Tuesday, July 7, 2015

MA: Reinventing the Wheel

The Huffington Posts is not picky. Their education page carries a wide variety of viewpoints, including regular posts courtesy of TeachPlus, an organization devoted to putting teacher-ish human capital in the reformster pipeline, in true Orwellian reformster fashion, diminishing the profession while praising it.

The most recent is a post by Brittany Vetter, a young woman who is the very picture of the fresh-faced, well-scrubbed enthusiastic young educator. She's here to tell us that High Stakes Testing and the Common Core are awesome and magical, and that charters have discovered the secret to educational success. In short, it's yet another attempt to squeeze every piece of reformster marketing boilerplate into one short piece.

Vetter starts by talking about the awesome conversation she'll have this fall with her sixth graders about the economic gaps between different sections Massachusetts, and how the school they're attending erases those differences. See, poverty doesn't matter.

I then stress to my sixth graders that they will have to work extra-hard to achieve beyond what others might expect of them. I emphasize that our only option is to defy the odds and gain access to opportunities that will help change the system from within.

Vetter teaches at Excel Academy, part of a charter chain in Massachusetts, a state where charters have a history of spectacular levels of student suspensions. Vetter's version of Excel is in Chelsea, and at one point racked up a suspension rate of 17.9%, the 19th highest in the state. Excel was also among those charters that made sure not to many students who didn't actually speak English.

You might also find it telling that Excel's Board of Trustees-- well, actually, it's a little telling that they even have such a board, but that board is almost entirely composed of investment managers. They've also had an advisory board since 2014, composed of politicians and businessmen (one PR expert), so I'm not sure what kind of advice they're giving. A foundation board made of banksters. And a director's council, composed of MBA's and investment bankers. And a network management team that is also devoid of actual teachers or educators. Well, what about the actual school leaders? Nope-- TFA alums, one TNTP alum, and one person with an actual MA in teaching on top of a BA in public policy. If I showed you the list of people managing this enterprise and asked you to guess what the enterprise did, you would not guess "educates children."

Vetter's school enrolls students in grades 5 through 8-- they have a total of 224 students. All of them are local to Chelsea, 83% are Latino (I don't know what that stat is even useful for) and 83% fall below federal poverty lines. No word on how many of those are ELL. The school employs five administrators and twenty-five other faculty. A few faculty have actual teaching degrees, but many are TFA alum-- some aren't even that. The staffer who designed a comprehensive English curriculum for ELL students has a BA in government and international studies.

So, yes. Excel Academy is a massive revenue-generating amateur hour. Has this gifted collection of Betters somehow discovered the secret of educating students? Well, I mean a secret beyond accepting only students who will do well and driving out any that might bring your numbers down.

Holding our schools and teachers accountable for such trajectory-changing results says that we not only believe in their possibility but in fact demand it for all of our students regardless of the neighborhood in which they live. 

What else? Well, Vetter wants to tell us the story of how they used the PARCC to make magic. When Excel decided to use the PARCC, Vetter found the multiple choice questions were "highly nuanced," which is the best way I've seen to describe PARCC's tendency to ask bubble test questions with multiple correct answers, only one of which is accepted. How did they deal with it?

We revised our unit assessments to include questions that mirrored PARCC's emphasis on supporting multiple choice answers with evidence, and we engaged in discussions about how to build our students' ability to write in a variety of genres. Initially, test averages were lower overall. But as students collaboratively corrected their missed questions and became familiar with the new level of expectations, they rose to the occasion, and their test scores began to improve.

So, lots of test prep. Vetter continues on her mission to include every reformster cliche in the book.

What's more, PARCC's alignment with Common Core has upped the rigor of my course. In the process, I discovered that Jose had a real gift for writing engaging dialogue, while Estefania could effectively integrate information from multiple sources. All of my students can now analyze how an author's choices led to a specific purpose in her writing and compare the choices of two different authors. The PARCC's emphasis on textual evidence led to much richer student discussions in my classroom, pushing me to recognize the level of thinking of which my sixth graders are truly capable. At end of the school year, my students surpassed my expectations.

This is a new twist-- Vetter apparently didn't know how to teach before, but not just the Common Core, but the combination of Common Core and the PARCC showed her how to do her job.

In all fairness to Vetter, it's entirely possible that she actually didn't know how to do her job before. Since graduating from Goucher College in 2007 with a BA in sociology, Vetter put in two years with TFA, three years at a STRIVE academy, and now three years at Excel. So it is possible, for instance, that she had no clue what level of thinking is developmentally possible for a sixth grader.

No set of reformster testy cliches would be complete without a disclaimer (the PARCC is not perfect), and followed by a wrap-up that undercuts the disclaimer.

Every teacher would agree that standardized tests are imperfect measures of the complex output that is students' growth as learners and people. However, without the data that is provided by these assessments, we would have no method for seeing how our students stack up and where to revise our approach.

Again, given that Vetter is an amateur working in a setting run and occupied by other amateurs, she may really believe that she would have no method of seeing how students stack up, or even understand that trying to stack rank students is destructive and useless (in less, of course, your school's business model is built on getting rid of the students on the bottom of the stack). It may well be that this big batch of amateurs has no idea how to collect their own data to evaluate and revise their own teaching program. And it could well be that this big bunch of amateurs doesn't understand that using a single bad standardized test to drive that process is just about the least useful way to approach the problem.

Looking into Vetter, her school, and her writing drives home for me just how lost these folks are. First, they're trying to re-invent the wheel. But they're working with roughly chiseled slabs of stone while actual trained teachers are trying to work out better bearing and support assemblies for the wheels on fully developed vehicles. And because the charter amateurs set their testing spots at the top of a steep hill, they think they've really discovered something when their giant rock slabs actually roll down the hill a ways, while real teachers in real public schools are trying to figure out how to get their educational trucks to traverse rocky, uphill terrain. The reformsters have set themselves a game that a chimp could win (Roll Things Down Easy Hill) and think they've discovered something useful in the process.

Vetter looks happy, cheery, and she's stuck with the reformster ed game for almost a decade now, but I don't know if she has a clue. She may be smart, and she may mean well, but she has nothing to teach us about how to educate students.

I'll include a link here, so that you can check my work to keep me honest, but I recommend you don't add to the Teach Plus click count. Because Excel is not only reinventing the education wheel, but Vetter is reinventing the Reformy Teacher-ish Praise wheel, and that's one wheel that just needs to stop turning.

Update: This morning when I posted this, there were three comments on HuffPo in reply to the article-- one critical, a supportive post from one of Vetter's co-workers, and my link to the piece you're reading. As of this afternoon, there are no comments up at HuffPo in reply to the article. Ironically, that commenst section is called "conversations."

1 comment:

  1. Poor beknighted Chelsea! After a huge part of the city - 18 blocks - burned down in 1973, It was sent into receivership in 1991 due to a totally corrupt governance structure. The public schools were taken over by Boston University and John Silber in 1989 and remained under BU's control for 20 years. It didn't go too well. And now the charter parasites have come to feast upon the remains.