An Open Letter to Arkansas Lawmakers

March 12, 2015

Members of the Arkansas House of Representatives Education Committee, members of the Arkansas Senate Legislative Committee, and Governor Asa Hutchinson:

During the current legislative session, there have been many proposed laws that have alarmed those of us who work in education around the state. I am writing to you not only because I am a teacher in Arkansas (I teach English Language Arts at the middle school in Greenland, AR) but also because as a resident of Arkansas I care about the future of our state.

The trend in this legislative session seems to be toward over-regulating, devaluing, and privatizing locally controlled public schools yet at the same time giving private charter schools a free pass to do whatever they like and receive whatever funds they want. I am referring specifically to House Bill 1733, Senate Bill 847, Senate Bill 789, House Bill 1552, House Bill 1593, and others. As a product myself of Arkansas’ public school system, I can tell you that what public schools need is more support, funding, and local control, not less.

I could share countless stories that illustrate how more support is needed at locally controlled public schools like mine. For example, we are currently struggling to find funding so we can continue early morning tutoring for students through end of the school year. Our history textbooks are already outdated, and despite changes to the statewide social studies curriculum next year, it seems doubtful we will be able to afford new ones. I could go on, but I don’t want it to seem like I am bellyaching and complaining about our problems. In fact, a lot of great teaching and learning is happening at my school – but this is in spite of increased regulation, testing, and “accountability”, not because of it.

Some lawmakers seem to see charter schools as the holy grail of school reform – they believe that charter schools will solve every problem in education and that the free market of school choice will magically make everything else work out. Unfortunately, this simply isn’t true. Not only is the research to support charter schools incomplete and unsubstantial, but even those charter schools that do show success are more the exception than the rule. The truth is that charter schools, just like public schools, all have different administrators, different teachers, and different ideas of what a school should look like. This isn’t to say that everything should be standardized (because everything cannot and should not be standardized), but it means that just like public schools, there will be charter schools that succeed and charter schools that fail.  The problem is that public schools have the support, oversight, and involvement of the local community and the state to help ensure they succeed in educating students. Charter schools, on the other hand, are often given the freedom to fail or succeed without much oversight at all. Allowing charter schools the freedom to experiment seems like a great concept, until you realize that they are experimenting with our students’ futures, and their experimentation has little oversight and few checks and balances.

Often, charter schools are cast as a way to help low income students who may be “stuck” in low performing public schools. In fact, more charter schools and increased school choice usually only serves to help those students who need the least help. Let me use as an example the proposal for school vouchers that would allow students to transfer from a public to private school and take their funding with them. This all sounds great – students would be able to choose which school they would like to attend, and theoretically this would make private schools more accessible to low income students. In fact, exactly the opposite would happen. Here’s something you may not have thought of – many students from low income families have parents who work all hours of the day and night and would not be able to provide or pay for transportation to and from a private school – this is why public schools are required to provide transportation to allow everyone equal access to attend school.

But let’s assume for a moment that a low income family could find a way for their children to be transported to a private school to use their vouchers. How would that family pay for all of the other related expenses that are typically expected at many private schools, such as food (normally provided through free and reduced lunches and breakfasts at public schools), uniforms, a computer, home internet access, etc.? The fact is that most private schools, through no fault of their own, are simply not set up to provide the same services and support to low income students that public schools do. Therefore, with a voucher system, many middle and high income families would be able to provide transportation, money, and support for their children to attend private schools, and almost all low income students would remain at their local public school. Those public schools would lose funding and become even more strapped for resources than they already are. The test scores of those public schools would go down, because research has shown that a school’s test scores strongly correlates to that school’s average family income. Those schools would be taken over by the state and possibly turned into charter schools (as per other legislation currently being considered) and local schools that have been the foundation and centerpiece of communities across the state (especially small, rural communities) would fall apart.

This may seem like an exaggerated doomsday prediction of what could happen, but I do not believe it is far-fetched. Public education is one of the foundations of our democracy in the United States. Thomas Jefferson warned us to “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” In order for our country to survive, we must continue to offer free, equitable education to all students. When that equal opportunity to education for all is watered down by privatization, devaluation of public schools, and degradation of public school teachers and administrators, then the system begins to fall apart. No, our public schools are not perfect, but, on the whole, they are not failing either. I would like to point out that those who are sounding the loudest cry of “failing schools” and “accountability” are also those who have the most to gain by school privatization and school choice.

Please, for the good of our schools and our democracy, I urge you to oppose any legislation that attempts to devalue or degrade our locally controlled public education system. Thank you for your time spent reading this letter and I hope and pray that you will make the best choices for our state’s future.

Sincerely,

Tyler McBride
7th and 8th Grade ELA Teacher
Greenland Middle School
Greenland, Arkansas

What My Students Think of the PARCC Test

IMG_20140422_130626_240In Arkansas next Monday, the PARCC testing window opens. On that day, schools like mine can begin giving the PARCC Performance Based Assessments to their students. To “take the temperature” of my classroom this week, I asked my students to write about what they thought of standardized tests. Below are a few of their answers. I have tried to include samples from a wide range of students – you will hear from my best students and my students who struggle the most. You will also hear from students who love testing and those who hate it (there are many more of the latter). Some answers have been edited for spelling and punctuation errors, but no words or meanings have been changed.

I will not give much commentary, but instead I will let the quotes speak mostly for themselves. I will say this: the only discussion about testing we had in class up to this point was my explaining what the PARCC test is and what students will be expected to do. I did not share my views on standardized testing with students, but more than 90% of my students still said they dislike or hate standardized tests. To those who would say that these are just bratty students complaining because they won’t do well on the test, this is my question: If many students resent being forced to take a certain test, how can that test be a valid measurement of student achievement? How can you assume that all students will do their best on a test they hate?

Thus ends my commentary. Now, listen to what the kids have to say.

“I don’t like standardized tests because they take us out of class and they keep us from doing work in class.” – I.

“I wouldn’t mind them that much if you didn’t have to take so much of them all the time.” – M.

“I don’t really like them because I don’t think there is really any point in taking them. We already have to take quizzes in class. Why can’t we go off that?” – B.

“I think that standardized tests are needed. They’re needed so teachers or staff can see where the students are or where the teachers need to teach more about. But personally I don’t like them, especially the PARCC test.” – L.

“I think we should just learn stuff and not have to take a test.” – C.

“I like it because it takes up time faster and you get snacks and [get to go] outside and it’s easy. It’s kinda fun because you get rewards at breaks.” – C.

“Standardized tests are to evaluate how well the schools have taught children. The only problem is that children hate taking the test, myself included.” – J.

“I think they’re dumb and useless. They take up time that could be used for actual learning, set obscure goals for how much you must learn, and don’t even count toward your grade in most cases. They emotionally damage children, and can cause problems for students suffering from some mental illnesses. They make students anxious and sometimes they are so nervous that they are physically ill. The time they take up could be used for actual learning.” – S.

“I think the standardized tests are dumb. They’re pretty much just like finals, so there’s no real point in taking them. I think it’d be better to just take finals instead of standardized tests and finals.” – K.

“I don’t like the test because the teachers try to get us ready and when they come I black out on them.” – K.

“I don’t like the standardized tests because you have to sit still for hours and not talk at all.” – C.

“I do not like the test at all. They are boring and some of the questions don’t even make sense. In my opinion there is nothing good about them. I honestly don’t see why we have to take these tests!” – K.

“The reason I really like the Benchmark is because it’s really quiet and you actually get your work done and I get relaxed because it’s all quiet.” – M.

“I dislike them because I hate taking tests or quizzes. I like them because we get out of classes and don’t have to learn more on the days we take them.” – H.

“I think they are too much pressure on kids because kids know you have to pass these big tests but kids are so worried about passing the test and getting a good grade that they cannot actually use everything they know […] Personally, I’m scared to take the PARCC test this year. I’m mainly scared about the math part because I’m so horrible at math.” – N.

“Teachers should have their own freedom on what they wish for their class to learn. They should also be able to design tests that they know are more fitting for their students instead of statewide results from students everywhere. These tests lack interest, design, and they often take days from a teacher that he/she could use to teach their students more. Teachers should not have to be told what to teach but should get to decide for themselves.” – H.

“The standardized tests are a big waste of time. We spend a lot of time taking the test and getting ready for the test.” – C.

“What is the difference between the normal tests given by teachers and the PARCC, TLI, and Benchmark tests? The difference is one thing: the standardized tests make you inhuman – you are a number and that is all the state will see. When tests are given by teachers it shows where they need to focus; otherwise you are a number and the teachers can’t help you at all.” – C.

“I think that the tests are useless! They take up time we could be learning in class.” – K.

“I mean, come on. The teachers know that we don’t do our work or pay attention in class. So what’s the point in having a test to see what you learned?” – A.

Arkansas Curriculum Conference

Yesterday, I was very proud of myself: I avoided yelling at a stranger. I was sitting in the Marriott Hotel and Convention Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, waiting for a session to start at the Arkansas Curriculum Conference. There were only a few other teachers in the room – and I, being a quiet, unassuming person by nature, couldn’t help but listen in to their conversations. One teacher in particular was ranting about how much she hated the conference we were all attending – she was “fed up,” she said, and this was the “worst thing” she had ever experienced. She said she was ready to go home and this had been a “waste of time.” This is where I had trouble keeping my mouth shut.

You see, I really wanted to tell her that having time off from teaching students to come to this conference was a privilege. I wanted to say: “If you aren’t getting anything from the session you are in, pick a different one.” Or, better yet, present your own next year! Because, while I’ve been attending sessions this Thursday and Friday, I’ve found plenty of thoughtfully planned sessions facilitated by plenty of great teachers with plenty of great strategies to share. But, more importantly than that, I have found time to connect with other educators, share successes and struggles in the classroom, and gain a new hope and revitalization for the rest of the school year. So, Ms. I-refuse-to-be-happy whom I overheard,  to you I say this – if you don’t like coming to conferences like this, don’t come! If you aren’t getting anything out of it, that’s your fault!

So many times, we as educators live in a vacuum. We teach the same kids every day and talk to the same teachers every day in the faculty lounge (and whether we like to admit it or not – these conversations usually take a more negative turn than we intend). We all need time to get away – to connect with the best teachers across our state, to remember that we aren’t the only people facing these struggles, and to realize that there is hope and there is always more we could be doing to reach the kids in our classes.

I don’t really have a closing to this post, other than this – go to conferences! Connect with other educators! If you are in Arkansas, come to the Arkansas Curriculum Conference! But wherever you are – take the time to connect with others, get away from the routine and self-containment of your own class for a while, and rediscover the joy of teaching.

Book Reviews on MiddleWeb

Greetings faithful readers! I apologize for my hiatus from this blog during the summer. While it may not seem so, I have been busy writing. For your enjoyment, I have posted links below to two book reviews I have written for MiddleWeb, one just posted today, and one from March. If you haven’t heard of it, MiddleWeb is a great online resource of book reviews, teaching strategies, and more for Middle School teachers in any content area. Head on over and check it out!

How to Avoid CCSS Weak Teaching Advice – My review of Uncommon Core by Michael W. Smith, Deborah Appleman, and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm

Advanced Strategies Can Help Kids Become Wild Readers – My review of Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller

Book Review: Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Counting by 7s

Counting by 7s

I’ll be honest – I’m usually not a fan of realistic young adult or middle grade fiction. This may sound shallow, but I find it hard to read books that are just about characters or people. You know. The main character has a problem (a cheating boyfriend or divorcing parents or an antisocial personality), struggles with the problem, is helped by a faithful best friend, has a falling out with the faithful best friend halfway through the book that is resolved by the end, and ends up accepting himself/herself in 250 pages or less. I know I’m giving broad generalizations here. However, I finally found a book that might change my mind about realistic fiction.

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan defies the stereotypes of young adult realistic fiction – yes, the main character has a problem, and a pretty serious problem at that (her adopted parents die in a tragic accident). However, Sloan creates such interesting, label-defying characters that the book can’t possibly be a cookie-cutter novel. Willow (the main character) is thrust into a seemingly unbelievable situation – her adopted parents die, and there is literally no relative to take care of her. Despite the absurdity of her situation, her impeccable vocabulary, and her love for all things botanical, Sloan manages to make Willow’s character believable and lovable. You also won’t be able to help but fall in love with the other Characters (with a capital C) she meets along the way, such as Pattie the nail salon owner, who takes Willow into her home and who is obsessed with the lucky color red. Or Willow’s counselor Dell, who categorizes the kids he counsels into “groups of the strange”, and at one point in the novel is kicked out of his apartment by Pattie so they can hide the fact that her family lives in a garage from the department of human services. Or Willow’s taxi driver Jairo, who thinks Willow is literally an angel after she diagnoses a growth on his neck as melanoma.

Counting by 7s starts with a tragedy, but the book is more about the resilience of the human spirit, and about a group of oddballs (because we really are all oddballs, aren’t we?) come together to form a family. It defies genre, and it defied the image I had in my mind of realistic young adult fiction. I highly recommend it to girls and guys of all ages.

Why I Love Professional Development

Let me begin this post by discussing what is not professional development. If you follow any blogs on teaching, you may have already seen this video – in a way, it has gone viral among progressive educators fighting against this kind of mindless “teaching.” (Training might be a more appropriate term for what is happening here.) Without further ado, here is the video:

Evidently, this is what passes as professional development for some teachers in Chicago. Let me repeat, unless you had any doubts: this is not professional development.

I recently had the pleasure of going through a similarly mind-numbing training session. It wasn’t much different from plenty of training sessions that I have attended as a teacher. Powerpoint slides reminiscent of something sterile and hospital-like, a droning voice explaining inane testing procedures in detail, and teachers in various states between disengaged and near-comatose. However, the only thing different from the usual was that instead of being talked at by some poor person hired to visit our district, we were watching a training video from PARCC related to the field testing of their new assessments. What is surprising is that we (the teachers) hardly noticed the difference between the droning computer speakers and a droning live speaker.

My experience in the PARCC session, the Chicago teachers’ experience in the video, and similar training sessions pass for “professional development” in many schools and districts around the nation. Professional development is conceived as a passive experience – teachers sit and listen, “experts” dispense knowledge. How, then, are we expected to stop lecturing to our students and start involving them in hands-on learning? My teacher friends and I have shared quiet laughs in the past as experts who have been out of the classroom for decades beat us over the head with PowerPoint slides explaining how our students should be more involved in their learning.

So, what is professional development? Let’s break apart the term – first, professional. This implies that teachers are treated as other professionals would be treated. Professionals are given the opportunity to pursue their own topics of interest. Professionals collaborate with other professionals. Professionals are trusted to want to learn. Second – development. Development implies growing, evolving, learning. Not being talked at.

In case you haven’t been fortunate enough to be involved in real professional development, let me explain just a couple of my experiences and why I love it.

In the fall, I had the opportunity to attend an edCamp session at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. I chose to attend on my own after hearing about edCamp online. My wife traveled with me to Conway early one Saturday before the sun came up, and by the time we got to UCA, I was tired. However, my energy was soon revived as I engaged in conversations about technology, maintaining momentum, and new the teacher evaluation system in our state. However, none of these discussions or sessions were predetermined for us – we made them up that day, and we were free to come and go from conversations as we pleased and to adjust our own discussions and learning as we wanted. I learned more by talked to my colleagues around the state that day than I had in weeks of other teacher training sessions. Simply put, it was a liberating experience. That was professional development.

Recently, I finished reading The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. I read it in just a few sittings – I soaked it in. I had been thinking deeply about sustained, free-choice reading in my classroom for the past two school years. I had been trying to implement some kind of workshop format in my ELA classes for a while. Donalyn’s book gave me the inspiration to get started. I couldn’t read fast enough to start incorporating classroom routines I loved and experimenting with new lesson plans. And, after I finished, I couldn’t get enough – I immediately ordered her newest book, Reading in the Wild(It’s just as amazing, in case you were wondering.) As I read professional books like these, I am learning how to be a better teacher, sometimes without even realizing it. That is professional development.

This kind of self-directed, inquiry professional development is what I love. I love getting to learn about topics that interest me, try out what I’ve learned in my classroom, and reflect on my own experiences in my teaching journal (yes, I really have one of those). This is really professional development, and this life-long learning and pursuit of knowledge is exactly what I want to instill in my students every single day.

Why I Try to Ignore Lexile Reading Levels

As you may have guessed from my post about standardized testing, I am wary of tests or instruments that try to quantify what is difficult to quantify. For example, how can education officials get a complete picture of a student’s learning and growth by giving a test that lasts a small fraction of the time they actually spent learning? Add to that the fact that the vast majority of the question are forced-choice questions (AKA, multiple choice) that give no opportunity for the student to think outside the box or explain their reasoning. However, I’ll refrain from ranting about standardized testing here – instead, I’ll rant about another instrument that attempts to quantify the unquantifiable – quantitative measures of text complexity, specifically Lexile scores.

If you know anything about the Common Core State Standards, you know that it is aimed at increasing “rigor” of instruction and the “complexity” of the texts students are able to read. The underlying premise, is that there is something wrong with our students (“they aren’t working hard enough”) and there is something wrong with our education system (“school isn’t challenging enough”). The writers’ remedy, of course, is to make everything more difficult so that students will be ready for more difficult tasks and texts when they enter college and the world of work. Of course, this is a simplified explanation, but you get the idea. This is the rationale behind Common Core’s demands for increased “text complexity.” Text complexity, as defined by the Common Core in ELA Appendix A, is made of three components – qualitative measures, quantitative measures, and considerations of the reader and task. Qualitative measures basically mean those features of a text that can only be seen by an attentive human reader. Quantitative measures refer to quantifiable features of a text, such as sentence length, sentence complexity, and word complexity, that can be measured using numerical scores (Lexile being the most common one I’ve seen used). And, of course, considerations of the reader and task refer to how well a text fits with a particular reader’s ability and disposition, and how difficult the tasks associated with it are.

The Common Core claims that each of the three features of complexity must be “used together” (Appendix A, page 4) to select texts for students to read which will be adequately complex. If this were actually the case in practice, I would not have much to argue against, except that, in my opinion, quantitative measures should be used sparingly (if at all). However, what the CCSS writers say and what they do are two entirely different matters. In the same Appendix in which they advocate for considering all three factors, they cite several studies showing a decline in the complexity of texts used in schools over a significant time period. Interestingly, all of these studies use only quantitative measures (sentence length, vocabulary difficulty, and Lexile score) to argue that text complexity is decreasing. Why are the Common Core writers arguing for multiple ways of measuring text complexity when their entire argument that we need to increase complexity is based on quantitative measures only?

Similarly, Achieve the Core, an organization founded by writers of the Common Core and aimed at helping teachers decipher it, gives quantitative measures priority in selecting classroom texts. Below is a direct quote from their directions for selecting texts.

“To choose texts that are on grade level for the CCSS, use three steps:

  1. Use quantitative measures to assign a text to a grade band.
  2. Use qualitative measures to locate a text within a specific grade band.
  3. Use professional judgment to decide how suited a text is for a specific instructional purpose with a particular set of students.” (Source)

In other words, as a teacher, I must make sure the books I choose for my students is in their “grade band” (i.e., grades 6-8, 9-10, etc.) based on a Lexile score or some other numerical measure. Let’s look at a quick example to see how this would relate to my classroom. Let’s say that I’m considering several books to teach my 8th grade English class, including Of Mice and Men and Freedom Walkers. The former choice is a canonical text traditionally taught in High School, and I might be concerned about my 8th graders being able to process some of the mature themes and language. But let’s ignore that for now, for argument’s sake. Freedom Walkers, on the other hand, is a fairly straight-forward, factual nonfiction book that gives a detailed look at one piece of the Civil Rights Movement (the Montgomery Bus Boycott), but isn’t as rich in sensory description, dialogue, and interest as some more “literary” texts that I might prefer. So, if I am following the directions of the writers of the Common Core, I should look at each text’s quantitative Lexile score first to see if it is in my grade-level band. Below is an excerpt from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (page 38 in my edition).

“Although there was evening brightness showing through the windows of the bunk house, inside it was dusk. Through the open door came the thuds and occasional clangs of a horseshoe game, and now and then the sound of voices raised in approval or derision.

Slim and George came into the darkening bunk house together. Slim reached up over the card table and turned on the tin-shaded electric light. Instantly the table was brilliant with light, and the cone of the shade threw its brightness straight downward, leaving the corners of the bunk house still in dusk. Slim sat down on a box and George took his place opposite.”

And now, below, let’s look at an excerpt from Freedom Walkers by Russell Freedman (page 23 in my edition).

“Rosa Parks had taken a special interest in Claudette Colvin’s case. She knew Claudette. And she herself had suffered a similar experience twelve years earlier. In 1943, she had been thrown off a Montgomery bus for refusing to reenter through the back door after paying her fare. The bus driver had kept her money, ordered her to step outside, then driven away, leaving her standing on the sidewalk.”

Based on these excerpts, which I believe are fairly representative of the texts as a whole, which do you think is more challenging or complex? I would argue that Steinbeck’s writing is much more complex. Steinbeck writes in a way that creates an intricate sensory picture that takes some time for your brain to process – I found myself re-reading this section a couple of times to completely get a picture in my head of the light, shadow, and sounds in these two paragraphs. Freedman, on the other hand, writes his sentences in an extremely straight-forward and factual manner, which for most of my students is much easier to understand. However, you may notice that Steinbeck’s words are shorter than Freedman’s, overall. Thus, the Lexile scores of the first novel are significantly lower. The Lexile level of Of Mice and Men is 630L, placing in the 2-3 grade complexity band. Freedom Walkers‘ Lexile level, on the other hand, 1110L, placing it in the 6-8 grade band.

Therefore, if I am following the recommendations of Achieve the Core (as so many teachers and administrators are doing), I cannot use Of Mice and Men in my classroom, because it does not even fit in the grade band of my students. Presumably, then, the Common Core prohibits Of Mice and Men from being taught at all, because no one would argue that 3rd graders possess enough emotional maturity to process the novel. Therefore, I would probably choose something like Freedom Walkers, which is a great informational text about an important topic, but honestly seems a little boring for many students.

Put simply, Lexile scores don’t tell you much about a text. What a Lexile score is supposed to tell me about a text (namely, it’s readability or complexity) I could easily determine for myself by reading the book. In my opinion, the whole idea of using quantitative measures like Lexile is to create standardization, because teachers are no longer trusted as professionals to make decisions about what books their students should read. Lexile scores have also been used as a replacement for the Accelerated Reader program – in other words, that students must only read books independently that are within their Lexile band, and not anything outside of it. For me, anything that restricts teacher discretion and student choice in choosing texts without providing any benefit is fairly useless. That is why I choose to ignore Lexile scores.