Sunday, August 03, 2008

HorseSense Under Construction

Readers will note some changes in our template and content in the forthcoming weeks.

Please stay tuned for updates about our HorseSense revamp and reorganization.

More coming soon!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Update: Another Delay in Student-on-Teacher Harassment Case

Originally slated for a July 9 retrial, Adams v. Los Angeles Unified School District will now head to court again September 3, at the earliest. Reasons for the delay are private. However, this report can confirm that while LAUSD will certainly benefit from yet another reprieve to re-assess its defense and/or consider settlement negotiations, there was nothing political about Judge Kenneth Freeman's decision to set the new date.

The hostile environment sexual harassment case was first brought to court in 2001 by a single teacher, Janis Adams, who argued that LAUSD had enabled three years of ugly and sexualized student aggression which culminated in the public sexual harassment, libel, threats, and defamation perpetrated by a student-generated underground "newspaper," The Occasional Blow Job.

In a June 9 hearing, where Judge Freeman refused LAUSD's motion to dismiss the case, lawyers for the district did reveal a new slant in their arguments. Acknowledging that Adams "had suffered something," LAUSD attorney Linda Savitt urged the judge to consider Adams' case purely as a "workman's compensation" matter rather than a case of sexual harassment. Judge Freeman rejected this idea.

It's sad that it's taken 8 years and over $1.3 million taxpayer dollars for the district to acknowledge, finally, that Adams suffered the insufferable. But LAUSD still needs to learn that personal retribution for speaking up as a teacher-worker can certainly include a sexual component, as in Adams' case.

In fact, sexual-bullying-and-harassment-as-retaliation for speaking up or standing up to perpetrators is a common consequence in workplace cases of this kind among adults--unless an employer intervenes swiftly to address the workplace dynamics. Legal scholar and Yale professor J.M. Balkin has written on this subject at length in Columbia Law Review.

Adams' case is no exception. The key distinctions of her circumstances only heighten the problem she faced: her perpetrators were required by attendance laws to re-enter her workplace; and, as minors (albeit very old ones) her perpetrators were treated as "little darlings" by the community and by their parents, who screamed a lot about rights and very little about responsibility.

No doubt LAUSD is dreading the moment when a new jury not only considers facts of this case, but also the impressive reality that Adams has withstood the emotional and financial strain of 8-years worth of litigation and argument in order to make her voice heard.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Teacher Watch: School Safety and Teacher Civil Rights

Do teachers have the same right to a safe workplace as other professionals? Not if they’re threatened, defamed, or harassed by students.
At least that’s what Los Angeles Unified has spent seven years and $1.3 million taxpayer dollars to tell one teacher plaintiff, whose hostile environment sex harassment suit against her former employer is slated for retrial starting July 9. If the district has its way, Adams v. LAUSD will have detrimental consequences for schools.

The teacher filed suit against LAUSD when she was grossly libeled and defamed in an underground student paper, the Occasional Blow Job, from March through June 2000 at Palisades Charter High School.

The first issue attacked teachers other than Adams, but when she challenged the publication she became its primary target. An actress-turned-teacher, Adams was called a former “porn star” who had performed so many anal sex acts she had to wear a diaper. On the cover of another issue, her face was superimposed atop the splayed body of a porn model.

In print materials circulated at her public workplace as well as the upscale neighborhood nearby, Adams was called “bitch” for fighting back. She reported being heckled as a "slut" on campus, car stalked by students when picking up her 7-year old, and harassed by phone calls at home. She also found a threatening note posted on her classroom door.

Despite Adams’s pleas to school administrators for support, and despite clear school policies against sexual harassment, the responses at site and district levels were lamely ineffective. Individual students received hand-slaps, but their publication continued to appear on campus until the school year ended. Deanne Neiman, the go-to district official in charge of vetting sexual harassment cases, remained ignorant of the controversy until just before her deposition was taken--almost two full years later.

The jury for the original 2001 trial sided unanimously with Adams, agreeing that LAUSD had been negligent in following its own discipline policy, the state education code, and federal law. The district was held liable for enabling a hostile work environment, to the tune of $4.35 million--more than double the damages Adams sought.

In a post-trial ruling, Judge Kenneth Freeman negated the financial award as inflammatory. But rather than reducing the amount or directing a different verdict, he ordered a new trial. In his statement of reasoning, he made the bizarre claim that teachers voluntarily forfeit their civil rights, “trading” federal protections against “offensive conduct” for the challenge of working with kids.

If you teach, this is one legal form you may have missed.

The implications of Adams are highly gendered. For nearly 150 years, the business of teaching minors has been a “pink collar” profession. The National Education Association reported in 2006 that approximately 8 out of 10 educators are female. Put this together with Hostile Hallways, the 2001 report by the American Association of University Women, documenting that 36 percent of high school students have witnessed peers sexually harassing teachers.

The reluctance of LAUSD to settle this case suggests that it’s not the money but teacher protection it dreads. In the past five years, there have been reports across the country--from Horace Mann School in New York City, Cook County High School in northern Minnesota, Tesoro High School in Orange County--of women teachers being sexually bullied and defamed on paper or online by male students, who then claim “free speech” when called on it. It was only a matter of time before one teacher stood up in court.

LAUSD’s central argument, in the first trial and on appeal, is that it has “limited control” over students, mere “third parties,” in the school workplace.

But what other workplace, aside from prisons, has compulsory clientele? And how can any district justify discipline policies for protecting such “third parties” from each other, but then deny such protection to those we entrust with their care?

It’s easy to say we expect educators to stand up against bullying, drug use, cheating, hazing, graffiti, and violence. But few people realize that the first responders--our teachers--are often targeted, threatened, isolated, shushed, or simply ignored when they intervene to witness or prevent escalating behavior.

There can be no sustained safety for students at the expense of teacher civil rights.

LAUSD: Not Yet Settling for Teacher Civil Rights

Monday, June 9, in Department 64 of Los Angeles Superior Court, Los Angeles Unified lost its latest "Hail Mary" to dismiss 8-years' worth of trial and appeal in the sexual harassment complaint of former teacher, Janis Adams.

In a fruitless response to Judge Kenneth Freeman's oral ruling against the district, LAUSD attorney Linda Savitt started her arguments with, "First of all, let me say anyone who teaches high school deserves a medal of honor..."

Experienced faculty hears the "but" coming.

Savitt indeed continued: "...But kids are mouthing off, and you know they will." Mouthing off? Judge Freeman seemed to disagree that this perhaps easily foregone conclusion negated the severity of Adams' particular case, which included repeated acts of defamation, libel, attacks on her family, threats, and stalking from students during spring 2000 at Palisades Charter High School.

The judge agreed that these allegations were questions of fact to be weighed by a jury in deciding LAUSD's degree of liability for protecting teachers in the workplace.

New trial begins July 9, barring a settlement. Stay tuned here for updates.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Teacher Watch: War, Inc. in Limited Release

Overshadowed heavily by the release of the Indiana Jones grand finale, John Cusack's War, Inc. opens today in Los Angeles at the Landmark Theater on Pico and Westwood.

Why not make it a double feature--for double discussion?

Find local showtimes for this limited release here.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Teacher Watch: Susan Ohanian's When Childhood Collides with NCLB

In his introduction to Susan Ohanian's latest, powerful book, Sid. S. Glassner writes, "The No Child Left Behind Act created an environment in our schools so counter to democracy's constructive spirit" that "[s]uch a condition cannot be permitted to persist nor should it ever be repeated."

A tale told in two voices, When Childhood Collides with NCLB (published by the Vermont Society for the Study of Education) dramatizes a sharp rift between media punditry and real life in public school. Each page literally splits down the middle as Ohanian provides two narratives, juxtaposing her own poems and meditations about classroom life with excerpts from newspaper headlines, press releases, reports, and commentaries. The result is a moving and provocative reading experience.

Her poem, "Processes and Terrors," for example, begins: "How to cross/A Piranha-infested River:/Stay out of the water/when piranhas are feeding./Swim or walk across/Quickly and quietly." This piece is printed directly across from a relevant snippet of a 2004 speech delivered by NCLB author and lobbyist for test publisher NCS Pearson, Sandy Kress: "[F]or those of you who are intimidated or threatened by NCLB, the world is actually going to become worse as we go along. I mean to say, more demanding. And it will look back at NCLB as a kind of just an initial foot in the water, if you will, to the world we're about to enter."

What multiple choice test or prep-packet asks students to consider a connection between poetry, Piranhas, and Scantron forms? Any teacher might happily use sections of Ohanian's book as a model for similar responsive creative writing exercises in their own classrooms.

A single copy of When Childhood Collides with NCLB is available for $8.95. Order copies from the author and publisher by sending a check directly to VSSE, Box 26, Charlotte VT 05445.

For $27, you can get two copies plus a year's subscription to the hard-hitting monthly Chicago teachers' newspaper, Substance.

Friday, April 25, 2008

War, Inc. and A Nation at Risk: The Martial Overtones of Ed Reform

John Cusack's new film, War, Inc., appeared in limited release on screens this past week in Toronto and will show April 28-May 4 at the Tribeca Film Festival. The movie dramatizes the outrageous marriage of violence and profiteering enabled by corporation-loyal foreign policy, and its satire doesn't come from fiction: billions of taxpayer dollars are used to employ fee-for-hire "private military" or "security" vendors (think Blackwater) in the name of supplementing our nation's poorly-compensated and poorly-outfitted armed services.

So how could the push for perpetual--and now private--warmongering get so far, so fast?

Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism offers a brilliant take, arguing that our economic system exploits moments of disaster and suffering to maximize corporate profits on an international scale. In the face of tragedy, brutality, economic losses, real and imagined fears, citizens are enticed to give up their best economic interests, their civil liberties, and their consciences while power and resources are consolidated for a mercenary few.

A longstanding tradition of educational practices in the U.S. has helped this process along, quietly evolving as support for the military-industrial--and now data-tainment-surveillance-- complex. On a parallel track to the "war and worry" economy, schools have become the true domestic front for conflicts abroad.

It's a handy coincidence that the limited release of War, Inc. coincides with the annual barrage of spring tests just beginning for students all across the country.

The publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 may have preceded 9-11 and our "war on terror" by a generation, but it began the drumbeat of crisis-mongering which has enabled the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and other academic surveillance corporations to profit from fear-based education policy--all in the name of improving schools and making them safe for success.

It's easy to decry campus shootings, but how long will it be before some school offers a specially-designed "security services" academy track to target "at risk" or uniquely "gifted and talented" kids? Unless we actively push back, it's not an impossibility.

Military terms such as "strategy," "targets," "cohorts," and "marshaling" have become essentially natural in conversations about student achievement, school funding, and teacher training. We say "battery of tests" without blinking an eye. Even the emphasis on "raising standards" has martial overtones: "standard" also means flag.

Thus it shouldn't surprise anyone that the No Child Left Behind Act dictates for student names be provided to military recruiters--unless parents know enough to complete an "opt out" form.

It's also perfectly logical that Reed-Elsevier, one of the major corporate players in the assessment industry (think Stanford Achievement Tests), acquired Seisint Technologies in 2004. Seisint famously developed Matrix software to monitor citizens for Homeland Security and the Justice Department.

The now-constant rhythms of scantron, bubble-the-answer testing have normalized the need for social surveillance while also feeding collective and individual anxieties about failure, school funds/closures/takeovers, matriculation, college attendance and placement, scholarships, and simple economic survival. It's no wonder captains of the test industry look ahead towards a bright future, while the daily-life, real-people context of classrooms gets cast as a weary and antiquated distraction.

A new generation of students has been raised--from grade one--to expect multiple choice questions with multiple choice answers to provide the quickest and most reliable way to know whether they know anything.

The social implications of this compulsion are far-reaching. It takes extra work to scrutinize and question who generates these assigned "multiple" choices.

All the while, billionaire business leaders, including superstars Eli Broad and Bill Gates, stand eager to "rescue" (i.e. privatize) the desperate, distracted, and panicky public education system, donating all-expenses paid makeovers in the corporate model. Euphemisms like "professional learning communities" (where consesus is "demanded") merely perpetuate increasingly well-dressed, professionalized and potentially violent forms of remote control.

Sometimes violence itself is the tie that inspires, even if we'd rather forget it. Harvard President James Bryant Conant (1893-1978), co-father of Educational Testing Service and persuasive advocate for the mid-century comprehensive, mega high school, established status as an education policy advocate because of his experiences with warfare.

As a professor, Conant helped develop chemical weapons for the Chemical Warfare Service during World War I. He subsequently chaired the National Defense Research Committee, playing a fundamental role in our development of the atomic bomb. Conant also served on the Interim Committee which decided to drop bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki without warning.

War, Inc. thankfully will provide broad audiences with an opportunity to reject easy notions of compartmentalization. In asking "how" and "why", we might remind ourselves that politics, economics and education are inextricably intertwined.

Watch for the release of the film your local area later this spring and early summer. Meanwhile, read a great live blog session with the producers and writers of the movie online at Crooks and Liars.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Novels a No-No: Update--The Disinformation Doctrine

I remember vividly five years ago: as then-English department chair at Riverside Poly High School, I emailed the downtown district office to express department frustrations with the opaque and disingenuous mixed messages circulating about reading and instruction. In public, Riverside Unified School District (RUSD) was telling the community that "novels weren't banned, just not required." At our campus, teachers weren't allowed to check sets of books from the library to use with students.

Like a little kid, I was summoned into the principal's office. He handed me a copy of a district response to him regarding my communication. One line from that email still haunts me, and it seems particularly relevant now: "I find it interesting that Ms. Scott [sic] still refers to 'teaching novels.' Hasn't she seen the test scores yet?"

Who would have thought that a small, little-known school district in Southern California could so perfect the art of public doublespeak? Now twice in five years, the same district has distinguished itself by using disinformation to rid its English classrooms of the pesky novel.

Documents defending their latest purge are linked below:
If you saw our first report, you learned that RUSD has a strange attitude towards reading book-length works in accelerated high school English classes. Apparently, you can read too much. Now responding to local criticism by columnist Dan Bernstein, as well as outrage from students, teachers and parents in school board and department chair meetings, RUSD landed a local headline and long article in the local newspaper, The Press-Enterprise, to dismiss the controversy as a "novel mixup" (PE, October 15, 2007, B1 and B10).

Eerily, the piece appeared just days from the five-year anniversary of an almost identical article making the same assurances when RUSD first applied its restrictive novels policy--to some public outcry--in the mainstream (i.e. non-Honors) instructional program five years ago (PE, October 13, 2002, B1.)

This year's message is exactly the same one offered in 2002. Sure, teachers are allowed to teach novels, but only after all of the standards for each month are mastered via Holt, Rhinehart & Winston assessments and district-approved materials. How one is supposed to cram this hypothetical novel into remaining instructional days is not quite clear. In the regular program, for most students in RUSD as well as surrounding districts, the novel option amounts to "up to" one book per year, unless teachers fill out a form to begin a review and approval process.

Consciously or merely by osmosis, the district has for five years now simply parroted language long cultivated by captains of the test industry. Even Bernstein has poked fun at RUSD's disingenuous explanation, writing last week that "the novel, much like a Dickens child, has become an orphan," abandoned in favor of the "McNovel" transplanted into textbooks and complete with worksheets.

RUSD officials apparently think that if they simply avoid or ridicule the word "ban," no one will notice that reading whole books has become extraneous, disposable work for English classes. RUSD also insists that as a "program improvement," or "PI," district it has no choice but to respond to demands made by financial and political forces determining success and failure under No Child Left Behind. However, RUSD was not yet a PI district five years ago when first trimming back novels from its program.

No wonder. In a report from the Book Industry Study Group released in June 2007, general publishing sales will barely expand over the next few years. The one expected area for big growth? Elementary and high school textbooks.

In a unconfirmed and poetic act of desperation and protest against RUSD's insult to student and teacher intelligence, the English department at one local high school (serving a high number of poor and minority students) gave all of their novels away--putting them directly in the hands of students.

No, no, no, whines the district, playing Prufrock. That's not what we meant at all.

Well then. Sources inside RUSD have provided copies of official internal paperwork (linked above), including meeting minutes which set off the controversy in early September, followed by the official memo two weeks later, supposedly clarifying the issues for all 7-12 Language Arts Departments.

These documents, not seen by the general public and certainly not discussed in the recent PE article, illuminate startling contradictions. Reading through, you have to wonder if despite all the hype about critical thinking for students, teachers themselves are expected not to think too hard.

A few highlights (emphases added; all caps in the originals):
  1. Responding to teacher and parent concerns about scripted learning maps, the Sept. 19 document virtually shouts out a semantic distinction: "We have a CURRICULUM guide, not a pacing guide." However, both official documents use the phrase "pacing guide" over and over to describe required lesson plans and classroom structure: e.g. "Pacing guides are MONTHLY to allow teacher/site autonomy and flexibility as much as possible"; "It is IMPERATIVE that all teachers follow the new grade level pacing guides for English."

  2. In fact, both documents reveal how teacher-designed "pacing guides" can be used as both buy-in and blackmail: if teachers do not follow the pacing guide they themselves so willingly designed (a "proactive" option provided by RUSD), they could be "mandated to follow procedures such as implementing the Holt 'red-line' pacing guide." Oooh. Lucky for those kids. But there's more: "Pacing guides may not be modified nor the order changed," and "Selections should not be moved from one month/one quarter to another," and "The curriculum guide can not be accelerated in any class so that an entire quarter, semester or year is covered in compressed period of time, so that the rest of the year can be spent on other materials." Reconcile those statements with the following: "This is a LIVING document which will continue to evolve and change over time as we see how fast we can/can't move . . ."

  3. How about supplementary materials? "The practice of using outside materials such as newspapers or magazine articles 3 times a week, for example, is not appropriate . . . Teachers must be able to justify and explain how a piece is appropriate for the standard." Also: "Magazines for independent reading are not appropriate unless they are tied to such standards as technical documents, and students are given a specific criteria/task related to them."

  4. The district notes a decline in Gifted and Talented (GATE) scores last year. Could it be that too much thinking and too many complicated assignments during class time hurt student performance on Scantron tests? Nevermind what that might imply about multiple choice assessments--here's how vague unease becomes big policy: "Board members have expressed concern over the depth and complexity of schools' Honors/GATE classes. Some of these students are currently not showing consistent, district-wide growth. This issue is a current RUSD board goal. GATE/Honors classes are required to follow all pacing guidelines set forth for the regular curriculum...[then] they should move on to other challenging assignments."

  5. What about independent reading? "No one disputes the idea that getting students to read more will help increase their overall achievement with reading..." but "work should be reading-level appropriate, and teachers should hold students accountable." Also: "Middle schools with an independent reading period should hold site discussions to determine how to make this time the most effective..." Perhaps most importantly, teachers must not permit students to read in class too much, only a "minimal amount of time to reinforce the standards for that time period. Minimal is defined as a maximum of 30 minutes per week NOT to be done in one class period. An appropriate standards-based assignment must accompany the independent reading." (This last point is repeated verbatim in both documents.)

  6. Honors and AP classes, which have traditionally required summer reading, have been viewed as a haven for students and parents seeking access to a now-privileged program of more instruction for complete primary, rather than predigested, materials. But one new Riverside high school is already being touted as an example for neither requiring (nor strongly encouraging?) Honors students to read books as summer prep. In the September 4 document, RUSD says that the whole concept of summer reading needs to be "reassessed" district-wide, "by looking at what is the purpose of reading/assignments."
These last two points, not discussed at all in the newspaper, perhaps reveal more about RUSD's real attitude towards curriculum and micromanagement than any spokesperson's clarifications about how and when novels "can" or "can't" be used in classrooms.

How are teachers to cope? Already used to this rhythm of disinformation, many shrug it off. One Honors teacher says she expects, maybe, to get through one novel by the end of the year. Teachers in the regular program? Maybe none at all.

Here's one irony: Brand new teachers at Poly High this year were required by their principal to read Harry K. Wong's The First Days of School: How to be an Effective Teacher within the first six weeks of classes. These teachers were required to complete "homework" and meet to discuss the first "unit" during second period of a regular instructional day.

Here's another: the RUSD main office sits right across the street from the PE (not-so-locally owned by the Belo Corporation). In 2006 RUSD hired a PE reporter, Jacquie Paul, to be "spokesperson" for the district when speaking to her former colleagues at the press. Like any good bureaucracy, RUSD knows that narratives are best controlled with a kinder, gentler turn of phrase--and that good professional connections help, too.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Novels a No-No

Southern California's Riverside Unified School District (RUSD), which at the beginning of the 2002-03 academic year instituted a "no novels" policy for lower level English classes grades 7-12, has now upped the stakes. As of Fall 2007-08, even Honors courses are bound by the policy, demanding that teachers stick to the letter of the Holt, Rhinehart & Winston textbook and curriculum planning map and avoid primary sources of literature.

Now, as then, district officials deny in public that there is an official ban, while telling teachers through meetings and memos about the need for uniformity and consensus on the subject of "no novels" and curriculum maps for classes. The dissonance is migraine inducing.

While there was some limited outcry and public discussion in 2002, district officials had little trouble containing the opposition because the most vocal cohort of students and parents were apparently exempt from the ban. Nevermind the groundwork laid by the district with its stance that reading whole novels, or for that matter any genre of complete, unadulterated text (a former colleague was chided two years ago for using a nonfiction book) was detrimental and distracting in an English class.

At the heart of this, of course, lies concern about test scores. Superintendent Susan Rainey currently reasons that novels are "based on literature" rather than "based on the standards." Perfectly consistent with the 2002 view.

The current shock of parents, Honors teachers, and students unfortunately comes five years too late. Coverage in the local press, along with indignant presentations to the school board, have as yet made no mention of the history and precedent already in place. I'd like to cheer for the protesters, but the disconnect remains a depressing commentary on the amnesia fostered by disinformation in school districts.

The current outcry also smacks, however unintentionally, of elitism: The lower-level students may not need literature, but we at the top deserve it.

Ironically, the most accelerated levels of students in RUSD tend to purchase their own books anyway, and no one can stop them from continuing to do that on their own. Even if the district does relent on the ban for Honors students, there will be no remedy for the majority of kids whose main opportunity and motivation for getting access to books remains through school resources. The ban for them was set five years ago.

I've already heard that the "wiggle room" allowed by the district for Honors courses (to pacify instructors) will go something like this: Once you finish covering everything on the planning map, go ahead and use real literature; just make sure you teach the novels using materials provided by the Holt standardized curriculum. (Several teachers report that this is a step forward, a victory....) The same "compromise" was vetted five years ago for non-accelerated, non-Honors courses and guess what? There's little real whole-book reading going on in those classes anymore.

Which is more Orwellian: that RUSD decided books have nothing to do with learning, or that people are shocked after five years to discover that the district really does mean it, and thinks this principle should apply to all students?

Friday, August 31, 2007

Not for Teacher

When a teacher named Janis Adams approached her site administration for--um, help?--when she discovered a kid masturbating during class when her back was turned, the dude in charge of discipline gave her a lecture on hormones and girls with big breasts, telling her "Little Lady, you got to get used to it."

That was almost ten years ago, but the comment and its underlying attitudes set the stage for a series of other, more personal incidents targeting Adams and other teachers at her site. Adams finally decided she'd had enough, and sued Los Angeles Unified School District for failures to maintain a safe and civil workplace, free of hostile environment sexual harassment. An appeals court ruled last year that her case can be indeed retried under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), and that new trial is pending.

LAUSD has already spent nearly two million dollars in legal fees to characterize Adams' complaint as an overreaction. Should other teachers consider this water under the bridge? Ancient history? We've come a long way, Baby, so don't get your shorts in a wad?

Um, no.

Just in time for Fall classes, Carl's Jr. has rolled out a new ad campaign for its "patty melt," complete with a booty-slapping, pelvic-tilting Mary Kay Letourneau lookalike in a tight skirt (mostly a sad ripoff of--or homage to--Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" vid). Two white boys rap and sneer about their "bun" preferences, draw and then erase part of the teacher's naked backside on the chalkboard, even flash brass knuckles at the end.

"Get used to it," indeed. You don't have to be a piece of meat. View--and rate--the ad yourself here.

Friday, August 17, 2007

School Peformance Anxiety--No More Gimmicks!

Okay, maybe it was cute to see the occasional principal pledge to shave his head if student test scores improved at his school for the year. But some of the stunts to rah-rah rally kids at scantron time have become more irrelevant, protracted, and bizarre. We should probably expect these to get weirder with the buzz over NCLB renewal and as test scores hit plateaus.

At one Title I Elementary School in Riverside, California, a principal pledged to spend a whole day on the school roof. In a memo to staff, the administrator wrote, "Following the [school] assembly I will climb a ladder to the top of the annex roof and set up my office for the day. While this event may take some time away from regular activities it can certainly provide you with fodder for some other very meaningful lessons."

Fodder for lessons? Now that's a real educator talking!

The memo enumerated eleven "ideas" for lesson plans related to her day spent on the roof, including:

"Students can write friendly letters to me about the event. I will have a mail 'basket' hanging off the side of the roof in which students can put messages to me."

"Teachers can read other picture books aloud in which the main character is a principal."

"Have students draw pictures of me on the roof, and then write stories to go with the pictures, or orally tell about the pictures during Language Development time."

My favorite suggestions were that teachers should tell their students about "not trying this at home" and asking them to read classes a passage from a book titled What Principals Do When No One Is Looking. The principal also included a song about the event she wrote to the tune of "Up on the Housetop" which teachers were encouraged to sing with their students. (Call me crazy, but I wouldn't turn loose lyrics at a school with "ho, ho, ho, there she goes" in the refrain.)

How revealing is it that gimmicks can end up being more about administrative ego than about celebrating real campus achievement in a meaningful way? The image of any principal sitting on top of his or her school is, ironically, simply another powerful metaphor for disconnections we're all expected to ignore.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Teacher Watch: LAUSD--Stand Up Now Against Harassment?

In 2005, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) settled a lawsuit brought by brave students at Washington Preparatory High School. The case alleged that school administrators, teachers, security guards and students harassed gays and lesbians on campus--creating, in effect, "a climate rife with hostility towards and discrimination against students and staff based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation."

The original complaint details patterns of unchecked namecalling--"faggot", "sissy fruitcake" and "sinner"--and alleges that students were told they were "wrong" and "unholy" and "not supposed to be like this." Some teachers allegedly threatened to "out" students to parents as punishment for perceived homosexuality. The principal was said to have refused investigating campus incidents where staff treated students poorly or differently if perceived to be gay or bisexual. You can download the entire original complaint here.

As part of the district response in the settlement, Deanne Neiman at LAUSD's Education Equity Compliance Office affirmed the district's effort to enhance protections she states are already in place: "It is important to acknowledge that the District has had a long-standing and pro-active commitment to protecting LGBT students from discrimination and harassment. Since 2001 and continuing to date, 216 Anti-Bias LGBT Trainings were conducted for school administrators and staff. At Washington Prep this settlement agreement augments the comprehensive training and activities already underway at the school and in the District as a whole."

I'm glad for this awareness check--long overdue--to protect students and staff who work in Los Angeles schools. LAUSD should be commended for stepping up. It is unclear whether there was any financial component to the settlement, although the original complaint did ask for unspecified damages.

But there's another story here.

Heterosexual harassment--let's say, male students against a female teacher?--remains uncomfortable to identify or interrogate because, well, we're "used to it." Everybody remembers Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher." It's kind of funny, perhaps inappropriate, but essentially harmless. Right? (Wink wink, nudge pinch.)

On a recent trip, I was standing in line for a Southwest flight and studying a deposition from Janis Adams v. LAUSD. Peering over my shoulder, an insurance salesman in a Hawaiian shirt asked what I was doing, and when I replied that I was studying a case of student-on-teacher sexual harassment--the first such case which has actually gone to trial--he paused, chuckled and said, "Doesn't that happen all the time?"

Adams's complaint was filed in 2000, approximately four years before the plaintiffs at Washington Prep filed their own demand for a jury trial. But during the seven years--seven!--of the Adams trial and subsequent appeals, LAUSD has become increasingly aggressive in its repeated claim of "lack of control" and "limited control" over bad behavior in the school environment. Such limits were apparently not asserted by LAUSD in response to Washington Prep students: Everything is under control, the "teaching moment" is in full force, we're watching out for you.

Even as it settled the LGBT matter, the district continued pursuing appeals and preparing for a new trial in the Adams case, seeking to affirm its "lack of control" in supporting teachers who want to say "no" to sexual harassment and defamation from students. LAUSD has now exceeded $1.2 million taxpayer dollars for legal costs.

The real story here is that this isn't big news.

LAUSD should take a cue from its better judgment in the Washington Prep case: when operating at taxpayer expense, it's wise to take some responsibility for the safety, sanity, and security concerns of the teachers we expect to protect students.

And as long as any school district fights to keep a blind eye to harassment or bullying of the heterosexual variety, whether against adults or students, LGBT students and staff shouldn't feel too sure of their protection, either.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

EdWeek: Are You Kidding?

I laughed out loud when my EdWeek NCLB alert this morning included a link to this article: "To Know NCLB Is to Like It, ETS Poll Finds."

Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse.

The poll generating results indicating support for No Child Left Behind was commissioned by Educational Testing Service (ETS), the non-profit testing giant which has much to gain from renewal of the policy. As a formidable member of the Association of Test Publishers (ATP), ETS is also a major player in the accountability lobby.

Did EdWeek note either of these facts? Heavens, no.

According to EdWeek's report, 1,526 respondents during eleven days in May were asked their attitudes towards NCLB and were also "tested" on particular knowledge of NCLB as policy (state standards for achievement, grade levels for testing, how schools qualify for federal funds).

Here's the twist: Before respondents were "told" correct answers about the law by the interviewer conducting the survey, they split almost evenly on support vs. non-support of NCLB. But then, "[O]nce the interviewer mentioned the law’s focus on standards and accountability, requiring highly qualified teachers, and other details, 56 percent said that they viewed the law favorably."

The article also quotes Susan L. Traiman, Director of public policy for the Business Roundtable, essentially arguing that the negative associations of NCLB can be overcome by a simple shift in terminology: from "testing" to "identifying kids" and "providing assistance."

Wow. I can't help but recall the industry rallies at the 2005 ATP Conference in Scottsdale, where speaker after speaker repeated how it was a good day for the test business, but gee, they could really use a break in the public relations department.

The latest ETS maneuver is harrowing, but rhetorically effective: Quiz 'em on knowledge, expose technicalities in knowledge gaps, and then call for an "attitude adjustment." Sounds like a perverted version of direct instruction for students: Ask what they think, show them what they don't know, then teach 'em when they're feeling humble.

EdWeek does mention research conducted by Scripps and Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup. But this outlet for teacher information could do more than take ETS's word for its own benificence.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Trouble with Teacher Testimony

A highly-publicized study released last month by Cal State Sacramento's Center for Teacher Quality emphasizes that working conditions, not money, are the most crucial determinants for teachers who leave or plan to leave the profession. As reported in the LA Times on Friday April 27, here's the Top Ten, generated via online surveys of nearly 2,000 teachers:
  • Bureaucratic interference
  • Poor support from districts
  • Low staff morale
  • Lack of resources
  • Unsupportive principals
  • Poor compensation
  • Too little decision-making authority
  • Too little time for planning
  • Accountability pressures
  • Lack of teamwork.
If you teach and work hard at your job, none of these reasons surprises or shocks you. And yet there you are: still showing up on time every morning, writing your standards and Bloom's Levels of Thinking on the white board, grabbing your quick sandwich or granola bar at lunch, heading to the Schlechty or PLC training after school, and going home to grade papers, call parents, and plan new lessons.

What's intriguing about this study, and others like it, is how it leaves several premises uninterrogated. One is subtle, a suggestion that when a profession retains its workers, all must be well. If we could only get teachers to stay longer! It certainly may be true that bad conditions provide incentives for workers to leave, but the fact that workers don't switch professions does not necessarily mean conditions are great. Think: coal miners, ER techs, data entry workers, people at Wal Mart. And yeah, think parents who stay together for the sake of the kids.

An assumption related to the above premise is that those who stay mostly do so because their conditions are better than the leavers' conditions. This begs the question about why it takes an exodus of teachers to generate a modicum of interest in the teacher's job. The fact that we mostly wring our hands over "the ones who got away" may reveal deeper attitudes and perceptions about the ones who stay, or who honestly may not be able to admit feeling stuck.

The dialogue currently seems to allow only two distinct groups: the dissatisfied leavers and the satisfied stayers. What about the dissatisfied stayers, who struggle each day to keep up with work loads that remain largely unacknowledged? What about the lazy stayers, who simply coast along? (Sorry, but there are a few...)

What's still necessary is an allowance for more messy, complicated teacher testimony from those who do remain past their probationary period, as well as those who stay past the window of contract mobility, after which transfers may involve some penalties. Like many workers, teachers may stay put in their profession for a mixed bag of reasons, aside from love and constant satisfaction: lack of mobility, family obligations, financial debt, deep ethical commitment and sense of mission, simple boredom, a belief in hope, fear of the unknown, personality style, practicality (knowns vs. unknowns, certain losses vs. uncertain gains), attitudes about the "seemliness" of career change, and even a simple lack of confidence: What else am I qualified to do?

This last attitude, an erroneous sense that the skills necessary in classrooms do not translate outside the school premises and beyond students, may be more pervasive than we might like to admit. It's certainly a legacy of Shaw's awful adage that "those who can, do; those who can't, teach." Perhaps the barely visible day-to-day working conditions of teachers--despite all the emphasis on assessment and accountability--reinforce the idea that teachers aren't themselves really doers. (For an eye-opening contrast of hour to hour tasks and managerial work, look at the "day in the life" comparison between a high school math teacher and a pharmaceutical salesman, from 4am to 9pm, in Teachers Have It Easy.)

Our effort should not merely be to "keep" teachers but to understand them with more depth. Who are the people who stay? How do dynamics of the profession shape their attitudes about what they do, what they deserve, and what kind of future they can expect?

Clearly, stayers should be able to do more than simply cheer for the home team. And if the dialogue with teachers is sustained, authentic and engaged--some of the favorite buzz terms for classroom work with kids these days--we may get more than "ritual compliance" or snarky rebellion in teacher responses to questions about their work lives.

Can you be a good teacher, one who stays, and still be conflicted about the demands of your job? It may be easier for us to prefer the narrative which assumes that the 78% who stay past their 4th year are fulfilled by emotion, Oprah's Teacher of the Year Show, and the occasional thank-you. The truth is, we might not really care about losing teachers if it weren't so damn inexpedient. An April 26 press release from the Center for Teacher Quality regarding its new study emphasizes the costliness of recruitment, hiring, and training for California, which now spends more than $455 million to offset teacher losses. State Superintendent Jack O'Connell laments the "inefficiency" of teacher attrition, particularly as it makes it difficult to close "the achievement gap" between affluent and poor students. There's some evidence to suggest that the continued emphasis on efficiency rather than other values will not demand a more thoughtful, coherent view of sustained teacher careers over the long-term, but will rather fuel stop-gap measures such as Bush's "adjunct teacher corps." Efficiency can also be used to justify contract restrictions which make it more difficult for teachers to seek better working conditions if they so choose.

It's important that O'Connell doesn't call poor working conditions a shame or an insult. In describing the costs of teacher loss, he doesn't point out the ironic clash of high expectations and heroic imagery with the actual treatment of teachers. It's beyond time that teacher voices--both in and outside classrooms--become more than a means to an end.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Violence, Schools and the Limits of Standardization

In the wake of this week's shocking massacre at Virginia Tech, we hear pundits on cable and network news repeating theories about "warning signs" and how teachers, educational institutions, and social service entities should recognize them.

No one has mentioned a cruel irony. Since publication of the A Nation at Risk report in 1983, schools have in fact been preoccupied with other "warning signs" indicated by numbers on standardized tests. Is the student performing at below basic level? Put him in a special class devoted solely to test strategy. Does he need counseling? Well, there's no money in the budget. Does he have any other problems? Sorry, the documentation is spotty on that. Have you had problems with him? We'll get to it eventually--how are his scores? If he gets to college, all our problems will be solved.

The compartmentalized view of what happens in classrooms has come at the tragic expense of a holistic view of student life as a matter not simply of mastery but of social connectedness. In fact, listening to the seething display of Cho Hui on his DVD recordings, one can't help but notice the desperate, angry ravings of a person who opted for mastery at the expense of everything else--empathy, coherence, other human lives, and ultimately his own. As deranged as Hui may have been, we must acknowledge that he parroted all too well a zero-sum attitude which now pervades our educational culture and has long dominated our reality entertainment, our foreign policy, and our love of outlaw masculinity.

Teachers do notice disconnects in their intimate work with individual students on a daily basis. But noticing doesn't seem to matter these days. Are you on script? Did you fill in the bubble sheets? Can the students identify the standard for today's lesson? No Child Left Behind demands that schools worry more about numbers, not narratives, across time. The result is enforced cultural and historical amnesia.

In Cho Hui we have a young man who--even as an English major--had found no words to transcend brutality. It's not enough to shrug and say that most students will not resort to such atrocity to solve their frustrations and problems. It's worth really asking: What are we teaching and modeling for them instead?

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Teacher Watch: LAUSD--How Much Money to Protect Bullies?

Reports about school bullying usually emphasize how adults need to witness on behalf of the victimized. The implication, certainly true in some cases, is that teachers see and simply ignore or dismiss incidents of bullying. But there's another layer of awareness we must document as professionals. We must examine ways in which we have ourselves been socialized to accept direct and indirect abuse.

Teachers often have long histories of isolation from administrative support when it comes to reporting discipline problems. After years of witnessing classroom or hallway troubles resulting in counter-productive or inconsistent patterns of administrative follow-up, many teachers intuit that they are "on their own" with student discipline, without institutional backing. Students are smart--they pick up on this isolation, even if they can't exactly put it into words. The logical message they get is that schools don't care.

This goes to another level entirely when teachers themselves are harassed or bullied by an isolated parent or student, when they are left unprotected by site administrations and school districts. Quietly, and usually out of public view, the front line for defense against student-to-student bullying can be severely demoralized and damaged, if not lost altogether. This lack of support and intervention sends a distinct message--it's your job, as the teacher, to be the punching bag--and the ripple effect can move through faculties and staff quickly. The social authority of the anti-bullying crusade will remain severely limited unless it begins to include an awareness of the teacher as potential target and victim of bullying. What will make such teachers’ testimony believable? And who will witness for justice on their behalf?

One California legal case should be on the radar of every California teacher, and in fact could cast a disturbing precedent across the country. Between 2002 and 2006, the conflicts in Janis Adams v. Los Angeles Unified School District made their way to the California Supreme Court, and are now suspended in Appeals Court pending a possible new trial this year. The plaintiff, a teacher named Janis Adams, faced an extreme scenario: her face was superimposed into pornographic photos and circulated throughout the school; she was openly libeled as a former porn star who had had anal sex so many times she had to wear an adult diaper; in an accelerating pattern over a three-year period beginning in 1997, she was threatened in her classroom and off campus by students she knew well, who did not themselves suffer any significant disciplinary action, despite her reports. UTLA helped Adams secure a restraining order, but the conditions deteriorated to such an abusive level that Adams had an emotional breakdown and was driven from the teaching profession altogether.

It's important to know that, in the original trial, after less than half a day deliberating, the jury ruled against LAUSD, saying that it failed to take reasonable steps to protect a teacher from ongoing harassment that created a hostile work environment. The jury also awarded Janis over $4 million in damages for economic and emotional distress. Here's the twist: when the District filed Hail Mary motions to vacate the financial judgment, the judge didn't merely reduce the damages--he stated that any teacher, in effect, voluntarily waives her civil right to a workplace free of harassment because she works with kids all day. In a mixed message which has fueled subsequent appeals, the judge vacated the financial judgment altogether while still upholding the verdict. LAUSD has to-date spent $1.2 million perpetuating the appeals process, seeking a new trial in hopes of overturning the verdict altogether.

The fact that Adams ultimately sought legal recourse against the district, which did not protect her in the face of what seem such clear-cut incidents of sexual bullying, suggests what other research indicates: that Adams is not unique in her complaints, only in her pursuit of justice publicly through the legal system. She chose to say “No” out loud and continues to live with the consequences. The initial abuse at the hands of students, appalling as it remains, seems secondary now to the enabling behavior of school site administration and the Los Angeles Unified School District. The district continues to argue, even in the face of the in loco parentis doctrine, that students are merely "third parties" from whom the district, as an employer, is not liable to protect its workers. By that logic, how could any district protect such "third parties" from bullying each other?

LAUSD has committed--financially, politically--to dragging Adams through a second trial, rather than taking public responsibility for reasonable steps to establish and reinforce a climate of safety for students and teachers, together. The next months will reveal whether a new trial goes forward. We shouldn't need to wait. As teachers in living, breathing communities, we must stand together for safe schools, and the first step means being willing to witness for each other, even if we've been abandoned at previous times ourselves. Suffering in silence is no solution.

For resources on bully-free workplace awareness in the USA and Canada, go to Bullying Institute.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

High School Exit Exam Upheld--And Chickens Come to Roost in Higher Ed

Here's the news you didn't hear: Yesterday, the California Court of Appeals upheld the requirement that every student in the Golden State must indeed pass the High School Exit Exam to earn a diploma. Lawyers for the plaintiffs, who have not challenged the test itself but rather the quality and equity of school resources, are now appealing to California's Supreme Court. (For background, see our recent coverage of Valenzuela v. O'Connell.) If students don't pass the test, the judges argued, they will be given a message that they don't have adequate skills to succeed in life. Here's the news you did hear: Two days earlier, university professors from across the country were shocked! shocked! to hear Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and her federal commission admonish higher education to clean up its act with standardized testing. (The committee did settle on laughably euphemistic language for some recommendations at the end of its session, as reported by the NY Times, changing "should require" testing to "should measure student learning" with tests. Of course, any public school teacher knows what this really implies for colleges, who would be foolish to consider the phrase adjustment some sort of appeasement or exemption.) Spellings' Commission on the Future of Higher Education--which includes members from private and public schools, think tanks and corporations--certainly did offer some enticements, in the form of increased money for Pell Grants to finance student attendance. Pell Grants, of course, mean more political leverage via federal money spent expressly on colleges and universities. It's difficult to sympathize with the outcry from universities, who have themselves been largely complicit in the test mania perpetrated on "little sister" K-12--while remaining insanely out of touch with daily realities of compulsory schools and local communities. The university system has, in effect, fed the monster it now decries as counter to its educational interests. As an ETS speaker told one group at its Orlando Pathwise Conference in June, "The old system used to be that universities told the primary and secondary schools what to do. Now the Nation's Report Card is going to tell the universities." This statement is only half of the story, however. The Nation's Report Card itself has been largely influence by corporate interests such as Achieve! and The Business Roundtable. Educational testmakers such as ETS and Reed-Elsevier have long been in bed with corporations such as Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, and IBM. Consider this passage on corporate involvement in education as posted on our own U.S. Department of Education website:

Today, more than ever before, corporate prosperity as well as our economic success as a nation depends on a highly educated workforce. The demand for highly skilled and well-educated workers in the new economy will only increase over time, making businesses major stakeholders in the educational success of our children.

To this end, the Office of Corporate Liaison works to facilitate effective communication between business leaders and program officers at the Department, to build mutual understanding of the needs of both the corporate world and local communities, and to promote business—education partnerships around the country. Businesses interested in supporting local efforts to improve education may consider aligning their current programs with one or more of the Department's priorities.

The now public-push for testing in universities, where professors have too-long enjoyed the privilege of obliviousness, shouldn't be a surprise. I'm reminded of the old parable: They came for the blind, and I did nothing because I could see. They came for the crippled, and I did nothing because I could walk. They came for the Jews, the Catholics, the evangelicals, the atheists, and I did nothing because I was none of these. When they came for me, there was no one left to stand up.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Teacher Watch--ETS Pathwise Conference, or: Who's the Potato Head?

In June, I attended Educational Testing Service's annual Pathwise Teaching & Leadership Conference. The 9th annual gathering, held just outside the main thoroughfare of Orlando's bustling DisneyWorld Resort, was designed to promote what ETS has branded its "System 5" program for educational customers: Professional Development Solutions, Instructional Solutions, Assessment Solutions, Data-Driven Decision-Making Solutions, and School Improvement Solutions. (The 5-point and 5-year plans of certain historical dictators come to mind.) Most of the attendees came from local superintendent and professional development offices, or were active classroom teachers. The group felt somewhat divided among administrators gunning to raise test scores, researchers curious about training teachers, and educators lassoed by their districts to gather solutions for local problems. The total turnout seemed relatively small, approximately 300-400 people, which I did not mistake as a sign of ETS's waning influence. (Coincidentally, the National Education Association was holding its annual convention in a hotel nearby, and there appeared to be no overlap in crowds.) The rhetoric in Orlando displayed an intriguing shift from the brazen "rah rah tests and moolah" speeches at the 2005 Association of Test Publishers Conference in Scottsdale Arizona, where ETS logo, products, and corporate speakers had made a formidable presence. Here in Orlando, where ETS was the only game in town, we had a kinder, gentler and much more disingenuous language offered for the teacher audience--for those people in closest proximity to actual students. "We're not picking on teachers," one presenter said. "Change is hard for everyone." This rhetorical seduction was capable, smooth and (perhaps) well-meaning, as it was usually delivered by individual researchers themselves "on the ground" and less connected to centers of ETS power. (The only trace of corporate leadership appeared on certificates for professional development credit, via John Oswald's signature in black felt-tip ink.) One of the central ETS promotions in half-day workshops was its Keeping Learning on Track (KLT) Institute, also listed under the title What is Formative Assessment? The idea, presenters insisted, was to change what happens inside learners' heads--and that requires minute-to-minute assessment in classrooms. Don't confuse what ETS means by this and what Madeline Hunter meant by "checking for understanding", "guided" or "independent practice," or for that matter any of the other hundreds of individual instructional, social and emotional assessments teachers make in the course of any given day. KLT means asking one particular question, with a quickly assessable answer, to an entire group of students--who indicate their responses, en masse, via A B C or D choice cards or, perhaps, by flashing up a few words or symbols on their personal white boards. The results tell teachers how to proceed. Most bizarre during this workshop was how presenters openly attacked the idea of scripted learning and curriculum maps (ETS would offer a separate "Curriculum Mapping: Aligning Learning" workshop just two days later). There was something dissonant and surreal about the presenters' attack, since ETS benchmark tests--at district, state and national levels--were acknowledged openly as the keys driving curriculum alignment and realignment in the planning process. To sell KLT, however, presenters appealed to teachers' frustration with mapping and scripts. A brilliant maneuver. For example: One presenter described how she addressed teacher frustration balancing KLT strategies with the weekly planning demands prescribed by her district. "You all remember the Nuremberg defense?" she asked us. "Saying 'I was just following the pacing guide' is no defense if your students don't move ahead." I had to cover my mouth to keep from laughing aloud at the hideous analogy, especially by a representative of a corporation that drives curriculum mapping, but the quip drew solemn nods from the group. (I wondered how many teachers might be subjected to that comment when attendees returned to share the story with their districts.) It was repeated at least twice in this session that it's not sufficient for students to arrive at the right answer for wrong or inaccurate reasons. (Terrific! An emphasis on thinking! says the conscientious teacher.) Nevermind that ETS and other brands of multiple choice tests--the big elephants in the classroom--rarely provide students with opportunities to earn credit for thoughtful or accurate thinking and methodology, even if they make a simple computational error at the very end. The teacher-touching emphasis on “process” in the rhetoric of KLT is frankly undermined by the reality that “product” is what our system ultimately measures and values. A final note: It was hinted at various points during the five day conference that ETS researchers are now pushing to eliminate teacher grades in favor of written feedback or comments only. Keep in mind, however, that while it might consider “letter grades” from individual teachers irrelevant, ETS corporation has its eye fixed on the big prize: there’s no talk of eliminating the numbers, rankings, scores, and percentiles generated on a national level by its own test instruments. That sounds like Game-Over, Check-Please, and all in the name of "better learning": making one corporation the final arbiter of multiple-choice quality in the world of education-as-product. Keep your own potato eyes wide open on this one.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Exit Exam Debate Heats Up, Again--ETS Contract in the Background

On July 25, the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco heard arguments about the fairness of the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) in the continuing case of Valenzuela v. O'Connell. The court will have 90 days to decide whether a judge in Alameda was correct in blocking the exam. The case and its ensuing debates seem to hinge on two central questions: Does the CAHSEE punish students not equitably prepared by educational resources across the state, or does the test reward students by creating a common benchmark for graduation? While many of us are certainly rooting for the underdogs here, it's important to note that the case does not challenge the test instrument, the assessment process, or the core principle of "exit exams" per se, but instead argues that bad teachers and poor materials are to blame for students not passing the exam. Even a plaintiffs' victory in this case could result in an ironic backlash of increased standardization for classrooms. It's an odd case of Be careful what we wish for. The results of Valenzuela v. O'Connell will determine whether or not students denied diplomas in June for failing the exit exam will be issued diplomas retroactively. According to estimates, nearly 40 thousand students in California failed the CAHSEE. However, behind the scenes is a larger picture, with ETS's multi-million dollar contract to develop, administer, and score the test hanging somewhat in the balance. Making the test "optional" or rendering its results "unconstitutional" would not bode well for the assessment giant. ETS has already taken recent hits in the press for "misplacing" score sheets for the CAHSEE in Long Beach, as well as for scoring errors nationally publicized on the the high-stakes SAT exam. Additionally, ETS last spring spent $11.1 million to settle a class action suit brought on behalf of 4,100 teachers who "failed" the PRAXIS teacher certification exam when they had actually passed it (a total of 27 thousand teacher candidates received lower scores than they should have and may also be eligible for damages). No wonder ETS has learned to diversify its services, building up the minute-by-minute formative assessment component of its K-12 instructional marketing, offering a more intimate classroom connection--increased resources for "how to prepare for tests we give you." Click here to read the Sacramento Bee's coverage of appeal preparations last week, including sample questions from the CAHSEE with answers.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Teacher Watch--ETS Hydra Adds Another Arm

It's more difficult by the minute to track who owns what, who's bought or partnered with whom in the test and curriculum industry. It's practically migraine-inducing even to try. Here at "HorseSense" we attempt in our modest way to keep you up to date on some of the key players and their new deals. This isn't simply trivia. It's important for teachers, parents, students and activists to have at least some information about key players in the industries that shape policy and research in education. Under-our-nose acquisitions, partnerships and mergers can make individual corporations seem smokier, less direct, in their lines of accountability to public money. See our coverage of scoring errors in the SAT and California High School Exit Exam (CASEE) earlier this year. In a new maneuver to aquire a competitive edge in teaching writing through computer assessment, Educational Testing Service (ETS) has teamed up with Great Source, a division of publishing heavyweight Houghton Mifflin. Houghton Mifflin announced in a May 30 press release that its Great Source division will now "market and distribute subscriptions to a co-branded version of ETS’s Criterion Online Writing Evaluation." "Distribute subscriptions" means selling and managing sales. Co-branding is a partnership marketing strategy between corporations seeking to corner or control a market. According to a term coined by Brandenburger and Nalebuff (1996) this maneuver is called "coopetition." Such connections are not always clearly advertised to the public. (Consider how the connection between Philip Morris and Kraft Foods became camouflaged in 2002 when the parent corporation was re-named Altria Group.) ETS's Criterion online writing program for grades 4-university will now complement Great Source's Write Source textbooks. According to John Oswald, senior Vice President of ETS Elementary and Secondary Education, "By working together, we can reach more schools with stronger resources that give students the practice they need to become clear, fluent, and effective writers." And there's more: In a development announced by ETS June 6, Criterion has also partnered with Educere, "a respected provider of virtual education services to K-12 schools." The ETS announcement of the Educere partnership makes no reference to the new Great Source connection, an announcement reserved for a previous, separate release. In effect, however, we now have an alliance between Criterion, Educere and Write Source--with quite a corporate trail in the wings.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Teacher Watch--Formative Assessment Agenda

Recent public outrage over scoring errors in the SAT and California High School Exit Exam (HSEE) has again inflamed national, if temporary, questions about high-stakes benchmark testing--and the unregulated corporations which create and adminster such programs, at the state and national level. Part of the concern is that many test corporations subsist on continuous public funding for each trial, error and profit. But as eggregious as these momentary scandals may seem to parents, students and teachers, it's important to keep in mind that corporations such as Harcourt and the Educational Testing Service (ETS) have long shifted their eyes to something much more lucrative, long-term and mostly unquestioned: formative assessments. Roughly, as teachers already know, "formative assessments" are seen as practice tools to prepare students to succeed on high-stakes, benchmark tests that occur perhaps once or twice a year. High-stakes benchmarks at the state level, such as the CAT-6 in California, are used to determine rankings of Adequate Yearly Progress under the No Child Left Behind Act. Such results can affect funding for schools, not to mention the real-estate rates in your neighborhood. National high-stakes benchmark tests include the PSAT and new SAT test, which affect student entry into colleges and universities, and can also affect individual student options for scholarships and other funding. By comparison, "formative" test sounds kinder and gentler--it's just like studying, right? As articulated by CEOs at the 2005 Association of Test Publishers "Innovations in Testing" Conference, what test publishers mean by "formative assessment" is literally constant assessment. Via tools such as remote control, internet question banks and automated, instant online grading software programs, the formative assessment agenda seeks to break down barriers between "testing" and "curriculum" so that they literally mean the same thing. The buzzphrase for this is "integrated" testing. The argument, of course, is that teachers are always preparing students for tests anyway, so more automated and standardized formative practice would simply make the whole process user-friendly for everyone. Two months ago, ETS acquired the assets of Assessment Training Institute (ATI), a Portland Oregon company which specializes in integrating assessment with day-to-day instruction. In an official press release dated March 8 2006, John Oswald, ETS Senior Vice President of Elementary and Secondary Education, says, "ATI's people and products will broaden ETS's educational solutions, including minute-to-minute assessment for learning in the classroom, periodic benchmark testing to validate and adjust instruction, and high-stakes summative state assessments." Richard (no relation to Henry) Higgins, CEO of ATI, calls the approach "assessment FOR learning." You can read the entire press release here. The key is that big-money testers know how to diversify their portfolio. Corporations such as ETS are already planning creative recovery from possible fallout over inevitable, isolated squabbles over a few high-stakes tests. If George Orwell were still alive, he'd repeat that the domestic counterpart to a state of chronic war with an enemy somewhere else is a state of chronic surveillance at home. In the next generation, unless we resist, compulsory schools will be the primary (and invisible) front for this battle.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

SAT Errors: An Invisible Partner? or, Testing in Fantasia

You may have seen TV or newspaper coverage this past week regarding errors on October's SAT test for 4,000 high school students. Reportedly, the discrepancies ranged from 10 to 200 points on the now 2,400-point exam. Both FOX and Los Angeles Times reports included contact with representatives of the nonprofit College Board founded in 1900, whose best known "educational quality" programs include the SAT, PSAT/NMSQT and AP exams. FairTest reiterated its call for government regulation of the testing industry. (Remember: there are currently no legal restrictions on high stakes tests, no accountability for the accountability-makers, represented by the Association of Test Publishers, or ATP.) An interesting sidenote: No report has pointed out that the College Board doesn't score its own exams. The nonprofit Educational Testing Service (ETS)--last Fall granted a lucrative monopoly on scoring and administering the High School Exit Exam program for the state of California--is the exclusive scoring entity for the SAT and other College Board tests. Somehow, ETS has been well insulated from the latest national gaffe. But it's a small world after all. Yesterday, a story appeared about an error in scoring the California High School Exit exam for 400 Long Beach sophomores, who will need to retake the exam because answer sheets were misplaced en route to the scoring site. ETS spokesperson Tom Ewing insisted that it was "fairly rare" for answer sheets to be lost. But look at the layers of the story: California-contracted ETS had subcontracted Pearson Educational Measurement to subcontract arrangements for transportation of the score sheets. The courier DHL seems a too-convenient scapegoat, and even Long Beach School District officials seem way too pacified that ETS has admitted the error (um, what else could ETS do? as yet, there's no magic wand for missing tests). Kudos to the Long Beach Press-Telegram for covering the story. So Friends, who's keeping score on the scorekeepers? (I've heard a rumor that one teacher plans a visit to ETS's annual "teacher leadership" conference at the end of June. Where? Why Walt Disney World, of course!)

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

One Tough Stand for Better Schools: Interview with Don Perl

Think that "opting out" of standardized assessment is too controversial? too tall an order for any reasonable person? Think again.

In this interview with Jo Scott-Coe, Don Perl talks about how a coalition of concerned Colorado citizens are standing up and speaking out for better education--gasp!--without testing.

Jo Scott-Coe: How did you come to be concerned about the impact of standardized testing on schools?

Don Perl: 2001 was my last year in the public schools. I taught in an inner city junior high school - which during my last year became a middle school. About half of my students spoke Spanish at home, and although they were fluent in English, since it wasn't their home language, they were at a disadvantage. I was also one of only a few bilingual teachers at our school and was often called to translate conversations between administrators and parents. I saw parents struggling to understand a foreign system. And the more I read about high-stakes standardized testing, the more I saw the injustices at work, and the more I saw a system truly designed to marginalize our society even more. I remembered the phrase "in loco parentis" that I had heard often when I was an aspiring teacher. We don't want any harm to come to our children. This testing mania was harmful to them. Thus, I could not in good conscience administer the test. And so I committed an act of civil disobedience by boycotting the administration of the test. That was February, 2001.

JSC: What consequences did you face professionally?

DP: I was suspended for two weeks without pay - the two weeks that the test was administered then. When I returned to school, the atmosphere was so charged, I thought seriously for the first time that maybe this should be my last year. In early April I composed a letter of resignation of one sentence. It said, "So displeased am I with the direction public education is going that I have decided to make this my last year in District 6." I put a copy in the principal's mailbox and sent one to the superintendent. I saw the principal later that day in the hall, and she gave me a look of something like, "Thank God." We never spoke of it.

JSC: When and how did the Coalition for Better Education (CBE) get started?

DP: CBE really got started in February of 2004. At that time I was working on the language of a proposed ballot initiative. I also was working with some latino students from our Cesar Chavez center, a center for hispanic college students. I would meet with the students from time to time - and we staged two protests of the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) - we gathered on the sidewalk with signs and literature. One of the students, an aspiring teacher, started a website, and when our ballot initative was approved, our coalition was born. Right now we have 450 members on our list serve. I probably hear from 30 or 35 from time to time. We are all parents, grandparents, teachers, and just concerned citizens.

JSC: Describe your latest campaign to raise awareness about "opting out" of the state's standardized testing program. What problems and frustrations have you encountered? What successes?

DP: The latest campaign to raise awareness about "opting out" of CSAP concerns the purchase of signs on bus benches in the Denver metropolitan and Greeley areas. We raised about $1,950 this year to pay for advertisements. With that money we bought 20 signs for bus benches in Denver and 5 in Greeley (60 miles to the north.)

There was quite a bruhaha here in Greeley over the signs because someone ordered the signs be taken down. When we contacted the media and they published the story, someone within the city bureaucracy admitted to having made a mistake, and so our signs will go back up in Greeley. NextMedia, the company we contracted with, promises that those infamous signs should be up in a week or so. They read: “Parents: we can do something about this injustice." Then there is our logo, and then our website -

JSC: What do you see as the currently most pressing problem in K-12 education?

DP: To me the most pressing problem in our public schools has its roots in a lack of faith in the profession. This lack of faith has lead to the furor and insanity of high-stakes standardized testing. Instead of our society addressing the issues of poverty, we turn a blind eye and insist that our teachers get better and that society watch them through the hopelessly inadequate tool of test scores. 22% of our children, in this incredibly wealthy nation, are living in poverty.

JSC: Do you also see consequences, though, even for students who are more economically privileged? These are the kids most likely to be hardwired into the system, most likely to help perpetuate testing as “key” to meaningful measurement--whether they work in schools or in business. How are tests redefining "learning" and "school"?

DP: I see tectonic plates separating, separating more and more. So the privileged, hardwired into the system, as you aptly said, are increasingly marginalized from those who are struggling financially. With this kind of marginalization come frightening spectres such as more misunderstandings, more prejudice, a world increasingly more out of tune. High-stakes testing, by definition, ignores some truly important concepts such as co-operation, curiosity, and sense of community. Our world is such a mess. Not only do we have to think about preparing our children for its insanities, but we also have to work to improve the world for them.

JSC: Connecticut has recently pursued legal action over the No Child Left Behind Act. What legislative or legal measures are brewing in Colorado?

DP: Here in Colorado two legislators are looking to forward a bill which will de-claw CSAP, that is require school districts to inform parents of their exemption rights, and require that no negative consequences flow from such an option. We are hoping that this bill gets a lot of attention. However, the reality is that the governor (Bill Owens) has already announced that he would veto it even if it gets as far as his desk.

JSC: At last year’s National Governers’ Association Summit on national high schools, your governor talked about resolving the “Colorado paradox”--defined as more college degrees per capita than any other state, but a lagging population of students going on to college. What do you make of the “paradox” and his proposed solutions?

DP: His proposed solutions fail to address the socio-economic problems we all face. The true problems are in the dark and around the corner, and they deal with poverty, a minimum wage that hasn't been raised in years, neighborhoods whose water contains dangerous levels of lead, poor nutrition and all the attendant social problems. And I have to say that a university education is not for everyone. We need skilled people who ply a trade and perfect a craft. Politicians put the university education on some sort of pedestal without thinking of the need people have to develop their own individual gifts for the commonweal.

JSC: For a layperson, the idea of "merit pay" in schools may seem like good sense. What are the benefits and drawbacks? What is CBE's position on current "merit pay" proposals pending in Denver?

DP: Merit pay is founded on the notion that teachers seek out mediocrity. We can not force any artificial program of what is titled "merit pay" on our profession. Let us say that you feel called to teach in an inner city school. Your children come to the classroom with a set of experiences and issues planets away from the students who attend more affluent schools. What are the eating habits of our children? How much lead is there in the water? How do they live? Is there violence at home? All this and more impacts education. Would we fault a dentist who plied his trade in a low income neighborhood because his patients had more cavities than the patients of his colleague whose office served an affluent population? Should we fault teachers because their road of life took them to needier neighborhoods?

JSC: How possible or difficult is it to facilitate efforts with activists in other states?

DP: We are just beginning to converse with activists in other states. Thanks to this technology, the roadways are opened, and we are hoping that a national movement does grow.

JSC: What inspires you to keep going? What's most discouraging?

DP: I am inspired by parents and teachers who contact us, who thank us for being a resource for them. I am also inspired by other members of our coalition who share the incredible stories of both courage and abuse which are occurring regularly in education today. What is most discouraging is how so often supposedly thoughtful people, political leaders, so distanced from the real world of our children, become so enamored by the golden calf of unidimensional measurement.

JSC: What changes do your foresee in the next 10-20 years for American classrooms?

DP: I have great hopes that the monster will implode. But we have to make this happen. So often people will tell me, this too will pass. Yes, but only if we make it pass. If we wait for the world to turn, incredible societal damage will have been meted out.

JSC: You work from a university "base" to organize parents, K-12 teachers, academics and others. What has been most challenging about connecting these groups?

DP: The university base has great advantages. This is the community service I offer as part of my professional contribution to this little world here. I frequently make presentations to aspiring teachers and am amazed how little they know about the realities of the classroom in the swath of high stakes standardized testing. However, I am also often treated as a persona non grata from time to time since so many fear change and look to me as the person responsible for those fears.

JSC: Interesting. I sometimes receive blank or quizzical stares from experts who claim to be “deeply concerned” about reading and writing instruction. It can be depressing that practical experience isn’t always welcomed into the academy, especially from anyone straddling the line between K-12 and “higher” education. Hybrids, and any concerns we bring to the table, are sometimes kind of shunned. What's that all about?

DP: Academics often times think in a hierarchical mode. Once one gives in to that kind of addiction, one loses her focus on what truly benefits our children and their teachers. One's thinking narrows, and fear of change dominates.

** Read about the ongoing controversy over CBE's bus-bench campaign from ground zero in Colorado's Greeley Tribune.