The Times, They Are A’Changin: My New Job

Change1As of last week, my summer work with Expeditionary Learning has turned into a full-time consulting position through the fall, with anticipated equal work through the spring. To recap, I have been serving as a curriculum designer and writer for EL as they complete their contract with New York State to create and roll out Common-Core aligned curriculum, accessible for free to everyone at www.engageny.org. In order to accept this new journey, I’ve taken an unpaid leave of absence from school for one year.

This all happened very, very suddenly, and I am still somewhat astonished and very grateful that my district agreed to support it. My head is also spinning at the idea that I don’t have to clean my classroom, figure out my attendance book, deliver my annual performance of “IQ” by Ani DiFranco, or call 90 parents next week.  I suspect I’ll have some kind of full out, temporary breakdown shortly, and then everything will be fine.

I already miss the kids. The big room I always try to prepare and furnish for them in my heart at this time of year is empty, and I don’t quite know what to put there.

That being said, I am in love with Expeditionary Learning, what they do, how they do it, and what they stand for. The fact that New York was perspicacious enough to hire them is the flashlight I hold in the dark, murky night of other educational decisions New York has made. And now, I find myself in the very strange position of being 200% against the current wielding of standardized testing and the methods used to develop the Common Core, only about 75% sold on the full range of the Common Core itself, and 100% behind this work I am now doing. Try and label that, please, because I have no idea what it is.

A recent silly online political quiz I took pegged me as a “tender-minded moderate progressive”: I suppose that’s as accurate a description of my educational stance as there is. I like the idea of being “tender-minded”. It seems to describe someone who places almost equal weight on the input of the heart and head, with the balance being in favor of the head. I think this is something to which I can aspire this year with a clean conscience.

I am looking forward tremendously to continuing to blog as I work for EL. The curriculum and its implementation are going to create a lot of questions for practitioners as they feel their way through it, and I am raring to work through to the answers– or to further and better questions– together with my peeps still in the trenches.

So there you have it.

 

New York State Cut Scores: From the Inside

scissorsBelow, I present, quite unintentionally with great serendipity, the first-hand account of New York State cut score-setting from my gracious guest blogger Dr. Maria Baldassarre-Hopkins, Assistant Professor of Language, Literacy and Technology at my alma mater, Nazareth College in Rochester New York.

If you have ever wondered…

~ Where the hell do those cut scores come from, anyway?

~ How does the state actually set a cut score?

~ How political is this process?

~ Are there any teachers involved at all?

…then this is the article for you.

Maria spoke to me often during the writing of this piece of having to navigate legalese, non-disclosure agreements and so on, so you will not find a tell-all blow-up here. However, you may certainly find a window into the process that you may not have had before. The fight begins, as it always should begin, with good intelligence.

Take it and use it well.  ~ Dina

UPDATE: This post has been picked up by Diane Ravich, who has a testing expert respond– also a whole new set of comments. Go check it out.

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The Mission

If you are a teacher who has ever yearned to be sent on a secret mission (really, who hasn’t?), complete with coded documents, non-disclosure agreements, men in dark suits watching you, advance e-mails to dress in layers, unanswered questions and enormous breakfast buffets with zero protein, you must spend a week of your life working for Pearson. My mission: Make cut score recommendations to the commissioner for the maiden voyage of the Common Core ELA assessments.

The most thought-provoking question asked of me during my five days in Albany was by a no-nonsense, b.s.-calling principal from the Bronx whose intensity scared me a little: “So, what do you hope to get out of this?” I said something about using my new knowledge of the standards, the tests and how they are constructed and evaluated to help my students think about using sound literacy instruction to prepare their students for them.  That was Day 2.

A Word About Cut Scores

Cut scores were to be decided upon after NYS students in grades 3-8 took the tests.  By looking alternately at test questions, Common Core State Standards, Performance Level Descriptors, and other data-which-shall-not-be-named (thank you non-disclosure agreement!), 100 educators sat in four meeting rooms at the Hilton using a method known as “bookmarking” to decide what score a student needed to earn in order to be labeled as a particular “level” (i.e., 1-4).  How many questions does a student need to answer correctly in order to be considered a 3?  How about a 4?  2?  1?

In each room sat teachers, administrators and college faculty from across the state.  This mix made for some interesting discussion, heated debates, and a touch of hilarity.  There were smartly dressed psychometricians everywhere (i.e., Pearson stats people) and silent “gamemakers” unable to participate sitting in back of room looking on, clicking away on their laptops.  Sometimes they nodded to each other or whispered, other times they furrowed their brows, and at least twice when the tension was high in the room, one gamemaker (who I called “the snappy dresser” and others called “the Matrix guy”) stood up and leaned over the table like he was going to do something to make us rue the day.  I kept my eye on that one.

So, Bookmarking…

We began the bookmarking process with grade 8, later repeating the entire process for grades 7 and 6.  I will try to be as brief as possible:

  • We first reviewed Performance Level Descriptors for each level of performance on the assessment (levels 2-4; we were not provided PLDs for level 1).  PLDs were originally crafted by “content experts” at NYSED/Pearson and were categorized based on anchor standards that were being assessed.  While we were not permitted to leave with copies of the PLDs, we were told they would be made available to the public online … eventually.
  • We then had to consider this question:  What should a student who is barely at level ___ be able to do?  In other words, what separates a level 3 student from a level 2 student (etc.) on each anchor standard?  These were known as threshold descriptors.  I can’t say exactly what our threshold descriptors were, but I can say they included words like “smidge,” “glimmer,” “morsel,” and “nugget,” and phrases like “predominately consistently…”  This.  Took.  Long.
  • We reviewed selected passages and questions in original test booklets (40 minutes) and then the rest of the test (20 minutes).  (Just curious: How long did your students take to complete the test?  No reason.  Just wondering.)
  • We received Ordered Item Books (OIB) where all test questions for that grade were ordered by “experts” from least to most difficult.  Constructed and extended response questions were listed multiple times at various places, once for each possible point value.  Passage difficulty was considered in the ordering of the questions, where “difficulty” was synonymous with “Lexile score.”
  • Time to “bookmark”:  Each of us would place a post-it note in the OIB on the last question a student at a particular threshold level of proficiency would have a 2/3 chance of answering correctly.
  • But before we began, we were told which page numbers correlate with external benchmark data (I could tell you what those data were, but then I would have to kill you).  So, it was sort of like this:  “Here is how students who are successful in college do on these ‘other’ assessments.  If you put your bookmark on page X for level 3, it would be aligned with these data.”
  • We had three rounds of  paging through the OIB, bookmarking questions, getting feedback data on our determined cut scores, and revising.  We
  • had intense discussion as we began to realize the incredible weight of our task.  We were given more data in the form of p-values for each question in the OIB – the percentage of students who answered it correctly on the actual assessment. Our ultimate results were still not the final recommendation.
  • On our final day of bookmarking we came back to grade 8 (after the process took place for grades 6 and 7) and did one last round.  This 4th round determined the actual cut scores that would go to the commissioner as a recommendation.

I, along with the people in my room, completed this entire process for grades 6-8.   A group of educators in a similarly tiny room did the same for grades 3-5.  On day five, table leaders got together for vertical articulation.  This meant we looked across all of the cut scores to see whether or not there was some general consistency across all grades, 3-8.

And Now, a Gentle Plea to the Reader:

I received word on the day I write this that the commissioner has made a final decision on the cut scores.  I am not at liberty say whether the recommendation we made was the last word, but once the cut scores are announced I would like for you, with kindness in your heart, to hold the same image I cling to a month later – and it is this image that will have the most profound impact on how I channel this experience in my own teaching:

In the room where I sat for five days, I was among some of the most critical, thoughtful and intelligent teachers, administrators and college faculty I’ve ever met, all of whom were fiercely loyal to the students in their classrooms and communities. Despite the rigidly scaffolded and tightly constrained process of recommending cut scores, the educators in our room fought tirelessly for high standards and, at the same time, fairness to teachers and students.

  • Through gentle inquisition, they took the commissioner to task when he gave us our charge.
  • They challenged any and every part of the methodology that seemed problematic.
  • They thought about how these decisions would impact teacher and principal evaluations.
  • They pushed back hard at the reality that the cut score decisions could actually diminish the quality of education students—especially non-white students, ELLs and SWDs—would experience on a daily basis.
  • They realized that at the end of the day many questions would remain unanswered or unaddressed. Though our facilitator was lovely – a psychometrician from Pearson who was as intelligent and kind as she was passionate about the work she was doing, she was not a policy-maker.
  • They drank beer.

What I Took from This:

It was not quite what I had hoped or expected.  I wish I could say I now have answers to satiate my students’ hunger for the best practical answers to their instructional quandaries related to these tests.  If anything, my thoughts about that are slightly more muddied.

While I am required here to be vague about specific data, details and conversations, I trust that the discerning eye of the critical practitioner might read between these lines.  But I will be frank when I say that it has never been so clear to me that the dataphilia that is now the culture of our profession is not non-ideological.

My geek-life hero, Marilyn Cochran-Smith (among others), has written that teaching is never neutral. Every single thing we teach and how we choose to teach it is political, including how and what we assess and how we evaluate those assessments.

That admonition has never felt so real to me.  I am heartened by the vehemence with which the professionals in that room pushed back, working within the system in order to simultaneously work against it.

And that is my take away.  I was glad to be at the table.  I wish they had given us ten more days or two more years to make some substantive changes.  And I hope thoughtful people with a dog in the fight like the ones I met in Albany continue to fight to have their voices heard.

~ Maria Baldassarre-Hopkins

 

 

 

The Death of American Education?

round_handle_awl

(<——— Bonus points for anyone who can identify what this is, and how it connects to the post.)

Heavy, heavy post title for what I intend to be a pretty small post– more of a kickstarter to conversation than anything else.

My friend Joe Henderson sent me this piece on public education on Twitter last week, where it was immediately favorited by such blogging greats as Michael Doyle and Nancy Flanagan. It comes from a collectively written political blog, Permanent Crisis, that focuses on neoliberalism; it’s wonky, but excellent fodder for thinking.  If you take a look into neoliberalism, you’ll see that its tenets are spookily reflective of much of school reform rhetoric– or perhaps not so spookily, as many people believe it is the driving force behind an impending collapse of public education.

With mass closings of schools, entire districts declaring bankruptcy, the strings attached to the funding of Race to the Top and NCLB waivers, the disappearance of public higher education in other countries, and the rise of charter schools here, it’s an easy conclusion to draw. The article itself, which also draws this conclusion, is tightly written and linked as well.

I think that’s why I hated it.

I’m not saying it doesn’t discuss a credible view, or discuss it well. I’m mostly saying there are holes to poke in it, both on the side of those who espouse the neoliberal view, and those who label and reject school reform because of it.

Two quick examples, one from each side.

COMPLETE TRANSPARENCY/CHARTER SCHOOLS ARE NOT EVIL: I am currently hired as a consultant writer for Expeditionary Learning, which in turn has been hired by the state of New York to write some Common Core curriculum. These are, definitively, the smartest, kindest, most collaborative, kid-centered, motivated, and dedicated people I have ever worked with. Period.

SKILLED TRADES ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER: If Mike Rowe testifying before Congress doesn’t convince you, try this March 2013 reporting from Forbes. While Permanent Crisis’ article seems content to lay the disconnection of education and trades employment directly at neoliberal school reform’s feet, I don’t think this is the case. Neoliberalism in and of itself doesn’t give a damn about what it commodifies, as long as it is commodified. Whether it’s a college degree or a trade doesn’t matter in the end.

Rather, this disconnect, I propose, is more directly the result of the increasing stratification of our economic classes. How can you know the need for someone to pave a road, or run the computers running your auto factory, when you don’t live, work, or talk to anyone who lives those lives?

(Don’t be that person, by the way. Get out and meet some of them– some of the parents of your kids, for example. For the definitive texts on blue-collar work in America (and, scarily, how some white-collar work is exactly the same), check out Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch).

Mainly, here, I am simply concerned about the trend to cull, versus surrender, in conversations about education. It’s so much easier for us to dismiss whole swaths of information instead of looking for the places where the individual story changes the theme…the cracks where the light get in. It’s in the cracks, I have come to understand, where we find hope.

If you do nothing else with this post, check out (again) Mike Rowe in this TED talk, where he gets at the exact same idea.

I’d love for other folks to read The Permanent Crisis article and leave comments on what they think is happening in American public education today, and why– or not, and leave comments on what they think is happening in American public education today anyway.

 

 

 

 

I Missed You, Lisa Delpit: School Culture and Race

mudI think it’s important to follow up a crazed love letter to an author and his brother with a brief discussion of race relations in the classroom.  (?!)

In Boot Camp for Kiddies this week, Diane Ravitch posts a criticism (and later a response) of the top-down, overly harsh management styles of certain charter schools, in specific those of Achievement First. Without mentioning specifics, Rafe Esquith named the same problem back in 2008. Ironic, since much of KIPP based their model on the letter– if not the spirit– of Rafe’s own classroom management… and then other charters built their models based on KIPP. It’s a lesson in following ideas back to their sources: often the quality of mercy is strained, shall we say.

That being said, the unexamined idea that a common school culture is racist has still always bugged me. In whatever form, involving whatever claim, it can be a seven-layer bean dip of presuppositions: that a culture imposed by privileged whites is inherently disrespectful to students who are not of the same race or class. That a common school culture is uniformly imposed by privileged whites. That a common school culture is uniformly imposed only by privileged whites. That authoritarian approaches to teaching are racist. That constructivist approaches to teaching are racist.

With all that rhetorical juicy goodness going on, why not just say that if a teacher is not teaching a classroom of 24 clones of herself, she is a racist?

(What? Someone did? Not really, as you can see. But wouldn’t it be a quick and easy jump from here?)

The muddiness kills me. So we kill the muddiness by getting our facts straight: and (Irony #2) acknowledging the muddiness within the facts.

My first thought up0n reading the Ravitch post was to brush up on the work I most trust on education and race relations, which would be that of Lisa Delpit, Peggy McIntosh, and Gloria Ladson-Billings. I did this with a strictly defined, peer-reviewed search on Google that was at least several minutes long. (But seriously, if anyone knows anything that can be added to what I was able to glean, please put it in the comments. Whole point I’m writing the post, really.)

Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, in her usual admirable straightforwardness, does not screw around with whether charter schools and their systems are racist, but goes right to whether children of color should be waiting in line, or in a lottery, for a quality education in the first place. In this fabulous blog piece, she even plays with the idea that we would be better off today with (Irony #4) ”a real Plessy than a fake Brown,” concluding simply: “We must guarantee all students and their families an equal opportunity to learn.”

I didn’t turn up any direct commentary by Dr. McIntosh on charter schools, but did find an interesting article on how several “innovation schools” (basically charters) in Massachusetts have adopted the “Open Circle” learning program that her organization, The Wellesley Centers for Women, developed specifically to train kids in supportive collaboration. Which points up messiness/Irony #5: that while Dr. Ravitch and others castigate charters schools as de facto segregators of education, it is the infrastructural freedoms afforded charter schools that often allow them to take on programs like Open Circle that dig up the roots of prejudice itself.

Finally, it turns out I completely missed the publication of Dr. Delpit’s latest book just last year, Multiplication is for White People, so I’ve fixed that with One-Click Amazon and will report on it accordingly. Lisa Delpit, as Tom Hoffman comments here, puts across her arguments “with a certain weight of moral and intellectual authority which is unique to her,” and so I am eager to see where she goes in the book– particularly as she is arguably the mother of the idea that the dominant culture of power needs to be explained, and its rules taught, to students of color.

And I imagine, in the final irony of this post, that this is exactly what Achievement First would say they are doing.

 

Who Needs Socrates When You’ve Got Love? : My First Fan Letter in 28 Years

diaryDear John and Hank Green,

I hate you both.

You have cast me back into a time long forgotten, now remembered again in horror and shame. A time of upheaval and pain. A time of pink diaries locked with tiny gold locks. A time of laminated kitten pictures.

It began with “An Open Letter to Students Returning to School.” Later– I can only believe I was drunk– it was “Giraffe Love.” Things quickly degenerated into hours of Hankgames, greedily memorizing your witty tidbits between plays.

And now I sit here, dreamily trolling through four years of vlogs instead of feeding my dog. Now I scramble to learn Zeno’s paradox, when The Meno was all I ever needed. Or wanted.

I am smitten, and in return, you carelessly smite my fragile, hard-won adulthood.

You have forced me to draft this fan letter– the first I have written since I sent a package of homemade chocolate chip cookies to the pre-hobbit Sean Astin for his jaw-droppingly brilliant performance in The Goonies– and to cloak my shy, sweet double crush in ribald satire, merely to preserve some tiny, tiny shred of dignity.

You have turned me back into a drooling, squealing, hand-fluttering t-shirt-buying social-media-stalking groupie twelve year old, the likes of which of I have not seen in eight hours, since I am a middle school English teacher and school is out now.

Did I say I hate you? One requires a certain amount of emotional distance, decorum, dare I say, when one teaches pre-teens. You have blown all that to hell. Students can smell it, you heartless beautiful blogging fools. How will they ever take my my faultless grammar, my arched eyebrows, my arch remarks rife with literary references they have yet to discover, my clean but not overstarched dress shirts and kitten heels, seriously again?

No. All that is gone.

Soon, despite my best efforts at concealment, they will enter the room. They will see me in a Nerdfightaria t-shirt. I will be giggling about brooms who “overswept” and muttering something about “Bald John Green” and slash fiction. I will be doing the Happy Dance. And all attempts from then on to impress upon them the importance of the Oxford comma in keeping our civilization alive, via the sheer gravitas of my tasteful pearl jewelry, will be for naught. Naught.

You have ruined me.

Don’t ever write back to me again. Or for the first time.

Sincerely,

Dina Strasser

UPDATE: Katie Sauvain, in a much more serious and very lovely post, also reflects through the generational lens upon John and Hank Green and Nerdfightaria. Her blog is deeply intelligent and a great read. Go give it some love.

My New EduCrush(es): John and Hank Green

DFTbaOh, my.

If you haven’t met the Vlogbrothers

If you don’t know what DFTBA means

If you haven’t read Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns, or The Fault in Our Stars

If you haven’t succumbed to the charms of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

If you haven’t used a Crash Course video in one of your classes…

Or, at the very least, if you haven’t shown your students this at the beginning of the school year

…then prepare to have your mind blown.

Next post: The first virulent fan letter I have written in 28 years.

 

 

 

My New Reluctant Twitter Feed

funny-moms-on-twitter As I posted on Facebook: Help me not regret this. @DinaStrasser. New blog sidebar as well.

And now I will take my kids out for FTF ice cream.

(My daughter, slyly: “Hey, Mom. I can read that.”)

UPDATE: Oh, and when you leave a comment, if you’re willing, drop your Twitter handle or PM it to me. Even if you don’t follow me, I’d love to follow you.

That sounds needy. Oh well.

The Importance of Blog Love/Why I Didn’t Get a Ph.D.

kim-kardashian-and-glamour-magazine-galleryFirst of all, thank you to the dozens of people who responded so kindly over the past few days with a wave and “We’re still here”!

And thank you as well for allowing me finally to confirm up there whether my use of ending punctuation in a sentence with quotation marks has been correct all these years. (Pro-tip: If the heart-breaking question, huffy exclamation, or staid statement belongs to you, the writer, put it outside the quotation marks. If it belongs to the speaker, put it within the quotation marks.  To wit:

“I can’t believe Kim Kardashian gave birth in high heels!” Stacey declared.

versus

I can’t believe that I didn’t stab her eyes out with my high heels while she declared that “I can’t believe Kim Kardashian had her baby in high heels”!)

Anyway, thank you.

In the spirit of reconnecting, I also sent a couple of apologetic, inquiring emails off to old blogger friends this past week. I’ll leave them anonymous because I haven’t asked their permission to say anything about them. I was struck, though, by the sadness in both their replies: very glad to hear from me, but both remarking that I was the first blog correspondent to follow up with them in awhile. I suspect, too, that in the habitually isolating profession that is ours, connection becomes all the more treasured.

Oh, friends, readers, countrymen…er…countrypeople: No guilt trip intended. But you have no idea what power you have. Leave those comments. Send those emails. You are being heard. You are missed when you do not.

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Part of the adventure this year that kept me off the blog was finally giving a Ph.D. education program a shot.

I applied to six, with the assistance and kindness of more people than I can name. Results: three rejections, two acceptances, and one “You can’t find my transcript? Here’s the email proving I sent you my transcript. You can’t give me a decision right now? Well, we’ve already decided, so… thank you?” Guess we’ll never know about that path less taken. NOT COOL, ROBERT FROST.

The acceptances were generous and wonderful and exciting. My husband and I embarked on weeks of intensive research, involving hours on the Internet and consulting with people in the profession and academia and our financial advisor and climbing high Asian mountains in sandals of yakskin.

I took a day off. We sat in a coffee shop with legal pads. For four hours. During which we asked repeatedly if we were cheating the waitress out of tips and could we have a little more coffee.

In the end, for a gazillion non-John Grisham-like prosaic reasons, we decided against it. And when I say “a gazillion,” I mean “three of the legal pads were labeled  ‘cons’”.  Here’s probably the best summary of it, which I wrote in an email to the professor who advocated for me the most strongly on this adventure:

The bottom line is that even if we stripped back to the barest of bones, even if the miracle of a decently paid church position and professorship occurred within commutable distance of each other (never mind our families), within a slightly-less-than-dysfunctional public school system, in June of the year I graduate– even if that happens, the doctorate would still mean an accrual of heavy debt, and a necessary uprooting, that we would be fighting for the rest of our lives, right when we need most to be stable for our children and other loved ones. We have more commitments on that front than are typical. So it sucks, and I’m just heartbroken. But I am also at peace. If that makes any sense.

A few weeks later, the Chronicle of Higher Education printed this article, which sounds exactly like they bugged our coffee shop booth~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

grumpy catI write this not only to explain some of my silence this year, but also to mourn a bit.  On this blog, going on almost five years ago, I recognized the dead end uselessness of getting a Ph.D. with the intent of remaining a classroom educator. In the intervening time, we continue to think that firing teachers is a viable alternative to providing sustainable and differentiated career advancement, and instead of celebrating and nurturing the kickass teachers we have, we use completely inaccurate data to pick on teacher preparation programs, like a schoolroom bully who can’t spell.

In otherwords: nothing has changed.

So it sucks, and I’m heartbroken. And about this aspect of my decision, I am not at peace. Don’t think I ever will be.

I’d love to hear your stories about Ph.D. work or professional advancement, and/or the lack thereof.  I will run them past some folks I know at the amazing Center for Teacher Quality who are working hard to change this, and get some feedback for you.