A Retired Teacher Reflections on His Birthday

I woke up this morning to notification beeps on my smart phone realizing for the first time that I was not a work on my birthday.  When one is retired, one has the freedom not to have to stand and teach in a 90 degree room on a late June day.  People were posting to my timeline on Facebook giving me birthday wishes.    By the early afternoon, about 40 people wished me Happy Birthday.    As I scrolled down the names of many of my friends, I soon realized that each person was important to me at different times of my life.   Besides the usual family members, there were childhood friends and many teaching colleagues.  Some were from the time I first became a teacher while others became friends with me later in my career when I was an Educational Evaluator on a child study team doing diagnostic testing of disabled students.

Then it hit me.  I began to remember another birthday—one that took place in 1978.   When I woke up that June morning, I was headed for an interview for my first real teaching job.   Instead of Facebook notifications and email messages, there were birthday cards.   Yes, I remember the time when people walked to the drug store, bought a card with thought, wrote a short message, signed their name, and mail it in time so that it would get to you either on or before your birthday.   When I look at those old cards, these signatures still keep alive the memory of my parents, aunt, uncles, and friends no longer with us.

On that day I reached my 24th birthday.  I was younger in age than both of my sons today.   To tell the truth, I was still pretty naïve and in some ways not completely grown up at that time.   I was living at home with my parents and my room still had somewhat of an adolescent quality to it.   My bookcase was lined with many college books and science fiction novels. On another shelf were some of my board games, such as Scrabble and Monopoly.  I still had a box on a table filled with old baseball cards (foolishly thrown out a week before I would get married three years later).  There was my old twelve inch black and white TV with its rabbit ear antennas and seven live stations.  There was my FM stereo radio, cassette, and turntable which endlessly played my little collection of vinyl records from the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Associations, etc.

I wore a brown suit that day with a polyester shirt and thick tie for that first real interview.  A few weeks before, I finished my Master’s Degree in special education at Queens College. Interestingly, I did my teaching internship in a school that is presently up the block from where I live right now.   I student taught in a class made up of emotionally handicapped neurologically impaired students.   The class consisted of ten boys that were in third/fourth grade.  To tell the truth, my supervising teacher probably was a little weak in terms of managing the students, but her heart was in the right place.    In this white, middle class school (now primarily Asian), the special education class I was assigned did stand out.  Not only were many of the students of color, but they were often loud while the rest of the school was quiet as a church.  I recall one teacher who constantly complained about the noise our NIEH class made.  Little did I realize that a quarter century later she would be my superintendent!   The special education class I interned in did not really interact with the school because we entered the building through a side entrance and ate lunch at a separate time.  These disabled students were not even allowed to participate in assembly or gym.   This was a very different world.

I took the bus to Forest Hills that day to take the train to an ungentrified downtown Brooklyn.  Besides a few old office buildings on Court and Livingston Streets, there were a few run-down stores and dilapidated brownstones on the side streets.  This was my first visit to 110 Livingston Street.   This building, today a luxury condominium, was thought to house what would be considered the paradigm of bureaucratic incompetence.  I passed the Great Hall of the Board of Education to the elevators and made my way to the floor (I do not recall which one) that housed all the offices in charge of special education.   At that time, special education was divided into different bureaus.  There was the Bureau of the Physical Handicapped, the Bureau of Health Conservation, the Bureau of the Emotionally Handicapped and the Bureau of Students with Retarded Mental Development.   I had to make my way to the Bureau of the Physically Handicapped.   I recall having my heart in my mouth as I opened the door.

In the office sat two older men in shirt sleeves who were probably younger than I am today.   One was standing and I told him who sent me to them.   To my surprise, after they sat me down, they talked to me very informally which calmed my nerves.   Besides the usual interview-type questions, what I most recall was pieces of the conversation that reminded me what a different world 1978 was from today.   They both told me that I was being offered a very difficult job a minority school in South Jamaica.   They told me the students would be difficult, I would not have a lot of resources and that I will probably make many mistakes.   However, they told me not to worry because all young teachers make mistakes and often have difficulty reaching these children.   They just hoped I had a little bit of a tough hide, but, at the same time, really felt something for these kids.   One said that all teachers make goofs at the beginning, but really good teachers learn from their goofs.  And great teachers learn from others.  No one asked for a demonstration lesson or a portfolio of my lessons and student work.  They gave me a job based on their own impressions of me and not data.   They were looking for a good person who did have some skills; but I sense they were looking primarily for someone with a good heart.   By the way, both these supervisors were educators who understood what I really had to face in what is today called a high need school.

Today, I probably would not have even gotten the job.   After all, I would have to prove success even before I even started in the classroom.  Expecting me to do the best I could is not good enough for the present reform crowd.   I would have to say that I expect these high need students to achieve above grade level and reach proficiency on every common core assessment. I would have to bring a 200 page portfolio showing sample lessons and data showing student growth from my internship.   My Master’s Degree would not impress them unless I passed all four state teaching examinations.  On the other hand, if I came through Teach for America and attended an Ivy, I would not have to prove anything.  Instead of encouragement, I would probably be told that if I failed with these students, my career would be short lived.  Unlike today,   in 1978, they still wanted teachers who would turn their love of children into a career and not into cogs measured by data points.  That was the world I came into as a teacher and will always believe in.   Children and teachers are people and not human capital. I retired because I measure the human and not the economic value of children and teachers.

Pearson’s Totalitarian Test Security

It has been several months since I have posted to my blog.  It is not because I haven’t wanted to, but because the educational reforms wrought by a binding arbitration between the New York City Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers have made my job this year one of endless preparation, paperwork, and drudgery.  In my last year of teaching, I have worked harder than those Hebrew slaves that built the cities of ancient Egypt.  To finish my career as an effective teacher, I have to do well on 22 Danielson rubric points, which include 8 artifacts that will justify the generation of enough paper to cause the death of, at least, one hundred trees. 

But this is not the purpose of my little article.  Its purpose is to describe a demeaning test security system wrought by Pearson to safeguard and protect their profits.  Last week, I started testing children for New York City’s gifted and talented program.  I have been doing this activity for many years.  Originally individual districts tested students for their local gifted programs, but eventually the testing became a citywide endeavor.   Originally, children four to seven were tested using the OLSAT along with another test that measured academic readiness.  However, due to criticism that very few minority and ELL students got into the program, last year, the test was changed to just using components of the original OLSAT along with a nonverbal section.  This year, the test was changed once again—in my view—to make it even easier. 

However, our friends, or should I say enemies at Pearson, do not like adverse publicity and embarrassment whenever test flaws are revealed.  Pearson just hated when newspapers revealed that common core test questions had to be thrown out, a passage about a talking pineapple was incomprehensible, that a fourth grade passage was also used on a third grade assesment, and that the illustrations for many passages contained marketing logos that were paid for by the highest corporate bidder.  Therefore, they decided on a solution to solve these problems.  Instead of creating a valid and reliable assessment that would be subject to reviews and study by psychometricians at the university level, they would increase test security. 

Originally, in the good old days, test security was in place to prevent students from getting a hold of a test in order to cheat.  It is for this reason that tests were shrink-wrapped and placed in the Principal’s safe until the day of the test.  However, today, when a Pearson test, such as the Common Core ELA and Math assessments come in at least 75 boxes, that safe at the bottom of the Principal’s small storage closet does not work too well any longer.  Now we had the problem of having many, many tests in several supposedly secure rooms, but once the assessment started, copies ended up all over a building.  Anything could happen.  A page could be scanned into a readability program causing the discovery that a third grade passage was on an eighth grade Lexile reading level or that a passage described the nutritional benefits of a Whopper.

Therefore, Pearson concluded that the only way to prevent such errant discoveries was to collect any electronic device that could copy the test and prevent anyone from even talking about the assessment.  As a result, when I was trained at my testing site this year, I was told that if I was alone with the assessment or even the assessment’s directions for administration booklet within a classroom and had an electronic device capable of reproducing the assessment, the supervisor had the right to immediately fire me.  See, I planned to bring my Ipad to do some lesson planning and a little wifi reading between students, so I now thought all was lost.  However, there was a solution at hand.  All proctors would sit in the hall, on small classroom desks, with their electronic device. while the classroom door was locked with the tests inside.  There would be a school aid sitting on a chair at the top of the hall, watching that we would not enter the classroom to perform any misdeed with our electronic toys.  Another school aid would come with kids, unlock our door, and we would proceed to assess the student with our smart phones, Kindles and Ipads sitting quietly in the hall. 

What I described is nothing compared to the DOE’s Assessment Manual for 2013-2014.  The DOE mandated that every teacher be trained in this manual before December 20, 2013.  Not only would teachers be forbidden to even talk to each other about the tests, but also the name of every proctor would have to be sent to Pearson.  The manual lists at least 50 forbidden actions that a teacher cannot do when testing, and if discovered, the teacher would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  I guess even the slightest malfeasance would mean death by hanging, not just for the possible culprit, but for every teacher within earshot. 

And to do away with any other controversy, Pearson says on the state’s website that whatever you thought was controversial in the past is no longer controversial.  They are now doing everything on purpose.  Pearson has stated that they will use the same passage on tests at different grade levels (but with different questions).  In addition, they will use passages found within their textbooks, but again with different questions. And finally, they will use controversial pieces of text that will make certain students upset and agitated. But, according to them, students have to develop a stiff upper lip and take it like a man (or woman).

All this, of course, is for the sake of profit.  Let us prosecute and even jail any teacher who dares to analyze a test using psychometric research techniques.  What are a few careers, when billions of dollars in the hands of a few is at stake? At least J.D. Rockefeller used to give children dimes.  Pearson, on the other hand, gives our precious youth, anxiety disorder—and is definitely proud doing so. 

Interesting, during another time, the old New York City Board of Education had an office that used to review and critique different assessments from different publishers.  I know this for a fact because I used to be one of the reviewers.  We used to research tests using Buros’ Mental Measurements Handbook and the ERIC database to tell prospective buyers an assessment’s strengths, weaknesses, reliability and validity.  In this way, we helped schools and clinicians make wise and informed decisions about different diagnostic instruments.  All wiped away by the likes of Bloomberg and Klein so that their friends in the testing business could get sweetheart contracts and monopoly control.  The result is now the creation of a looking glass world in which the perpetrators make billions while those who question anything run the risk of criminal prosecution.  Let us hope for better days ahead.