So, really, enough people have asked questions that they can be categorized as “frequent” and actually require answers? Um, yeah, no.
But people I talk to, like, in real life ask me the same questions repeatedly, and I’m sure you’re dying to know the answers, too. So here they are. I’m a giver.
AREN’T YOU BORED IN ROCHESTER?? WHY DO YOU LIVE THERE??
I probably get asked this as often as anything. Crazily enough, not only are we not bored, we love living here. Lemme ‘splain, by way of a few more questions… (Or, go here for the straight scoop on why Rochester itself is fab.)
Where did you live before you moved to western/upstate New York?
We lived in Westchester County, 30 minutes outside of New York City, for six years before moving here. Specifically, we lived in Tuckahoe and Bronxville (although we paid Yonkers taxes and were in the Yonkers school district, so we referred to our locale as “Bronkers”), both right on the Metro North train line. Nick walked to the station to take the train to work. I could walk into town for groceries and Starbucks. It was great.
If it was “great,” why’d you move?
Lots of reasons. Cost was a big factor. The NYC suburbs are hardly known as affordable… By 2005, I was was job-sharing with a great friend: we each taught (music) 2.5 days a week and watched the other’s child for 2.5 days. It was a fabulous arrangement – but on my halftime salary, Nick and I were financially in the red and growing more crimson each month. And yet, if I’d switched to full-time, I’d have had to put Ella in all-day childcare… which was so expensive, my full-time salary would scarcely cover it (and that was only for one child). When Annie was born in 2006, a change clearly had to be made.
And then there was Nick. Although he was working for a great company and was pleased with his job, it was hell to get to. Despite living less than 30 miles outside of NYC, his commute was 90 minutes each way: walk to the train, take the train into the city, take the subway down to southern Manhattan, walk around the Trade Center pit, and finally get to his office. Nine hours later, rinse and repeat. On good days, Nick saw our girls for 30 minutes just before bedtime. On bad days, when the subways were overcrowded or he missed his train by mere seconds, he wouldn’t see them at all. Being a weekend dad wasn’t what any of us wanted. Something had to give.
We could move farther away from NYC (where housing prices were a bit lower) but still be in the metro area… But that would have meant an even longer commute for Nick. When he discovered that we could move to Rochester (with which we were already familiar because my mom had grown up here and my grandparents had a house on one of the Finger Lakes) and keep his job, we decided to take the plunge and go for it. Yes, it meant leaving both of my parents and stepparents, as well as our awesome friends. But we hoped it would be worth it.
We were so right.
Okay. But seriously. From NYC suburbs to ROCHESTER?? Wha????
How can it be THAT good?
I know, I know. It seems impossible, right? But it’s not. It’s actually super.
But let me tell you why.
(Note: this is why we love living where we do, with Rochester itself being kind of incidental. There’s more about Rochester, specifically, and why we love it so much, here.)
- We love snow. Full stop.
- Spring, Summer, and Fall are great. (Mid-march through April sucks, but we’re good with that.)
- The cost of living is WAY lower than it was outside of NYC, but (amazingly, gratefully).
- Because of the above, I’ve been able to stay home with the girls (and be a piano teacher) since moving here. Since Annie started first grade last year, I’ve also been subbing – which I adore – but those first six mostly-stay-at-home-mom years were really a gift.
- It is amazingly family-friendly. There are loads of family-oriented activities and places geared towards kids, but there’s also just a pervasive attitude that family comes first – above your job, even – and that’s pretty cool. And also the exact opposite of life outside of NYC.
- We’re 30 minutes from my family’s house on Canandaigua Lake, which means that 365 days a year, we have the opportunity of visiting a vacation home on one of my most favorite places on the planet. Kinda can’t beat that. (Plus, in the summer, my extended family comes to visit – and living so close, we can see all of them, which is cool because they’re cool.)
- We live 10 minutes from my grandma (and my grandpa, before he passed away shortly after we moved here in 2007). I grew up living six hours away from my both sets of my grandparents, seeing them each only a couple of times a year, so it is a delightful novelty living right next to my grandmother.
- Our neighborhood is AWESOME. Awesome, awesome, awesome. We had no way of knowing this before we moved, so it wasn’t really a factor in our moving, but now that we’re here we can pretty much never leave. You know those places you hear about, where parents never let their children outside and kids never ride their bikes anywhere anymore and childhood is essentially limited to playing video games on the Xbox or Wii or using iPads next to one another? Our neighborhood is the exact opposite of that. There are always kids outside, and their parents are rarely in sight – not because they don’t care or don’t know what’s going on, but because they trust their kids and the neighborhood is safe (yes, I know, a relative term). The big ones look out for the little ones, teaching them to watch for cars in the cul-de-sac and how to walk on the correct side of the street. Kids run in and out of yards, climbing trees, sledding down small backyard hills, playing in the enormous snow pile in the circle, riding bikes from house to house, having water balloon and squirt gun fights, going on scavenger hunts (we once had a group of pre-teen boys show up at our door and sing us “Eye of the Tiger” as part of their door-to-door hunt), “ghosting” one another at Halloween, and leaving cookies for neighbors at Christmas. It is entirely common for a parent to leave a child at a communal gathering and head home, saying to the host parent, “Just send her back when the cookout’s over!” We have impromptu fire-pit marshmallow roasts and bring folding chairs into the circle to drink beer and chat with our immediate neighbors (aptly named “Suds in the Circle”). Whenever we go out of town, we can always count on one of the 11 or 12 year-old boys to eagerly watch our dogs, letting them out, walking them, feeding them, and throwing the ball until their arms fall off. We have a babysitter who lives down the street. If we run out of an ingredient, one of our neighbors is sure to have it on hand. When I accidentally leave the curling iron on and then leave the house, I can call a neighbor and who will head over and unplug it for me. We trade off watching each other’s kids. Our girls can walk to school in 3 minutes, which is fabulous not only as a means of transportation but also for any kind of school function where parking is a pain in the neck. Additionally, we’re within easy walking distance of a large county park, a fish hatchery, and two playgrounds. It’s really, truly unbeatable.
- Our schools are great. Not test-score great (although they are that; I just don’t put much stock in test scores), but generally good, solid, close-knit schools. We know our teachers well and are buddies with the crossing guard. Families are friendly. It’s just good.
- Nick’s commute has been cut from 90 minutes each way to 12 minutes; 15 if there’s “traffic.” This, obviously, saves him literally hours in transit each day, which is incredible on its own. But it’s what he can do with those gifted-back hours that’s so great: sleep longer, help with the kids and the dogs in the morning, see the girls every day before work, take them to school if it’s raining or they miss the bus, be home in time for dinner – or even to make dinner – every night, and be home for bedtime. (Hell, he can leave work, grab a few drinks with friends, and still be home – in time for dinner – more than an hour earlier than he could when we lived in Bronxville.) The fact that he’s only 12 minutes away also means, if he wants, he can come home for lunch. He can attend parent-teacher conferences without having to go in late to work or schedule them after the kids’ bedtime. He can attend the girls’ doctor’s appointments or volunteer in their classrooms. He can watch the Halloween parade at school – just zipping over, standing around for 10 minutes, and then driving back – whereas before, doing so would have necessitated that he take a half-day off of work. He and I can meet for lunch without me having to drive for two hours. The 12-minute commute really cannot be over-praised.
So. Aside from missing our family and friends (which we definitely do), life is pretty much better in every single way since moving here. Can’t really argue with that.
Why “All Together in a Scattered Sort of Way”?
It’s no secret that, although I possess many incredible qualities, seeming put-together isn’t necessarily one of them. I can get it all done — and often done really damn well — but it won’t necessarily be pretty. When I graduated college, the members of my a cappella group gave me a collage filled with magazine cut-out song titles, inside jokes, etc. At the center of the page was this phrase – cut directly from a magazine – “All Together in a Scattered Sort of Way.” It was the most perfect descriptor of me I’d ever heard. I’ve never forgotten it (although, appropriately, I can no longer find the collage).
So. Piano teacher, eh? Can you teach my kids?
Yep. I’ve taught piano for twenty years, from three year-olds to adults. I really enjoy it (and, if I may be so bold, I think I’m a pretty good teacher), both on its own merits and because it keeps me connected with music and teaching. Right now, my piano schedule is full, but I do have a wait list and I’m happy to put your kids on it. I also accept gifts in the form of chocolate, wine, and Starbucks gift cards.
Do you ever want to teach classroom music again?
For the time being, I’m extremely fortunate and grateful to be substitute teaching in local districts. Turns out, I really, really like subbing (and I think I’m pretty good at it, too). I definitely wouldn’t rule out a classroom music position in the future, but right now, subbing is going well.
You’re old enough to have kids? Seriously? Can I please see your I.D.?
When I was in my teens and twenties, looking young for my age drove me crazy. (It also didn’t help that I actually was young for my grade; when Nick and I were in a band during our freshman year at college, we had to turn down a couple of gigs at local bars because, at 17, I was too young to enter.) I was stopped from entering R-rated movies until well into my twenties. I am still carded regularly, and people routinely look past me for my parents, or at least another adult-type person. (Just last month, in fact, the pizza delivery guy asked if it was okay with my folks if I paid him. I assured him they were good with it.) It used to really bug me, but now, as I’m fast approaching forty, I giggle like the school girl they think I am whenever I’m carded, fork over my driver’s license, and watch their eyes widen in embarrassment when they view my birth date. I might even point out that I’m old enough to be their mother. But I can’t promise to act like it.
Damn, your kids are cute!
I KNOW, RIGHT?!?! I realize it’s gauche to brag… But yeah. They’re gorgeous.
(And smart and funny and exhausting…)
But are they… Is there some Asian in there… I mean, your husband’s heritage is…?? (And, um, is it okay for me to ask things like this?)
Nick is Korean. He was adopted (by a Caucasian family) when he was six months old and grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. Although his family certainly didn’t ignore his Korean heritage, Nick was never particularly interested in it, per se, and so he grew up essentially feeling Caucasian. Now, having our girls — who are not only related to him but also look like him — his being Asian is taking on new meaning.
And, sure, it’s okay to ask. It’s totally normal to wonder where someone’s from, what their heritage is, especially if you’re coming at it from a place of genuine interest or shared history. Many people see Ella and Annie and feel compelled to tell me about their cousin/friend/aunt whose kids are also half-Asian. There’s a connection there. I get it.
What if I ask you where you “got your kids”?
If you ask in just the right way, I’ll tell you politely that they’re biologically mine and are a beautiful combination of my Asian husband and me. If you ask in the other way, the way that is rude and intrusive and rubs me exactly wrong, I’ll answer you completely honestly: They’re from my vagina.
You say that you’re a “grammar stickler.” Does that mean I can call you out when I think you’ve made a grammatical error?
Sure! Go for it! But please keep a few things in mind if you do:
- If it’s an obvious mistake — I repeated a word unnecessarily, added an extra L in Ella (Ellla), left out a word, that sort of thing — you can probably let it go. Although I’m a grammar fanatic, I’m also human, and even though I read every post several times through before I publish it, sometimes I miss the little things. Sorry ’bout that.
- I recognize that it’s technically incorrect (in formal settings, anyway) to begin sentences with And or But. When I’m writing formally, I purposely shy away from doing so. Here, however, I write in my own style. And that includes beginning sentences with And or But, simply because I like it.
- If you think I’ve actually made a grammatical error, by all means, let me know! Then I’ll tell you if you’re right and I accidentally missed it, if you’re wrong 😉 , or if you’ve just taught me something new; I’m enough of a grammar dork that I love learning new grammar stuff.
You really raise service dog puppies? How on earth do you give them up?
Yes, we do. You can read more here about our involvement with CCI. It’s very, very difficult but also very, very rewarding. We plan to be puppy raisers for many years to come. You should consider it… It’s pretty incredible.
Milk, Dark, or White?
Milk, almost always. Unless it’s really, really special. Then I’ll make an exception.
Yankees or Red Sox?
Do you even have to ask? BRONX BOMBERS, baby. Duh.
You published a post about state testing in 2015 that went viral… then you changed it in 2016. Where’s the original post?
For many reasons, I felt it best to update the post. Although it has been permanently altered (so you won’t find it as a separate entry), you can read the original here, in its entirety:
It Is Time
Plain and simple, I believe that the current standardized tests in ELA (English Language Arts) and Math, given annually from grades 3-8, are so absurd, so poorly designed, and just so wrong, they should be entirely revamped. I’ll go one step more: I think that our children are being used as pawns in a political greed-fest (hey, why bother dumbing it down or making it sound pretty?) and I think that a lot of families have no idea that this is what’s happening.
Lemme break it down.
- Testing isn’t going anywhere
Tests have been around since the dawn of schooling (and probably before that; you know that cave people were totally devising hunting “challenges” for one another). Standardized testing in the United States has been around since at least WWI. Pretty much anyone who’s lived in the USA over the last 40-50 years has heard about our “failing” education system, how we don’t “measure up” to other nations, etc. – so, clearly, something had to be done. Hence, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed, which eventually turned into No Child Left Behind, and – I’m simplifying here – now, in order to receive federal funds, schools need to prove that their students are showing academic improvement.
Whether or not American schools are, indeed, “failing” is up for intense debate, but the fact remains that standardized tests have been around forever. They offer one small snapshot into one moment of a student’s academic year. Taken alongside the numerous other evaluations that are performed throughout any given school year, they can contribute a few brushstrokes to a child’s academic progress canvas. If these tests are well-written, developmentally appropriate, and accurate, they can also provide some sort of (small) basis by which to compare schools and teachers. Fair enough.
I’m down with standardized testing, as a general concept. I think most parents, teachers, and families are. So why the hell are people so riled up about the current tests?
- Common Core confusion
For one thing, states adopted the Core standards with a very specific goal in mind: money. Not education reform, not improving student learning, not evaluating teaching practices or helping teachers to better their approaches, but cold, hard cash. See, there was this clever little thing called Race To The Top (RTTT) that was rolled out in 2009-2010 that essentially said (I’m paraphrasing here ever so slightly): Hey, governing people! Here’s a fun game! Want to earn more FUNDING for your states for education? THEN COME COMPETE FOR IT!! All you have to do is prove that you’re evaluating teachers more stringently, identify and turn around failing schools, promise you won’t prohibit the formation of more charter schools, adopt some common standards, and create some nifty data systems! The faster and better you do that, the faster you can earn MORE MONEY!!! It’s like a carnival up in here!
(Let’s just take a moment of silence and contemplate the practice of public schools COMPETING WITH ONE ANOTHER for funding as though they were contestants hawking inventions on Shark Tank. Nothing spurs on better teaching and learning than trying to show other states who’s boss, am I right??)
In theory, a set of shared standards isn’t such a bad idea. I like the Common Core benchmarks, broadly speaking. I like the idea of everyone in the US learning some basic, shared content. I like the thought that, if your kid changed schools or districts or moved halfway across the country, you could count on him or her not being too far behind (or ahead) because everyone’s learning the same stuff at the same time, from poverty-stricken inner cities to wealthy suburbs. Neat-o.
In practice, because of the whole SHOW ME THE MONEY thing, the standards were written in a bit of a hurry – and, many people assert, they were written without any educator input. No, for real: according to many experts, not one single K-12 educator or child development expert was included in the creation of these standards. So they’re, um, a bit off-base in terms of what’s developmentally appropriate for each grade level, by which I mean that they’re asking kids to know a heckuva lot more, and to use an awful lot of more complex thinking, than they’ve done before. Setting the bar a lot higher.
Which, in itself, might not be so bad — maybe even inspiring and hopeful — if the standards had been adopted at a reasonable pace with teachers being given adequate support and training to properly teach the new material.
But because there was MONEY on the line, and because states had to act SUPER FAST if they wanted their share, they adopted Common Core with lightning speed. There was no gradual roll-out. No trying-and-seeing to determine if this set of standards was reasonable, achievable, or appropriate. No oversight by anyone in the field of education. Instead, our teachers and students were essentially guinea pigs or crash test dummies. Buckle up, y’all!
- These tests suck
Even so – even with way more complex standards written by non-education people that were put into practice before anyone had a chance to review them – things might have been okay had the accompanying tests that were meant to measure performance been super, good, strong, accurate evaluations. But they’re not.
For one thing, they – like the standards – are written by non-educators. I cannot fathom why anyone thinks it’s okay for people with no training in a given field to create tests that are supposed to determine achievement in that field. (It has recently been brought to my attention that, at least in New York state, the tests before the Common Core-based tests were also written by non-educators. So this is nothing new, but it’s still not a good idea.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their authorship, the tests have been found to be riddled with errors. The test questions themselves, especially on the ELA portion of the exam, are often written at reading levels two to nine grades ahead (asking, say, third graders to read and evaluate passages that are actually appropriate for 5th- 12th graders).
Many of the test questions are vague or even deliberately misleading, which makes choosing the answer more of a guessing game than a true demonstration of understanding. In order to help students navigate this confusing jumble, teachers often use teaching modules – lesson plans developed by the test manufacturers (the same ones who are not educators themselves) – to help their students prepare for the tests. Accordingly, test-geared homework is sent home with language that is, paradoxically, so vague yet also so specifically prescribed that parents are unable to help their children understand what is going on.
These are taken from the PARCC ELA test…
We are providing our students with false information, um, why?
Are we deliberately screwing with our kids?
- The results don’t mean anything
Given that the tests are badly written, error-filled, and are developmentally inappropriate, it seems safe to say that their results are pretty much bunk. Additionally, since student results aren’t provided until the end of summer (or even into the start of the next school year), the child’s teacher can’t use the scores to adjust his or her instruction to better serve those kiddos.
Sure, in theory, a teacher could look at the results from last year’s class, see a deficiency in a particular area, and think, “Oh, I guess I didn’t do a good job teaching Main Idea. I’d better work on that with this year’s batch of students.” In fact, I would bet that the vast majority of teachers try to do exactly that. But the information that teachers are given – at least in New York – is rather limited. They do receive some information regarding how well their class performed on which standard (or Domain), but again, the information that they’re given is not really what you’d call illuminating.
Teachers aren’t allowed to see the actual questions from the test, nor to know ones were answered incorrectly – they only receive a broad overview of concepts and standards and whole-class percentages rather than individual student breakdowns. Did last year’s students really not understand Main Idea, or were the Main Idea questions vague? Were they deliberately misleading? Were they “sample” questions that are thrown out there each year just to see how kids do on them? Were they just plain incorrect or filled with typos? Were the students who struggled with those questions the ones who speak English as a second language or have learning difficulties (since everyone who takes the test is scored the same)? Teachers have no idea, so they don’t know where to go from there.
Even if they did – even if the data was reliable – there’s one final catch: the passing score changes from year to year and is determined… AFTER THE TESTS HAVE BEEN SCORED. I wish I could say that I’m kidding, but I’m not. Movable passing scores! WHEE!!!
- Teachers are more than just a (faulty) number
Here’s where things get really personal for me. Let’s just backtrack for a moment and pretend that the current tests are awesome. Let’s pretend that they are appropriate, accurate, and superbly written. Even if this were the case, I think we can all agree, still, that they represent merely one moment in a child’s education, several hours out of their lives. They don’t actually demonstrate all that children have learned – not even the best tests in the entire world – because most of what we call “learning” cannot be shown in a two-dimensional standardized test.
What standardized test results really show us is how well individual children tested on a particular day. I know that, personally, although was a really good student who adored learning, my test scores always stunk. I’m sure the same is true for a good many of you, as well as the opposite (people who perform unusually well on standardized tests or make surprisingly accurate guesses but who, otherwise, don’t get high marks academically). What never even crossed my, or my parents’, mind is that my scores were in any way indicative of how well my teachers were teaching. Hell, they weren’t even indicative of what I was learning — all they showed was how well I tested on a particular day.
And yet that is just what our legislators have done (here in New York, anyway). They have decided that student test scores will count for FIFTY PERCENT of every single teacher’s Annual Professional Performance Review, or APPR.
So, that’s pretty neat.
And let’s not forget about the rest of the teachers. To paraphrase from something I wrote on Facebook: The tests are given in grades 3-8 for reading/language arts and math; high school students also take Regents exams in various subjects. So, the results from those tests can be connected to 3-8 classroom/English/Math teachers as well as high school teachers whose classes culminate in Regents exams. The lovely wrinkle in this swell plan, though, is that the majority of teachers do not teach these subjects/grades. What about the K-2 teachers? 9-12 non-Regents class teachers? Gym, music, art? Science (students are tested in science but not in every grade), social studies/history, foreign language, library, computer, home ec, graphics…? There are waaaay more of those teachers than teachers whose students actually take the tests.
And yet 50% of their evaluations are also based on test results. Based on the performance of students they may never have laid eyes on IN SUBJECTS AND GRADE LEVELS THAT THEY DO NOT TEACH.
This is fair, appropriate, or remotely okay because… why?
- Greed is a powerful motivator
For decades now, politicians have been talking about how American education is failing. We are “behind” other nations, we need to step up, we need to crack down, things need to change. Little brings Americans together more than being told other nations are better than us, so when something comes along that promises to fix our “failing” schools, to bring our nation back to its rightful place at the top of the leader board, we are all for it, at least in theory.
Thus, politicians find it pretty easy to gain financial backers for education reform. After all, once a school is determined to not pass muster, something must be done — new curricula, new textbooks, new resources. (That the publishers of said resources happen to have close personal ties with Presidents is obviously just a very strong coincidence.)
One of the largest supporters of Common Core is Bill Gates – yes, that Bill Gates – who has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into its adoption. While I believe that Bill Gates genuinely wants to help, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Microsoft and Pearson – one of the largest producers of Common Core materials – have banded together to get additional Microsoft resources into schools. Common Core adoption is convenient for Mr. Gates, no?!
And Pearson… Some people – myself included – have taken issue with the fact that Pearson [which authored a) the Common Core standards, b) the great majority of the current Common Core tests, c) the “modules” of instructional materials that are sold to schools to prepare students for said tests, d) and – as of this year – the teacher certification examinations in eighteen states] is a business company, not a company run by education or child development professionals. (Yes, I acknowledge that pre-Common Core, the tests were still written by contracted, outside companies; that still doesn’t make it right.)
(The above photo features the Colorado 4th Grade Social Studies test – which, although not Math or Reading, is also written by Pearson. I have tried to locate the origin of this to determine its veracity; this is the closest I’ve found…)
That would be galling enough, but even more maddening is that Pearson is positively rolling in the money it is making off of its materials. Since Common Core was adopted so freakin’ quickly, school districts had to act fast to provide their teachers with adequate curricula resources. Who better to provide that than the author of the Common Core standards? Enter the Pearson instruction modules! Need additional support materials? Pearson’s got those, too! Test-making is a highly profitable enterprise, yo.
Finally, in New York, we’ve got our delightful Governor Cuomo, who is reviled by educators across the state (which might come as a bit of a surprise, considering that Cuomo’s a Democrat and, historically, unions like teachers’ unions have largely supported Democratic ideals). Why on earth is he risking votes by systematically messing with public education?
Because money doesn’t just talk; it screams. I’ll be as succinct as possible: if enough students fail the tests in a given class, their teacher receives an ineffective rating. If enough teachers and students are rated ineffective, the school is deemed to be failing. If the school fails, the law says that the government can come in with a “turn-around expert” to fix the school. The most frequently used turn-around tactic is to turn a failing public school into a charter school.
Yes, charter schools are public schools, but in addition to public funding, charter schools can receive private funds. The majority of this private funding comes from hedge funds; the owners/investors of such hedge funds get ginormous tax credits when they invest in charter schools.
So. If you want to make big bucks, you invest in charter schools. The more charter schools there are for you to invest in, the bigger bucks you can make. Hence, to make a lot, you give a lot… in this case, in the form of huge financial contributions to Cuomo’s campaign for which you, in return, get more charter schools. It’s a win-win… for them.
- Set up for failure
When the new Common Core-based tests were implemented in New York state, the powers that be predicted that approximately 30% of students would pass the test (even though a significant percentage more passed the test the previous year). Fascinatingly, the predictions were right on. How could the commissioner have known??
It’s quite easy, really. Since the passing score is determined after the tests are taken, the predictions were virtually guaranteed to be right. The numbers reflect exactly what the powers that be want to tell us: that our schools are failing, especially the ones in poverty-stricken areas. Which is awfully convenient, given that failing schools result in more charter schools, which results in money in investors’ pockets, which results in money in campaign funds.
The tests are designed to be difficult, not to challenge students or invite them to rise to the occasion or stretch their knowledge, but so that other people can profit from their failure. It is nothing less than, to use the eloquent words of Comsewogue Superintendent Joseph Rella, the programmatic dismantling of public education, and it is happening right before our very eyes.
- Teacher demoralization
I’m just going to put it bluntly: because of all of this Common Core testing and the hoopla surrounding it, our teachers* feel like shit. They have been told, in no uncertain terms, that the jobs they were doing weren’t good enough. No matter how well-liked they were, how many kids graduated from their classes, how many years they’d been teaching, how many children they taught to read or how to multiply, how many hours they stayed after school, how many hungry children they fed, how many concerts they attended… it wasn’t enough. They have to change, fast. And if they don’t? Their very jobs are at stake.
Principals* no longer feel trusted to make hiring decisions or to properly evaluate their staff; now, test scores and an independent observer — who knows absolutely nothing about what is going on in that classroom — carry more weight in whether or not a teacher keeps his or her job than the principal does. People who have no experience in education are making enormous decisions about the fate of our educators; teachers are demoralized, devalued, and beaten down.
All of the teachers I know – be it the ones for whom I sub, the ones with whom I sub, the ones with whom I went to college, the ones with whom I used to teach, the ones who teach my own children, or the ones I’ve met along the way by happenstance – have said, unequivocally, how much they love teaching. They love their students. They are fiercely proud to be educators. But it is getting hard – really hard – to continue, especially here in New York. Many of them have privately told me that they are seriously considering leaving the classroom, not because they’re worried that test scores will kick them out, but because they can no longer just teach; now, they have to teach these modules, teach to the test, jump through hoop after hoop. It’s exhausting and maddening.
Losing our teachers would, obviously, be a tremendous problem; that problem is compounded by the fact that there has been a steep decline in the number of new teachers being certified in recent years. Even those who do decide to enter the profession don’t stick around for long.
To say that teacher morale is low is a laughable understatement. Teachers have often felt under-appreciated, misunderstood, and underpaid, but rarely has their ability to do their job been so strongly questioned. Never before have they been so micromanaged, so shoe-horned, so disrespected. We are losing our best teachers. We aren’t getting new ones, because no one wants to enter such a hostile environment. This is happening right now, all across the country, and it is terrifying.
(*Obviously, I realize that I’m speaking in very broad terms here. I have not interviewed every teacher in the nation. But I am certain that every teacher with whom I have spoken – and this is a helluva lot of teachers – has expressed their dejection, sadness, and frustration.)
- Where’s the objective measure?
Many people who acknowledge the shortcomings of these particular tests maintain that we need them because we need some objective measure of how our kids are doing in school. We need some way to compare teachers, schools, and performance, from rural West Virginia to suburban Idaho to inner-city Houston. We need to be able to determine teacher growth and student success. Kids from the most poverty-riddled communities deserve access to the same quality education as their most affluent peers.
I hear that. I really do. I absolutely believe that all children deserve a quality education; the disparity is, indeed, unfair. I also think it would be great to, say, move across the country and be able to glean, at a glance, how a school or district compares to another.
But here’s the thing: I think we’re looking for something that doesn’t exist – not because we haven’t figured out how to do it, but because it’s just not possible. Maybe education and learning aren’t things that can be measured any more than a musical performance can be measured. Maybe teacher growth and student success aren’t confined to numbers. Maybe a one-size-fits-all assessment works nicely for obtaining a driver’s license but not so well for determining whether or not fifth graders can identify subplot or if their teachers are doing their jobs. Test scores do not indicate success or failure; they are merely numbers. (This is perhaps most evident to me in this story about Success Academy, a series of charter schools in New York City where students from extreme poverty are posting incredibly high test scores, but which, I think, are the opposite of what I would consider to be “good” schools.)
I’m not saying that we should give up; I’m saying I think we need to – dramatically – change our approach to how we evaluate education, students, and teachers. In my Magic Wand world, I’d take a (lot of) page(s) out of Finland’s book (it is well-acknowledged that Finnish students perform among best in the world at international exams) and our teachers would be as well-respected as as well paid as our doctors.
Since it’s unlikely that we’re going to adopt too many of Finland’s ideas, I suggest that we work with what we already have to reconfigure our view of success. We should de-couple the current standardized tests from teacher evaluations, period. We can keep the Common Core – as I said, I like those standards – but only as a portion of what each child should learn; we need to leave the rest up to individual states, districts, schools, and teachers. We should give teachers several years to become familiar with the Core standards so that they can rework their lesson plans, see where there may be deficiencies, and take it from there. Standardized tests aren’t going anywhere (in the USA), but we should have new, fair, developmentally appropriate tests that have been written by educators from across the K-12 spectrum.
Those test scores should come back before the school year is over so that the students’ current teachers can use the data to inform their instruction. And then those numbers should be just one of many other things that combine together to form our opinions of teacher success and student learning. Let’s factor attendance into the equation. Graduation rates. The percentage of high school graduates who go onto college. Post-graduate success. AP exams – how many are given? What are the scores? Teacher-student ratio. Teacher retention; how many are still teaching there after three years? Five? Ten? Extra-curricular activities. Class sizes. Poverty levels. Parent involvement. Principal and superintendent evaluations. Student portfolios. Additional test scores.
Education “success” cannot be measured by any one, single thing. I will happily sing you the praises of my daughters’ elementary school, but none of those praises – from small class sizes to close relationships with other families to their annual Halloween parade – has anything to do with test scores.
- It is time
I’m not usually one to advocate for “taking a stand.” I’m more the talking, thinking type. I write letters, I sign petitions, I discuss with family and friends. This time, it’s different. I’ve been talking, for years, about how teachers are feeling like second-class citizens. I’ve been signing petitions, online and in person. I’ve been writing letters, dozens of them, from the governor to my locally elected officials. I’d been thinking that if we all keep at it, they’ll listen.
But they’re not – at least, not here in New York. Despite rather intense opposition from, well, everyone, the governor’s education “reforms” passed. Immediately following this, various elected officials began responding to angry constituents with placating messages that contained statements that were patently untrue.
It became very clear: talking, thinking, letter writing, and petition-signing isn’t working. Our legislators aren’t listening. And in the meantime, our children and teachers are suffering.
Enough is enough.
The real point of evaluation should be to see where students are so that you can better teach them; good teachers (and that’s the vast, vast majority of teachers) will use that information – from formal, standardized tests to self-created on-the-spot evaluations – to improve their teaching practices.
These tests were not created to help teachers improve their teaching practices. Instead, these tests were created with the intention of failing students so that corporations, investors, and politicians can turn a tidy profit.
If that’s not the very opposite of what education is supposed to be, I don’t know what is.
As for our family? No matter how strongly Nick and I felt (as you might guess, it’s pretty strongly…), we would never have forced our girls to refuse the tests if they wanted to take them. They are rule-followers by nature, so their anxiety about sitting out might have been greater than any test-taking anxiety. Turns out, they felt really nervous about taking them, so we agreed to have them opt out. It’s a decision I feel even more strongly about today.
I know that many people agree that the testing system is flawed, especially the part that attaches student scores to teacher evaluations, but they don’t want to “put their kids in the middle” of an adult battle. Normally, I would unequivocally agree… Except, in this case, our children have already been put in the middle by our legislators, who have decided to use them to further their own agendas.
Our children are not pawns.
I’m glad mine have withdrawn from the game.
To paraphrase the incomparable Maya Angelou, when you know better, you do better. Parents and teachers are speaking up. We are knowing better. I hope that, as our voices swell – whether our children take the tests or refuse them – that our politicians will hear us and that, some day, they will do better, too. For our teachers. For our children. For all of us.