guest perspective

New York

Getting Beyond The New GED With Adult Academies

Two decades ago, when I was working in the Division of Adult and Continuing Education at CUNY’s Central Office, we initiated a comprehensive redesign of our GED preparation programs to ensure that coursework included substantial reading, writing, and math work, rather than skill-focused exam prep. Students were encouraged to prepare themselves to obtain a high score on the test rather than just to pass, because even then we understood that in measuring high school “graduation equivalency,” the GED was not testing whether students were college-ready. But the GED Testing Service maintained that an equivalency diploma opened doors to postsecondary study then and for 20 more years. Then, in 2010, the organization that had been responsible for the development of the GED for more than half a century, the American Council on Education, announced that it would pursue the development of a fundamentally different exam that would be more explicitly linked to assessments of college readiness. The decision was not surprising, because it followed a 2009 research report from the GED Testing Service that indicated that the door-opening had not amounted to much. Tracking the postsecondary outcomes of a random sample of 1,000 individuals who had completed the GED test in 2003, researchers found that just 307 had enrolled in at least one postsecondary institution by fall 2008; 77 percent of them dropped out after one semester; and only 17 earned a postsecondary credential by 2008. The doors the GED purported to open seemed to be shut. The next announcement from the GED Testing Service, however, was a dramatic surprise. ACE announced that it had forged a public/private partnership with Pearson, the publishing company, to develop the new exam. Although not highlighted in the initial announcement, it has since become clear that the price of the partnership will be a heavy one for test-takers in states that charge fees for the exams or for public education agencies in states, such as New York, that make the exam available free of charge. Current estimates are that each exam will cost about $120 — double the current price. Worries about the additional costs have led New York and a number of other states to launch efforts intended to find an alternative to the new GED tests. I would like to propose a more radical alternative.
New York

A Chapter Leader’s Appeal For Solidarity With Chicago

John Elfrank-Dana, the UFT chapter leader at Murry Bergtraum High School, sent this letter to the teachers at his school on Wednesday. When I was in the hotel management business there was a strike. The union representative at the hotel, himself a survivor of Auschwitz, told me I’d better hope the workers win the strike. Puzzled, I thought, Why would a manager want the workers to win the strike? He then explained that the company would have to at least match the benefits they get for me for him as well. Of course; it was so obvious once he explained that. It’s why non-union hotels provide equal benefits to their employees: the fear that a union would come in if they didn’t. It’s at that point I saw how unions raise the bar for everyone. That bumper sticker, "Unions: The people who brought you the weekend," rings true. However, I get the impression many of us think what we take for granted — weekends off, 40 hour work week, health benefits, paid sick leave/vacation, rights against discrimination, etc. — were handed down to us from the ancient Greeks. But these rights are less than a century old, and they are challenged at every corner, i.e. fewer paid sick days, more free coverages, streamlined firing process, larger class sizes, more classes, are some of the stakes for us in education. Anyone in education more than five years away from retirement needs to watch what is going on in Chicago, if for no other reason than to plan their next career change. For, if the Chicago Teachers Union loses this strike, the stakes for all of us in education could be dire. It’s not about the money.
New York

Exclusive excerpt: Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed”

This excerpt is drawn from Chapter Three of Paul Tough’s new book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.” The chapter follows the chess team from I.S. 318, a public middle school in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as they compete in the National Junior High Championships in Columbus, Ohio, in April 2011. Much of the chapter’s focus is on the teaching techniques of Elizabeth Spiegel, the school’s chess teacher. This excerpt connects Spiegel’s teaching to the work of some other educators and scholars discussed in Tough’s book, including David Levin and Dominic Randolph, the leaders of KIPP New York and the Riverdale Country School, respectively, whose schools are working together to create a character report card. In her chess classes at IS 318, Elizabeth Spiegel often conveyed specific chess knowledge: how to spot the difference between the exchange Slav opening and the semi-Slav; how to weigh the comparative value of your light-square bishop and your dark-square bishop. But most of the time, it struck me whenever I watched her at work, what she was really doing was far simpler, and also far more complicated: she was teaching her students a new way to think. “Teaching chess is really about teaching the habits that go along with thinking,” Spiegel explained to me one morning when I visited her classroom. “Like how to understand your mistakes and how to be more aware of your thought processes.” Before she was a full-time chess teacher at IS 318, Spiegel taught an eighth-grade honors English class at the school, and as an English teacher she was, she says, a bit of a disaster. She taught composition the way she analyzed chess games: When students turned in writing assignments, she went through each assignment sentence by sentence with each student, asking, Well, are you sure that’s the best way to say what you want to say? “They looked at me like I was insane,” she told me. “I would write them these long letters about what they’d written. It would take me the whole evening to do six or seven of them.” Although Spiegel’s teaching style might not have been the right fit with an English class, her experience teaching English did help her understand better what she wanted to do in chess class. Rather than follow a set chess curriculum over the course of the year, she decided she would construct her academic calendar as she went, planning lessons based entirely on what her students knew and, more important, on what they didn’t know. For instance, she would take her students to a weekend tournament and notice that many of them were hanging pieces, meaning they were leaving pieces undefended, which made them easy targets. The following Monday, she would organize the whole class around how not to hang pieces, reconstructing the students’ flawed games on the green felt practice boards hung on hooks at the front of her classroom. Again and again, she would go over her students’ games, both individually and as a class, analyzing exactly where a player had gone wrong, what he could have done differently, what might have happened if he had made the better move, and playing out these counterfactual scenarios for several moves before returning to the moment of error. Sensible though this process might sound, it’s actually a pretty unusual way to teach chess, or to learn it. “It’s uncomfortable to focus so intensely on what you’re bad at,” Spiegel told me. “So the way people usually study chess is they read a book about chess, which can be fun and often intellectually amusing, but it doesn’t actually translate into skill. If you really want to get better at chess, you have to look at your games and figure out what you’re doing wrong.”
New York

Reflecting On A Year Of Blended Learning

Some of the city's "turnaround" schools, including the one where I work, are listing knowledge or willingness to learn about using a blended learning instructional models as a criterion for hiring teachers. That's because we are participating in the iLearn NYC program, a Department of Education initiative to support blended learning throughout the city. The initiative gives schools access to online content from various providers at a reduced cost; a learning management system to host online courses; and professional development, technical support, and training. The term “blended learning” caused a great deal of head-scratching among some staff members in my school as I'm sure it did in other turnaround schools. As the iLearn coordinator for my school, I offered answers to any questions teachers might have and there were many. Some people dismissed blending learning, regarding it as having little educational value, while others expressed fear that the model threatens the teaching profession. Many other teachers were interested to know more. I thought it worthwhile to share my experience and perspective on blended learning for others who might have similar concerns and questions. Blended learning, simply defined as a combination of face to face and online instruction, is a pedagogical model that is often and easily misunderstood. It can mean many different things to different educators and usually it means nothing at all to most.  Though it is a term creeping into the ever-expanding teacher lexicon, it remains meaningless to many because it is a pedagogical strategy that is not yet widely in use. When teachers do know what blending learning is, they can easily misunderstand it because it can take many different forms and have many different uses. When I have answered my colleagues' questions, I have told them exactly what I know: that blended learning that is not managed ethically can be damaging, but that strong teachers can use blended learning to help all students in new ways.
New York

Going The Extra Mile

A few weeks ago, a parent sent a note to my principal. In part it said, “Ms. Whitehouse is an asset to your school. I only wish there were more teachers like her who would go the extra mile for the kids.” I was touched by this mother’s kind words and the thoughtfulness displayed in taking the time to compose and send the note, particularly in the current teacher-bashing atmosphere. The note worked also made me think about that “extra mile” — who runs it and how far it actually is. Every morning several teachers arrive at school by 7 a.m. (We’d arrive earlier but we are not allowed inside the building until then.) We prepare for our day by organizing lesson resources. We make copies (when the copy machine is working) and put notes on the board. We grade homework and analyze data. We fill out paperwork, plan trips and clean desks with anti-bacterial wipes. Some of us water plants, read professional materials, or prepare our bulletin boards. (That feels like a mile.) A little before 8 a.m., the “show” begins and until 3 p.m. it is a whirlwind of lessons and assessments, student conferences, planning, and duty in the yard, bathroom and cafeteria. Many of us skip “duty-free” lunch to run detention, tutor students or attend meetings. (That’s at least two miles, isn’t it? Cause I’m winded.) When the students leave, our day is not done. Teacher “milers” stay behind to straighten up, review supply needs, gather original materials that need to be copied, and reflect on the day’s lessons or a student’s errant behavior. We look over students’ work and think how best to address their deficits and highlight their strengths. We assess ourselves and redesign our lessons. We make phone calls to parents. Sometimes we speak with colleagues about upcoming tests, lessons, trips, or activities. Often we seek advice from a more seasoned teacher. Some of us attend professional development or college after school. For instance, several evenings a week, Ms. Lichtman takes classes which keep her away from home until 9:30 p.m. (That’s definitely got to be a couple of miles.)

First Person

New York

School is for Humans: A Teacher’s Response To The Current Climate

I teach eighth grade humanities in a New York City public school. This week, we began preparation for the state English language arts exam — the very beast responsible for the now famous, much debated teacher data reports recently published by several city news organizations. Sitting in my classroom, I find I am also seated in the midst of a political and ideological firestorm. As various voices in the news duke this out, we teachers quietly choose for ourselves how to respond on the ground. In my class this year, we have a motto: “You are not a number. You’re a human being.” It’s meant to be silly and serious at the same time. Around here, we encourage 13-year-olds to embrace their silliness. So, on Monday, we took a moment to acknowledge and release a bit of the pressure created by the impending state exam. On the agenda, I wrote “Celebration of ELA-related Creativity.” I gave my students the instruction to create something that would help us kick off the test preparation unit. The only guidelines: It must be creative; it can be funny if you like, and overall, it must be positive. Among other things, my students composed a "Schoolhouse Rock"-style singalong song, performed a re-written Shakespeare scene, showered the audience with paper airplanes containing a mathematical formula that determines the odds of getting a good score by guessing on every question, and choreographed an interpretive dance. I can tell you, for last-second projects with no grade attached and 30 minutes to create, they were awesome. This never fails: I am always humbled and amazed by the outpouring of creative energy that occurs when kids are given the space to express themselves in a non-judgmental environment.
New York

Measuring My Value

I came to teaching more than eight years ago by way of the law — having graduated from Fordham Law School in 1992. So I knew full well how intricate, malleable and unreliable evidence could be. When the New York City Teacher Data Reports came out and were touted as measuring my “value” as a teacher, I was deeply annoyed. Invalid, inaccurate and irrelevant, these data were no more useful in proving or disproving teacher value than the temperature on a single day could prove or disprove global warming. It’s not that I don’t think I’m a good teacher, I do. I simply measure it in ways that cannot be captured on a test. My reaction came as a surprise to some of my family, friends and co-workers because I was ranked in the 99th percentile. As the first notes of congratulations began to arrive in my inbox, I understood that people meant well, yet I felt annoyed that anybody would and could delve into my professional life. Notably, I also felt grateful that my numbers would not force me to ashamedly try to explain them away. I was keenly aware that the rope that would have me swinging back and forth in jubilation could just as easily have been wrapped around my neck in humiliation. I felt sickened by the numbers next to the names of my colleagues who I know to be hardworking. I wrote back to those who sent their well wishes, disavowing the data and explaining that the so called “evidence” meant nothing because it could not measure that which makes a teacher valuable. Now in my ninth year in the classroom, I understand the art of teaching, that is, those things not measurable by multiple-choice questions or by assessors armed with clipboards and checklists who believe the breadth and depth of learning in my room is revealed by the freshness of my bulletin board or the sheer quantity of newsprint hanging from my walls. I could teach in a hut with a dirt floor and be an excellent teacher because what makes me excellent is, in large part, an unquantifiable aesthetic that cannot be captured by a mathematical procedure. Inspiring students, giving them something to think about long after the school day is over, pushing and poking them to be their best selves, nurturing wisdom, stimulating passionate efforts, assisting discovery, facilitating connections, determining when to lead, guide or let go — these things cannot be found using an algorithm. Armed with this belief about teaching and the positive responses of those I loved and valued, I reached out to other teachers in the 99th percentile to see if they felt the same. Many of them did and a group of us have signed a statement renouncing the data’s usefulness and publication. Still for all the motivating anger I felt, I also felt demoralized and quite simply sad. The data had no power to prove my worth, yet, since it was being used for political purposes and to misinform the public, the data did have the power to make me feel worthless. And that is when a very unlikely visitor reminded me of the true value that I add to my students’ lives.