong. And the interviewer never challenged her at all. Just on to the next one, and on to the next inane answer.

Barresi appealed to parents by telling us her children struggled with learning…but it was just a campaign line.
She had three suggestions for schools : ”giving different modalities…longer opportunities…and summer academies.” I, as a reading teacher, am most interested in ‘giving different modalities.” What does that mean?? We all probably (research is beginning to refute this concept) have different strengths when we approach our learning…brain dominance is one, and sensory modalities is another. We are, perhaps, born with these strengths, and filter our learning experiences through them. A teacher does not ‘give different modalities’ to a student. A teacher probably offers opportunities for visual, auditory, and active learners within lessons. That’s good practice. We don’t GIVE them modalities – they come to us with modalities, and we must design lessons to reach them all. What a bizarre thing to say…’give them modalities.’

She also suggest ‘longer time.’ I assume she means longer time in third grade…even though child development, as she’s seen with her own children, is NOT a standardized timetable. Her kids got longer time differently than your kids will get longer time. Because some kids are more equal than others.

Frankly, these suggestions highlight how very out of touch she is with schools and teachers and learners. That was her entire list of suggestions for teaching and learning. Insulting.

She told us children will not be retained on one test on one day. Oh, really? They will have ‘multiple times to be successful.’ Oh, really? The only example she could give were the ‘good causes’ to challenge retention. No specifics, just on to the next question she twisted to her own purposes.

Then, I end with the other mind-blowing utterance through that smile, with that voice, in that pink jacket. All that anxiety kids are feeling over the test? Oh, that’s the fault of teachers. It comes from adults. And, ‘frankly…does kids no good.’ All the adults must ‘express confidence’ and not stress out the kids. What color is the sky in her world? Kids know what’s at stake; they know the adults in their lives what the best and it’s our job to help them reach their best performance. But the high stakes consequences are our fault, somehow.

I knew I would be offended, but I did not realize how offended. As a reading specialist, I wish she would stop talking abot reading instruction.

Oh, and what was she holding in her hand?? Was it a Sarah-Palin-answers-on/on-my hand kind of device?
KFOR gave the Superintendent a free campaign ad, at the cost of our kids’ future.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

ACT and SAT Don't Predict College Success? Color Me Shocked

A new study casts serious doubts on the ACT and SAT’s almighty ability to predict college students’ success. Seven years of tracking college grades for students admitted with and without entrance test scores show no real difference in the grades and academic success of students. Come to find out high school GPA was as important in predicting college success (Here is the link to the entire report -- which I've saved for close reading...later). Color me shocked.

How can this possibly surprise anyone? The $2 billion ‘test prep’ industry has seriously compromised any faith in these test scores. Kids whose parents have disposable income can take the tests over and over, learning the tricks. Parents with means, pay for expensive test preparation classes, some of which actually promise a higher test score. Chad Cargill, a test-prep guru, brags about taking the test 18 times, honing his score until he had created a skewed profile of himself for college admission officers.

Skewed, because he deliberately manipulated the system for his own benefit. Gaming the system. Cheating.

Let’s call test preparationall test preparation…what it is: cheating. Tests are designed to measure what a student knows, without specialized preparation.

I read a book called The Myths of Standardized Tests, by Harris several years ago. On a webinar with the authors, I heard them tell us all test prep is essentially cheating. I can remember I gasped out loud in recognition of what I always suspected.  They discussed ACT and SAT testing: “…the tests don’t actually predict achievement in college very well, and the colleges know that.” We all know it now.

Remember the way we took standardized tests? A teacher reminded us the day before to get a good night’s sleep, and to have a good breakfast. We came to school, took the tests, and went back to learning. Months later, the scores appeared and were duly filed away. Those tests measured what we know on the day we were tested.

With high stakes, though, we all do everything we can to raise the numbers, “Up the scores,” because so much is riding on good scores.  More from the Harris book:  “When students ‘prep’ for the SAT, they undercut its validity as a predictor of first-year college grades – which is all it was ever designed to do…Yet those who take the preparation classes learn these and other techniques that serve to raise scores without making them better readers or better problem solvers – thus corrupting the indicator without improving the target behavior.”

The sacred gate has been stormed. The score has been revealed for what it is…a score. One morning’s work (minus all the test prep).  We all bought into the self-interested narrative ACT and SAT were selling…at $50 a test, minus the prep...and kids suffered. And parents spent too much money.

I spent the bulk of my career working with struggling readers and learners…kids who had to work for their grades, kids for whom nothing came easily. Kids whose parents often could not afford the tutors, the test prep classes, the test prep books. Kids who thought that test mattered more than their day-to-day work in the classroom. They were discouraged from considering college if their ‘score’ wasn’t high enough. They were discouraged from even taking the test, because their score wouldn’t be high enough.
Come to find out, college admission should not be one of those high stakes.  Come to find out, a student’s grades throughout his high school career show more about his or her learning potential than one test score that can be deliberately manipulated if you can afford it. Color me shocked.

My students who took my elective, Reading for Pleasure, often said they were in class to become better, faster readers…for their ACT. I cringed inside just a bit, knowing I would be contributing to that quest to raise scores. But my students DID become better readers and thinkers and writers in the course of our semester together. And if they could read selections on the ACT faster, have more stamina as they sat for hours during the test, so be it. I was not part of the test prep industry…I was a teacher sharing my love of literature.

I loved ACT and SAT’s response to the study….I can imagine them sputtering as they tried to put a good spin on it…they threw up the ‘grade inflation’ bugbear…without acknowledging the 'score inflation' that occurs when students spend money on test prep and when they take the test over and over.

One more piece of mounting evidence that one test, one day (or ten days or twenty days) cannot accurately capture the worth of a learner…the potential for an academic career. 

Color me shocked. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Teacher is More than What He Teaches.

"What the teacher is, is more important than what he teaches" Karl Menninger

My friend and teacher died last week. Jerry Reinhart was the embodiment of this quote…What he was will always be a part of me, and the thousands of students who were a part of his chorus program. He taught for 40 years, and continued to be involved in musical theater even after his retirement, at the age of 75! 75! And after that, he continued to direct and produce summer musicals for the community. Does that tell you something about his energy and commitment to bring music to his community? I love this picture...I saw this expression often, from the alto section

I met Jerry and his wife Margilee because they were ‘younger sibling’ friends of my parents. Jerry and my dad were at different schools in the same small school district, Ross Township, or as we all called it, Merrillville. I adopted them as the ‘older siblings’ I never had, and grew up around their large family, often sharing holidays together.

I took voice lessons from Jerry, and wanted to be a part of his choir, even though I couldn’t open my mouth wide enough to make a sound worth listening to. Not until my junior year did my dad relent (“You can’t get to college on choir credits!”), and let me try out. My natural shyness nearly ended my short career in music before it began, but Jerry (Mr. Reinhart at school!) was there to cheer me on. Those two years in choir were filled with laughter, friendships, performance, beautiful music. We were a part of something so much bigger than ourselves…we created music!

Classes and rehearsals weren’t boring affairs because we could count on Jerry zinging us for our laziness…”Mr. Reinhart, I’m trying,” was a typical whining response to a demand for more. Jerry had two answers, and we waited, giggling behind our hands to hear them: “Yes, you are -- very,” and “I know, I know.” Both were accompanied by his head hanging down, shaking sadly, shoulders hunched. He was a performer! We got it. No excuses. Stand up, sing the notes, stay in tune, listen to each other, balance the harmony. Remember an ensemble performance depends on each voice, each section.

Jerry was more than he taught…he was fierce about his art. He was fierce about sharing it with bored teenagers who’d never heard of Mozart. He was supportive of every effort we made. He was elated when we rose to the occasion. He was proud and demanding. He was exacting. He was harder on himself as our leader than he ever was on us.

He was a musician, a husband, a friend, a father. He was an educator. He was a leader and a visionary. He is the reason my old home town presents amazing musical programs. The first, the year I graduated from high school, was Music Man. That music was what our small show choir sang, and he is forever connected to Harold Hill. Recently, the Ross Township Musical Theater mounted productions of Phantom and Les Mis.
He was a teacher who demanded the best of his students and for his students…he started his summer stock in the high school gym, and was the inspiration for a state-of-the-art auditorium which was aptly named for him.

Jerry was my friend, my cheerleader, my supporter. He helped me prepare to audition for that Music Man show choir, knowing my stage fright could be crippling. He sat in that darkened auditorium while I auditioned for the senior members of the group, probably the most surprised that my voice made it to the back wall, the most proud, the most elated. He knew how hard it was for me, he had watched me grow and to take a challenge that was more than either of us thought I could achieve, and he was the first to congratulate me, telling me he always knew I could do it.

Jerry sang at my wedding…his clear tenor voice reminded us all, first and foremost, he was a talented performer who knew the joys and burdens of performance. He told us later it was the only time he felt stage fright himself…he said he stood up, looked out, and saw the church filled with friends…and for just a second he froze.

When my son visited Indiana University in anticipation of entering the IU School of Music as a masters’ student in trumpet performance, my dad insisted that he meet Jerry, and that Jerry take him on a tour of the music program at Merrillville High School. I love the thought of the two of them, talking and laughing, one about to embark on a career in music, one winding up his own career.

Jerry was so much more than what he taught us in class, in rehearsals, at performances.

He is survived by his wife of 62 years, eight children, many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He is survived by thousands of students are better people because he was their teacher.

I know my parents have found him in heaven and have ushered him into that special corner reserved for teachers. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Marching for Kids, Marching for my Family

There will be a march for education on March 31 in Oklahoma....already the pushback from pundits and politicians has begun. Already the march has been portrayed as crassly stealing instruction time from our kids, as a grab for more money. Already they are trying to portray the 'union' involvement as discrediting us all. 

Let me reframe this argument from my unique perspective.

I am a fourth-generation teacher in my family. Teaching is the family business. I fight as hard as I do to honor my dad and my grandmother and grandfather…The great grandfather I never knew is the first teacher on my mom’s side of the family.

I will be marching on March 31st for them. Let me introduce them to you. Look up at the picture above this post. That's my family.

Starting on the top left, is a highlight of my career…meeting Diane Ravitch. She signed her first book, Death and Life of the Great American School System, and we agreed that we were both old, we had big mouths, and we knew how to use them.

Next to us is a class picture of one of my mother-in-law’s, Esther, classes…She taught 2nd grade forever, teaching both of her own children in the process. Then, a picture of me in class, when I still pretended I was a brunette.

In the middle row is an old photo of my grandfather as a very young man. He had polio as a child and always limped. Not until my parents were expecting me did he learn his name, Claude, means “the lame one.” I was named to atone. Grandpa was a high school math teacher, the basketball coach, and the principal of a tiny school, New Lebanon High School, in Indiana. He kept meticulous notes of his plans each year, and my cousin and I have plans for that journal.

Next, a cousin shot…My sister, Jamie,  is standing on the left…she spent years as a kindergarten teacher. She taught primary classes in some of the toughest schools in Northern Indiana. Next to her, Annette, my cousin. Also an elementary teacher and elementary principal. My cousin Alyce next to me is a director of the nursing home my parents lived in…she is a teacher in a different way.

Bottom row? Daddy. John Lisman. My principal in junior high school. Hold onto that image for a moment. Your father as your principal! One day he subbed in my 7th grade English class. I am still traumatized! He had experience…his dad was his principal, and his grandmother was his English teacher. Dad was in a class of five or six students. I had Dad's high school diploma on my wall in my was signed on the left, by his principal...his father. The two of them spend years together with me.

My unenviable position as principal's kid gave me a perspective on school politics and school workings that has helped me every day of my career. I saw my father agonize over salary and benefits negoiations. He was an educator to the heart, but he was also an administrator with requirements from above. I because sensitive to the tightrope principals are forced to tread. I can hear my dad's voice in my head as colleagues rail about administrators. I can step in and say, "Have you thought about..." and can sometimes turn the conversation to a more global look at an issue. I have appreciated that learned watching Dad try so hard to balance the needs of his students, his teachers, and his bosses.

Next to Daddy is my sister-in-law, Kathy, a music teacher, Bill, her husband and a history teacher, and on Kathy’s lap? Kristin…now a special education teacher. Next to them, a sweet picture of my dad and my sister, Jamie. Below them is my first class in Centerton, Indiana. 1968 or so. My degree was in English education, and there I was, teaching on an emergency certificate..teaching 6th grade, self-contained. An adventure for us all.

The last picture is of my grandpa, Claude and grandma Bess. She was the English department at New Lebanon.

Not pictured are: Aunt Marion, Dad’s sister, my husband Bob, my son, Eric, and my daughter-in-law, Kristin. Not pictured is that long-ago ancestor on my mother’s side of the family. Not pictured is my niece, Renee, who as a marine biologist, teaches at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Not pictured is my aunt-by-marriage who was an art teacher.

I have four granddaughters, each of whom would make a great teacher…if the profession is still a profession when they grow up.

I hate when politicians try to bond with me by telling me their wife or mother or cousin was a teacher…Don’t insult me like that. They are NOT invested in this profession the way I am. Their one relative who used to be a teacher does not stack up against my family tree.

I share this to give you the background of why I will be in OKC on March 31. I will not be marching for more money, even though money is vital for our schools. I know the funding could be found if our politicians cared. What I do know is they’re trying to portray us all as greedy, money-grubbing teachers.

I’ll be marching to end the high-stakes in assessment. End the madness of testing every grade every year. End the test prep, hour after hour. End the narrowing of our curriculum to concentrate on the two high-stakes areas: math and science. I’ll be marching to put an end to un-funded and under-funded mandates that pile one on top of another, like, as Linda Darling Hammond has noted, layers of sedimentary rock…nothing ever taken away, just more piled on top. The Legislature must be put on notice that if they mandate something, they must fund it. I'll be marching to remind our Legislators that filing 500 bills, only 291 of which were labeled as education bills, is micromanaging of a profession with which most have no experience, except their years as students. I have written about the bills we know about here and here. I’ll be marching against the voucher bill, a not-so-subtle way of taking MORE money out of public schools. I’ll be marching for any of the bills that rein in the OSDE and its reckless behavior. I’ll be marching for the bill that will allow parents to opt out their children from testing.

The last time I visited with my 82-year-old father we found a little hole-in-the-wall lunch room in Southern Indiana. As we sat and drank really bad coffee, an equally elderly man approached my dad and asked, “Are you C.B. Lisman’s son? He was my geometry teacher. He helped me understand that class.” Then these two old men sat and laughed about their high school careers in tiny New Lebanon High School, their faces lit up while talking about a teacher. I want, years later, for my son and daughter-in-law to have that moment with a former student. 

I want there to be a teaching profession for my Grands to join.