For the New Year: Some Signs of Hope

Crocus in the Snow

It was seven degrees outside when I started writing this, which, with the wind chill, feels like minus six. And while this kind of cold usually sends me into a state of despair, I’m finding myself handling it better than I might because I think I’m feeling heartened by signs that seem to point to a thaw or a shift in the discussion about so-called school reform that has for too long left real educators frozen out in the cold.

The new year, for instance, started out with a bang here in New York City as Bill de Blasio, our new mayor, appointed Carmen Farina as the city’s next School Chancellor. Two of former mayor Bloomberg’s appointees, Joel Klein and Cathy Black, had no experience in public education (beyond that the fact that Klein had attended New York City public schools as a child). But Carmen Farina is one of us. For four decades, she’s worked for the city’s public schools, spending 22 years as a classroom teacher in Brooklyn before Carmen Farinamoving on to become a principal, then a district superintendent, and the deputy chancellor for the DOE’s now defunct division of teaching and learning.

According to Chalkbeat New York, a great site for all city school news, she’s promised “to pursue a ‘progressive agenda’ that would reduce standardized test preparation in classrooms,” and in her own words she’s already talking about the “need to bring joy back” instead of more accountability and data. I know she may have her hands tied a bit by the State’s Education Commissioner John King (whose comments about parents expressing frustration with the State’s Common Core rollout at an Town Hall event rival Arne Duncan’s beyond belief remarks about white suburban soccer moms). But with a vision that she describes as “five Cs and an E“—collaboration, communication, capacity building, curriculum enhancement, celebration and efficiency— it’s my dearest hope that she’ll be able to shift the focus here from assessment and data to instruction and students, which is where it needs to be.

I was also excited to hear the news that Kate DiCamillo will become our next national ambassador for young people’s literature. Of course, the previous ambassadors—Jon Scieszka, Katherine Paterson and Walter Dean Myers—have all been great, but I feel a personal tie to DiCamillo. When my daughter was in fourth grade, the librarian at her school chose to read an unknown book by an unknown author to my daughter’s class based on nothing more than the first page. DiCamillo was the author and the book was Because of Winn Dixie, which my daughter and her friends fell in love with, as so many others after them have. In fact, they loved the book so much, they wrote a letter to DiCamillo and received a long and lovely hand-written reply saying that their letter was the very first piece of fan mail she had ever received.

KateDicamilloAs ambassador, DiCamillo has said that her mission will be “to get as many kids and as many adults together reading as [she] can” because she believes that “stories connect us.” I have to believe than anyone reading this passionately believes that, too, and several new studies have come out recently that demonstrate the quantifiable benefits in reading stories.  A New York Times article, for instance, called “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov” reports on a neurological study that found that people who read literary fiction “performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence,” than those who did not. And teacher Collette Bennett’s blog post on the National Assessment of Education Progress Report for 2012 shows that, across demographics, students who read for pleasure outperform those who don’t on standardized tests. Unfortunately, these studies haven’t managed to change certain Common Core-inspired practices, which include all but abandoning fiction for nonfiction, eliminating or cutting back on in-class independent reading, and giving students a steady diet of excerpts and short texts because that’s what’s on the test. My hope here is that, in her new position, Kate DiCamillo will become the perfect spokesperson for the lasting power of stories and real reading.

idea-and-creative-conceptFinally, I spent much too much time over the break reading blog posts by fellow educators, many by the nominators and nominees of this years Sunshine Awards, which celebrate educational bloggers. That meant I didn’t get any drawing done, but I did find another reason to hope that this year might bring some real change. The richness, diversity and depth of thought I encountered on those blogs is mind-boggling. And I believe that the fact that these educators are connecting with each other through blogs, twitter and websites not only qualifies them to teach 21st century literacy, but it makes them a force to be reckoned with. Additionally, virtually every post I read reflected the very same habits of mind, such as curiosity, openness, creativity and persistence, that the National Council of Teachers of English, the Council of Writing Program Administrators and the National Writing Project have identified as being needed for college. 

Like instruction and stories, these habits of mind have a taken a backseat in much of the current conversation about both readiness and schools—probably because no one has figured out yet how to quantify and test them. But these seem as important to me as the ability to analyze a text or write an argument. And given that we, as teachers, need to be who we want our students to be, these blogs also made me incredibly hopeful—despite the freezing cold!

Flower Field

On Programs, Broken Promises and Why We Aren’t Finland

Lapland Finland Reindeer

A few weeks ago the New York City Department of Education announced that it was recommending new “high-quality” Common Core-aligned curriculum materials for schools to adopt next year so that students can, in the words of the DOE, “realize the full promise of the Common Core Standards.” These materials have been developed for the city—at what must be considerable cost—and for ELA they’re giving schools two choices in the following grade bands: Core Knowledge or Pearson’s ReadyGen for K-2 classrooms, ReadyGen or Expeditionary Learning for Grades 3-5, and Scholastic’s Codex or Expeditionary Learning for Grades 6-8. (High school options are still to be determined; information on Pearson’s ReadyGen is not yet online.)

The City has emphasized that these are recommendations not requirements, though it’s unclear whether there will be any protocols—or repercussions—for schools not choosing one. And, perhaps needless to say, this move has made me heartsick, as has the backlash it’s set off against balanced literacy and workshop models, which, in certain circles, are now being deemed failures.

Behind-Rebel-Lines-Reit-Seymour-9780152164270Part of what so disheartens me is that we’ve been here before. Balanced literacy and workshop were, in fact, seen as antidotes to packaged, one-size-fits-all programs that used short texts and excerpts to teach isolated skills to students—without any real significant achievement results. The new programs preserve the one-size-fits-all model, with a mix of short and book-length texts to be read by everyone in the class, but the texts themselves are different. They’re authentic—as in, not abridged or watered-down—but they’re often poorly matched to their designated grade levels in order to meet someone’s notion of complexity. Take the anchor text for a ReadyGen third grade thematic unit on “A Citizen’s Role in Our Government”, for instance: Behind Rebel Lines by Seymour Reit. It’s a nonfiction account of a Canadian girl who posed as a boy during the Civil War in order to  join the Union Army, and while it looks like a fascinating book, Scholastic’s Book Wizard lists it as having a Grades 6-8 interest level, a 7.2 grade reading level, and a guided reading level of T. Hmm. When did third grade become the new seventh grade?

And then there’s the questions that come with the texts. They’re the kind of questions found on standardized tests, minus the multiple-choice answers. And they’ve been broken down into categories, which align to the bands of the Common Core Anchor Standards and, again, the tests. For the following paragraph from the preface of Behind Rebel Lines, for example, students are asked this Vocabulary question: “What does feminist mean and what context clues in the ‘To Begin’ section help you determine the meaning?”

Behind Rebel Lines 1A

And for this passage, which appears on page 3, students are asked a Key Ideas and Details question, “Why did Emma say the billboard had ‘fancy wording’? Which words might be considered ‘fancy’ and why?”; and an Integration of Knowledge and Ideas question, “What does the sentence ‘the country was in peril and had to be saved’ mean? Use your own words to restate this.”

Behind Rebel Lines 2A

Now imagine that you’re a third grader who, in New York State, has not yet begun to explore history in social studies, which means you might only have a foggy notion of the past and no knowledge of the Civil War or how women’s roles changed over time. If the teacher has followed the program instructions, she would have reminded you to “adjust [your] reading rate as [you] encounter unfamiliar words.” But even with that, how would you begin to answer these questions? And why would we ask you to beyond the need to prepare you for a test based on someone’s narrow, mechanical, but definitely testable, interpretation of the Standards?

And that brings me to another reason I’m heartsick. Having actually welcomed the Common Core Standards for the emphasis they seemed to place on reading for deeper levels of meaning, I now find myself feeling disappointed and duped. And in that, I’m not alone. In addition to educators like Diane Ravitch and Tom Newkirk who’ve reversed their original thinking on the Standards because of the industry that’s cropped up around them, New York State Principal Carol Buris also went from being a fan to an opponent as she realized she’d been naïve. Here’s how she puts it in a piece posted by Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post‘s “The Answer Sheet“:

“When I first read about the Common Core Standards, I cheered . . . . I should have known in an age in which standardized tests direct teaching and learning, that the standards themselves would quickly become operationalized by tests. Testing, coupled with the evaluation of teachers by scores, is driving implementation. The promise of the Common Core is dying and teaching and learning are being distorted.”

Outsourcing CartoonFinally, I’m heartsick for another broken promise that’s explicitly stated in the Standards: that teachers would be “free to provide students with whatever tools and knowledge their professional judgement and experience identify as most helpful for meeting the goals set out in the Standards.” By engaging in the development and adoption of scripted programs, the New York City Department of Education has demonstrated yet again it’s lack of trust in teachers. And they’ve, in effect, outsourced the critical thinking work of teachers to a corporation, whose priority is shareholder profits not children, and turned teachers into delivery systems instead of professionals with sound judgment.

How a teacher who’s not encouraged to think critically and independently can possibly support students to do so is completely beyond me. And this is where Finland comes in. Not investing in teachers’ professional capacities—which means giving them the time, resources and supports to collaboratively learn and deepen their understanding of both content and pedagogical craft, not training them to implement a program—flies right in the face of what top-rated systems, like Finland’s, have done to produce change. Those systems all used what Canadian educator and writer Michael Fullan calls “effective drivers” for whole system reform. These include a commitment to develop the entire teaching profession, a belief in teacher ownership, and trust and respect for teachers. Accountability, on the other hand, which he defines as “using test results and teacher appraisal to reward or punish teachers and schools” is at the top of his list of “wrong drivers.” And this is precisely what New York City is using to try to drive school change.

And so, while I know my dear city will never have reindeer, Moomintrolls and the midnight sun, until it starts heading in Finland’s direction, I fear that I’ll remain heartsick.

Moomintroll 1

From one of the Moomintroll books by Tove Jansson