What VAM Can Never Measure?

It does not matter how many papers are written discrediting VAM. If it was possible to shove the American Statistical Association Statement on Using Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment in front of Andrew Cuomo’s face, it would make no difference to him. He would toss the paper into his circular file because reason has nothing to do with his so-called reform. VAM is not a rationale, but a belief to the reformers. The basis of their belief has nothing to do with mathematics, but everything to do with the tall tales the reformers give as anecdotal evidence to justify their beliefs.

This tall tale, often told by Teach for America types go something like this. After five weeks of training, this natural born teacher who just graduated from Harvard comes to work in a high needs school and immediately he is able to motivate every student in his 7th grade class located in the most poverty stricken area of Chicago. Each lesson captures the imagination of every student in the classroom. These highly inspirational lessons are differentiated toward every student in his class. He “teaches like a champion” as he was taught in those five magical weeks. He breaks down every academic behavior happening in the classroom. His students never knew that they have to face the teacher, give him direct eye contact, and have their feet planted squarely on floor. For the first time someone told them that they must have pencil in hand ready to write. Not only that, he is at school at 7:00 AM in the morning working with students one-on-one to catch them up to grade level. He tutors individual kids during his prep, during his lunch, and after school until nine at night. On weekends, he spends Saturday and Sunday at a local library working with even more of students. When April comes around, this class now has 100% of his students at level three or four on the Common Core ELA and Math Assessments. Just think, the previous year, when these students had that lazy burned-out unionized teacher who came to school at 8:40 and left exactly at 3:00, only 4% of these students even reached a level two on the assessment. Therefore, this “superman” teacher is rated using VAM as highly effective while that shriveled up union hack next door is deservedly ineffective and must be fired. Once every teacher in America is just like this Harvard wunderkind, every student will be on grade level headed toward college. There will no longer be any poverty in this great nation.

Disney could not have come up with a better fairy tale. All we need is for this teacher to sing a happy tune and a dozen Chicago pigeons will fly through his classroom window and tidy up his classroom. No mention is made of hunger, poor health, drug abuse, neglect, violence and homelessness that such students face every day. No mention is made of the lack of books, pencils, paper, or even desks and chairs found in such schools. No mention is made of broken lights, peeling paint and rodent droppings in these classrooms. No mention is made of about the lack of support and even terror initiated by many administrators of such schools toward new teachers. No mention is made that the only piece of technology these classrooms have is maybe a single outdated computer with intermittent internet access. No mentioned is made that even the most determined teacher will burn-out working 80 hours with no social or family life. No mention is made that this teacher’s meager salary cannot afford the price of a city studio apartment, food, transportation as well as teaching supplies for himself and his students. No mention is made that his salary will not be enough to survive and he must moonlight a second or even a third job to make ends meet while, at the same time, producing pages of lesson plans and taking additional college courses. Can VAM measure the stress and exhaustion of a working teacher trying to meet the demand that every child in his/her class grow academically against such odds?

But the main thing that VAM can never measure is what is within a good teacher’s heart. Only another anecdote can describe the heart of real teacher that no algorithm can compute. In the year 1965, I was ten-year-old fifth grader at PS 186 in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. I was not a great student. I struggled with reading because at that time the city used what was called the look-say approach to reading instruction using those old Scott Foresman basal reading series (commonly referred to as Dick and Jane). This approach was a precursor to what would someday be called whole language. I often had difficulty pronouncing words and therefore I was not a fluent reader. My parents were concerned and I remember sitting in the principal’s office with them. His name was Mr. Gladstone and he was the epitome of the old fashioned male principal. He was tall, wore a suit, and had distinguished looking gray hair, but had a kind face. He had me read for him and my parents. I do not recall exactly what was said, but as a result of the meeting, my class was changed. My new teacher was Miss Burke. She was this older Irish woman who always wore plaid skirts and high button blouses. To me, this teacher was Mary Poppins, Maria Von Tramp, and Cinderella’s fairy godmother combined into one living, breathing person who did change my life—not by magic but through caring, determination and love.

In her classroom, no one was allowed to make fun of any student who had a learning problem. She taught her students to help one another. When we read silently a book of our choosing, she always came over to me and had me read very quietly to her. I did not realize it at the time, but she was teaching me a host of strategies that helped me to become a fluent reader. I would not realize until I became a teacher myself that she was giving me phonetic and word analysis tools to improve my fluency. I recall that each time I read a page without error, she would have a big smile on her face and say “good job.”

During that era, each class was required to put on a play. She had each student read some lines of script and then said that I had the most expression and asked the class if I should have the main part. To my surprise, the whole class agreed with her. That was the first time in my school life that a teacher and my classmates showed confidence in me. However, I was scared to death and when I got home I cried to my parents that I could not do it. My mother called her at the school the next day and told her of my fears. I was afraid that I could not remember all the lines; I was afraid of making mistakes; and I was very much afraid of making a fool of myself in that giant auditorium in front of every student, parent and teacher. That evening, Miss Burke came to my house and spoke to my parents and me. She and my parents came up with a plan how I would learn my lines and practice a little bit every day. With her encouragement, I did it. I performed the main role of silly play about eating the right type of foods. I recall that I had to perform not only in the morning, but also again in the afternoon for another group of students. At that time, many of us went home for lunch, but I recall Miss Burke saying to my mom that I should have lunch with her (she was afraid I would not come back).

Whereas today, the common core teaches fifth grade students to compare the structures of drama, poetry and prose, we lived it. I learned how hard it is to put together a play with scenery, cuing for each stage direction and the details of choreographing a single dance. I learned how to stand, project my voice and even walk on a stage. Today, students learn that scripts have italicized stage directions, but I learned why and how each of those directions was important.

Miss Burke also ran the school’s chorus (glee club in 1960s jargon) with another teacher. I auditioned and soon found myself learning a medley of songs from Mary Poppins. We worked hours memorizing those songs, learning how to breathe and how to perform on cue using various hand signals. I remember that our chorus was chosen to perform in Lafayette High School. I was amazed that we were bathed in light while the audience was in total darkness. That was fine with me because it made me less nervous. To this day, I can still sing Supercalafragalisticexpialadoshus and Chim Chimney.

In addition, at that time, the Brooklyn Museum had an orchestra. This orchestra taught school children music appreciation. Every week, the fifth grade classes of our school went to the museum and the conductor and his orchestra taught us about all the different types of musical instruments and the role each instrument played in a concert. The week we were learning about woodwinds, I remember him calling me to the stage to try to blow through a tuba. No matter how hard I tried, I could not produce a single note. At the end of four weeks, all those instruments came together and played for us all different types of classical music. That was my first introduction to Beethoven and Mozart. I would learn the complexity of such music.

During the year, we went on a trip to the New York World’s Fair in which Miss Burke would explain all the different exhibits from many different cultures. Before we entered the Vatican exhibit, she explained to us the whole history behind the Pieta. For the first time, I was introduced to the Renaissance and Michelangelo. At the end of the year, because the fifth grade was the graduating class, we took a trip to Philadelphia to Independence Hall, the Franklin Museum and Betsy Ross’ House. What I remember most form that trip was sticking my head inside the Liberty Bell and sitting, in Independence Hall, at the desk of Thomas Jefferson. That motivated me to begin reading everything I could about our third president.

In terms of learning, I improved my writing because Miss Burke got each of us a penpal from Europe. I ended up writing to a young girl in Czechoslovakia. My letters got longer and more descriptive as the year progressed as I tried to tell her everything that we American children did throughout the day. She even had us write to an author of a book we read. I wrote to the author of a children’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. I was so proud when he wrote back to me and I have that letter to this very day. By the way, I still have that old play script in an attic box. A few months ago when we were cleaning out the attic, this sixty-year-old man refused to part with it.

That script is more than a bunch of faded rexograph papers. I cannot part with it because it represents the richest educational experience I ever had. It is amazing that all this was done in an average New York City public school by a teacher who taught with love and care. Miss Burke taught in a very traditional manner. To tell the truth, I cannot recall or even visualize a single lesson, but what I do recall is the warmth every time she spoke to either me or the class. I recall her smile and her pat on my back every time I did a good job. Can VAM measure any of this? Can VAM measure the love this teacher showed me and the other students of that class? Can it measure all the wonderful experiences this woman gave to me and my classmates that year? If you notice, I have not mentioned a single test. I do not recall taking any type of formal standardized test that year. Instead of hours of test prep, I had real learning, great learning. I learned through experiences, through song, through dance, through art and through purposeful writing. After that year, I no longer had any significant academic difficulties. What this teacher did for me is really how one is made college ready. A child is made college ready when you instill in them curiosity and a love of learning. Hours of high stakes testing and days of test prep create just the opposite—a hatred of learning. As I am writing this, my eyes are very moist. My tears represent the happy memories instilled by Miss Burke as well as tears of sadness for what has been lost—the true magic of teaching. Teaching is a human act, a complex act that cannot be measured by any algorithm. The passion and complexity of a human interaction cannot be measured by a single snapshot. When reformers describe teaching, it is nothing more than a mechanical act. One cannot measure something that comes from your heart and soul. One cannot measure an act of love, for that is what teaching really is.

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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.