Friday, November 7, 2014

Strong Words from Minneapolis

I don't have much to add to this post from Greta Callahan other than a virtual standing ovation. But so many people read my response to the Minneapolis newspaper assault on teachers (aided and abetted by their own superintendent) that I felt I should pass this along.

Greta Callahan teaches five-year-olds at Minneapolis's poorest school. Her response is strong, unapologetic, clear and free from whining.

Let’s start with what it means to be a “good teacher.” As the article says: “The district uses three different tools to evaluate teachers: classroom observations, a student survey and student achievement data.” Let’s put that into the perspective of a Bethune kindergarten teacher.

• Classroom observations: We have four per year. The teacher receives points based on standardized criteria; the feedback is generally helpful. But these observations also involve the observer walking up to students and asking what they are doing. Even my 5-year-olds, who may have just started school, get asked this question. The student is supposed to regurgitate the “I can” statement that correlates to “Focused Instruction.” The usual response, though, is something along the lines of “math” or “Jaden took my crayon!”

If you were in my room, observing an observation, you would laugh. I promise.

• Student surveys: I administer a student survey once a year. My 5-year-olds have to circle their responses (even though they can’t read) to questions about their teacher and school. Have you been around a 5-year-old? They are adorable, spacey, loud and unfocused — and under no circumstances does this student survey make sense for them or to them.

• Student achievement data: Two to three times a year, our students are pulled out of our classrooms and tested by a stranger from the district. When she asks our kids to go into a separate room with her and gives them a test, most of them shut down. It’s intimidating to them. Some are asked to take this test in the middle of breakfast; others are tested right after recess. The inconsistency of when our children are tested creates a test that isn’t being measured consistently or accurately, in my opinion.

And in response to superintendent Bernadeia Johnson's comment that the district would have to take another look at staffing and retention:

Really? None of this is rocket science. The retention rate of teachers at my school and others like it will not go up unless we have more incentive to stay — and more assistance to attempt to give our students an even chance.

If you're wondering if Callahan is as awesome as she seems here, the answer is apparently yes. Tom Rademacher, the 2014 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, profiled her on his blog.

So, why does she stay?  Because of those same kids who come in not knowing their letters. At some point in the year, she gets to watch them read.  There are struggles and frustrations, to be sure, but the successes of the teachers and students at her school are the result of good work for the kids who need it most.  The key, she says, is to love your students, and make sure they understand you love them.  Once she has that bond, she says,  “I can teach them, and when I get them to love school, I have them forever.”

Callahan's response is worthy of a standing ovation, and I hope that her fellow teachers take heart from it.

Do we want a pat on the back? No. Do we want your sympathy? No. Do we want our community to be aware of the challenges in our schools? Yes, we desperately do.

Please do not oversimplify a complex problem by blaming the teachers who are in the trenches every day.

Every line of this powerhouse essay is quoteworthy. I hope that it is clipped and placed on a bulletin board in teachers' lounges across the city.


  1. I'm sorry, I don't mean to be critical or a Debbie Downer, and I'm sure that Ms. Callahan is as great as you say she is and truly cares for her kids. But it just saddens me that a kindergarten teacher would find satisfaction in teaching kindergarteners how to read. Reading should have no place in kindergarten (except being read to). Every single educator who has taken the time to truly observe and understand children where they're at has come to the same conclusion - children before the ages of about 6 or 7 simply aren't developmentally ready to learn to read. Sure, they may be able to learn to read, with enough work and practice and struggle. But the fact that they have to struggle so much means that they're not ready to do it. Earlier is not better - whatever advantage they may have from reading early washes out by third grade and, in fact, some of the later readers end up being better, more enthusiastic and insightful readers. When children are ready to interact with the world in a certain way, they will naturally learn the tools for doing so. But when we try to teach reading, we get our cart before our horse because we're trying to introduce a tool for which the child has no practical use for - or understanding why he should have a use for it. We really need to stop adopting the rephormers harmful ideas and being pleased with ourselves for implementing them well.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Typos.

      Fair enough. I was probably so excited about her ability to stand tall in a difficult place that I overlooked my differences with her ideas about instruction.

  2. We humans are so odd. The root cause of all the educational "reform" absurdity is our lack of understanding of ourselves - what we need, what motivates us. Why's it so hard to see that little children (yeah, big children, too) need first and foremost lots of love in a secure and nurturing environment. And it takes time for children to feel that and to believe that especially when kids come from highly stressed home environments.

    Thank you, Greta. Folks like you are the glue that hold our society together.

  3. Off topic
    The authors of CCSS claim that CCSS is "research- and evidence-based". This claim has been repeated consistently and forcefully by a number of CCSS spokespersons. However, this claim has not been substantiated. There is no published documentation that specifies the set of research and evidence that CCSS is claimed to be based on.

    Because the claimed research and evidence is unavailable, an outside expert (i.e., one not involved with the CCSS project) cannot evaluate the quality (e.g., bias, completeness) of the research and evidence, or the soundness of the manner in which the research and evidence was applied to CCSS. In essence, the nation is being asked to accept on faith that there is no significant flaw in the research and evidence base of CCSS. Clearly, this is an astoundingly high and unnecessary risk given the enormous impact that CCSS will have on the nation's educational system and tens of millions of parents and children.

    Therefore, organizations responsible for CCSS should be challenged to publish a documentation that specifies: 1) the set of research and evidence that CCSS is based on; and 2) the manner in which that set of research and evidence has influenced the design of CCSS.

    Furthermore, major american educational organizations, such as AERA and teachers unions, should be challenged to evaluate the quality of the research and evidence base of CCSS and the soundness of the manner in which the research and evidence were applied to CCSS. As the experts in our society, these organizations have a professional responsibility to conduct this evaluation and inform the public of their findings. If they are negligent in doing so, they will complicit should the CCSS research and evidence base turn out to be of poor quality or unsound.


    These challenges, especially if they are done with a united voice of folks like you and others with an audience, can inform the public that CCSS organizations have not substantiated their "research and evidence based" claim. This will be a surprise for many, if not most, in the public. As you well know, most ordinary people are too busy to attend to the nuances of these issues. And, because they have not heard anyone challenge the "experts" claim, they naturally believe it. On the other hand, if the public begins to hear that the purported research and evidence have been kept hidden from leadings experts in the field, they may begin to doubt.

    There are many voices, like yours, today who point out the absurdity and the dangers of the "reforms". However, they are principally defensive in nature. Also, to many in the public, they sound like the rantings of crazies in the fringes of society. These challenges, if done right, can put the onus on the CCSS proponents to defend their claim. At that point, whether or not the "research and evidence" is published, it will be most illuminating for everyone.

    The trick, I think, is to make these challenges with a broad and loud united voice. If someone can raise the money and unite the voices, it would be very effective to take out a full page in major newspaper(s).

    You are welcome to use any of the text in this comment as you fit.