Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Becoming a Mista (or Miss)

An article published in the NYT this week highlights how states across the U.S. are changing the way teachers will receive certification. According to the article, "New York and up to 25 other states are moving toward... de-emphasizing tests and written essays in favor of a more demanding approach that requires aspiring teachers to prove themselves through lesson plans, homework assignments and videotaped instruction sessions." I say it's about time.

Back in 2009, I joined the teaching profession in New York state via Teach for America, which simply meant I had to obtain a master's degree (part-time, at night) while teaching full-time in a classroom. Like most of my peers, I paid more attention to my job as a teacher than my actual master's degree courses. I wish it didn't have to be that way, but it was. My kids were much more important to me than some excerpt written by Linda Darling-Hammond about best practices. Actually, not all TFA teachers even needed a master's degree: NY state happens to require a master's degree for all teachers, which by the way, is a good thing. Before receiving certification, I also had to take and pass three exams: the LAST, CST and ATS-W. Let me be super clear, these tests were a joke.

The LAST exam was a general multiple-choice test (with one essay) that assesses your ability to read, comprehend and select a right answer. That's about it. I remember getting bored about a quarter of the way into this test, but looking quite concerned when a fellow test-taker across the aisle from me was looking like she was freaked out. That moment scared me initially about how easy it was to become a teacher, and then I took the other tests which actually confirmed my fears. The CST exam was like the LAST, except content specific (e.g. 7th-12th grade mathematics). Finally, the ATS-W was another multiple-choice question test, but this time about the teaching practice in general. I took this test online at a Pearson testing center in NYC. By the way, all NY state teacher certification exams are run by Pearson.
So what sparked the need for change in the current certification system? For years, teachers have been complaining their master's programs were not effectively preparing them for the classroom. They wanted a combination of theory and practice. I guess someone finally listened. Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford whose articles I should have read while obtaining my master's degree says, "Teaching is action work...You have to make a lot of things happen in a classroom with a lot of kids, effectively. You cannot just have book learning. It is not enough to pass a paper-and-pencil test, or even to have taken a bunch of classes in an education program. You have to be able to demonstrate whether you can actually teach.” Well said, professor. You actually make me want to go back and read those excerpts of yours I glossed over.

Anyway, besides the fact that we may actually have a better certification process in the pipeline, two things struck me in this article:
  1. When states decided their teacher certification methods were dated and ineffective, guess who was ready to go with another seemingly more progressive authentic assessment? Pearson. The article states, "The new system will require teachers to electronically submit their work... for grading by trained evaluators who have been recruited by the education company Pearson." I'm sure this will raise many questions amongst educators, e.g. "Who the hell are these guys to determine whether I am good enough to teach or not? Shouldn't my professors have a say instead?"

  2. Stephanie Wood-Garnett, an assistant commissioner in the NY Education Department’s office of higher education says this gem in the article, "We don’t want to know if you [teachers] can pass multiple-choice tests... We want to know if you can drive." Fantastic! Can we please apply this logic to students in the classroom now?

Monday, July 30, 2012

Parents or No Parents

My mom played a significant role in my early childhood education. Despite our differences now, I have to give credit where credit is due.

I learned first grade-level skills well before I entered kindergarten because my mother spent hours tutoring me everyday. At this stage in my life, my dad was brutally abusive and controlling; he would not allow my mom to make friends, much less hold a job. Perhaps if she'd been allowed to lead an independent and abuse-free life, she might not have spent as much time tutoring me. I guess I will never know. Instead, in between cleaning and cooking, my mom prepped and tested my mind. She believed her ticket out of this prison was my education and success, that maybe something good could come out of this tragedy of a marriage with my dad.

After kindergarten, my mom decided to transfer me out of St. John Vianney (a private, Catholic school) and into Roy Elementary School, the local public school to begin the first grade. This would be her last influence on my education. My dad was fairly uninvolved in most matters except when he was needed to fill out forms (she couldn't read or speak English well at the time). After I was officially enrolled, my skills were assessed by Ms. D, who would later be my fourth grade teacher. I remember quite vividly she was impressed that I could count up to one-thousand as a five year old.

Until Roy Elementary School, my mom was very involved in my education, but after my transfer the after-school tutoring slowed to an eventual stop and I seemed to be on my own. I originally thought that we had come to some form of mutual understanding: as long as my grades were stellar, I would be left alone. As I got older, my mom stopped checking my test grades and relied solely on parent-teacher conferences and quarterly report cards. And by high school, she didn't bother attending conferences either as my grades remained on point.

As my mother transitioned out of my education, my role within the household grew much more significant. By middle school, I was sifting through our mail and determining what was junk and what wasn't. Soon after, I was writing checks and paying our utility bills using my dad's checkbook, while he remained drunkenly passed out until mid-afternoon. When my teachers gave me important forms to get signed at home, I read them on my own and simply told my mother where to sign.

My literacy and initiative unburdened my parents from some responsibility, which made me feel like a grown-up: something every child wants to feel. In reality, I obviously wasn't a grown-up. The responsibility I was taking on wasn't happening because I wanted it to happen, but simply because the adults around me weren't holding their end of the bargain. I was simply the only person in the household simultaneously literate and sober. A child without mentorship and guidance. I had no one to talk to about college, I just knew I had to get there. As much as I thought I knew back then, I know now I didn't know shit: most of the things I learned, I learned because I made mistakes and then had to work twice as hard to get to where I should be. Thomas Edison said it best, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

I think back to my days as an elementary school student, now as a twenty-seven year old high school teacher, and I can't help but wonder: what if the charter school movement had boomed back then instead of now? Would I be where I am at today?

Although my skills were high as an elementary school student, my parents weren't by any means "involved." They just wanted me enrolled in the nearest public (free) school. After my mom stopped tutoring me, her only involvement in my education was driving me to and back from school. Would my mom have entered my name into a "better" school's lottery? How would she even have known about a new charter school, if she wasn't even reading the documents I brought home from school?

Ultimately, the decision to move to a charter school would have come down on my shoulders, but I still wouldn't have been able to act without my parents' consent. And as a student who was doing just fine academically, I probably wouldn't have acted on it as it required too much work: getting my parents to submit my name, going to the lottery with my mom, transferring schools, getting my parents to sign more forms, etc. As a seven-year old, I think a new Batman movie would have seemed much more interesting than an opportunity to enroll into a charter school. How can someone expect a child to comprehend the so-called "benefits" of a charter school vs. a traditional public school?

If charter schools put even the most driven, independent, and ambitious students at the mercy of their uninvolved parents, how is this system fair? And what about the students who aren't as driven or involved in their own academics and have uninvolved parents? They're pretty much doomed, aren't they?

Thank goodness I didn't grow up under that system, who knows where I might've ended up if I was given a choice as a seven-year old.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Education Olympics

In light of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London beginning this Friday, check out this nifty infographic (see below) comparing the education of countries who have received the most gold medals.

What's interesting about this infographic is that "hours per year required in the classroom" seems to be viewed as a good thing, i.e. the longer the instructional day, the better. On the contrary, if you compare the countries who subject their children to more school hours per year vs. international assessment performance (via the PISA, etc.), a negative correlation seems to exist.

Perhaps this offers a deeper insight into the culture of homework and families in other countries vs. the U.S. Maybe the school day has grown longer in the U.S. because those who care about the numbers believed it's a quick fix to bad and/or absentee parents unavailable to instill solid values. Instead, maybe we should think about what types of people are becoming parents and what they are teaching their children either directly or indirectly. Are American parents today encouraging/yelling/telling their children to do their homework or are they developing a culture that values education as an expectation? Are American parents today relatively more hands-off about what's going on in their kids' classrooms compared to the past? Are American parents today fully equipped to deal with the finances associated with raising a child through post-secondary education? These are tough questions to think about and while they may not pose pretty answers, we have to admit that current social policies may ultimately dictate educational outcomes. I'll give you an example.

On the "A" train in New York City, there are many posters depicting a female teenager lost in thought, and possibly crying. It is an advertisement against abortion: reconsidering your choice. And it works, because advertisement works. So yes, plastering "abortion is bad" posters in NYC subway cars may ultimately convince a 16-year old female to keep her unplanned child, but numbers compiled over years and years don't lie: statistics show unplanned children born into poverty with a single-parent face tougher challenges. As a result, when this child grows up, his/her test scores may factor into the reason why the U.S. is lagging behind other nations. Having great schools and amazing teachers is not enough, yet we still trick ourselves into believing this.

How can we as a country be so "data-driven" yet ignore the data when it really matters? Poverty forces human beings to pick survival over knowledge. I mean, we are animals after all.

The Education Olympics

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Meaningful Boost of Morale

At the end of the 2011-2012 school year, I sent out a school-wide e-mail to all faculty, staff, and students informing them about my decision to leave and teach elsewhere. I received many responses wishing me well, mostly from students, which kind of made me sad as the kids really were the only reason I stayed to teach a third year at that school.

I recently received an e-mail from Andy, the ideal transfer school student in my opinion. Besides just being highly intelligent and articulate, Andy has a very interesting background and story, e.g. he dropped out of high school for a semester to skateboard in Germany. Unfortunately for Andy, the NYC Department of Education has strict guidelines on how many classes and what types of classes should "count" on a transcript towards graduation. So even though Andy had already completed higher levels of math in his prior high school (e.g. Geometry, Trigonometry), his transcript was still missing an Algebra credit: a mandatory credit he would need in order to graduate. As a result, he was placed in my Algebra class, but he really should have been in a calculus class, which my school did not offer.

About a week into the trimester, I realized Andy was going to get seriously bored; perhaps to the point where he would start cutting class. Cutting class is a dangerous disease transfer school students suffer from, and if they can figure out how to justify cutting one class, cutting other classes becomes easier. So instead of simply giving him "differentiated" material (i.e. same material, harder shit), I simply made an effort to talk to him. You know, about his time in Germany, his future plans, his likes/dislikes, etc. We had great conversation, and I realized the kid had a significant amount of potential. So I told him that.

Here's the e-mail he sent me this summer:
from: Andy Cornvallis (andy.cornvallis@randomschool.org)
to: Yo Mista! (yomista@randomschool.org)
date: Mon, Jul 16, 2012 at 12:02 PM
subject: Hello Friend!
Hey Mista! It's Andy even though I know you know that already. I mean look at the damn email address right? I wanted to just say thank you for the support you showed me. Honestly you made me realize how much I could do without me even knowing. Simple things I never understood such as Radicals for example, you made it clear to me. You are a great teacher and I consider you one of the most intelligent and funniest guys I know. I consider you a friend and wish to keep in contact every now and then as I hope you do and do not mind. 
I also wanted to inform you I am looking into the college thing and taking your advice. I realize I can take advantage of the opportunity and I should. I am also on a job hunt right now and wanted to ask if I may use you as a reference because although you are funny and cool as hell, you are a professional person when it comes down to it. Anyway I'm going to end this email now as I'm extremely tired. It sucks that you can't teach another semester with us! I wish you and your lady a great summer. Respond whenever you can. Thanks for everything Mista =) 
What an incredible, meaningful boost of morale. Thank you, Andy.