A Celebration to Remember

by Kris Collett

25th Anniversary logoLast Saturday, Rethinking Schools friends and supporters from the Milwaukee area (and a few fine folks from Chicago) had a rollicking good time celebrating 25 years of teaching for social justice.

And, in typical Rethinking Schools fashion, we stirred up some controversy with our event.  Dr. William Ayers—teacher, activist, award-winning author, and retired professor from the University of Illinois-Chicago, accepted our invitation to be our keynote speaker.

News like that doesn’t escape the fury of the right-wing tea party activists in our town, so area radio pundits raised hell on the air, their followers responded with nasty phone calls and e-mails, and our first location backed out on us.

Luckily, neighborhood business Stonefly Brewery happily agreed to host our event. In fact, at one point they said the attack by the right-wing radio hosts would give them “street cred” in the neighborhood (yeah, it’s a pretty cool neighborhood), but that was before the harassment escalated.  They were furious at the tea partiers for their baseless accusations.  Despite hundreds of phone calls and letters in the weeks leading up to the event, Stonefly hung with us, and helped us throw a great party.

The tea party radicals weren’t going to back down without a fight.  They came to our event to protest.  Perhaps 40 of them came to the event and planted themselves across the street from Stonefly with their signs.  They just sort of… stood there.  But the neighborhood and our own designated peacemakers stood with Rethinking Schools and ensured our guests arrived without incident.  We showed ‘em what solidarity looks like!

Our Rethinking Schools "peacemakers" were getting to know one another as protestors gathered across the street.

And some of our supporters even had a little fun with it.

Supporter Will McGraw bought this sign from one of the protestors for $10, and gave it to the owners of Stonefly as a souvenier. I don't think he paid for a drink the rest of the night!

Members of the staff and the 25th Anniversary planning committee warmly welcomed all of our guests.

Tegan Dowling, Sandra Orcholski, and Mary Barrett were on our "welcoming committee."

It was a beautiful thing to see our supporters flood the room.

Bob Peterson with his father Art.

Peter Earle, Bill Ayers, and Barbara Miner.

The music provided by Catherine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn warmed up the crowd (the cash bar didn’t hurt, either).

Catherine Capellaro, former Managing Editor for Rethinking Schools, and Andrew Rohn provided music early in the evening.

The rousing program was fun and inspiring. Editor and activist Stephanie Walters effusively welcomed attendees and moved the program along.

Rethinking Schools editor Stephanie brought enthusiasm to the role of emcee.

Co-founders Rita Tenorio and Bob Peterson shared a bit of Rethinking Schools history.

Bob Peterson and Rita Tenorio. Two of the original founders of Rethinking Schools.

And Bill Ayers charmed and motivated us with his smart message and reflections about Rethinking Schools.   He talked at some length about the life of social movements. He reminded us, “25 years is a long time in the life of a person. It’s not a long time in the life of a movement.  And you all have been central to this movement to see education as not only central to, but the equivalent of, a vibrant and living democracy.”

Bill Ayers delivers keynote speech.

He commended Rethinking Schools for our community- and movement-building work, and said, “Movement-makers understand that one foot is in the mud and muck of the real world; one foot is striving for the world that is not yet, but could be.  Rethinking Schools is a guide, a participant, a tool in that struggle.”

His words were powerful reminders of how Rethinking Schools has been there for all of us, not just as a resource, but as “something we can’t live without.”

In his conclusion, Bill said, “As the public sphere is shrinking, as the public space is attacked, as we feel ourselves abandoned and alone, Rethinking Schools is a tool we must stand by and we must force open, because it is the public square.  It’s where we can talk, have dialogue, where we can speak with the possibility of being heard, where we can listen with the possibility of being changed.  It represents the best of what we have.”

Watch Bill’s entire speech:

I’ve not been part of the Rethinking Schools staff and community for long, but I’ve never felt more proud to be a part of it than I do after participating in (and partying) last Saturday night.  Please support this valuable organization as you’re able.

Donors who gave $250 or more received this beautiful poster created by Barbara Miner. The photos depict the historic protests at Wisconsin's capitol in Madison in February 2011.

After Bill finished his talk, Larry Miller came to the stage with Maya and Masami, daughters of editor Melissa Bollow Tempel, to ask for financial support.  Not surprisingly, Maya and Masami stole the show.

Rethinking Schools editor Larry Miller solicited assistance from Maya and Masami for our closing remarks and fundraising pitch. They stole the show.

The event ended with more music from The Living, comprised of neighborhood folks who donated their talents for the evening.

See more photos from the event.

We would be remiss if we didn’t thank the many people who made the celebration possible:

  • Our sponsors
  • Stonefly Brewery for being a great neighborhood establishment and putting up with harassment to host our event.
  • Beans & Barley, a local restaurant that donated cakes
  • Susan Ruggles for taking amazing photographs during the event.
  • Stephanie Walters, Rita Tenorio, Bob Peterson, Larry Miller, and Maya and Masami Tempel for their speaking roles during the program.
  • Bill Ayers for an inspiring keynote speech.
  • Melissa Bollow Tempel and Kathy Xiong for being terrific spokespersons for Rethinking Schools with the media.
  • Musicians for sharing your talent so generously: Catherine Capellaro, Andrew Rohn, Jim and Char Guten, Stuart Dove, and Mauricio Alverez Torres.
  • 25th Anniversary Planning Committee members, but especially Tegan Dowling, Sandra Orcholski and Mary Barrett, who were our unofficial welcoming committee.
  • Mike Trokan, staff, and our editors who have made Rethinking Schools the treasured “movement-maker” it is today.

Challenging Corporate School Reform and 10 Hopeful Signs of Resistance

On Oct. 1, 650 people attended the 4th annual Northwest Teachers for Social Justice conference in Seattle.  Rethinking Schools editor Stan Karp gave a well-received talk on “Challenging Corporate Ed Reform.” He ended on an uplifting note with ” 10 hopeful, tangible signs of organizing resistance and alternatives to the corporate reform agenda.”    The following is an excerpt from that presentation.  

You can read the entire speech here, or better yet, watch it:

Speech excerpt:

“Corporate education reform” refers to a specific set of policy proposals currently driving education policy at the state and federal level.  These proposals include:

  • increased test-based evaluation of students, teachers, and schools of education.
  • elimination or weakening of tenure and seniority rights.
  • an end to pay for experience or advanced degrees.
  • closing schools deemed low performing and their replacement by publicly funded, but privately run charters.
  • replacing  governance by local school boards with various forms of mayoral and state takeover or private management.
  • vouchers and tax credit subsidies for private school tuition.
  • increases in class size, sometimes tied to the firing of 5-10% of the teaching staff.
  • implementation of common core standards and something called “college and career readiness” as a standard for high school graduation.

These proposals are being promoted by reams of foundation reports, well-funded think tanks, a proliferation of astroturf political groups, and canned legislation from the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Counsel (ALEC).

Together these strategies use the testing regime that is the main engine of corporate reform to extend the narrow standardization of curricula and scripted classroom practice that we’ve seen under NCLB, and to drill down even further into the fabric of schooling to transform the teaching profession and create a less experienced, less secure, less stable and less expensive professional staff.  Where NCLB used test scores to impose sanctions on schools and sometimes students (e.g., grade retention, diploma denial), test-based sanctions are increasingly targeted at teachers.

A larger corporate reform goal, in addition to changing the way schools and classrooms function, is reflected in the attacks on collective bargaining and teacher unions and in the permanent crisis of school funding across the country.  These policies undermine public education and facilitate its replacement by a market-based system that would do for schooling what the market has done for health care, housing, and employment: produce fabulous profits and opportunities for a few and unequal outcomes and access for the many.

The same corporate elites and politicians who accept no accountability for having created the most unequal distribution of wealth in the history of the planet—and an economy that threatens the health and well-being of hundreds of millions—want to hold teachers accountable for their students’ test scores.  They even want to use similar instruments to do it.

Standardized tests have been disguising class and race privilege as merit for decades. They’ve become the credit default swaps of the education world.  Few people understand how either really works.  Both encourage a focus on short-term gains over long-term goals.  And both drive bad behavior on the part of those in charge.  Yet these deeply flawed tests have become the primary policy instruments used to shrink public space, impose sanctions on teachers and close or punish schools. And if the corporate reformers have their way, their schemes to evaluate teachers and the schools of education they came from on the basis of yet another new generation of standardized tests, it will make the testing plague unleashed by NCLB pale by comparison.

Let’s look for a minute at what corporate reformers have actually achieved when it comes to addressing the real problems of public education:

First, they over-reached and chose the wrong target.  They didn’t go after funding inequity, poverty, reform faddism, consultant profiteering, massive teacher turnover, politicized bureaucratic management, or the overuse and misuse of testing.

Instead, they went after collective bargaining, teacher tenure, and seniority.  And they went after the universal public and democratic character of public schools.

Look again at the proposals the corporate reformers have made prominent features of school reform efforts in every state: rapid expansion of charters, closing low performing schools, more testing, elimination of tenure and seniority for teachers, and test-based teacher evaluation.  If every one of these policies were fully implemented in every state tomorrow, it would do absolutely nothing to close academic achievement gaps, increase high school graduation rates, or expand access to college.  There is no evidence tying any of these proposals to better outcomes for large numbers of kids over time.  The greatest gains in reducing gaps in achievement and opportunity have been made during periods when concentrated poverty has been dispersed through efforts at integration, or during economic growth for the black middle class and other communities, or where significant new investments in school funding have occurred.

Or take the issue of poverty.  Most teachers agree that poverty is no excuse for lousy schooling; much of our work is about proving that the potential of our students and communities can be fulfilled when their needs are met and the reality of their lives is reflected in our schools and classrooms.  But in the current reform debates, saying poverty isn’t an excuse has become an excuse for ignoring poverty.

Corporate reform plans being put forward do nothing to reduce the concentrations of 70/80/90% poverty that remain the central problem in urban education.  Instead, educational inequality has become the entry point for disruptive reform that increases instability throughout the system and creates new forms of collateral damage in our most vulnerable communities.

The “disruptive reform” that corporate reformers claim is necessary to shake up the status quo is increasing pressure on 5,000 schools serving the poorest communities at a time of unprecedented economic crisis and budget cutting.  The latest waiver bailout for NCLB announced recently by Sec. Duncan would actually ratchet up that pressure.  While it rolls back NCLB’s absurd adequate yearly progress system just as it was about to self-destruct, the new guidelines require states that apply for waivers to identify up to 15% of their schools with the lowest scores for unproven “turnaround” interventions, “charterization,” or closing.

Teachers and schools, who in many cases are day to day the strongest advocates and most stable support system struggling youth have, are instead being scapegoated for a society that is failing our children.  At the same time, corporate reformers are giving parents triggers to blow up the schools they have, but little say and no guarantees about what will replace them.

The only thing corporate ed reform policies have done successfully is bring the anti-labor politics of class warfare to public schools. By overreaching, demonizing teachers and unions, and sharply polarizing the education debate, corporate reform has undermined serious efforts to improve schools.  It’s narrowed the common ground and eroded the broad public support a universal system of public education needs to survive.

For example, there is actually a lot of common ground on the need to improve teacher support and evaluation.  There’s widespread agreement among educators, parents, and administrators on the following suggestions for improvement:

  • better preparation and evaluation before new teachers get tenure (or leave the profession, as 50% do within 5 years).
  • reasonable, timely procedures for resolving tenure hearings when they are initiated.
  • a credible intervention process to remediate and if necessary remove ineffective teachers, tenured and non-tenured.

Good models for each of these ideas exist, many with strong teacher union support, but overreaching by corporate reformers has detached the issue of teacher quality from the conditions that produce it.  Their experiments are staffing our most challenging schools with novices or Teach for America temps on their way to other careers.  Corporate reform plans are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into data systems and tests designed to replace collaborative professional culture and experienced instructional leadership with a kind of psychometric astrology.  These data-driven formulas lack both statistical credibility and a basic understanding of the human motivations and relationships that make good schooling possible.  Instead of “elevating the profession,” corporate reform is downsizing and micromanaging it.

Right now, my home state of New Jersey is getting ready to implement a so-called “growth model” developed in Colorado, where they are now giving first graders multiple choice questions about Picasso paintings and using the results to decide the compensation level and job security of teachers.

This is not “accountability.”  It’s a high-tech form of Taylorism, industrial era management-by-stop-watch-and-efficiency-expert-with-a-now-computerized clipboard.  It’s what happens when people who’ve never taught in classrooms organize/control them.

One of the most dishonest framings that’s become a favorite of the corporate crowd is to counterpose the interests of “adults” vs. the “children.”  This rhetoric righteously pits the interests of teachers and their unions against those of children, and there are certainly times when those interests diverge and when teachers’ unions have not defended the interests of the families and communities we serve.  But this same rhetoric never questions the adult motives of the hedge fund privateers, consultants, private foundations, pundits, or politicians who are suddenly the champions of the poor.  Only in the US corporate media culture could a campaign of billionaires to privatize and dismantle what’s probably the most inclusive democratic institution we have left be dressed up as a selfless campaign for civil rights.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the corporate reform movement is the way it has attached its agenda to the urgent needs of poor communities of color who have been badly served by the current system.  The corporate reformers have successfully used deeply rooted inequalities in our society to construct a misleading narrative of failure and introduce market reform into public education.  But because they’ve also overreached and promised results and choices they cannot deliver, we need to turn their accountability rhetoric back on them.  We need to demand evidence that their market reform policies produce better outcomes for the majority of kids, and when they can’t, we need to use the absence of that evidence to press for the limitation or reversal of the “disruptive reforms” they seek.  And when their policies fail in one place, we need to share those results in their next target.

It’s important to remember that corporate reform rests on fundamentally false premises.  Corporate reformers do not represent the interests of poor communities of color or, for that matter, working or middle class communities.  And test-based reform, which is now the status quo in public education and has been for sometime, has been a colossal failure on its own test-score terms.

And because reality still counts—despite the bizarre Wizard of Oz-like character of our media and political systems—corporate reform rests on a very weak foundation of false claims and failed policies.  For all its deep pockets and political influence, it’s a movement that has absolutely no way to deliver on its promises of better education for all, and particularly for our poorest and most vulnerable schools and communities.

So let me end by offering a quick survey of 10 hopeful, tangible signs of organizing resistance and alternatives to the corporate reform agenda.  In no particular order:

  1. I’ve already mentioned Parents Across America which has linked experienced parent activists from Seattle to Chicago to New Orleans to New York, Florida and elsewhere into a growing parent voice for better policies. The landscape is different is every city, but there is no more crucial work than building an alliance between parents and teachers to defend and improve public education. Even a small group of activists representing teachers, parents, and progressive academics can have a big influence on local reform debates if they work together. If you haven’t connected to PAA already, do it.
  2. The outpouring of critical response to Waiting for Superman last fall was when a lot of teachers discovered they were not alone. Rethinking Schools’ NOT Waiting for Superman campaign drew tens of thousands of supportive responses and has created an archive of information and resources for countering corporate reform that’s still growing. In NYC, the GEM produced a documentary response to the film entitled The Inconvenient Truths Behind Waiting for Superman that’s served as a rallying point for organizing and discussion across the country.
  3. The two large teacher unions, the AFT & the NEA, have had mostly weak and defensive responses to the policy attacks of the past few years. But they are being pressed by both their members and by reality to develop more effective responses. This includes on the ground efforts at reform and the election of activist teacher leaders like Karen Lewis in Chicago and Bob Peterson in Milwaukee. Years of failing to effectively mobilize their membership or develop effective responses to school failure in poor communities have taken a big toll on the ability of our unions to lead the charge in defending public ed. But their role remains crucial and activists have begun to rebuild that power on the basis of new politics and new coalitions with the communities schools serve.
  4. The heroic Wisconsin rebellion. More than a month of sustained large scale protests and organizing that’s still targeting a recall effort for Gov. Scott Walker. Check out One WisconsinNow.org for the latest.
  5. In Ohio, outrage over another antilabor bill, SB#5 helped over generate 1.3 million signatures to put a referendum on the ballot and the measure may be repealed this November by popular vote.
  6. There’s a growing national movement  of parents and students to opt out of standardized testing. This effort has the potential to mobilize large numbers of parents and students in the fight against the testing plague. Check out Unitedoptout.com or Testing is Not Teaching.
  7. The growth of locally-based teacher activist groups. There are now active Teachers for Social Justice groups with various names in Chicago, SF, Milwaukee, Portland, NYC (where there are multiple groups), St. Louis, Atlanta, and NJ to name just the ones I can remember. If there’s one in your town, join it. If not start one.
  8. Education for Liberation is a national network of educators, youth and community activists, led by people of color, doing great work on school to prison pipeline, youth organizing, and other social justice issues. Their conference in Providence this summer was probably the biggest and most dynamic yet.
  9. The Save Our Schools march and conference last July reflected both the growth and the as yet unfulfilled potential of a national teachers voice in defense of public education and the teaching profession. Interestingly, the SOS project did not begin with radical political activists, but with impeccably well-credentialed national board certified teachers, who attempted to engage the Obama administration to discuss it’s education policies and who were stunned by the arrogance and ignorance of the response. A project that began with Anthony Cody’s Teachers Letters to Obama found itself pushed by the aggressive acceleration of corporate reform into a more political and activist response. The media offensive of last fall around WfS and the state by state battles last winter and Spring convinced many that a national mobilization was sorely needed. The well-credentialed, experienced teachers at the center of the project were able to attract a significant number of well-known, respected advocates for public education who threw their support behind the effort, including Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol, Linda Darling-Hammond, Pedro Noguera, Angela Valenzuela, Nancy-Carlsson Paige and others. Actor Matt Damon added media visibility and celebrity star power and Parents Across America broadened the project’s base and outreach, as did savvy use of social media.  The event had an impact far beyond the 8000 people who turned out for the rally, and while it remains to be seen whether SOS will be able to harvest what it started and sustain a national network, local and state groups are building on the grassroots energy that SOS helped set in motion.
  10. And finally there’s my own home base Rethinking Schools, which has somewhat miraculously survived to this year celebrate its 25th anniversary as a voice for activist educators. Rethinking Schools has always tried to connect efforts to create classrooms that are places of hope and humanity with larger struggles for racial and social justice. It made me a better teacher in the classroom and a better activist outside it. I don’t think it’s ever been more important to fight on both fronts and I thank you for letting me be part of that effort today.

This post represents the views of the author, and not necessarily those of Rethinking Schools.

The new (and improved?) textbook Columbus

Rethinking Columbus

20 years ago today, Rethinking Columbus was published.

Exactly 20 years ago, Rethinking Schools published our first book, Rethinking Columbus. At that time, our editors hoped to help teachers engage students in a more critical, multicultural approach to the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. We went out on a limb and printed 30,000 copies. Much to our surpriseand delightthat first edition of Rethinking Columbus sold 1,000 copies a day, seven days a week, for three straight months.

Twenty years later, Rethinking Columbus — now in its second edition — has sold over 300,000 copies, and has transformed how teachers approach the so-called discovery of America.

In the article below, Rethinking Schools curriculum editor Bill Bigelow, who co-edited Rethinking Columbus, reflects on how today’s textbooks have incorporated, but also distorted, some of the insights raised by Native American activists and other critics.

The new (and improved?) textbook Columbus

By Bill Bigelow

Recently, I ran across an old manual that described itself as “An easy step-by-step guide to obtain U.S. Citizenship.” A page of history and government questions begins:

Q: Who discovered America?

A: Christopher Columbus in 1492.

This was the simple, and simplistic, history that I learned in 4th grade in the early 1960s growing up in California—a kind of secular Book of Genesis: In the beginning, there was Columbus; he was good and so are we.

And it stayed the history that most everyone learned until the Columbus quincentenary in 1992 brought together Native Americans, social justice organizations, and educators to demand a more inclusive and critical version of what occurred in 1492 and after. These critics of the “Discovery Myth” pointed out that Columbus sent hundreds of Taíno slaves from the Caribbean to Spain; that his colonial policies destroyed cultures, devastated the ecology, and launched the African slave trade. And they pointed out that today’s patterns of poverty, racial inequality, and ecological degradation throughout the Americas began in 1492. Critics argued that we should not celebrate Columbus but instead those who resisted and survived the European invasion.

The demand to “rethink Columbus” blended scholarship with activism, and prompted much curricular soul searching in our schools. Almost 20 years later, the contradictory results can be seen in textbooks.

Two of these typify how the textbook industry has incorporated but neutered the Columbus critique.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Early Years

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is one of the education publishing giants. Their Social Studies United States History: Early Years tells 5th graders that Columbus “had a bold plan to sail west to Asia. Although he never reached his goal, his journeys to the Americas changed history for millions of people.”

Changed history. Yes, but how?

Unlike any textbook I had as a child, Houghton Mifflin’s Early Years, acknowledges the people who lived in the Caribbean before Columbus, and names them: Taínos. And the book says that the European arrival was not all joy and light. There were “many harmful effects.” Fifth graders learn that, “Many American plants and animals were destroyed.”

Still, the book’s use of passive voice shields Columbus, himself. The book never mentions that Columbus enslaved Taínos and forced Taínos to deliver impossible quotas of gold, or risk horrific forms of execution. Instead, the Early Years misinforms children that the Taínos died solely from “epidemics”— a word it helpfully teaches youngsters as new vocabulary.

Ultimately, the narrative becomes a paean to globalization.  “The Columbian Exchange benefited people all over the world.” The section concludes: “Today, tomatoes, peanuts, and American beans and peppers are grown in many lands.”

The full color world map on the opposite page illustrates these benefits of global trade. Corn and potatoes move east, pigs and bananas move west.

However, much is missing from this rosy portrait—including the African slave trade. According to the eminent historian of Africa, Basil Davidson, in 1501, the king and queen of Spain issued the first permits to transport enslaved people from Africa to the Americas, a direct consequence of Columbus’s arrival. In 1494, Columbus had sent 550 enslaved Taínos east across the Atlantic. As Davidson writes, Columbus was the “father of the slave trade.”

The Early Years is an improvement over the Discovery Myth of yesteryear, but nonetheless ends up masking genocide and slavery in its effort to turn these events into a tale of progress and development—now we all can consume cool new stuff.

TCI’s History Alive!

Another newer textbook approach to Columbus also acknowledges some of the critiques that became widespread 20 years ago, but it ends up as a kind of historical shopping expedition, asking students to buy whichever version of Columbus they prefer.

TCI’s high school text, History Alive! uses Columbus for an opening lesson in historiography—sort of.

History Alive! offers students three contrasting accounts of Columbus:

  1. Washington Irving’s 19th century “Mythic Hero”—“his conduct was characterized by the grandeur of his views and the magnanimity of his spirit”
  2. Samuel Eliot Morison’s “Master Mariner”—“As a master mariner and navigator, Columbus was supreme in his generation”
  3. Kirkpatrick Sale’s “Overrated Hero”—“Admiral Colon [Columbus] could be a wretched mariner.”

This last does a disservice to Sale’s important critique in his 1990 book The Conquest of Paradise, which focuses especially on Columbus’s environmental attitudes and policies. But the bigger problem with History Alive!’s approach is that students have no way to evaluate historical interpretations, nor are they encouraged to think about the social conditions that might produce different interpretations—which is what a lesson on historiography ought to do. Instead, high schoolers are told that because historians “bring different approaches to their work, they often interpret the past in different ways.”

A neat little tautology that tells students: people think differently because they think differently.

No doubt, as in the Columbian Exchange approach, the multiple Columbuses approach reveals more truth than in the old Discovery myth. The Early Years indicates that what happened back then had an impact on today, even if it limits its curiosity mostly to food. And in History Alive! at least students are informed that there are multiple ways to view Columbus — even if these focus mostly on his skills as a mariner. History Alive! even includes a contemporary protest poster, with a caption that mentions the “severe mistreatment of native peoples.”

But new textbook treatments of Columbus fail to urge students to consider how Europe incorporated the Americas into a world system that was exploitative and unequal, or to encourage students to inquire how these patterns of exploitation have helped to determine the world we live in today. In 1492, Columbus wrote, “Considering the beauty of the land, it could not but be that there was gain to be got.”

Treating everything from trees to water to human beings as exploitable commodities where “gain was to be got,” was Columbus’s gift to the world. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. Twenty years after the Columbus quincentenary, students deserve a deep and honest inquiry into the world Columbus initiated. They deserve more than textbooks that tiptoe around the truth.

Bill Bigelow co-edited Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years. He is curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, and co-directs the Zinn Education Project. He can be reached at bill@rethinkingschools.org.

Columbus on Trial, Sunday, October 9

by Kris Collett

Rethinking ColumbusWe are super-excited to learn that the New Jersey Teacher Activist Group (NJTAG) is hosting a teach-in this Sunday, Oct. 9, as part of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.  In anticipation of Columbus Day, they are calling it, “Christopher Columbus on Trial,” and they will use Rethinking Schools teaching materials, including The People v. Columbus, et al. and Bill Bigelow’s article, “Discovering Columbus: Re-reading the Past,” both from Rethinking Columbus (20 years in print this year!)

Katie Strom, a former teacher who is now an induction coach with the Newark-Montclair Urban Teaching Residency and co-founder of NJTAG, says “the teach-in presents an opportunity for participants to interrogate the textbook version of the ‘discovery’ of America.”  The agenda will include a discussion of the “genocide perpetuated by Columbus and the 500-year legacy of colonialism and racism that developed in the wake of the Spanish conquest.”

She said the teach-in on Oct. 9, as well as two others coming up on Oct. 16 and Oct. 23, are part of a teacher solidarity movement with Occupy Wall Street.  She is hopeful that these protests will continue to raise awareness of both educational and social issues.

Also helping to organize the Oct. 9 teach-in:

  • Brian Ford, history teacher at Montclair High School, Montclair, NJ, and co-founder of NJTAG
  • Brian Hohmann, history teacher at American History High School in Newark, NJ
  • Ira Shor, author and professor of English at CUNY

Kate promised to send photos after the event, so we’ll post an update next week.

Join in if you can.  It’s going to be a doozy of an event.

Still Neither Fair Nor Accurate

by Kris Collett

President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have another “reformy” idea.  Surprised?  No, me neither.

testing graphic

Illustration: J.D. King

Now, in addition to using high-stakes standardized test scores to evaluate teachers and push merit pay schemes, they have a released a plan which will in part, use test scores to judge teacher preparation programs.

I guess it doesn’t matter to the administration that research has documented some serious problems with using high-stakes test scores to evaluate teachers.

Once again, politics trumps research.

Rethinking Schools editor Wayne Au summarized many of the problems with using tests and the buzz-y “value-added measurement (VAM)” in “Neither Fair Nor Accurate: Research-Based Reasons Why High-Stakes Tests Should Not Be Used to Evaluate Teachers,” from our Winter 2010 magazine issue.

Statistical error rates and year-to-year, as well as day-to-day test score instability top the list.

For example, he writes “there is a statistical error rate of 35 percent when using one year’s worth of test data to measure a teacher’s effectiveness, and an error rate of 25 percent when using data from three years.”

That means “there is a one-in-four chance that a teacher rated as ‘average’ could be incorrectly rated as ‘below average’ and face disciplinary measures.  Because of these error rates, a teacher’s performance evaluation may pivot on what amounts to a statistical roll of the dice.

And given that monetary incentives and rewards are built into the administration’s plan for evaluating teacher education programs, there’s a lot at stake.  The administration is literally gambling when they use high-stakes standardized test scores in their evaluation.

Wayne writes in his article,

“The shakiness of test-based VAM data illustrates that the current fight over teacher ‘accountability’ isn’t really about effectiveness. The more substantial public conversation we should be having about rising poverty, the racial resegregation of our schools, increasing unemployment, lack of health care, and the steady defunding of the public sector—all factors that have an overwhelming impact on students’ educational achievement—has been buried. Instead, teachers and their unions [and now teacher preparation programs] have become convenient scapegoats for our social, educational, and economic woes.”

Don’t get us wrong.  We ought to examine how these programs are preparing today’s teachers, and help them improve.  We’ll be the first in line to suggest a stronger emphasis on using anti-racist, multicultural curriculum, more deeply understanding students’ lives, and building community in the classroom.

But evaluating teachers and their preparation programs must be done in a “fair and accurate way,” writes Wayne. “Using high stakes standardized tests and VAM “to make such evaluations is neither.”

Read Wayne’s entire article here.

And watch for a new book from Rethinking Schools next Spring, Pencils Down: Rethinking High-Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Education. Editors Wayne Au and Melissa Bollow Tempel are working hard on the project now!

This post represents the views of the author, and not necessarily those of Rethinking Schools.