Brave Teachers Speak Out About Testing

If you’re lucky, you never stop learning from teachers. It was hearing the courageous voices of public school teachers that pushed me to think more closely about high-stakes-testing and its impact on our children. But teachers are between a rock and a hard place. It’s very hard for most to say anything, even if they see great damage being done to their students and their schools, because their jobs are literally on the lines. The very same forces that created this high-stakes system gagged and handcuffed teachers (and now principals), preventing some of the strongest advocates for kids – especially our most vulnerable kids – from speaking up. (And perversely, when they do, they are often accused of trying to protect their jobs, rather than students.)

So I applaud those who take a stand and help the rest of us see what is going on, as two more Pittsburgh teachers did this week. Mary King has a beautiful op-ed in the Post-Gazette today explaining why she is a conscientious objector and will not administer the PSSAs to her students this year. She may be the first teacher in Pennsylvania to do so and her action recalls a long Quaker and pacifist tradition in this state. Earlier this week, Kipp Dawson testified to the Pittsburgh school board about the way in which testing is hurting her students.

I encourage you to read their moving words, below. And then maybe we should stop and question a high-stakes testing regime that requires our teachers to become conscientious objectors or risk their own livelihoods, just to do what is best for their students. Thank you, brave teachers.

Mary, King: “The PSSAs are Hurting My Kids” [Post-Gazette, 4-22-15]

I am an English as a second language teacher in grades four to eight at Pittsburgh Colfax K-8. The other day one of my ESL students passed me a note with a shy smile as he left our classroom: “Learn English is the best thinks a never have in my life.” My heart melted. This student arrived just last spring with absolutely no English. He is finally starting to speak above a whisper.

But this student is being crushed, intellectually and emotionally. Despite the fact that he is still so new to English, he is in the midst of his scheduled 16 hours of PSSA testing; my other ESL students are scheduled for between seven and 20 hours.

It is my professional opinion that this experience will set my student back, that it will hurt his progress, but my professional opinion will never be weighed against the many requirements — federal, state and district-wide —which demand that these tests be given.

Two more stories about my students:

A girl who returned to her native country in March talked about knowing only a few greetings in English but having to take the PSSA math test during her first week here and how she remembers crying throughout the week. I remember, too.

I also remember the student who had no formal schooling before she became an eighth-grader at Colfax who wrote “I love ESL” repeatedly on her math test to save face with the other students working around her because she was not even able to understand the questions.

It is with these students in mind, and many others, that I have asked the principal of my school to re-assign me during PSSA testing. I can no longer, in good conscience, administer the PSSA. I am ready to become a defender of my students — a conscientious objector.

You might be thinking: “We all took standardized tests each year when we were kids and we’re OK!”

But things have changed. It is no longer the same as when you and I were in school. Most of us had only two mornings of testing, perhaps, in math and reading. Most Pittsburgh Public Schools sixth-graders are required to take 22 standardized tests this year.

You might be thinking, “As a teacher you can use the results of these tests to help the students improve.” But I cannot. The tests are developmentally inappropriate for my students, written far above their grade level.

Worse, neither the students’ families nor their teachers will receive the students’ PSSA test scores until long after the school year has ended. Even then, the individual results, the questions that the students got wrong, will never be known, remaining a mystery for-ever to all except the testing company.

I am a strong advocate for my students within the ESL department and with my colleagues at Colfax. My students need to feel safe and cared about in order to cope with the challenges they face learning a new language and adjusting to a new culture. So this act of conscience is an extension of my advocacy for my students. It might not affect their experience this year, or change any state or district policies, but, for me, it is the right thing to do.

These tests are not helping. They are hurting many of my students. I can no longer, in good conscience, administer the PSSA tests to my students.

Mary King has been teaching for nearly 26 years, all but four of them in Pittsburgh Public Schools. In addition to teaching ESL, she has been a school librarian, language arts teacher and school psychologist. She lives in Squirrel Hill.

Kipp Dawson: Testimony to the Pittsburgh Board of Education, 4-20-15

Last night a member of the Pittsburgh Board of Education thanked me, and other colleagues, for testifying at their public hearing about the realities of the testing tyranny. He said that he’s been raising these issues for a long time, but it means so much more when teachers, who experience these things, speak out. Not all of us feel we can take these steps, but for those of us who can, we should know that our voices mean even more than we might think.

He was responding to my comments which implored Pittsburgh school leaders to join their colleagues who are speaking out. Here is part of the story I told: Until last Tuesday, I would have introduced myself also as a Pittsburgh Public School middle-school teacher. On Tuesday, for nearly half of the day, my title changed to Test Administrator, as did that of almost all of my colleagues in our schools. In that capacity, my role, and that of my colleagues, practically reversed itself. Instead of being the nurturing adults who work to inspire thoughtful and thought-provoking conversation, inquiry, focused reading, and spirited interchanges of ideas and information which spur curiosity and real intellectual growth, we now are enforcers. Of rules we did not participate in creating. Of an atmosphere which is antithetical to the teaching/learning communities we have worked, with our children, to create.

What does this do to our children? I invite you to take with you this image, which I cannot get out of my head, and which is one that compels me to stand before you today.

Two years ago I was teaching a class of middle-school students who were significantly below grade level in reading. Among them was an eighth-grade young-woman-in-development whom I had taught other subjects for the two previous years. That year I had watched her develop from a child who hid behind books and papers, or with her head on desks and tables, into a student who was becoming confident enough to try those academic challenges which she’d assumed would always be beyond her. She was reading aloud with her peers, participating in discussions and written responses to her reading, and, especially, joyfully finding her voice as a writer. She was approaching the coming of high school with a growing confidence, and almost with joy. Then, one day, she took one of those standardized tests. One that would give her immediate feedback. I watched her at the computer. In slow motion it all comes back to me. Daily. She stood up, stumbled to her desk, crawled under it, banged her head on the floor over and over again, crying, “I’m so stupid. I’m so stupid. I’m so stupid . . .” The numbers that came up on the screen had become her self-image. And they were wrong.

The Religious Reasons My Kids Won’t be Taking the Test

As we head into several weeks of high-stakes-testing here in Pennsylvania, I would like to share with you the religious reasons my children will not be taking the state mandated PSSAs. Here is an open letter I sent to Dr. Linda Lane, Superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools; Dr. Lisa Augustin, Director of Assessment; Ms. Jamie Kinzel-Nath, Pittsburgh Colfax K-8 principal; and all of our children’s wonderful teachers.

April 10, 2015

Dear Dr. Lane and Ms. Kinzel-Nath:

Pursuant to Pennsylvania Code Title 22 Chapter 4, section 4.4 (d)(5) I am hereby exercising my right as a parent to have my children, ____________, excused from PSSA testing on the grounds of my religious beliefs. Please allow ­­­­­­­­­___________ to pursue alternate educational activities such as a research project or volunteering in younger classrooms during testing.

I could stop my letter right there, as that is all that is legally required by the state in order to excuse our children from testing. However, as this is our third year writing such letters, I would like to explain the religious grounds we have for refusing to allow our children to be tested. Even though, under law, no state or school official is permitted to ask us about our faith nor require “proof” of our beliefs, I would like to share these religious reasons with you.

We belong to First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, a member of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN), which is active in education justice. Every Sunday, we recite seven principles that unite Unitarian Universalists. Most of these principles are basic moral and philosophical statements shared by all of the world’s major religions. They reflect the common values of most faiths, from “love one another” and “do unto others,” to respect for the spark of the divine in each of us, and the ethical-humanist imperative to leave this world a better place. Please allow me to explain how each of these seven principles has led us to refuse high-stakes-testing for our own children, and on behalf of all children.

  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Every child is valuable – priceless – and has the human right to a rich, full education. Respecting the inherent worth of every child also means treating each student as an individual, and not a widget being produced in a factory. Standardized testing, tied to an ever more standardized common core curriculum, sorts students into categories (“below basic,” “basic,” etc.) There are serious consequences to this sorting and labeling (see below), but the underlying premise of this standardized high-stakes-testing is to compare and rank students – not to support the individual learning of each student.

This is clearly evident when schools use standardized, normed tests, which force all students into a bell curve, guaranteeing that a large proportion of the children will fail. To get that nice bell shape of test results, with exactly half of the children falling on the “below average” side of the curve, the tests are carefully designed with purposefully misleading questions. For instance, test makers will use tricky sound-alike answers to intentionally trip up English language learners, or culturally specific clues most easily decoded only by students from wealthy families. Pittsburgh is subjecting students to the normed GRADE test not once, but three times a year (a result of accepting state money that came with testing strings attached). Teachers have been reporting the problematic GRADE test questions for years, but the test-maker has not changed them because this “assessment” requires a set failure rate. In what way does this kind of standardized testing respect the inherent worth of our students? When students’ test scores are then displayed for all to see on “data walls” (an increasingly common practice in our schools), how does this respect the dignity of each child?

  1. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

While advocates claim that high-stakes-testing will hold teachers and schools accountable for student learning and therefore promote equity, it often does the exact opposite by reinforcing inequality. High-stakes-testing labels our schools as “failures,” but never results in additional resources to actually help kids. Instead, “failing” schools are often targeted for closure. When you look at the pattern of school closures across the country – including here in Pittsburgh – you can see that districts have closed schools in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods, displacing some students multiple times. Our communities of color have been harmed the most, with places like Oakland and Hazelwood turned into education deserts without a single neighborhood public school.

Schools labeled as “failing” on the basis of student test scores are often targeted with other “reforms” that rarely help children. Our own beloved Colfax provides an excellent example of the “disruptive innovation” imposed on supposedly failing schools. Nine years ago when our family first started at Colfax, its large achievement gap had recently earned it a designation as a “turnaround school.” The district fired every single teacher and the principal then handpicked an entirely new teaching staff. The idea, of course, was that we had to get rid of the “bad” teachers and hire only “great” teachers and that would solve the problem of low test scores. Fast forward almost a decade and you can see that this didn’t work: Colfax still has one of the largest achievement gaps in the city (which is really an opportunity gap made highly visible by the presence of families from some of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest and poorest communities together in the same school).

During this same decade, Colfax students also experienced a relentless series of “reforms,” all aimed at increasing test scores. When we started, Colfax was a Spanish language immersion school, then we lost the extra language instruction to become an “Accelerated Learning Academy” focused on reading and math. We got an America’s Choice curriculum that was supposed to solve everything and added extra periods of reading. We got a longer school day and a longer school year. We got a Parent Engagement Specialist. Then we lost the curriculum, lost the extra time and days, and lost the parent specialist. The district changed to a 6 day week, so we could cram in extra reading and math periods, since these are tested subjects, resulting in a net loss of music, art, language, and physical education. With state budget cuts we lost more music and athletic programs, and we even lost our after school tutoring program aimed at those very students whose test scores continue to cause so much alarm. And class sizes ballooned to 30, sometimes 35 and more students.

Imposing constant churn and disruption on our most vulnerable students in the pursuit of higher test scores is not education justice. Worse, the relentless high-stakes-testing has served to re-inscribe inequality. We recently heard from Jon Parker, a Pittsburgh high school teacher, who explained what high-stakes-testing is doing to students’ sense of self worth in his classroom. Every year, he asks his students to write him a letter introducing themselves. In his class of struggling readers this year, over half of the students included their most recent PSSA rating as part of their introduction. They literally said things like, “I’ll work hard but I’m below basic.”

Mr. Parker explains, “the tragic message from our high stakes test environment is ‘you are your score.’ And if we tell a student he’s below basic regularly from the time he’s in kindergarten, what else would we expect of him? One of the stated goals of No Child Left Behind was to combat the ‘soft racism of low expectations.’ But instead it has created a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies. ‘You have failed in the past; you will fail forever.’ I cannot imagine where I would be if I had that school experience, but I can guarantee you I wouldn’t be here.”

Mr. Parker also examined the ways in which high-stakes-tests are used to exclude students from high-quality courses and programs. He gave the example of a young woman of color in his class right now with a 4.0 GPA – “one of the most well-rounded and motivated students I’ve ever had” – who will be excluded from taking the advanced math and science courses she would like to take next year solely because of a test score.

What’s more, Mr. Parker argued that if high-stakes-tests are meant to indicate which students need support so teachers can help them, they are miserably failing this most basic task. Instead, administrators and teachers makes lists of “bubble students” who are close to the passing mark and focus their energy on moving these students up to “proficient.” The students with the most needs, struggling at the very bottom, are passed over: “they are neglected, perpetuating what has probably been the whole of their educational experience. ‘You’re a failure; you’re not worth our time.’ Then we wonder why we have such disparity in opportunities, a lack of student or family buy-in, negative attention seeking behaviors (for which we then suspend students).”

So if our students who need the most help never get that help, where is the equity? If a young woman of color with 4.0 GPA wants to take advanced math and science classes but and can’t because of a single test score, where is the justice? If children now label themselves with their own test scores and literally believe themselves to be “below basic,” where is our compassion?

  1. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.

Part of accepting one another is recognizing that we each have unique gifts and strengths. We are not all the same. Some students excel in trombone or slam poetry, or are highly empathetic or fantastic story tellers: none of which gets measured by high stakes testing. I am concerned about the intellectual growth of our students as well as the nurturing of their individual spirits. I believe in real learning and more learning time for our children. I support quality assessments that help our children learn and provide meaningful information to teachers to help them meet the needs of individual students. I want tests, ideally designed by teachers, which align with the curriculum and give timely, informative results to parents and students.

  1. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

As a scholar, I am committed to a free and responsible search for truth and I highly value data and evidence in that quest. We now have a mountain of evidence about the negative consequences of the high-stakes attached to testing, as well as the over-use and mis-use of testing. To summarize, these are some of the high-stakes for students:

  • Lost learning time: there’s less time for learning with testing and test prep (for instance, Pittsburgh students now take 20-25, or more, high-stakes tests a year). We have reports in the district this week of students covering up the walls to prepare for testing, rather than spending their time learning.
  • Reduced content knowledge: research shows that students are learning how to take high-stakes-tests, but cannot demonstrate subject mastery when tested in a different format. In other words, they are not actually learning. [Koretz, 2008]
  • Narrowed curriculum: with a focus on reading and math scores, students lose history, civics, world languages, the arts, and other programs.
  • Decreased ability to write: writing portions of high-stakes standardized tests are graded by hourly employees – not teachers – who are often recruited from Craig’s list and paid minimum wage. To “pass” these tests, students are taught a narrowly confined way to answer writing prompts.
  • Subjected to stale, dull methods: educators report that the focus on high-stakes-testing and test-prep means they cannot be creative and innovative in their teaching.
  • Missed teachers and classes: intense security measures prevent teachers from overseeing testing in their own classrooms, so teachers from non-testing classrooms (such as Kindergarten teachers) are frequently pulled from their students to proctor exams.
  • Used as guinea pigs: schools and districts routinely agree to allow their students to “field test” new questions and entire exams for testing corporations without notifying parents or compensating students. Teachers are expected to give a test they did not design, on material they did not teach, to students who will not learn anything from the experience. Those teachers, students, and their parents will never see the results. Last year when the district field-tested text dependent analysis, one principal told us students ripped up the tests and said they couldn’t do it. Field testing further reduces actual learning time and contributes to the stress imposed on our children.
  • Shut out of programs: high stakes exclude students when test results count as extra weight in magnet lotteries or for entrance to gifted programs or advanced courses.
  • Diverted resources: the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on testing in Pennsylvania are not available for classroom education. Most high-stakes tests are written by and benefit the bottom line of a handful of large international corporations. For instance, the new School Performance Profile system, largely based on student test scores, cost Pennsylvania taxpayers $2.7 million to develop and it will cost an estimated $838,000 every year to maintain. This does not include the five-year, $201.1 million contract with Data Recognition Corporation to administer high-stakes-tests to our students. Dr. Greg Taranto, Pennsylvania Middle School Teacher of the Year and member of Gov. Wolf’s education transition team, recently shared with us that state testing will cost us $58 million this year!
  • School closures: schools labeled as “failing” on the basis of test scores can be threatened with closure. These schools are usually in communities of color.
  • Loss of curiosity and love of learning: bubble tests are developmentally inappropriate for the youngest learners, yet are routinely being pushed down into Kindergarten in an attempt to get students “test ready.” The emphasis on “skill drill and kill” fails to stimulate children’s imagination and limits their natural curiosity. At Colfax, I’m concerned this has meant that our “enrichment” period has turned into an extra period of reading skills for most students.
  • Blocked access to facilities: as more and more tests are given on-line, many schools find their computer labs taken over by testing for weeks on end and not available for learning.
  • Harmful stress: children are pressured to not only demonstrate their knowledge but to represent the effectiveness of their teachers and their schools. Teachers are reporting children throwing up, losing control of their bowels, and increased commitments for psychiatric and anxiety issues. Mandated testing conditions, particularly for some special education students, border on child-abuse and some parents are reporting evidence of self-harming behaviors.
  • Internalized failure: struggling students forced to repeatedly take tests that label them “below basic” begin to believe they are “bad” or “worthless” students who cannot succeed in school.
  • Grades: some high-stakes tests are included in students’ grades.
  • Graduation requirements: as Pennsylvania introduces the Keystone graduation exams, evidence suggests that up to 60% of our students of color will be forced out of school without a diploma on the basis of a single score.
  • Altered school culture: schools must empty their walls and hallways for many weeks; classes are under lock-down with limited access to restrooms; some turn to daily announcements or even pep rallies to “prepare” students for testing and all-school field trips to “celebrate” testing (rather than actual learning).
  • Private data tracked: testing companies are tracking an enormous amount of information on our students, from test scores to even discipline data on children. Dr. Taranto told us, “this fact is not disclosed to parents” and he asks, “Who has access to this information? Who will have access to this student data down the road?”
  • Loss of enrichment: schools are eliminating academic field trips and pressuring teachers not to participate in activities that would take students out of school to maximize classroom time (for test prep). During PSSA testing, Pittsburgh’s gifted center also closes so those teachers can be reassigned to proctor the exams in other district schools.

With all of that evidence that high-stakes-testing is hurting students, changing their schools for the worse, and reducing real learning, why are we still giving so many standardized tests? Steve Singer, a teacher in the Steel Valley School District, points out that some tests can serve a political purpose. For instance, the DIBELS test, used to evaluate reading, is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and “cut scores are being artificially raised to make it look like more students are failing and thus our schools aren’t doing a good job.” Yet Mr. Singer explains that the DIBELS “doesn’t assess comprehension,” and “rewards someone who reads quickly but not someone who understands what she’s reading.” Also, he explains that, “focusing on pronunciation separate from comprehension narrows the curriculum and takes away time from proven strategies that actually would help [a student] become a better reader.”

My son’s experience with the DIBELS illustrates the way in which standardized tests can be used as gatekeepers, excluding even very high achieving students from accessing appropriate programs. My son was a “late” reader (which is not really true: he learned to read when he was developmentally ready in the third grade, and became a voracious, wonderful reader). But when he was in second grade, we were told his DIBELS score was too low to allow him to take an accelerated math class. He had taught himself multiplication at the age of four and was bored out of his mind in class. But the teacher had her orders: students needed to be reading 100 words per minute or could not advance to anything else. During our conversation with her about this, she called our son over and said, “I notice that you spend a lot of time looking out the window, like you were just now. Why are you daydreaming?” To which he answered, “Well, I was thinking about how if you have a ball in your hand, and drop it, and it hits the floor but doesn’t come all the way back up, where did that energy go?” I kid you not. He was seven years old and this was his response. The teacher looked right at us and said, “But see? He’s not reading 100 words per minute.”

Ideally, teachers are able to use test scores as just one data point among many to determine what students need to support their learning. But the hyper-focus on testing – and accountability measures that hold teachers responsible for getting every student over developmentally-arbitrary thresholds – means that time and again students are not treated as whole, complex learners, but rather reduced to a single score.

Testing advocates tell us that we must test every child, every year in order to identify inequality and drive reform (something no other high-education-achieving nation in the world does). But we have ample evidence from education researchers that high-stakes-testing is not improving schools. Over 2,000 education researchers recently sent an open letter to the Obama administration and Congress: citing reams of data, the researchers wrote, “we strongly urge departing from test-focused reforms that not only have been discredited for high-stakes decisions, but also have shown to widen, not close, gaps and inequities.” The letter went on to quote evidence at length from a new policy memo from the National Education Policy Center, which effectively summarizes a “broad research consensus that standardized tests are ineffective and even counterproductive when used to drive educational reform.”

Evidence also shows serious problems with using high-stakes-testing to evaluate and rate schools. For example, a detailed analysis of the state’s new School Performance Profile (SPP) rating system found that – despite its claim to use “multiple measures” to evaluate schools and teachers – 90% of the calculation is based on high-stakes standardized tests. Yet “these measures are closely associated with student poverty rates and other out- of-school factors.” In other words, the tests are very good at measuring one thing: a family’s socio-economic status. Even the much-touted Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System (PVAAS) component of the score, which is supposed to calculate projected student growth while controlling for out-of-school factors, instead strongly correlates with poverty. The report raises “questions about whether the measures are a valid and reliable measure for purposes of school accountability.” In essence, schools are being held accountable, not for what students learn, but for the poverty level of the families they serve.

Similarly, teachers are being evaluated on the basis of the test scores of their students. This is an invalid use of data, violating a basic principle of assessment, since those tests were never designed to measure teacher effectiveness. You can’t take a test created to measure one thing and use it to measure another. Nevertheless, the entire teacher evaluation system is built on just this assumption. In fact, the Value Added Model (VAM) used to evaluate teacher “effectiveness,” assumes that student test scores are the result of a specific teacher, independent of all other factors. Yet the American Statistical Association (ASA) released a report last spring strongly warning about the limitations of VAM models, explaining, “Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores” and that “Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.” The statistical researchers concluded, “This is not saying that teachers have little effect on students, but that variation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences.”

My son’s situation reveals how inappropriate the entire VAM system can be. He is now several years ahead in math and takes his class at the high school each morning, before returning to Colfax for the rest of the day. However, the state would require him to take a PSSA several grade levels below where he is currently working. In what way would this assess his actual learning this year? This test is clearly not about helping my son in any way: it’s about evaluating his teacher. But if he scores at the very top of the PSSA, as he is bound to do, he is simply demonstrating the ceiling effect – there is no way to “show growth” for this student. Yet his teachers are accountable for the “growth” in each student’s test score. Furthermore, which teacher should we hold accountable for his score – the math teacher at Colfax who does not even have him in school this year? His math teacher at the high school who is not teaching him the material covered on the PSSA?

The American Education Research Association and the National Academy of Education released a report showing that VAM models are highly unstable: teachers rated highly effective one year, are frequently rated ineffective the next. Their ratings also differed substantially between classes taught in a single year. The report also confirmed that teachers’ VAM ratings were significantly affected by the demographics of the students they taught: even when VAM calculations tried to account for this, teachers’ scores were negatively impacted by working with poor students, English language learners, and students with special education needs. Finally, this report demonstrated that VAM ratings “cannot disentangle the many influences on students progress” and stated “most researchers have concluded that VAM is not appropriate as a primary measure for evaluating individual teachers.”

Yet as we place more and more emphasis on holding teachers, principals, and entire schools accountable for student test scores, we have seen a plague of adult cheating scandals erupt across the country. We should not be surprised, since Campbell’s Law in social science states that the more a quantitative measurement is used to make decisions, the more subject it becomes to corruption and the more likely it is to corrupt the thing it was supposed to measure. This is exactly what has happened, with the conviction of 11 former teachers in Atlanta this week who are now facing 5-20 years in prison for changing answers on student tests to raise scores. The superintendent of El Paso, Texas is currently in prison for taking low-performing students out of classes in order to increase the district’s test scores. In Ohio several cities apparently listed low-performing students as “withdrawn” to remove their scores from school totals. Some charter schools are well known for the “charter dump,” pushing students out just before testing season in order to inflate their test scores (sending students back into traditional public schools, where their new teachers will be held accountable for their learning). In Washington D.C. former superintendent Michelle Rhee – now the darling of the corporate reform movement who is famous for publicly firing a principal and massive school closures – oversaw her own “Erasure-gate” but was never held accountable. And right here in Pennsylvania our own former state Secretary of Education, Rom Tomalis, was caught both lying and cheating about student test scores (and then went on to occupy a ghost-job in the state capitol, making $140,000 a year but not showing up for work).

So why are we doing this? Why are we using our children’s test scores to feed a teacher evaluation system that not only doesn’t work, but actually harms teachers who work with our most vulnerable children? Finally, this Unitarian principle requires a commitment to a responsible search for truth, which means we have to be willing to examine the consequences of our own seeking. What if the collection and use of data on student achievement, as measured by test scores, is actually causing harm?

  1. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

I am exercising my right of conscience by refusing to allow my children to take these tests. Our family cannot and will not be complicit in a system that we see harming others and damaging our common good.

High-stakes testing has also interfered with the democratic process. In many cities that lack democratically elected school boards, mayoral appointees have used high-stakes testing to label schools as failures and then moved to close them in unprecedented waves. Chicago is still reeling from the mass closure of 50 schools in 2013, almost entirely in communities of color. In cities like Philadelphia and New York, state or mayoral control has resulted in the privatization of public schools, handing over large numbers to private charter operators. Where is the democratic process when parents and communities no longer have a voice in public education and what is best for their children? When hedge fund managers are pouring enormous amounts of money into local school board races across the country to stack the deck in favor of privatization? When private charter operators are some of the biggest political donors in the state and refuse to comply with Pennsylvania’s sunshine open-records laws?

  1. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

Pennsylvania’s new Keystone exams pose a particular concern for education justice, as they threaten to fail enormous numbers of poor students and students of color, preventing them from graduating (one of the highest stakes of all for students). The Pennsylvania NAACP has demanded the removal of the Keystones as graduation requirements, calling the use of these tests a “present day form of Eugenics.” With pass rates last year at some impoverished schools in the single digits, how will this form of high-stakes-testing create justice for all? And where there is no justice, there is no peace.

In a letter to the PA Department of Education, the NAACP wrote, “Attaching the Keystone Examinations to graduation is clearly based on the idea that it is possible to distinguish between superior and inferior elements of society through selective scores on a paper and pencil test. … Pushing masses of students out of high school without a diploma will create a subculture of poverty comprised of potentially 60 percent of our young citizens.” The letter uses strong language to object to the impact of high-stakes-testing on our most vulnerable children, including: “human rights violation…unspeakable horror…holocaust on our youth and society…life-long trauma… a system of entrapment for the youth of Pennsylvania…depraved indifference…deficient in a moral sense of concern…lacks regard for the lives of the children who will be harmed, and puts their lives and futures at risk…lynching of our own young.”

If we are serious about the goal of education justice, how can we ignore the impact these tests will have on an entire generation of children denied diplomas, with life-long consequences? Where is their liberty and their freedom?

  1. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

To me, this principle evokes Martin Luther King’s famous quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We are all connected – in an interdependent web of existence – and the oppression and harm caused to other people’s children, causes harm to all of us. We are all harmed by allowing oppression and oppressive systems to continue.

It doesn’t have to be this way. This entire system is only about 15 years in the making. Other countries that we admire greatly for their highly effective education systems do not test like this. If researchers need data to compare we could test sample groups of students, rather than every child. We could test every few years, instead of every year. We could remove the high-stakes for kids and teachers, and go back to using assessments to measure student learning, with the goal of helping students. We could admit that our most vulnerable students – our students living in poverty, our English language learners, our students with special education needs – don’t need more testing, but rather smaller class sizes; a rich, engaging, culturally relevant curriculum; and well supported teachers with adequate resources.

Respectfully submitted,

Jessie B. Ramey, Ph.D.

Cutting PE

OK, I’ll admit it. If there was one class in high school that I was tempted to cut, it was PE (no, mom, I never skipped class – I was way too much of a rule follower to do that). I was no athlete, though I did play on the volleyball team, and Phys Ed was generally torture for me. I think I still have dodge ball nightmares. But my own kids have had two terrific PE teachers who have demonstrated to me just how important a quality gym program can be for students. And now instead of cutting PE, I’m worried about proposed cuts to PE.

Tonight at the Pittsburgh school board’s public hearing, a number of people are speaking out about proposed changes to the district’s PE requirements. The changes are part of a package of new high school graduation requirements, which would halve the number of required PE credits, reducing them from 2 to 1 (each course is a .5 credit). Effectively that means that Freshmen and Sophomores would take gym, but it would be optional for Juniors and Seniors.

My understanding is that the district is trying to make more room for Biology in 9th grade, perhaps adding lab time (though at least some schools have had Freshman biology labs in the past, and still accommodated PE, so I am unsure of this rationale – if this is indeed behind the proposed changes). Some people have told me that there is concern about low student scores on the Keystone exam and that we are trading PE time, which “doesn’t count,” for test-prep time in an area “that counts.” (If that’s true, this would be another example of the consequences for students of high-stakes testing.) There have also been scheduling issues at some schools with upper-class students fitting in their AP courses.

In a meeting a few weeks ago, the district told me the changes were being proposed to bring PE credits in line with other course offerings and to provide more choices. I’m not sure why we can’t continue requiring PE and offer more choices at the same time. Gym was never my favorite class, but I had to take it every year of high school – and it was a whole lot better when I got a chance to choose aerobics (and even archery!) over being pummeled with a dodge ball.

I’m particularly worried about the huge number of students who are not getting adequate daily exercise: a report released last spring by the Institute of Medicine shows that only half of kids are meeting national guidelines. Their “committee recommends that elementary school students spend an average of 30 minutes per day in physical education class, and middle and high school students should spend an average of 45 minutes per day in physical education class.” [Institute of Medicine Report, 5-23-13] That’s 45 minutes every day, not once or twice a week, and not for just two years out of four in high school. If we are serious about the “whole child,” shouldn’t we be thinking about the obesity epidemic?

The bottom line is, with these proposed changes will come additional teacher cuts. Our students have already lost so many of their teachers – and with fewer adults in the building there is a real impact on overall education, not just physical education. For example, my kids’ K-8 school has lost so many adults that there aren’t enough eyeballs to sufficiently staff recess. While rumors are flying and I’ve heard unofficial reports with even higher numbers, here is what I understand the district proposed to the board last week:

  • Allderdice (.5 cut), from 7 to 6.5 teachers.
  • Brashear (3 cuts), from 7 to 4 teachers.
  • Carrick (1 cut), from 4 to 3 teachers.
  • Obama (no cuts) still at 3 teachers.
  • Perry (.5 cut), from 4.5 to 4 teachers.
  • Sci Tech (no cuts) still at 2 teachers.
  • Uprep (2.5 cuts), from 3 to 1.5 teachers.
  • Westinghouse (.5 increase), from 2 to 2.5 teachers.

If the board approves these cuts, it will actually be up to individual school principals to schedule PE courses. I worry that this means we will have another equity issue on our hands, similar to school libraries, with some buildings robbing Peter to pay Paul and keep a full complement of PE offerings, while others use the approved reductions to move resources to other areas. Making PE fungible could lead to more inequity. [See “A Picture is Worth 1,000 Books”]

The Pittsburgh school board will be voting on the proposed changes in graduation requirements at its meeting this Wednesday. Here are the questions I hope they will consider – and that I hope the district will answer, to help us all understand more:

  1. Are our students going to lose more teachers?
  2. Will there be cuts to K-8 teachers and classes as well?
  3. Are we cutting PE to make room for more test-prep (or testable subjects)?
  4. How are students going to have more choices if there are fewer teachers to offer the courses (which already have 45 kids per class, per the collective bargaining agreement)?
  5. Could we not offer choices and require PE all four years in high school?
  6. How does this proposed reduction in PE requirements help PPS meet the national standards for physical exercise?
  7. How will the district ensure equity in PE offerings?

What questions would you add? If you are concerned about this issue, you can write to the PPS board at boardoffice@pghboe.net. But do it quickly – the stopwatch is running and the gym teacher is about to blow the whistle for the last time.

Pointing Fingers

Mea culpa! I’m sorry! I messed up. Last week I posted a comment on an article in the Post-Gazette that caused quite a stir among some of the people whose opinions I care deeply about. I issued a public clarification, but I feel this episode could give us all an opportunity to think through some issues together.

In fact, from its inception, that is what this blog has been about – a place where I have essentially been “thinking out loud,” posing questions, and looking for answers. It has often been a place for public dialogue, with people posting responses and counter arguments. As posts have circulated in social media (and occasionally been picked up in the national media), they – and your reactions to them – have become a part of the public conversation around education justice.

But I should note that this is often a very uncomfortable form of writing for an academic: it’s vulnerable and offers much less shielding than peer review and the lengthy research and publication process. No matter the format, I believe scholars ought to approach their writing with humility, admit they don’t know everything, and be willing to ‘fess up when they step in it. So here goes.

Last week Tony Norman published a column on education, taking some black leaders to task saying, “Their emphasis on teacher evaluations as the key to closing the education gap and spurring black academic achievement is misplaced….” And he noted, “The racial achievement gap and the academic mediocrity of far too many black students is not the creation of diabolical teachers unions determined to protect the jobs of unqualified teachers at the expense of children in urban schools.” [Post-Gazette, 2-18-14] He then turned and pointed the finger at black parents, suggesting they are the real problem in education today.

Now anyone who has read my work surely knows that I do not blame black parents: from my book on black and white families and the history of child welfare, to the over 250 posts on this blog calling for equity and vociferously objecting to racism and the disproportionate impact of education policies such as school closures, discipline, and resource decisions on students of color and communities of color. But I did a poor job of explaining that when I posted my comment:

“Thank you, Tony, for moving the needle on this conversation. It’s time to think bigger about our persistent opportunity gap. Parents and families are a crucial part of the equation — but they, too, must often be supported. I am very excited about the Community Schools strategy put forward by Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, with proposals for working with the mayor’s office, community partners, teachers, parents, faith based groups, foundations, social services, and more. Community Schools can engage entire communities in supporting families and students, and put the resources we need back in our neighborhoods. This is a positive, attainable plan to re-energize our public schools as the hearts of our communities again. I encourage everyone to read:
http://www.gpspgh.org/storage/documents/GPS_Community_Schools_Education_Report.pdf”

In response to a public firestorm around Norman’s article (it seemed everywhere I went last week it was being discussed), and several pointed emails from friends that landed in my inbox, I realized in horror that my comment could be interpreted as support for blaming black parents and I posted this additional note:

“Several people have contacted me in regards to this comment, so I am offering this clarification. I am glad to see a piece that is not simply blaming teachers, which has become a very loud public narrative that I do not find helpful. And I am most indeed very concerned about our achievement/opportunity gaps. But I disagree with Tony’s conclusion: I don’t want to blame parents, either. Substituting parent blame for teacher blame won’t work and plays on long-standing, troubling assumptions about race and families. My hope is that we can find bigger solutions, that address our pernicious equity and resource issues. That is why I am hoping everyone will take the time to read the new GPS report, which offers both vision and solutions.”

Obviously I am excited about the new Great Public Schools Pittsburgh report and am eager for folks to read it, comment, and discuss. I do feel it offers a blueprint for community collaboration that will let us get past pointing fingers at teachers or parents, and focus on bigger answers to the complex problems that vex public education in our city. If I was overly eager to direct people to the report and missed an opportunity to shake my finger at Mr. Norman, I apologize.

Right now, however, I would like to put all those fingers down. I am concerned about the growing divisiveness I have seen over the past year in the education justice movement, especially around the issue of teacher evaluation. (And to the extent that I have contributed to that, I apologize, too.) I have largely resisted writing directly about Pittsburgh’s new evaluation system because it’s extremely complex and I still have more questions than answers. But perhaps now would be a useful time to sketch out what I see and pose some of those questions.

First and foremost, I think we all believe teachers should be evaluated. That’s not the issue. It comes down to the context in which it is done and the way that process impacts students and our schools (not to mention individual teachers).

Here’s my understanding of how the new system works. Most teachers will now receive a score based on 50% observation (a relatively new system called RISE), 15% student ratings (a new system called the Tripod survey), 30% teacher Value-Added Measure (VAM) and 5% school VAM. The value-added system is a complicated formula that attempts to predict how much individual students should learn in a year and then calculates how much they actually grow, on the basis of test scores. The VAM system uses Curriculum Based Assessments (CBAs) and unit assessments, which are given throughout the year, as well as PSSA and Keystone results from the state exams, which are given just once a year. There are VAM scores generated for both individual teachers as well as for the whole school.

I have heard very good things from teachers and administrators alike about the new RISE system, which uses both principal and peer observation. I particularly appreciate that it is done in the spirit of practice improvement and to target professional development. It seems to me that multiple classroom visits by both peers and principal evaluators also means problems can be caught earlier (rather than relying, say, on state test data that is not available until six months later, in the next school year). Presumably, this kind of improved observation can help the district weed out unacceptable teachers more quickly.

I’ve been hearing more mixed results about the Tripod surveys, which students complete about their teachers, especially concerning poorly worded and confusing questions. I learned recently that the survey is made and administered by the Cambridge company, and that we can’t change these questions. But, it’s “only” 15% of the total score, so maybe not enough to get too worried about. (If it’s fair to say that about numbers that affect real human beings.) I am curious if the district is seeing a strong correlation between RISE and Tripod data? In other words, are principal and peer observers seeing the same thing that students are saying?

VAM is where I have the most questions. Again, I am glad that the majority of the teacher’s score is observation based. But with 35% of the score dependent on student test data, I am concerned about the impact on students as we continue to expand the number of tests (for example, so that we can get test data for all teachers, including music and art) and therefore the change in test culture in our schools. For instance, we now see far more test-prep and focus on the tests with posters, morning announcements, pep rallies, and more. And I worry that Pennsylvania will see a similar lawsuit like the one in Florida this week which forced the state to release individual teacher’s names and VAM scores to the media. [Tampa Bay Times, 2-24-14] When that happened in California a few years ago, a highly regarded teacher committed suicide. [LA Times, 9-28-10]

Yet even with my concerns about privacy and individual pieces of the new system, I have listened to and been reassured by Dr. Lane that our teachers will not be force stack-ranked (in other words, the system does not force a certain number of teachers into each category, thereby guaranteeing a particular “fail rate”). I have met with district officials who have described very positive professional development and support structures, some existing, some in the works. And just last week I heard the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee interview Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers president Nina Esposito-Visgitis, who reiterated the union’s support for the entire evaluation system and described the current quibble with the district as a disagreement over where to draw the “cut score” defining unsatisfactory teachers.

So if the district and the union both think this is a worthwhile system, it seems to me it’s time for them to get back together and figure those numbers out so we can move on to talking about much more important things. I have zero interest in the cut-score debate.

I would rather be talking about what kind of professional development and support our teachers need and what they’re getting. I would much rather be talking about how to reduce the overall number of high-stakes tests our kids are taking and how we might work together to change some of those stakes attached to the tests. (For instance, I just learned that students applying to district magnet schools get two extra weights for advanced PSSA scores, while low income status adds only one extra weight: should good test taking count for more than poverty for kids trying to get into some of the district’s best schools?) I want to have an honest conversation about test culture. Heck, I want to talk about the Community Schools strategy and nurses and librarians and early childhood education.

There’s room for disagreement in these conversations, but we could be working together. Here’s what I’ve committed to working on in the coming weeks in the spirit of collaboration and fostering dialogue:

  • I’m delighted to serve on Mayor Peduto’s newly appointed Task Force on Public Education.
  • I’m also thrilled to be working with the Heinz Endowments and several other key community leaders on a proposal to bring a major national education justice conference to Pittsburgh (we are one of two finalists in the running!)
  • On Friday I will be going to Austin along with two other Yinzercation activists, where I’ve been invited to speak at the first national conference of the new Network for Public Education. I look forward to learning more about the national education justice scene and reporting back.
  • On Tuesday, March 11, Yinzercation will be hosting a screening of the new movie, “Standardized,” followed by a community discussion of testing and student learning.
  • On Tuesday, April 8, Yinzercation and PIIN will be co-hosting a gubernatorial candidate debate focused exclusively on education (the only one of its kind in Pennsylvania!). The event will be co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters, and others are coming on board. I’ll have more details for you soon. We need help organizing, so let me know if you’re interested.

I’m inviting all of us to put away the fingers and participate in some good old-fashioned civil discourse.

Too Few Answers

Right now in the debate over whether Pittsburgh ought to sign a contract with Teach for America, “TFA” stands for Too Few Answers. Two weeks ago I posted six questions that our school board ought to be asking before it agrees to any deal with the organization. [See “Six Questions for Teach for America”] That piece generated considerable discussion and just got picked up nationally. [AlterNet.org, 11-21-13]

The Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh coalition also launched a petition asking the school board to delay a vote on the Teach for America contract (and two other issues), until the four new board members are seated in three weeks. As that petition states, “This newly elected board represents the largest board turnover in over two decades, and the new board, duly elected by Pittsburgh voters, should have its say in these important issues.” Over 1,000 people have now signed the petition on-line and in hard-copy formats. (Please sign here and spread the word through your networks.) That is over one thousand Pittsburghers who are paying attention to this issue and have spoken up about a school board matter – that’s not something that happens everyday in this city.

Since I posted the original TFA piece two weeks ago, I have also heard from numerous teachers, teacher-educators, teachers in training, former TFA members, TFA employees, concerned parents, and more. I met with Nicole Brisbane, TFA’s New York-based managing director for new site development, who helped answer a number of my questions. But for every answer, I have heard many new questions, which I have tried to organize into themes below.

Here are four more questions (bringing our total to 10) that the school board needs to ask, followed by three letters to the editor that warrant serious attention. I respectfully urge our school board members to read these, numbered 7 – 10, and then consider all ten questions that the community has brought before it. This is what authentic community engagement looks like. And right now, we have Too Few Answers.

7.  What is a “qualified” teacher for our students? TFA managing director Ms. Brisbane told me that TFA recruits are required to earn their Master’s degree in the two years while they are teaching, so presumably after this point they would have the same certifications as our professional teachers. But Olivia Grace, a teacher-in-training at a local university, pointed out on the blog, “Even in an excellent program, I recognize my first year [teaching] will be my hardest, and that I won’t feel completely competent for at least 5 years.” What do we mean by “qualified”?

Superintendent Dr. Lane has said that it is “pretty hard for us to pull in effective and qualified candidates” in math and science. [Post-Gazette, 11-9-13] But would TFA corps members actually be qualified in these fields? They are certainly not experts. Teach for America recruits college grads from many majors, such as history and literature: would the district be able to restrict its hiring to math and science majors? Dr. Lane also told the Post-Gazette, “We’ve got lots and lots of applications” for elementary teaching spots. Since these are presumably qualified teachers – they have teaching degrees, plan a career in teaching, and clearly want to teach in our district – could we not assign these folks to high school math and science classes? Wouldn’t they actually be more qualified than TFA recruits?

Dr. Lane explained that TFA candidates are attractive because of their “commitment to kids in impoverished neighborhoods, children of color” and she called that “powerful.” [Post-Gazette, 11-9-13] Would that not make certified teachers (even elementary level teachers) applying to work in our district even more attractive, as they plan to dedicate their careers to our children in Pittsburgh? Could we re-visit the grow-your-own concept with the proposed Teacher Academy?

Finally, parent Pam Harbin notes that Westinghouse and U.Prep are generally named as the particularly hard-to-staff high schools. But almost a quarter of their students (24% and 23% respectively) receive special education services – far above the district-wide total of 17%. Pam asks, “How much special ed training do TFA corps members get?” In other words, are TFA recruits qualified to teach our neediest students in our neediest schools?

8.  What is the relationship between the Gates grant and TFA? The motion before the Pittsburgh school board calls for spending $750,000 for a three-year contract with TFA, to be funded by our grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. [Post-Gazette, 11-20-13] Is this a requirement of our grant? Could we spend those funds on other teacher training programs, such as our former proposed Teachers Academy? Or other desperately needed student programs?

9.  What is the long-term plan for TFA in Pittsburgh?  Right now the district tells us that they plan to hire up to 30 recruits. Ms. Brisbane told me it will likely be 15-20 this year, but the contract will be written for 30 to cover the costs of hiring a local executive director. So is the school district covering additional program costs beyond the per-head finder’s fee? At $5,000 per head that TFA charges for each recruit, the proposed $750,000 three-year contract would yield 150 TFA corps members. That would be 50 recruits a year and no one has been talking about that many. If we are only hiring 20 recruits a year for three years, that should cost the district $300,000 – does that mean the additional $450,000 in this contract from our grant money is going to support the local TFA startup costs? What happens after the three-year contract is up – who pays to keep the program going at those rates? Pittsburgh high school teacher Jon Parker commented on the blog:

there is no way on earth that TFA is coming here for 15-30 positions. It may be that number of positions in year one, but when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2015, TFA will have its foot in the door and will not be settling for 30 positions. In Charlotte, NC, Clark County, NV, and Chicago TFA contracts have meant furloughs of experienced teachers who were replaced with TFAers. Ultimately, even with the finder’s fee, a first step TFA teacher will cost the district less money in the short term. Unfortunately this decision will most dramatically impact our students and their families negatively. Pittsburgh needs teachers who want a career in front of our students, not a 2 year commitment. If we are financially strapped, we should be investing our resources in lasting change not a short-sighted contract rushed through without time for public consideration and meaningful dialogue.

10.  Do we need a short-term solution?  The school board is feeling pressured to make a quick decision on the TFA contract “because of the lengthy recruiting and screening process done by Teach for America.” [Post-Gazette, 11-20-13] We’re told time is running out and we need a short-term solution. But Dr. Josh Slifkin, who teaches at both Allderdice and Chatham University (and is a Pittsburgh Public School parent), warns, “I can’t buy into the concept of TFA as a ‘short term solution.’ I’m tired of short-term solutions by organizations who claim to have the silver bullet that will save public schools.” Dr. Slifkin continues:

I have taught scores of graduate and undergraduate students, so many deserving a full-time teaching position in PPS, who remain on the sub list (I see former students all the time—in my school, at my children’s school), have waited so long that they have given up on teaching, or have (finally) found meaningful full-time teaching positions in other local districts. And some of these are those oh-so rare STEM teachers.

PPS needs to do a better job working with our local universities, actively recruiting the talent, and posting and hiring in a timely manner (i.e., before the 11th hour). There are ‘highly qualified’ teachers out there, at preK through secondary levels, who are willing to give a lifetime to teaching, not just a ‘short-term’ (2 year) commitment. … Also, my Chatham students won’t come with a ‘finder’s fee’ attached to their employment. Public education remains a civic duty and civic right, not a way for private institutions to profit. TFA is not and will never be the answer here.

In addition to these new questions, I urge the school board to consider the comments from these three letter writers.

City schools, avoid Teach for America
[Post-Gazette, 11-15-13]
Teach for America is wrong for Pittsburgh (“Pittsburgh Schools May Hire From Teach for America,” Nov. 9). It is from personal experience that I come to this conclusion.

I was a 2010 TFA Philadelphia corps member. I am currently teaching at a charter school. Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane has stated she wants Teach for America for hard-to-fill positions where a diverse applicant pool is difficult to attract. If she is genuinely looking for a diverse applicant pool, then she should avoid the hype that is Teach for America.

With Teach for America, Pittsburgh is guaranteed a specific kind of teacher; one who is inexperienced, unqualified and poorly trained. Not only will the Pittsburgh district receive an influx of unqualified teachers, but a revolving door of inexperienced teachers working with the students who most need a highly qualified one will be opened. One must look no further than urban districts like Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore where TFA has set up shop to see that an invasion of bright, idealistic and hard-working 20-somethings do not have the answers our district is looking for.

My daughter started school this year in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. I believe she deserves the very best and I have seen great potential in PPS. When poor decisions like this are being made by our leadership, one cannot help but question their motives. We can all be sure of one thing: Schools located in our wealthiest suburbs, like Upper St. Clair and Fox Chapel, continue to seek well-qualified career teachers for their already advantaged students.

JORDAN JONES
Park Place

Teacher recruits
[Post-Gazette, 11-19-13]
I read with dismay the proposal by the Pittsburgh Public Schools to hire Teach for America (“City Schools May Hire From Teach for America,” Nov. 9). Any data-driven educator would shun TFA, given its poor outcomes and the rapidity with which its untrained “educators” leave the profession.

Furthermore, the stated rationale given by the Pittsburgh district for working with TFA is that there is a shortage of teachers for certain sciences, like biology and chemistry, in the district. Before working with TFA, the Pittsburgh district should be required to detail publicly its outreach efforts to recruit certified teachers from local universities. I can attest that there are numerous qualified, well-trained and certified science and math graduates in this region.

So, what really is the reason for bringing in Teach for America?

TOM GORDON
Point Breeze
The writer is a professor in the College of Education at Slippery Rock University.

Avoid TFA’s Trap
[Tribune Review, 11-25-13]
Last fall, I was accepted to Teach for America (TFA) in Philadelphia. This autumn, I urge Pittsburgh to reject falling in its trap. TFA is a temporary teacher program. Recent college grads receive five weeks training and commit to two years in the classroom.

After Philadelphia closed over 20 schools and laid off 1 in 5 veteran educators, it placed a cheaper bunch of more than 100 inexperienced TFA corps members in lead teaching positions. Art, music, libraries, counselors, and even nurses were deemed superfluous, leading to the recent tragic death of a 6th grade student.

The community here is outraged at these assaults and fighting back. Last spring, students organized the largest walkouts since 1967. Thousands took to the street to demand support for their teachers and their future.

When I echoed concerns I heard in the community about the role of TFA in harming the district’s schools, the organization told me to silence myself. When I refused, and continued to stand in solidarity with the Philadelphia community demanding support for their public schools, TFA kicked me out.

While TFA claims to provide teachers for hard-to-fill subjects, recruits will not be prepared for them. Last fall, the program encouraged me to join a conference call entitled “Being a great math or science teacher no matter your major.”

If the Board signs a contract with Teach for America it pursues an illusion, not a solution. We must not let TFA do further harm in Pennsylvania. Our students deserve better.

JAY SAPER
Philadelphia

Six Questions for Teach for America

Why would the Pittsburgh school board invite an organization into our schools that could potentially harm students and the district itself? I can’t answer that question, but it appears that is what they are about to do by signing a deal with Teach for America.

Teach for America (TFA) recruits bright young people, fresh from our top colleges, gives them five weeks of training, and sends them to work in mostly urban school districts. To understand the potential problems with TFA, you have to separate these young recruits from the program itself. Some of my own former students have gone into TFA, which is now widely considered an excellent resume builder and has become quite competitive on some college campuses. A couple years ago, a whopping 18% of Yale’s senior class applied to the program. [New York Times, 7-11-10]

While TFA may be a good thing for these young people who wish to experience “the real world” for two years before moving onto their “real careers,” the program is not necessarily helping students. In fact, it may be hurting them. And there are some very big concerns about the damage TFA is doing to public education more generally.

The Pittsburgh Public School board opened the door to TFA when it hired the outside consultants Bellwether and FSG at the beginning of this year to help close the district’s looming budget gap: their winning proposal promised to help the district recruit “high quality teachers” by “building a strong pipeline of talent through partnerships with local universities as well as with major alternative certification providers such as New Leaders, Teach for America, and the Urban Teacher Residency.” [Bellwether and FSG proposal, p. 12] At the time, the district’s director of strategic initiatives in charge of the Bellwether/FSG contract was Cate Reed, a TFA alumna who has since left to do development work for, yes, Teach for America. [Post-Gazette, 8-21-13] Meanwhile, TFA has set up shop in Pittsburgh and is now hiring a Founding Executive Director to plan their expansion into the city by next fall.

Here are six questions the Pittsburgh Public School board should ask before inking any deal with Teach for America:

1.  Will TFA help our students? Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig at the University of Texas Austin and his colleagues “have taken a look at every peer-reviewed research study that examines TFA and student achievement.” Their conclusion? “TFA is NOT a slam dunk.” Previously they found that “students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers.” [Vasquez Heilig, J. & Jez, S. (2010). Teach For America: A review of the evidence.] A widely publicized recent Mathematica study suggested that TFA instructors are effective and give their students a 2.6 month boost in learning over traditionally trained teachers. [Dept. of Education, Sept. 2013]

This sounds good. However, in a technical review of that work, Dr. Vasquez Heilig points out that this number requires context, noting that “class size reduction has 286% more impact than TFA.” What’s more, a recent analysis demonstrates that early childhood education has “1214% more impact than the TFA effect reported by Mathematica.” [Cloaking Inequality, 10-21-13] The bottom line? TFA doesn’t look like a silver bullet for our students and other initiatives such as class size reduction and early childhood education have an exponentially larger impact on student learning.

2.  Will TFA hurt our students? TFA corps members sign up for a two-year commitment and then most go on to other careers, contributing to the churn in the lives of students, many of whom are already facing great instabilities. Education historian Diane Ravitch calls TFA, “Teach for Awhile.” About 20-30% of TFA members stay in the classroom 3-5 years, and only 5% are still teaching in their initial placement by the seventh year. [Cloaking Inequality, 10-21-13] Many TFA alumni are now speaking out about their experiences working with some of our neediest students. With only five weeks of training, they say they were ill-prepared to work with troubled kids, could do little more than “teach to the test,” and worry that they really were harming children. [See for example Washington Post 2-28-13; John Bilby; Cloaking Inequality, 9-20-13 and 8-6-13] These are testimonies worth serious attention.

3.  Will TFA solve our staffing needs? Pittsburgh is apparently considering a deal with TFA because of a shortage of middle level and high school math and science teachers. The administration claims that TFA will help them get young people of color to fill these positions – a worthy goal, but at the last board meeting, TFA representatives said they could not guarantee that this would happen. If we truly have a staffing problem, why aren’t we working with local universities to place their recent graduates and “grow our own” regional talent? What happened to previous new-teacher programs in the district? I’ve also heard that our hiring cycle is quite late in the year, putting us at a disadvantage when it comes to making competitive offers: why don’t we address this simple calendar issue? I find it hard to believe that with at least seven teaching-degree-granting colleges and universities in Southwest PA, Pittsburgh can’t figure out a way to fill its ranks with highly qualified, trained teachers who want to make teaching their career, and perhaps even stay in their hometown.

Significantly, Dr. Vasquez Heilig and his colleagues conclude that, “The evidence suggests that districts may benefit from using TFA personnel to fill teacher shortages when the available labor pool consists of temporary or substitute teachers or other novice alternatively and provisionally certified teachers likely to leave in a few years. Nevertheless, if educational leaders plan to use TFA teachers as a solution to the problem of shortages, they should be prepared for constant attrition and the associated costs of ongoing recruitment and training.” [Vasquez Heilig, J. & Jez, S. (2010). Teach For America: A review of the evidence.]

4.  Will TFA address our racial achievement gap? TFA’s recent job announcement points to the low number of black men going to college saying, “We believe that Teach For America corps members can play a vital role in the fight for educational equity in Pittsburgh.” [Linked In, posted October 2013] The implication is that by placing TFA instructors in our neediest schools that somehow these bright-eyed 22 year olds will solve our racial achievement gap. Do we have any credible research showing that youth and enthusiasm are the keys to this complex, persistent problem? Dr. Vasquez Heilig’s analysis of TFA outcomes answers that question this way: “The lack of a consistent impact…should indicate to policymakers that TFA is likely not the panacea that will reduce disparities in educational outcomes.” [Vasquez Heilig, J. & Jez, S. (2010). Teach For America: A review of the evidence.]

5.  What will TFA cost us? TFA operates like a temp agency, tacking on a finder’s fee for its recruits. It charges districts $3,000 to $5,000 per instructor per year – and that’s on top of the regular entry level teacher’s salary each TFA recruit receives from the district. How is that saving us money in the middle of this budget deficit crisis that has already forced the district to furlough hundreds of our kids’ teachers? To makes matters worse, TFA seeks out grants from states where it is doing business (it has a plan to increase state collections to $350 million in 2015). That is more of our taxpayer money that ought to be going towards equitable funding of our public schools.

And it’s clear that TFA wants to tap into other local resources: its current job ad says that Pittsburgh’s Founding Executive Director will “Grow a sustainable, diversified local funding base that will include gifts from individuals, corporations, and foundations; district and local public funding; and possibly an annual benefit dinner.” [Linked In, posted October 2013] Our city is not a gravy train and those valuable resources ought to be going to support students in public schools, not TFA. Make no mistake, TFA is a huge organization with a $100 million endowment and annual revenues close to $300 million. [All figures from Politico, October 2013] If TFA really wants to help Pittsburgh students, it could help us with our $46 million budget gap.

6.  Does TFA support public education? Here’s where the school board really better sit up and take notice. TFA has become a political powerhouse with huge political clout. In the middle of our federal budget standoff last month, TFA managed to renew a provision that defines teachers-in-training (including TFA recruits) as “highly qualified” so they can continue to take charge of our children’s classrooms. [Washington Post, 10-16-13] Right now TFA has seven alumni working for senators, representatives and the House Education committee through its new Capitol Hill Fellows program, paid for by Arthur Rock. A wealthy venture capitalist from San Francisco, Rock sits on TFA’s board and according to Politico, “has become a leading financier of education reform. He has made sizable donations to legislative and school board candidates across the country who support expanding charter schools and, in some cases, vouchers. Until recently, Rock also sat on the board of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which advocates public subsidies to send low-income children to private and parochial schools.” [Politico, October 2013]

Like Mr. Rock, TFA is funneling money into school board races all over the country where TFA alumns are running: this year a New Jersey teacher tracked hundreds of thousands of dollars channeled to candidates promoting corporate-style and privatization reforms. [Jersey Jazzman, 10-17-13] A Massachusetts teacher recently dug into the role of TFA in urban charter schools, and discovered why the program is expanding in districts where teachers are getting laid off: “In city after city, TFA has largely abandoned its earlier mission of staffing hard-to-fill positions in public schools, serving instead as a placement agency for urban charters. In Chicago, however, TFA’s role appears to go far beyond providing labor for the fast-growing charter sector.” She found documents indicating that TFA hoped to “dramatically expand the number of charter schools in the city,” with plans to support 52 new charters at the exact moment the district proposed closing more than 50 traditional public schools. [EduShyster, 9-9-13]

In Pittsburgh, TFA wants its new Executive Director to “Develop and evolve a strategy for maintaining and growing our public support, from district, local, and state sources,” and to “Establish relationships with school districts and charter management organizations to place corps members with an eye toward maximizing scale and sustainability.” [Linked In, posted October 2013] No doubt about it: they’re planning to stay. And grow. In a big way.

Is this the organization that we want to invite in Pittsburgh’s front door? I’m not convinced from the review of the evidence that Teach for America will help our students. And I am deeply concerned that it may directly harm students, while costing us resources we don’t have, and failing to address our actual staffing needs. Here’s one last question: Can we show TFA the back door and say, no thanks?

The Wrong Questions

Pittsburgh seems to have a question problem. By that I mean, the school district and many other leaders seem intent on asking the wrong questions. Any researcher will tell you, half the battle is asking a good question, one that opens up possibilities and leads to new ways of thinking. The way you ask a question, inevitably shapes the solution you find.

For instance:

Perhaps we need to flip our thinking. Instead of asking, “How do we reduce our per-student spending?” maybe we should be asking, “What are our students getting for the money we’re spending?” The district is focused on the fact that we spend $20,000 per student and keeps asking how it can reduce that by $2,000. The focus on “per-student spending” disguises the fact that the district is not actually spending all that money on students (or things that directly affect student learning).

If we were actually spending $20,000 on each student, our children would not have lost hundreds of their teachers, classroom aides, librarians, nurses, office staff, parent engagement specialists, and other school support personnel. They would not be sitting in larger classrooms, and going without music programs, tutoring, athletics, and drum sticks for their marching bands.

If we were actually spending $20,000 on each student, we could afford all the wonderful things that our suburban peers have in their schools. For instance, last month when I toured my alma mater, Upper St. Clair High School, they proudly showed me the gorgeous new library with its separate resource room that is staffed with a teacher from every single subject, every single period of the day to help any student who needs it. Imagine!

But the district asks again and again, “how can we cut per-student spending?” rather than “how can we get a resource room like that for our kids?” At the Excellence for All parent steering committee meeting a few weeks ago, the district asked parents to play an austerity-budget game, distributing worksheets with pretend money and forcing parents to make “choices” such as cut the custodian or cut the school nurse. These are false choices and get us no closer to solutions for our students.

At the last Envisioning advisory group meeting, the administration shared with us a graph indicating the areas that the district has any control over spending (they can’t touch many line items because of state policies or legal obligations, such as debt service). By far the largest “actionable” area of the budget is in school operations, meaning mostly teachers. So any attempt to seriously reduce “per student” spending almost has to come from eliminating teachers. Closing schools alone will not “save” the district money unless it cuts more teachers and increases class sizes. How does that get us closer to the kind of education our kids need and deserve? (Remember my 7th grader with 35 students in his class? Let me tell you about the head wound he came home with last week from gym class with 35 kids trying to swim laps in a pool the size of my living room.)

I’d like the district to explain to us why our high schools can’t have a resource room staffed with teachers from every subject, every single period of the day. They tell us that we don’t have the money for that (because, contrary to logic, we are spending “too much per student”). They tell us we are spending “too much” on teachers, but at the same time, we can’t have that resource room because we don’t have the teaching resources – and to free up money for such things, we need to close more schools and fire more teachers. Excuse us if we don’t follow the logic here. I think it’s time for some fresh questions.

For instance, we might look at that steeply climbing expenditure line in our budget deficit forecast and ask, “What can we do to pressure our legislators to actually address pension reform to help our schools?” That leads to other questions, such as, “Why are our legislators considering Senate Bill 1085, which will eliminate the charter school double-dip pension payments, but only on the state’s side, without any savings for school districts?” [See “When Charters Cause Harm”] Or, “What’s the district doing to pressure our legislators to reinstate the charter reimbursement line which Gov. Corbett slashed?” That line alone cost Pittsburgh $14.8 million last year – a third of the district’s projected budget gap. [See “Charter Reform Now”]

Here are some more questions: What if the Gates Foundation had spent $40 million to help Pennsylvania “empower effective education policy” instead of its “empowering effective teacher” program, which reinforces high-stakes-testing on our kids? What if that money ­– and the $2.4 million the district spent on outside consultants to tell us how to close schools – had been spent on our crushing debt service (which is $471 million)? And here’s a really good question: Does anyone have $471 million?