39 Steps Backward or How Richard Hannay was Killed by the Common Core Anarchists

Back in the early 70s when I was a student, my New York City high school decided upon a unique approach to teaching English to its students. Each term was devoted to a different type of literature or what we call today genre. One term, I read three Shakespeare tragedies, another term I read four science fiction novels, and so on. By the way, there was no genre called Informational text. Why? I don’t really know, but something tells me that the administration of that school felt that all our required social studies and science classes may have already filled that void. Nevertheless, when I was a junior, I had a great teacher who introduced me to one of my most favorite types of literature—mysteries. In her class, I clearly remember reading two pieces of literature that held me spellbound. One was Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier and the other was The 39 Steps by John Buchan. Unbeknownst to me at that time was the fact that both were made into motion pictures by Alfred Hitchcock. And even though those two films are considered classics, I prefer both novels hands down.

I tutor many students and two weeks ago one of my students needed help in analyzing an excerpt from The 39 Steps. Of course it was just an excerpt because as we all know Mr. Coleman feels it is a waste of time for students to possibly read and enjoy a whole novel. But what was even more amazing was the fact that this excerpt was in a 6th grade common core workbook. Obviously, I read it in high school and remembered that many concepts had to be explained to us at that time. I recall being fascinated learning about the cultural differences between us Americans and the British in the waning days of its Empire. The book is obviously beyond the scope of an average sixth grader. But I had to confirm this for myself. I decided to use common core’s favorite readability formula on this excerpt—Lexile. Lo and behold, but not surprisingly, the Lexile score was 960. To put it in terms that we old teachers understand, the book is on the 10th-11th grade level. After all, to Arne, David and Bill, rigor is the “code word” of the day.

Before I begin to discuss the difficulty my student had with the text because of this dastardly curriculum, it is important to understand why this piece of literature is important and why it should be taught to high school students. The 39 Steps is one of the first examples of what I call the spy thriller. It is also the prototype of the man-on-the-run action adventure. From this thriller would eventually come the works of Ian Fleming, John le Carre, Robert Ludlum, Alan Furst and Daniel Silva. It also introduced some common plot devices that are so well known today that we consider them almost clichés. We have in this one book an ordinary man drawn into a secret world of intrigue and who risks his life for the good of his nation. Basically, it is first authentic spy novel.

The excerpt my student read was the first couple of pages from the book. The excerpt starts with the protagonist’s experience in visiting London from South Africa where he is mining engineer. Richard Hannay is described in this excerpt as being somewhat uncomfortable on this trip to his native land. He feels out of place and bored. All of a sudden, upon returning to his apartment, one of his neighbors barges in to his “flat” and after suspiciously checking all of the rooms say this sentence: ‘Pardon,’ he said, ‘I’m a bit rattled tonight. You see, I happen at this moment to be dead.’

What did this common core workbook want the student to do with the text? First, he had to read it twice. Of course, a close reading had to be done. His task was to circle key phrases that showed the “tone” of the passage. This was difficult for him because of two reasons. First, he had no understanding what was meant by tone and I had to explain and give him concrete examples of this common core concept. Next, the passage itself floored him because he had no background information to hook into. He had no conception that the main character was a colonial from a British African colony and that he felt out of place now in his mother country. Why should he know any of this when this curriculum forbids students from using any background information—especially in the area of social studies—when pieces of text are analyzed?

I had to figure out why this student was really having so much trouble. I spent most of my teaching career diagnosing learning problems and like the author of the above novel, I had to get a real handle on this mystery. First, I asked him about the setting. Where and when was the main character? I said what year do you think the passage is taking place in? He said that he thought the story was happening at the present time. He was surprised when I said it was about 100 years ago. He asked how I knew. I pointed out that in the passage that his mother country still had colonies. Then I had to explain what was meant by a colony and mother country. Of course, I pointed out that once we were a colony of Britain.

Next, I asked him for the exact location of the character. His first answer was Scotland. I asked why? He gave that answer because the passage said that he came from Scotland and now he was visiting. Then he started to rattle other locations mentioned in the passage. Finally, he admitted that he really does not know where exactly the character was because the story mentioned so many names that he never heard of. He did not know where London, Vancouver, New Zealand or the United Kingdom was. I then told him that the character was in Great Britain in the city of London which is its capital. I explained that Great Britain is often called the United Kingdom. I pulled out the Ipad and pointed to the UK on a world map. I tried to explain that it is called the UK because once upon a time the UK was made up of the kingdoms of Scotland, England, Wales, and part of Ireland that united into one country like our country which we call the United States. Next, I had to explain that once Great Britain had many colonies in the early 20th century. I went on to explain that once Canada where the city of Vancouver is located, New Zealand and South Africa where the main character came from was at the time the passage was written were colonies of Great Britain. I then had him reread the part that said that he went to live with his father in South Africa at the age of six and has not been back to Britain since that time.

Once I explained all this, he finally concluded that that the character was probably unhappy because he felt out of place. Now he was able to circle some phrases that showed the character’s unhappiness. As we looked for phrases showing the tone, he started to ask me the meaning of many other words. He had no clue what was meant by the word “flat” in the sentence “My ‘flat’ was in the first floor of a new block behind Langham Place.” Even though the next few sentences described what the flat looked like, he did not understand that it meant an apartment. Another word that confused him was “liftman” which, of course, was the elevator operator for the apartment. He kept asking why the passage used the wrong words to describe things. I had to explain that British English and American English often use different words to say the same thing. This could have been a lesson in and of itself.

Now, of course, he had to answer a few multiple choice common core questions. One question asked from which point of view the passage was written and another question asked which literary devices the author used within the passage. A third question asked which event represented rising action in the passage. Obviously all these questions were structural in nature and had absolutely nothing to do with the plot or ideas in the passage. The final task was for the student to write a short response in which he had to describe the theme of the passage. The teacher added this short response question by hand because the rule was that every passage needed for the student to write a short response to prepare for the test. In my view, there was no way the student would be able to figure out the theme of the passage from the excerpt because the excerpt ended too soon. Most of the passage described the character as being bored and only the last paragraph was beginning to transition into the true nature of the story. Obviously, the student felt that the theme of the passage had to do with the characters unhappiness and boredom which represented the bulk of the passage.

A week later, I asked my student what was the answer to the teacher’s short response question. When he told me, I could not believe what I was hearing. His answer that the general theme was boredom was incorrect. The answer, according to the teacher, was that the protagonist was going to embark on an unexpected and exciting adventure. The student had to infer all this from the last sentence in which the character’s neighbor said that “I happen at this moment to be dead.” According to the teacher, that last sentence represented evidence that an unexpected adventure was about to happen. Yes, that is one of the story’s themes if one knew the rest of the plot, but from that excerpt, such a conclusion represented a jump higher than vaulting over the Grand Canyon.

What the student was asked showed to me the utter ridiculous nature of the Common Core. Here is a great piece of literature that was completely destroyed by the tasks the student was expected to do. First, the passage was inappropriate for his age. Only a student who has taken high school global history would have an inkling of understanding as to the background of the story. In addition, there is no purpose giving any student an excerpt which does not show the true nature of the genre it represents. They might as well excerpt the first scene of Macbeth and asked the students to describe the setting or even the complete theme of that famous drama.

When I read The 39 Steps, I recall so many lively discussions. It was the time of the Vietnam War. One discussion I distinctly remember centered on the theme of risking your life for your country when your nation in itself was deeply flawed. We also discussed some of the political issues brought out in the novel, such as powerful industrialists profiting from wars and conflicts between nations and that it was in the interest of such people to forment war. The discussions that we had over this book represent real higher level thinking skills. It is the type of critical thinking skills that create a citizenry that questions its government. It is the type of learning that creates a true educated citizenry that is able to participate in relevant political discourse. Forcing students to read and describe the structure of a passage five years above grade level is not education, but frustration that will lead to a hatred of learning because it is purposeless. Whereas this novel gave me a life-long love of spy novels and got me thinking about wider issues, the excerpt my student read led to confusion, misunderstanding and a feeling of inadequacy.

Common Core Assessments and the New SAT—Remarketing Inequality

I have been tutoring students on a regular basis for almost 30 years. I started tutoring students for various standardized tests in order to earn some extra money. The main reason was my discovery in the mid-1980s that diapers, formula, baby clothes, and regular doctor visits cost a lot. I started tutoring for the verbal parts PSAT, SAT, ACT, SSAT, COOP and SHSAT at that time and soon discovered that every one of these tests require students mastering pretty much the same strategies. In addition, I also discovered early on that the students who do poorly on these tests have pretty much the same deficits. Either they have weaknesses in language and vocabulary or they have difficulty decoding written text.

Let us talk about language and vocabulary. Language problems are often due to a variety of factors. One factor may be that the student has a language-based learning disability which makes it difficult for such children to process written or spoken language. Many have trouble understanding vocabulary concepts as well as classifying or categorizing information. Often these students have difficulty with abstract concepts and often understand information very concretely. How this shows up on a high school level would be a student having to prove some concept using a literary quote. Recently, I tutored a student who was reading the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He had to find a quote related to “social status” issues and then come up with a discussion question related to the concept. The problem my student had is that he had no idea what was meant by “social status.” As a result, he could not find an appropriate quote or come up with a discussion question. Obviously, I had to teach him what was meant by social status—especially in regards to role expectations of women and blacks during the 1930s in the southern United States. Next, we have those students whose language problems stem from deficits in executive functioning. As states by the National Center for Learning Disabilities this problem makes

activities like planning, organizing, strategizing, remembering details and managing time and space difficult. Problems with executive function—a set of mental processes that helps connect past experience with present action—can be seen at any age and often contribute to the challenges individuals with LD face in academic learning.

To put it more simply, it is the child whose brain is liked a turned-over filing cabinet. They are asked to retrieve and make sense of a piece of information, but they do not even know where to start to even find it. Often these children are very bright or have other conditions that impact the problem, such as ADHD.

Then we have the type of language issues related to ELL status. Imagine a student immigrating to America when they are just beginning high school age and now have to take the SAT. It is common knowledge that research shows it takes 5-7 years at that age to develop the type of rich academic English vocabulary to master any test that is vocabulary intensive. Even student who are born in the United States to parents that speak a second language—even professional parents—often have what I call language lags in English. In the last ten years, I have tutored American born children of Russian immigrants. Often these students have weaknesses in comprehension and written expression because there are gaps in their English vocabulary, grammar and spelling. Strikingly, these are students who have parents who have professional occupations, such as dentists, doctors, and engineers. The younger I start working with these students, the easier it is to get these students to achieve academically by the time they reach middle and high school age.

Next, there is the child who has difficulty decoding fluently complex text. These students have phonological deficits that interfere with their ability to break the code—especially when dealing with nonphonetic and multisyllable words. When I start working with high school students who takes a very long time reading text, I have them start to read aloud. Not surprisingly, they cannot decode 10 to 20 percent of the text. I recall one student who could not decode any words that contained silent vowel letters or digraphs. When I told the parents that he really could not decode much beyond the third grade level, they appeared surprised. Imagine this student trying to read an excerpt from some scientific text written on the college level.

Finally, we have the issue of poverty. Poverty is like placing a giant magnifying glass on all the above issues. Not only does it make each problem bigger, it creates a fire that destroys any hope of any of the above issues ever being solved. Conversely, if a student comes from a family that has means, many of the above problems I mentioned can be solved. For example, I started with one student when he was 7 years old. He had problems in language processing, pragmatic language, and executive functioning. Now he is a successful high school student who has a B+ average. Yes, he still needs some help, but he has overcome many of his problems. Another student was born with delayed speech and significant sensory integration problems. After early intervention services, he received speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy and academic help from me. Two years of intensive tutoring enabled him to receive a decent score on the ACT and even receive a partial scholarship to a four year college. When a student comes from a family with money, most mild learning problems can be mitigated. The families I worked with were able to afford years private tutoring by an experienced professional in addition to any services provided by their schools. Furthermore, all these parents are sophisticated and were able to hire advocacy services to make sure that the schools gave their children all they were entitled to. By the way, these students either went to or go to suburban public schools that provide a rich education as well as interesting extra-curricular activities. Both their schools do not emphasize test prep or a narrowing of the curriculum for the sake of passing our state’s Common Core ELA and math assessments.

On the other hand, those students in poverty cannot afford the extra help that these middle class students have gotten. They cannot buy my services or the services of any credentialed tutor. Interestingly, an educational director of a charter school said to me at an IEP meeting that I was selfish because I only helped students for money. I should give away my services for free to kids in poverty. I then said that I will do that when the head of charter he worked for, no longer take a salary and that all the school’s hedge fund investors put their profits back into the school for the sake of these poor children. Obviously, there was no answer. But I digress.

The central point I am trying to make is that the Common Core is nothing more than a smoke screen hiding the real issues—poverty and the lack of real supplementary education services.. Here we have a curriculum that is vocabulary intensive, requires students to decode above their grade or developmental levels, and focuses more on the structure of text than the ideas presented in literature or informational text. At the elementary and middle school levels, the focus is whether the author presents appropriate evidence to support an idea or argument with little focus on the ideas that a particular piece of writing conveys. It is built on every weakness a student with learning challenges or children of poverty have. Its cure for students who come from homes that offer no language stimulation, no books, and no sense of security is frustration and failure. Its reward is the defunding of schools that have impoverished, disabled and immigrant children. If such a school has a music, drama, art or sports program in which some of these children may shine for a few hours, it must be taken away in favor of hours of test prep using materials significantly above the ability level of these problematic students. Money must be spent on constant testing and Common Core test prep books that only enrich corporate publishing monopolies, but not these children.

Now here comes David Coleman once again with his new Common Core based SAT. During the last few days, I have been on the Collegeboard web site reading about this new test. I read articles about its construction, purpose and planned implementation. He talks about how the test was constructed with the input of educators. The same was said for the Common Core. Nowhere did I read which educators. The material went on to say that students that do well on this test will be successful in college and in their future careers. He based this on students who have supposedly volunteered to have taken sample tests. Obviously, the samples that have already been given for standardization had to have been given recently. Yet, the Collegeboard knows already that these students are college and career ready. To really determine the validity of this claim, one needs to have given the real new SAT, not a sample, and follow the population (one that is representative of America’s real student population controlled for economic status, ethnicity, race, disability, etc.) over the next five to ten years. If one gave a sample test, let’s say last year, how on earth do you now know they will graduate four years hence and acquire a professional career!

What is even more interesting is that when I read about its structure and sample questions. I realized that instead of inventing something new, the new SAT was just a watered down version of the ACT minus the science section. He spoke how his new test will now have vocabulary in context and words that high school and college students use every day and not those esoteric vocabulary words students had to memorize in the past. First, the old SAT did have vocabulary in context questions and two, I want to know how one determines if a word is esoteric? When judging some of the samples, students with impoverished vocabularies and language problems will have just as much problem on this test as the old SAT. One sample was again the Common Core treatment of the Gettysburg Address. Students had to identify the different uses and connotations of the word “dedicated” in the speech. If a student has no idea what the word dedicated even means or has no background knowledge about the speech and its purpose, his/her answers will still be wrong. Not losing a quarter point for every incorrect answers and having four instead of five choices for each question will not really help someone who has below level vocabulary concepts or little background information. In another passage, there was what I called paired questions. If they answered the first question wrong, the second question which built on the first would also be wrong. Many questions were evidenced-based. The question would ask whether particular details supported the author’s central idea. However, if the student was unable to even determine the main point of the passage because of issues of comprehension, decoding, etc., there was no way such a question could be answered.

The new SAT invented by Mr. Coleman is nothing more than another paper and pencil bubble test that will be done either by hand or online. It is still a language intensive test that will be a challenge to poor minority, disabled and immigrant students. He talks about the fact that test prep will be unnecessary because the Khan Academy will offer free online help for all students. The Khan Academy’s support will end up being nothing more than free samples for the poor. Already the private test prep companies are beginning to prepare material for their small group classes and individual tutors. Because the New SAT is like the ACT, it is obviously that individual tutors will teach the same strategies. If students have very weak vocabularies, they will still need to learn the multiple meanings of words to be able to answer vocabulary in context questions. They will still have to learn how to utilize the context and grammar clues of surrounding sentences to figure out the appropriate meaning of a particular vocabulary word. Students will still have to learn how to identify different type of questions and the strategies one need to answer such questions. Students will still have to learn how to underline or highlight key or transitional words to identify changes in meaning and ideas in order to improve comprehension (something hard to do on an online test). Obviously, the best test prep remains human to human and not human to machine. Therefore, nothing will have changed. Students from middle class and wealthy families who come from better schools will be able to afford extra help and do better while impoverished students who come from schools with limited resources will continue to do poorly. And through its marketing the Collegeboard will convince more students to take its test which will mimic the ACT thus making a lot of profits for its investors.

Instead of sinking billions into this new test and its related test prep industry, we need to pull the curtain aside and toss out these charlatans. By the way, charlatan is a SAT word which for some reason most students have no idea as to its meaning (and it is not an esoteric word in my book). Instead, this money should be going to re-fund all public schools so they can give every student a rich education. Poverty is cured in only way—money. Only money can provide decent job with a living wage for the parents of these kids and the type of wrap around educational services that will provide health, counseling and additional tutoring services to compensate for years of neglect. Teachers who are powerless did not create the economic injustice that exists in our country. However, it is Coleman and his corporate supporters who refuse to acknowledge that they are the ones who contribute to economic inequality by their refusal to be taxed fairly in order to pay for the radical changes needed to begin to end poverty in this nation and really improve education. Therefore, I suggest that students should apply to schools that do not use the SAT or even the ACT in their application process. In addition, if they do apply to a school that requires a standardized test score, they should only take the ACT. Hopefully, if more people boycott that so-called assessment, it will die of its own accord. These tests—the Common Core and SAT—are cancers to education and the sooner we perform major surgery, the better will be our chance of survival.

Reflection after Three Months into Retirement

I hate to be asked how I am enjoying retirement.   People who ask this question have created a fantasy world of what it means to be retired.   After listening to my friends, family, former colleagues as well as perfect strangers, I have synthesized all their dreams, hopes and aspirations by creating a make believe world they call Retirement Heaven.   In Retirement Heaven, you can wake up late every morning—no earlier than 11:00 AM.  You never ever set your alarm clock again.   Upon waking up, your spouse will deliver to you breakfast in bed that is no less than 2000 calories.  After breakfast, it is time for a relaxing shower.  After a shower, you put on shorts, a t-shirt and sneakers for either your daily run or your two hour workout at the gym.  By the way, in Retirement Heaven, it is always summer. At about 2:00 PM, you make your way home for lunch and a few hours of television.   You’ve recorded on your DVD only mindless television programs to watch for the next few hours.  Now it is time for dinner.  In retirement, you are not allowed to make dinner, but instead, every evening you go to a different restaurant to eat meals that have no fewer than three courses.  You return home, take out your trashy novel and read until you drift calmly to sleep at about one in the morning.

For someone like me, such a retirement heaven would be like that old Twilight Zone episode where a gangster dies and is given every one of his heart’s desires.   He is given wealth, beautiful women and the ability to successfully commit every crime known to man without consequence.   In the end, he is completely bored out of his wits and asks to go to the other place only to be told he is in the other place!

To me, retirement means having the freedom to choose the type of work that I want to do.  It is also the ability to focus on those endeavors that are really important. On the day that I retired from teaching, unfortunately all the problems that existed before my last day of work really did not disappear.  Several people said to me you shouldn’t care what happens to the world of education.  One person told me that if all the public schools blew up tomorrow, you will still be retired on your nice pension.  Would I?

First of all, if public education ended tomorrow and was completely privatized, it would make it all the more easier for those in power to end pubic pensions.   Public education and my pension, which I earned through hours of hard work as a teacher, both represent a social contract. It is a social contract between the government and the people it represents.  If you end one, you can easily end the other.   The philosophical basis of public education derives from those Enlightenment thinkers who believed  that power derive from the governed.  The governed allows power to be given to a government so that it can establish policies that will benefit the collective.  The 18th century Philosophes believed that public education’s purpose was to create a sophisticated citizenry who would be able to immediately spot tyranny and remove it from power—either through constitutional democratic means or by force if necessary.   The concept of public pensions also has its basis in the 18th century idea of a social contract.   Public servants will serve society for a number of years at a lower rate of compensation so that the state can benefit from their skills.  In return, the public servant will receive a pension paid at the end of their public service so they can live the rest of their life in dignity.   But the purpose of a pension also is based on sound economic and social principles.   Instead of the retired worker being a drain on society, the retired worker will have enough income to continue to purchase goods and services (providing employment to others) and still be able to contribute to society (and the economy) in other ways, such as through volunteering or part-time employment.

Therefore, in retirement, I now have taken on a new job—saving public education.  One way is by working part time in the school where a spent the last third of my career.   For the majority of my 36 year career, I had a job that came into existence because New York City grossly violated the rights of disabled students back in the late 1970s.  Federal law mandates that disabled students need to be evaluated every three years and if there has to be a change in services, any reevaluation must be done in a timely manner.   Thus, in the late 70s, the city was sued because it had a backlog of close to 30,000 reevaluations. It resulted in the court ordering the creation of a team of professionals in each school whose job it was to make sure assessments and subsequent IEP conferences were held in a timely manner.  My job was as case manager and Educational Evaluator.   I became highly skill in conducting norm-referenced, criterion referenced and curriculum-based assessments.  The purpose of these assessments was not to punish teachers but to diagnose the educational needs of disabled students so as to help teachers meet their IEP goals. (Yes, this is the real purpose of testing.) A quarter of a century later the city was in relative compliance.   Because most city schools have relatively large populations, the team needed a psychologist to conduct intelligence and projective tests, an educator who was a skilled diagnostician and a social worker.  This ended in 2003 when Mr. Bloomberg embarked on reforming special education in New York City, which really meant he was trying to find a way to save money.   He made my job disappear overnight and gave the case management piece and educational piece to the school psychologists that now are so overworked, they are forced to cut corners in order to remain in compliance.   As for me, because Bloomberg violated so many of the contractual rights of Educational Evaluators (who were teachers), he was ordered by an arbitrator to create the job of IEP teacher.  I held this job for the final eleven years of my career. When the job was created by  the arbitrator, it was undefined. It was up to a building principal to define what IEP teachers would do. Bloomberg hoped that most principals would make the lives of these new IEP teachers so miserable that many would leave the system.   The opposite happened.   Most of us ended up doing many different albeit necessary educational tasks within our schools.  As for me, I became in charge of compliance, testing, data, and academic intervention services.

When I retired, the new principal would ask who did this and who did that.  My name was mentioned each time and before I knew it, I was back in the school a couple of days a week.  However, I am doing what I loved doing the most—working with kids.   Unfortunately, the city schools have a simple philosophy—the minimum is the maximum.  Because the union contract stated that IEP Teachers would only be funded for those who were former Educational Evaluators like me, once I retired, the money dried up and the position disappeared.   It disappeared even though the school would now have no one to provide state mandated academic intervention services for those students who received level 1 on those wonderful Common Core State Assessments in ELA and Math.  As for all my other jobs, I am helping to train three other professionals to do different pieces of my job.   When I started as an IEP Teacher in 2003, testing was just a little piece of my job, but as we all know, it turned into a monster with three head and twenty arms.  It took up so much of my time that I often could not work with students.   Now I am trying to give students the skills to do better on these assessments (notice that I did not say pass).   For example, it is not enough to say to a level one student that they need to use context clues.   What I do is to try to give them four or five strategies to help them try to figure out the meanings of so many unknown words on passages that are always above their grade level.  Yes, I hate the test, but I have to do something.  Many of these students are former English Language Learners who supposedly reached proficiency in English on a state assessment measuring second language ability.  By the way, I am in one of the few middle class school districts within the city.   However, we have many immigrant families.  The parents of these children work two, sometimes three jobs so they can live in a nice area.   However, because our scores  are a little better than the state average and we have fewer students on public assistance, we get less money than other schools around the city.   And knowing this, the city cut funds to hire just one academic intervention services teacher.

In addition to working part time in my school, I am also tutoring and I am collaborating with someone in writing a review text to help students try to pass these horrible state assessments.  Some might say that I am hypocritical trying to help students pass these assessments when they should be done away with.   For years, I have tutored students to pass the SAT even though I hate everything these assessments stand for.   However, by not helping these students, their low grades stand as a barrier preventing them from getting their foot in the door to enter the world of higher education.   As long as these institutional barriers exist—common core, SAT, etc., I will help student acquire the skills to work the system while at the same time advocate for change.

What I found most interesting these last several months was watching the types of teaching jobs posted by various online employment services.    Last June, I rewrote my resume and posted it on an employment site.   Now my email is inundated with lists containing scores of teaching jobs.   The first thing I noticed that most jobs posted today are for charter schools.   In the New York area, the one charter that comes up all the time is our favorite—The Success Academy.   Interestingly, one of Eva’s charter schools has been looking for a SETSS teacher since June.  I have a simple theory.  No one wants this position.   Who would want to work for a school where you are on-call 24 hours a day, paid low wages, and then spit out after two years.  Sometimes I think about applying as a lark.   I am sure once they realized my age and the fact that I had a 36 year public school career, my resume would end up in the circular file.  Interestingly, a well-known tutoring company saw my resume and wanted to interview me.  I asked what their pay was.  I   laughed when they said $15.00 an hour.  I told them that when I first started SAT tutoring in 1987, I worked for a college preparation tutoring service and was paid $20 an hour.   I added,  “When you have a high turnover rate, you end up getting what you pay for.”

I would never work for a charter or such a tutoring agency because they violate our society’s social contract.    I believe in and will fight for public education because every cent of public money must go to the child.  And yes, paying public school teachers decent wages benefit children.   A well paid professional feels invested in the system and will work hard for those under their tutelage. A well paid professional wants to dedicate their lives to public service.   The social contract is broken when education is privatized.   The privateers view teachers and students as human capital whose purpose is to create profit.  I call these privatizers education pimps.   Students cannot benefit when your purpose is greed and not the creation of a well-rounded individual who is able to think and make sound life decisions.   The purpose of these corrupt and greedy charter operators is to throw a few crumbs to their school’s students and teachers while they hoard our public dollars.  I want my tax money to be invested honestly and completely into each public school.  Charter operators will be quick to say that they are capitalists taking risks.  Yes, when one invests private capital, risks are taken, but what is being invested is our public money.   It is public money that is being given to them by elected officials who are in their corrupt little pockets.   These officials are also pimping our dollars for private gain and must be ousted.  Our elected officials have forgotten that they serve us and derive their power from us.

Getting back to that retirement fantasy world I mentioned at the beginning, I ended up doing one thing that I rarely did during my work years.  I have watched a lot more television.   One thing I ended up watching was Ken Burns’ documentary on the Roosevelts.   It reminded me that our society is again in a Gilded Age where a few wealthy men have taken control of our government and its institutions.   Ken Burns thinks that it was the power of these singular individuals that changed America in the first half of the twentieth century.   What he does not understand is that these great individuals could not have done anything if people did not organize and petition first on the local level and then nationally for change.  We have to regain control of all levels of government to make it again, as FDR believed, a force to create a just and fair society in which everyone has some share in the economic wealth of this great nation.   I know we have a hard fight ahead of us, but we are making headway.  There is an old adage:  The Ocean started as single drops of water.

Why I No Longer Support President Obama, Governor Cuomo and State Senator Avella

                Several weeks ago, I joined Democrats for Public Education and by doing so I publicly said something that I thought I would never say.  I do not support this Democratic President because he had betrayed the very foundation of Democratic values for a corporatist ideology.  For a long time, I would not admit the obvious truth that there appears to really be one political party in this country.   The two major political parties tend to slide into each other.   Both political parties have corporatist wings that are controlled by big money.  This wing, which is in both parties, is socially liberal and believes the purpose of government is to enrich those who have power and control.  This wing is the pivot that appears to connect both political parties.  First we saw this split in the GOP and now the split is in the open within the Democratic Party.  We have left-wing (true Democrats) now beginning to publicly separate themselves from the corporatist wing while in the Republican party, we have the teabagger wing splitting from their corporatist partners.  If you put a corporatist Republican and Democrat in the same room, I bet they would immediately fall in love. 

                The corporatists of both parties are not in any way conservative.  They do not believe in a limited government and have the belief that a free market will solve all problems.   In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan created the welfare queen out of a woman who was a con-artist and criminal who managed to squeeze money out of dozens of federal programs.  The corporatists should be dubbed the welfare kings.  The thousands this woman took in the 1980s is pocket change compared to the billions these corporate Democrats and Republicans have legally swindled from our government at the federal, state and local level.   They love government subsidies and bailouts.   Think of the billions that were given to this group during the great recession six years ago to stabilize the economy.  The cry went out that these banks and brokerages were too big to fail.  Unfortunately, they probably were because if we would not have kept certain banks and businesses afloat, millions more would have been unemployed.  But when the dust cleared, workers kept their jobs often with give-backs while corporatists walked away with billions in their pockets.  

                Now back to President Obama.  Many of us supported him because he embodied our dreams and aspirations for this country.  We believed his election would bring the rebirth of true progressivism.  However, what he has wrought is a mutated version of the liberal ideal.  If you study the New Deal under Roosevelt, you will see that many of his reforms did not come from the top, but started at the grass roots level.  A good example was Dr. Francis Townsend who published an extended letter to the editor in a California newspaper in which he came up with a solution to poverty among the elderly.  His proposal would lead to social security.   From his initial letter, grassroot organizations began to form around the country advocating for an old age pension system.   At first, FDR ignored the proposal, but when he realized that a significant portion of his coalition supported the idea of social security, Franklin Roosevelt changed his tune when he ran for re-election in 1936. The initial law did not have everything that Townsend and his grassroots organization wanted, but it was a start and did pretty much wipe out poverty among most of America’s aged population in the next seventy-five years. 

                It is at great peril that the Democratic Party ignore approximately 3.7 million teachers and their families.  The votes of several thousand billionaires will not win elections, but the support of teachers and the unions that represent them who are the ground troops that man telephones as well as go door-to-door for a candidate.   It is for this reason that tomorrow, I will for the first time in my political memory not support or vote for New York’s incumbent Democratic governor and my state senator in a primary.  I cannot support a governor and senator that support the 3% of students that attend charter school over the 97% that go to public schools.   It is amazing that earlier this year, the governor supported and got passed a law that is nothing less than welfare for wealthy charter schools.   Here is a law in which the wealthy Success Academy can dispossess public school children at whim and not pay a cent to the city in rent even though this charter is rich enough to move its offices to Wall Street and its CEO Eva Moskowitz makes twice as much as the President.  I am a political realist and know that Teachout does not have a chance over a $25 million war chest.  However, even if she gets 25% of the vote, that is the beginning of a grassroots movement.  That is enough for people to start to think about forming a third party in this election that could put Cuomo’s November re-election in jeopardy. 

                Ignoring parents and teachers who oppose privatization, the common-core, and an evaluation system that punishes teachers for things that they cannot control in order to deprofessionalize educators and create a cheap, transient teaching force is a perilous act.  History teaches that political movements are not started by the weakest in a society, but from the educated middle class.   Historical examples are all around us.   The French Revolution was started by the educated merchant and professional class.  People who are overwhelmed by poverty never begin political movements.  It is always the educated middle class that leads them.  Even the Russian Bolshevik Revolution was led by the educated middle class. Lenin and Trotsky were not peasants or factory workers living on subsistence wages, but educated professionals.  Therefore, the attempt to destroy the livelihood and profession of a group of very educated members of the middle class is nothing less than an act of political folly.   Teachers are abandoning the Democratic Party because it is the party that is abandoning us.   Unless Democrats from the President on down abandon this fake educational reform that is hurting several of its major constituents,  they are almost insuring the eventual creation of a political movement which may very well lead to a third political party.   And our own history has shown that third parties often throw elections in strange ways.   In New York, whenever three parties run for statewide office, it is often the Democrats who end up on the short end often leading to the election of a right-wing candidate.  People should remember the 1970 election of James Buckley as US Senator when two liberals split the Democratic vote in a six way race. 

                Many corporatist Democrats do not think they need us teachers.  That is why several have joined against us in those Anti-Tenure lawsuits.   What they do not understand is that once they split the Democratic Party and the party no longer controls any branch of government, their power will be gone.  Instead, you may end up with people controlling this country who hold social views far different than the majority of Americans, which also includes the neo-liberal corporatists of both political parties.   What happened in Missouri is a skirmish compared to what may happen when people take control of this country that hate working women, immigrants, gays and other minority groups and begin to use government to act against such groups.   We are in the middle of an education war right now in which everyone may come out the loser.  However, for myself and my family, I have to vote my conscience and not the lesser of two evils.   As I finish this article, the telephone rang with a robo-call from our supposedly very liberal Mayor who is supporting Cuomo.   That call represents everything that is wrong with politics in this country.  Obviously, he has to support the Governor or he will be politically punished by someone who is nothing less than a bully and the holder of many purse strings.  On the other hand, when you attempt to take away everything from a group, you cannot expect that group’s support.   Those in power may ignore us now, but I can guarantee they will not ignore us if we contribute to their loss of power.  

Those Political Tests (The New York State ELA and Math Assessments)

60,000 students who opted out plus a changed cut score (see here) equals one thing—an invalid and unreliable test. As someone who has studied and analyzed different psychometric assessments over these last thirty years, it is obvious what John King has done. He has created a score that has no basis in reality except to attempt to score a political point or two.

First, we have to analyze those students who opted out. The hotbed of the opt out movement did not come from those students who are in failing schools. No, the students that opted out came from the middle and upper middle class. These are mostly suburban students who are in successful public schools who mostly would have passed these assessments. The parents of these students are sophisticated enough to understand the motives and agenda of those who created the common core. If Commissioner King kept the same cut scores as last year, the result would be a much higher percentage of students failing both the ELA and math assessments because now we have a change in the population taking the tests. We now have a population that is poorer, more disabled and lacking in the basic skills to even come close to passing. Obviously, he could not give his political enemies even more ammunition to use against his beloved Pearson family of assessments. Therefore, he lowered the cut scores for these assessments. He made sure that by getting fewer items correct, a student would be able to get a 3 or a 4 on these tests. At the same time, he made sure that the scaled scores of the 2013 and 2014 tests “looked” the same. He made sure the same scaled number cut from a 2 to a 3 for each grade. He did this obviously counting on the ignorance of most school parents to believe his lies. What he did was curb the test to compensate for too many students getting low scores and again made his predictions come true. A few months before the 2013 assessments, he knew 2/3s would fail. Even more unbelievable was that a year before the 2014 tests, he knew there would be “incremental” growth. With this type of skill, he is in the wrong field. He needs to relocate to Atlantic City or Las Vegas and become a professional gambler. No, better yet, he should enter the financial world of all his friends in the 1% and become a professional stock broker. If you take his advice, you will never lose money.

I still do not know what kind of test these common core assessments are supposed to be. Are they norm reference tests or criterion referenced tests measuring skill attainment? If they purport to be a norm referenced test, these assessments are violating every rule in the book. When one norms a test, such as the WISC IV measuring IQ or a standardized achievement test, such as the WIAT III, the scaled scores or the number of items needed to achieve a certain level do not change from year to year or test to test. Basals and ceilings that are used to derive the scores for these tests remain the same until a test is completely revised and rewritten. In addition, all such tests have technical manuals that describe the standardization process. It describes the samples used, the populations used and the statistical procedures used to derive such scores. This is done so that other psychometricians can review, analyze and critique the assessment in a public way so that when the test is revised, rewritten and restandardized, the new assessment will have better validity and reliability in its use. Does Pearson not understand this process? They sure do. How do I know? They also publish such tests as the WISC IV and WIAT III.

If these common core assessments are supposed to be criterion referenced tests, another set of rules are being violated. If one gives a student a criterion-referenced test, it is supposed to measure skills that are supposed to have been taught and learned at a certain developmental level. Yet the common core tests are assessing skills that are developmentally inappropriate or have not been taught. It would be equivalent to taking a final examination at the beginning of a high school or college course. Then when you fail, the professor or teacher will then say to you that you are just not ready to do the work in course. Yes, the scenario I just described is insane. But that is the scenario that those who have developed the common core believe in.

The agenda as to the use of criterion referenced as well as standardized achievement or cognitive assessments is quite different than the agenda as to the purpose of the common core. Criterion-referenced and cognitive assessments administered individually under optimum conditions are used to make important life decisions about a child. The above tests are often used to determine whether or not a child has a disability. If clinicians or the public or private agencies they work for use such tests incorrectly or flippantly, they can be sued and often are because we have federal and state statutes governing the use of such instruments. On the other hand, the agenda of the common core is quite different. These tests have a political purpose. Its main goal is to destroy America’s public educational institutions. Its purpose enshrined in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top with the unrealistic expectation that 100% of school age children pass these assessments or the public school and its teachers are punished. Yet, our same government has laws governing disabled students and how these children should be assessed to determine if a child has a handicapping condition. It really is ironical when you think of it. On the one hand, the government says every child must be college and career ready while at the same time it says that some children should not have college as a realistic life plan.

In New York, when a disabled student reaches 21 years old the Committee on Special Education must do an exit interview with a caregiver to make sure that students who have significant multiple disabilities have a realistic post-secondary plan. In most cases, there has to be a plan to make sure such young adults are placed in center-based, prevocational or vocational programs to make the student as independent as humanly possible. For some of these former students, the most that is hoped for is a total care setting; for others it may mean a group home with some type of supervised/unsupervised employment. On Friday, while I was reading the results of these invalid and unreliable tests, I was doing an exit interview for a student who reached 21 years old that was blind, autistic and developmentally disabled born with a myriad of medical problems. He is wheelchair bound and needs to be fed with a tube. I would love to ask Mr. King whether we teachers failed to get this young person “in small increments” college or career ready. Guess what, it is Mr. King’s state education department who is presently failing such a student because the parent has yet to find a post-secondary program that will meet the needs of such an individual. I was the first professional to give this parent the phone number of the Office of People with Developmental Disabilities, which is supposed to be a state run program to help such individuals.  The fact that no transitional plan was made by one of Mr. King’s state approved nonpublic schools for such an individual and his family is a way bigger problem than make believe scores on an invalid and unreliable test.  If anything, Mr. King is the one who has failed.  He has failed the wrong political test.

Pretty Campbell Brown and Her Ugly, Misguided Anti-Due-Process Crusade

liberalteacher:

“Pretty” Campbell Brown has embarked upon a crusade to rid New York’s teachers of their due process rights. Emboldened by the Vergara Case in California, which is being appealed, she is attempting destroy “tenure” in our state–believing that tenure insures a New York public school teacher a job for life and thus will prevent such teachers from ever being fired. As a result, the supposed educational incompetence of these instructors will destroy the lives (no Civil Rights) of the high need students whom they teach. When I read Mercedes Schneider’s blog, I knew I had to share it. It describes two important things one must know. First, Eva Moskowitz’s touted Success Academy Middle School had not one student accepted in any of New York City’s specialized high schools. (I will talk more about this at a later date) Second, it gives us a nice biography of this failed news person– showing her to probably be one of America’s leading hypocrites. I give her a better name “The Queen of Chutzpah.”

Originally posted on @ THE CHALK FACE:

Over the past several weeks, I have read only a little on the situation of former CNN news anchor Campbell Brown’s sudden interest in forming a nonprofit in order to advance a lawsuit in New York purportedly to “save” public school students of the (surely) inept teachers currently protected behind “tenure” (i.e., due process rights).

I’ll admit, I have only been on the fringes of the affair that is New York’s “Brown vs. Board of Education” (I had to go there, what with hedge-funded nonprofits advancing their takeover of public education as a “civil rights” issue). However, with my second book written and off to the publisher, I am now ready to turn my research and writing attention to this Campbell Brown and her crusade to demolish teacher due process.

Brown has not bothered to demonstrate how, exactly, removal of the due process that promotes job security for good teachers…

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Linda Taylor, Charter Schools, Private Agencies and Race

When I retired several weeks ago, I said to myself that now I would have a lot of time to devote to my blog. I would now become a prolific writer. I would churn out one article after another. My pen would lambaste the reformers, privatization, VAM, charters, etc. However, instead of having the free time I dreamt, it turned out that I am just as busy as I was prior to retirement. I retired only to continue working in a summer job that I have had for the last eight years. I trek to Manhattan five days a week working for one of New York’s Committees on Special Education. My job is to hold IEP meetings and write over 100 individual educational programs for students who attend private or parochial schools. These students receive either Special Education Teacher Support Services (SETSS) or related special educational services that are paid for by the New York City Department of Education. In years past, the DOE had lists of independent providers that provided such services. Many of the SETSS (resource room) providers were either retired school teachers or teachers that wanted a flexible work schedule for various personal reasons. The same held true providers of OT, PT, Counseling and Speech. However, in recent years, these services are now mostly provided by teachers and providers hired through large private contract agencies that offer the DOE the best price for their services, i.e., lowest price—supposedly.

Earlier in the month, a colleague of mine who is doing the same job in another CSE began holding IEP Conferences for a parochial school in one of the five boroughs of New York City. She began to notice the progress reports of a particular SETSS teacher sent by an agency to the school. The school was composed of grades K to 8. Here was this one SETSS teacher servicing every disabled child in this school. And no matter what the grade, no matter what the problem, every progress report was exactly the same. Every child had major decoding problems, comprehension problems, as well as computational problems. In her progress report, each child was at least two to three years below level—even those in Kindergarten! Needless to say, all her draft IEP goals were exactly the same. For every disabled child in the school, her goals used the same strategies. When my colleague counted the number of students on the master list, it totaled over forty. Interestingly, many students had 10 periods of SETSS services a week. It was amazing how this particular provider was able to serve this many students in a 7 period day. I guess she took no lunch and worked every period. Yes, she must have done all her preparation at home in order to have created such fine differentiated lessons for such a diverse population. Interestingly, many of the parents of these disabled kids remarked to my colleague how their children made very little progress, that the teacher was harsh to them, and that each child was rarely picked up for services during the course of the year. I think we all might agree that we have some circumstantial evidence for possible fraud—especially when one realizes how little these contracted out providers are paid by many of these agencies. In the past, retired teachers who provided such services would complain that they were only paid DOE per session rate, which was about $40.00 an hour. I gather these contract-out providers get less than half that amount because the rest of the fee logically goes to the agency. Therefore, although wrong, it is understandable why some providers would pad their numbers. Where is the outcry for such embezzlement? This is our tax money?

Now let’s talk about a woman named Linda Taylor. A few months ago, I read an interesting article in Slate.com about this woman. Linda Taylor was Ronald Reagan’s infamous Welfare Queen. Yes, I hate to disappoint some of my liberal friends who believed all these years that the she was one of the Great Communicator’s made up stories. Unfortunately, this woman was real although the Great Communicator did embellish many facts of the case. However, this woman was not so much a Welfare Queen as possibly one of the greatest criminal minds of the 20th century. This woman not only embezzled money from just about every government program, but was possibly also a kidnapper and murderer. The amount she took from Aid for Families with Dependent Children was small change compared to the amount embezzled from social security disability, the Veterans Administration as well as a host of other government programs. At the time, obviously, the outcry was against those minorities on welfare who were living high on the hog while the rest of us had to work like dogs to scrap together a meager existence. Therefore, the Federal Government only prosecuted her for welfare fraud in which the sum total of her embezzlement was $8000. She was not prosecuted for the theft of over $100,000 from other Federal programs, possible kidnapping or possible murder.

I remember at the time many conservatives saying that this woman proved that we must get rid of welfare and food stamps. Even though she possibly stole more money from the VA for fraudulent disability payments, I never heard any of my conservative friends talk about doing away with that program. Even though she embezzled tens of thousands from social security, few demanded that we do away with social security disability insurance. To working class whites, she was the embodiment of the black woman who had multiple children from different men who dared to own three Cadillacs, three homes, beautiful clothes and fine jewelry at taxpayer expense. Interestingly, the article said that she possibly was not even black, but of mixed race and was really considered white for most of her life. It also did not matter to a big part of our working class population that census figures showed that most women who received AFDC in the 1970s had only between two and three children and were also white. Race trumped everything and this audacious black woman represented every black woman who was on welfare at the time. As a result, when Reagan was elected in 1980, he had willing supporters who applauded his draconian cuts in social programs because now these minorities had to be put in their place.

What has this got to do with charters? Here we have these schools who are embezzling government money as recently reported in Diane Ravitch’s blog . In addition, we have reports of charters involved in criminal activities in Texas, Connecticut, California and Ohio. Here again is tax money being embezzled. Money that is supposed to serve children are lining the pockets of wealthy investors or those who administer these charters. But how come we do not hear, “Let’s get rid of those charters. These people are taking our money to live high on the hog.” The difference, I sadly have to say, is that these charter administrators and hedge fund investors are mostly wealth and white. These people live high on the hog anyway. Imagine, if you total the amount stolen by these charters, the amount is in the millions and not thousands. The American people should be rising up and screaming that we must account for every cent these charters get from localities, states and the Federal government. On the other hand, if tomorrow, some black woman parked her BMW in Wegman’s lot and proceeded to buy groceries with food stamps, it would be front page headlines in the New York Post.

Unfortunately, it appears to me that race is the key factor. Both Linda Taylor and the many charters are exactly the same. Both used the lack of government oversight, as was the case in the 1970s for Linda Taylor and today for the charters. Linda embezzled because we did not have yet the type of computer technology that allowed the sharing of information among different government agencies that we have today. On the other hand, there is a lack of oversight because the large pockets of those who invest in charters have bought lock, stock and barrow legislatures and governors who would pass and carry out such laws. Linda was a lone wolf who worked the system while those who do it today are being supported with a wink from many levels of government.

Now let’s put this all together. Here we have private contract agencies with what appears to be little oversight engaged in theft of services (from those disabled children who need such services desperately), charters stealing millions also because of lack of government oversight and depriving our public schools of the necessary funds and resources to succeed, and finally Linda Taylor who was convicted for stealing only $8000 in AFDC because race stereotypes blinded those in power to the true nature of her many criminal acts. To me, all three acts are heinous crimes against our civil society and each should not be tolerated. Unfortunately, about 40 years ago, a real criminal got a slap on the wrist while millions of impoverished Americans were severely punished for the crime of being poor while today millions of public school kids are being punished while the real perpetrators appear again to be having their wrists slapped.