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.

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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.