Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Reign of Error: My New Activist Handbook

I am currently reading Diane Ravitch's new book, The Reign of Error. Simply put, it is excellent.

Diane has covered all aspects of the privatization of public schools – she clearly articulates how the corporate reformers’ ideas don’t work - while offering research-based solutions which indeed DO work. 

I began reading the book during a four hour hiatus last weekend when my husband and two boys took off for the afternoon to run errands. For four hours I sat reading Diane’s book, nodding my head, underlining quotes I can use to educate when I speak or when I write. I placed notes in the margins. I became hopeful, once again. In the quiet solitude of my house, normally filled with the loudness of boys who wrestle, throw, yell, and more or less keep me incredibly busy during my off hours - I took a deep breath. It is rare that I am alone and able to stop, and think in silence. I know that many of you reading this can relate.

But during that moment, in that silence, I reflected on how much our world has changed in the last few years. I reflected on how much my own life has changed, and how Diane’s book confirmed for me, that I am on the right path.

Our work as activists is huge. It is all encompassing. My mother said to me on the phone yesterday, “I don’t know how you can keep up this pace.” Well, I thought this over, and it occurred to me that teachers – all of us – keep up an incredibly fast pace in all that we do. Being a teacher requires us to think fast, to observe and understand human relationships quickly, to be continually present as we listen and evaluate student strengths, attempts and needs – we do all of this while also keeping the big picture in mind – that of supporting life-long learners who will be future citizens of our democracy. Our work and our responsibility as teachers is huge. It is also, all encompassing.  

Diane's book gives credit to our very important work as educators. She explains how competition and choice are destroying our public schools. She shares solutions that work: prenatal care, early childhood education, a balanced curriculum, small class size, a ban on for-profit charters, a demand for wraparound services, an end to high stakes standardized testing and a return to authentic assessment, demand that all teachers, principals and superintendents must be professional educators, demand elected school boards, implement strategies to reduce racial segregation and poverty, and finally, recognize public education as a public responsibility - NOT a consumer good. 

In her first chapter she writes: If you want  a society organized to promote the survival of the fittest and the triumph of the most advantaged, then you will prefer the current course of action, where children and teachers and schools are "racing to the top."  But if you believe the goal of our society should be equality of opportunity for all children and that we should seek to reduce the alarming inequalities children now experience, then my program should win your support.

As I said, our work as activists is huge. But teacher as activist is really a good fit. I believe we are cut out for the job. So, I embrace this role, once again, taking a deep breath, and diving in. 

This time, I will have Diane’s book by my side. It is clear, concise, and to the point - it is not filled with academic jargon which can alienate many readers - readers we need awake and taking action! The chapters are short and can be referenced quickly. As an activist I find myself continually filing away research, quotes and sound bytes in my head;  the Reign of Error has all of these things to support citizens in educating their communities.  I can use the Reign of Error to make my message clear and support others in creating action. It is my new Activist Handbook.

I am not done reading the book. My life right now is very busy with coaching at my elementary school, raising a family, and supporting parents in opting out/refusing the test through my work at United Opt Out National. I am going to continue to read the book with my Opt Out family at our Facebook page, OPT OUT OF THE STATE TEST: The National Movement. We are beginning our book club on September 17th, this Tuesday, when Diane’s book is finally available to the public! I hope you will join us – everyone – parents, students, teachers, community members – join us to read the Reign of Error and further develop our ability to create a clear message that encourages action and allows us to reclaim our public schools. Thank you Diane.


Monday, September 2, 2013

Do Not Go for the GOLD (Teaching Strategies GOLD) for Early Childhood Classrooms

I want to begin by giving everyone a quick background on GOLD. I am simply scraping the tip of the iceberg – it has many additional components to it – but the component that is most used and most touted is the assessment component.  Please bear with me, this blog is much longer than it should be, but if you are a parent with young children you simply must sit down, take a moment, and read.

GOLD claims to assess the whole child for preschool and kindergarten on a developmental continuum starting at birth and ending at age five. It assesses Social-Emotional, Physical, Language, Cognitive, Literacy, Mathematics, Science & Technology, Social Studies, The Arts, and English Language Acquisition. Teaching Strategies GOLD offers lessons, opportunities for families to participate and much more. It will soon expand to include first through third grade. It is aligned with common core. It has been around since 1988. I want to state that it most likely was created with good intentions, however, it has morphed into something that screams corporate education reform.

GOLD is mandated to be used by all publicly funded preschools and kindergartens in Colorado. It is used in many other states as well, but my knowledge is based on Colorado, as my home state. Most Colorado districts are piloting it this year, and it will reach full implementation in the 2014-2015 school year.  Currently, it is paid for in part by a RTTT federal grant, but this money will run out shortly.

GOLD states:
The primary purposes of the Teaching Strategies GOLD ™ assessment system are to help teachers
  • observe and document children’s development and learning over time
  • support, guide, and inform planning and instruction
  • identify children who might benefit from special help, screening, or further evaluation
  • report and communicate with family members and others

The secondary purposes are to help teachers
  • collect and gather child outcome information as one part of a larger accountability system.
  • provide reports to administrators to guide program planning and professional development opportunities

There are 38 objectives organized into 9 areas of development and learning. Social-Emotional is one area of development and learning. These are the objectives found under Social-Emotional:

Objective 1: Regulates own emotions and behaviors
  • Manages feelings
  • Follows limits and expectations
  • Takes care of own needs appropriately
  • Eating and drinking
  • Toileting and personal hygiene
  • Dressing
  • Personal safety

Objective 2:  Establishes and sustains positive relationships
  • Forms relationships with adults
  • Responds to emotional cues
  • Interacts with peers
  • Makes friends

Objective 3:  Participates cooperatively and constructively in group situations
  • Balances needs and rights of self and others
  • Solves social problems

None of these objectives are necessarily problematic; teachers focus on these objectives every single day with young children. What is problematic are the requirements for gathering and reporting the data. I will attempt to explain, although I have to say, actually DOING it is the only way to truly understand the ramifications for students, teachers and schools. So here’s my attempt for what it’s worth…..

Let’s say you observed a child who “manages feelings” which is found under Objective 1 of Social Emotional. You could then log on to the online database, click on the student’s online portfolio, click on objective one, then click on “manages feelings," then type a monitoring note about what you observed the child doing regarding managing feelings.

You might type, “Shaun cried for ten seconds when his mother left and then resumed his work writing in his journal where he attempted to write, “I miss my mom but I like my friends at school.”  Perhaps you might take a picture of Shaun’s journal to demonstrate his development as a writer  – this information could be used to assess additional objectives. Perhaps you might video tape Shaun quietly resuming his work after telling his mother good bye to prove Shaun’s ability to independently calm down and resume his work. You eventually will upload the journal writing and/or video to the database.

When you have completed all of the above, you can then rate Shaun’s ability to “manage feelings. You will have to “click” again, of course.  Perhaps you would give Shaun a six because Shaun was able to “look at a situation differently or delay gratification.” You can choose from “not yet” all the way up to a nine. Many of the numbers along the continuum come with an example for you to determine where Shaun might be developmentally. 

Here is a screen shot of an objective on the continuum: 

You have completed the assessment for one objective under one domain.

If a teacher has a class of 25 children in kindergarten, the teacher will be clicking and entering data not just a few times, but thousands and thousands of times.  S/he will do this for all domains and all objectives for each child and multiple times during the year based on what the district requires.

A classroom teacher’s time will be consumed, devoured, and drained by the amount of work needed to record all of this information. If a teacher chooses to take many pictures and/or videos, it could take the teacher out of the teaching/learning moment. As parents, many of us can recall an event where we obsessively recorded a video of our child or took tons of pictures and when we leave, we realize we didn’t experience the moment in full, because we were so busy recording it.

Much of GOLD is based on observation – or kid-watching. We, as teachers, do this daily, and we seize these moments to jot notes, highlight a name for future planning, have a 1:1 conference with a student, grab the phone to make a quick call to a parent, or perhaps dash down the hall during planning period to ask another teacher what they notice about a child’s writing piece. We collaborate, we communicate, and we gather information that we use short term and long term to plan to meet the needs of every child in our classroom. We share this information directly, one on one, with the adults involved in a child’s life. These human interactions which are immediate and create change will be limited and often erased, by the necessity to continually enter the data, in order to share the data.  Teachers are often encouraged to make GOLD the primary data collection tool – as a result, teacher systems for gathering formative data will go by the wayside. We must remember that one of the ultimate goals of corporate education reform includes erasing the teacher as professional decision-maker.

GOLD is not “bad” in the sense that it is assessing things it shouldn’t assess. Its danger, and the reason for parents to refuse it, lies in how it intrudes, erases, robs, and reshapes student learning, teacher instruction and the culture of public schools.

We must take into account the extreme detail of this system.  GOLD does not just share a number. It shares very detailed, very personal information about children. Now, some might say that the data is NOT being shared. That’s fine. But my response is this – when data is uploaded to a system it is guaranteed that it is uploaded in order to share it more easily with others. Much of the GOLD data is information that previously was shared privately with the parents and key adults within the individual school community.

Parents do not need me to upload all this data in order to communicate with them about their child’s strengths, attempts and next steps. I can easily share student work, speak one on one with parents and even share snapshots I may have gathered (with parent permission); it's called parent/teacher conferencing!!

For example, I don’t know why I would need to upload information about a child’s ability or lack of ability to use a toilet? I share this information privately with parents. Period.  Another example, a child’s cognitive ability to attend, engage, show curiosity, persist – all of these are shared with parents, and other educators/adults involved in a child’s life via notes and via conversation.It is no one's business - except the parents and other key adults within the school community - if Mark is bouncing off the walls during reading time because he is only able to sit still for ten minutes.

I recall that my report card always said, “Peggy needs to quit talking so much during class.” That little tidbit of information was between me, my parents and my teacher. No one else needed to know that. Nor did anyone else need to know about the child who brought a teddy bear to school to comfort herself when her mother said goodbye. That information should not be uploaded to a database. It may seem like harmless information to some of you reading this, but we have to consider the bigger picture – and that bigger picture includes all data following a child all the way through school and potentially into their careers. I cringe to consider what sort of information is entered into GOLD in schools where compliance and "no excuses" is the name of the game.

I believe GOLD is marketed in a way that leads educators and parents to believe that it is assessing something we didn’t assess before. Suddenly we are assessing the “whole” child. Educators know how to assess the whole child. We do it every day. We are working with human beings and in order to support students in learning, we must consider absolutely everything about each child.

GOLD can limit what we assess because it is so time consuming we may have little time to assess other things we want to find out about our students. 

As I mentioned before, when data is uploaded we immediately must question WHY.  Here in Colorado, the Department of Education will have some access to GOLD data; what this looks like remains to be seen. We must be very wary of these databases.  FERPA laws have changed and we need to aware that data sharing is THE. NAME. OF. THE. GAME. Data mining is what is allowing our schools to be used for profit.  Parents are allowed to see GOLD data, and they also can be involved in adding to the student portfolio, but based on what I hear happening across the country, I am not sure this is even occurring.

Also, we need to ask……who else can enter GOLD data about your child?
The classroom teacher of course, but it is guaranteed that others will be helping to enter this data as well because it is so incredibly time consuming. Money will be spent to support schools in getting this data entered via extra time and/or extra adults assigned to enter the data. And if extra money is not spent to support data entry, you can assume that your child’s teacher is spending his/her outside the classroom time entering this data (instead of planning) or perhaps worse, entering it during classroom time when the teacher should be focused on interacting with children.  Either way, schools lose money via extra dollars spent on data entry and/or time wasted by teachers entering the data in lieu of planning. Imagine how this money could have been spent to increase art, music, PE, librarians and more?

Teachers already have personal systems in place to assess their students. I use post-its, monitoring notes that I carry on a clipboard, and indeed I use technology to support my ability to monitor – but I tailor my system to meet my needs and my students’ needs so that assessment is on-going, manageable, useful and private.

GOLD robs teachers of precious planning time, authentic formative assessment time, and it potentially robs students of classroom time interacting as a learner with their teacher.

GOLD reshapes the teacher’s role into one of data manager. If you google GOLD you will find that some love it - those that love it often tend to be teachers who previously had no data system in place to monitor their students. I consider this to be a typical response for new teachers who hug their reading teacher’s guide tightly for dear life, but after a year, they begin to recognize their own knowledge and expertise within theory and practice and they let the guide become simply another resource. If you google GOLD you will also find many that despise it – they discuss how time consuming it is and how they have no time to actually focus on true planning based on their own personal authentic assessment and evaluation.  As mentioned earlier, they discuss how GOLD has determined WHAT is to be assessed and that other things they would like to assess are simply not included.

So, let’s take this even a step further. The end goal within corporate reform has been teacher as data manager and teacher as technician. We (teachers) will follow a script, we will enter the data, and the corporations will take it from there. We have many experienced teachers who will play the game, use the GOLD system because they are required to, but they will find ways to continuing using their own authentic assessment to move their children forward. Many will attempt to make GOLD useful if at all possible. However, we will have many teachers, such as Teach for America teachers, or brand new teachers, who will use GOLD because it is mandated and it will become THE way to assess. Teacher as data manager and teacher as technician will grow and could eventually erase teacher as professional decision-maker. Our knowledge of formative assessment will vanish.

How has our reality been reshaped by data mining? We must ask - what did we lose when we accepted these assessment systems?

Let’s dig even deeper. We will have early childhood teachers as data managers who are spending hours upon hours entering data. Who will this profit? Believe me, there is profit involved in this GOLD endeavor. Data mining is becoming more and more detailed for a reason – detailed data allows corporations to further understand HOW to profit off of public education and further understand HOW to control and manage teachers and children in order to continue to cash in and control the masses to meet the needs of the 1%.

GOLD currently is being financed in part through early childhood Race to the Top federal grants. When this funding ends, how will districts pay for it?  What will disappear from our schools as each district scrambles to find the funding to continue using GOLD?

Now I’ll get personal.

I have entered data into GOLD. I felt, truly felt, what it meant to be a data manager. I felt robbed, used and controlled. I wanted to take my computer and throw it against the wall. As a teacher who knows how to assess learners in a kindergarten classroom, I felt my autonomy being stripped from me.  It was humiliating. It was mentally exhausting.  And as a result of this experience, I will not teach kindergarten in Colorado unless this assessment is drop-kicked out of this state.

My final words are for parents.

REFUSE the GOLD.  It will rob your child's teacher and your child of precious time. Even if your child’s teacher enters GOLD data when your child is not at school, it has stilled robbed your child of what his/her teacher would have done with that planning time previous to serving as a data manager for the corporations.  Finally, protect your child's privacy. Your child is now a data generator and your child's teacher is a data manager - refuse GOLD and they can relinquish those roles.

I am not a data manager. I am a teacher. I am an excellent kindergarten teacher. And I will not be subjected to such insanity involving thousands of data points coupled with detailed information about students - all housed online to benefit the corporate regime we now have in place.

I don’t trust the GOLD. At first glance, it appears innocent. I am sure that many involved in GOLD have very good intentions - I have no doubt about that. In reality, GOLD is the future of public education in which teacher as data manager will gather detailed information about children and dutifully upload all of it to serve the corporations. I fear for our children and how this information will follow them through out their lives while narrowing and controlling their learning opportunities and eventually their careers as adults. GOLD is one more piece which lends itself to the destruction of our democracy while appearing to support learners and teachers.

For more information on what to look for in early childhood classrooms see our guide here.  I am always fascinated by names. GOLD. Ties in nicely with Race to the Top doesn't it? It's no winner. Believe me. We will all lose under assessments like GOLD.