First Person

The State Education Department and the Politics of Distraction

Teacher preparation programs long ago abandoned (if they ever embraced) theory-centric instruction in favor of research-based clinical methods. Further, they have championed a middle way independent of the changeable pedagogical and curriculum priorities promoted by individual districts and funders. While popular practices are often addressed, either unilaterally or in partnership with outside entities, education schools’ academic independence protects them from being swamped by political and financial forces driving others.

Now comes a pronouncement from the New York State Board of Regents and the State Education Department commissioner that higher education will no longer be the sole route to teacher and leadership certification. The Regents, who appoint the commissioner, are themselves appointed by our state legislature, that dysfunctional body more famous for patronage than policy competence.

Not surprisingly, then, the Regents have rejected the fundamental role of independent inquiry in professional preparation in favor of faster, cheaper methods based on proprietary ownership. Whether these programs are run by non-profit, for-profit, or school district organizations, their aim will be to brand grads with a particular skill set, antithetical to preparing able, agile, open-minded professionals for long-term teaching effectiveness.

Though many claims against schools of education depend on phony stereotypes, some criticism is valid. Higher education governance makes it hard to quickly adopt new programs and courses. Its dependence on credit hours toward completion of degree requirements creates a temporal uniformity inimical to more flexible arrangements based on subject content and mastery. But higher education itself has heeded these critiques, responding with a plethora of governance, course, and degree reforms that meet market demands while preserving academic integrity and independence.

Expansion of educator preparation to other providers is simply a political response by SED to a growing constituency of educational entrepreneurs who, often lacking certification themselves, seek clones rather than independent-minded professionals to staff their similarly branded schools. There is nothing inherently wrong with training in such methods, if successful, but state-granted professional certification should guarantee greater flexibility than the ability to teach in a KIPP charter school or to navigate the city Department of Education’s ARIS database.

More important, the Regents’ policy will distract SED and the public from the Department’s core mission: to set and oversee standards for certification, curriculum, and student performance. Ever since its politicization under former Commissioner Richard Mills, when the state took credit for increasing test scores and graduation rates through dumbed-down tests and looking the other way on bogus credit recovery strategies rather than monitoring district performance and compliance, we have seen a steady decline in SED’s reputation and credibility. This recently reached a new low with the state’s first-round Race to the Top application which neither the commissioner nor Regents seemed to realize was bloated with furniture purchases and high-priced consultants. Steven Brill’s recent New York Times Magazine piece purporting to document “The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand” was more important for revealing SED’s deliberate lies designed to secure Race to the Top money. The Regents’ charter initiatives, their commissioning of a study on testing standards, and the expansion of certification providers are less about improving education than diverting attention from its core failures.

If there is a problem with higher education certification — and there is because diploma mills abound — then SED should take steps to improve or eliminate the bad actors that it already supervises, not race to expand the pool. Long the subject of drastic budget cuts and poor spending practices, SED does not have the resources to adequately monitor the work of colleges, school districts, charter and nonpublic schools under its present control, let alone determine if a new category of providers is meeting its obligations.

In his previous campaign for governor, Andrew Cuomo favored putting SED under gubernatorial authority. While his current comprehensive platform, “The New New York Agenda,” fails to specifically address the issue, it states a strong preference for giving the Governor unilateral powers over State government consolidation and reorganization. Cuomo’s call for a new Spending and Government Efficiency Commission and a State Government Reorganization Act provide canny vehicles for further politicizing SED, cited at page 64 as a prime example of organizational chaos. But what difference would it make as long as SED continues its shameful codependent relationship with the state’s political branches, school districts, charter and private schools? In abdicating their fundamental role of independent oversight, the Regents and commissioner have sown the seeds of executive annexation since they have become handmaidens of the very constituencies they were created to constrain.

Housecleaning is in order, but not the kind the new education elite have in mind. With its workforce already substantially reduced and more cuts on the way, SED needs to use its constitutional independence to set standards and monitor district and school compliance with a reduced, essential set of regulations regarding students’ academic performance, health, and safety. SED should be the public’s educational ombudsman, keeping accurate, transparent data so that parents and taxpayers can assess schools’ academic and fiscal activity. If the State Education Department continues to indulge in political distractions from its laughable failures in this mission, it will have squandered its obligations to a public desperately in need of square dealing and educational candor.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.