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Insider: Big Trouble Inside TFA

Interesting because TFA is where my battle against corporate reform first started. Here’s a post from 2 years ago.

Diane Ravitch's blog

I received the following article from a current high-level administrative employee at Teach for America. The organization is undergoing a major shake-up. He wanted us to know what was happening behind the scenes. He must remain anonymous, for obvious reasons.


March 17, 2016

Turmoil at Teach For America: Rounds of layoffs, leadership exodus imminent

Teach For America (TFA) is laying off employees from its national and regional staff.

CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard announced on February 29 that 250 TFA staff positions will be eliminated, calling the cuts “painful” in an internal TFA employee webcast. She said 100 new positions will also be created, leaving the net job loss at 150.

Despite the flashy celebration at TFA’s 25th Anniversary Summit held in Washington D.C. last month, TFA did not meet its recruiting target for the second year in a row.

2015 was the first time in its history that…

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What are TNReady Results Going to Count For?

CKsIyPzVEAAX6_KThe TNReady situation really is a complete and utter fiasco. Others have done a much better job than I could do at detailing just how far off the rails it has gone. Still, every day I hear a new story. Momma Bears, a blog created by parents in Tennessee, spilled some more beans recently. This time from teachers on the front lines. I don’t understand how a parent can read these accounts and not have their head explode.

The latest that I’ve heard personally was that students had calculators to use on the test, but they weren’t versed in how to use them, making them less effective. Why should anybody be surprised by this, though? After all, they’d been practicing on computers for the last nine months and the computers are programmed to have a calculator pop up onscreen when needed. On its own, this may not seem very serious, but taken together with everything else, it’s just one more unforeseen consequence. It’s almost to the point that my eyes just glaze over when I hear these stories, and I start wondering, what is this all going to end up meaning? And that’s the real question we should be asking.

Standardized testing was originally implemented as an easy way to test large numbers of students quickly. No Child Left Behind came along in 2001 and latched on to these tests as a means to not only rate students but also teachers and schools. We have become more and more attached since, despite a plethora of issues that have arisen. We are now like addicts, constantly needing the next fix, all the while ignoring what the high is doing to our overall health.

As often happens with addicts, they become so enamored with the drug that they completely lose sight of why they began using in the first place. And we’ve decided that supply is more important than quality. So our addiction becomes an endless chase to procure more supply and justify its usage. In our case, “it” became data and a desire to see how kids were performing. It has quickly spun out of control , and in the case of Tennessee, it has led to us currently conducting tests that we have absolutely no idea how we’ll use the results or what they’ll be worth.

I think that point alone needs to be dwelled upon. We are in the midst of forcing children to submit to tests to create data that we really have no idea about how it’s going to be used. The Tennessee Department of Education has released some guidelines, but if they are clear to you, then you are certainly more astute than I am. How have we even gotten to this point? Why has an adult not shown up in the room and declared that the tail is now wagging the dog.? Where are our state legislators on this? I can understand stonewalling parents – we do that all the time – but shouldn’t you have to answer to our elected officials?

The state says that scores will not be counted towards teachers TVASS scores, well, unless they benefit them. Since the results are automatically applied one way or the other, why do I get the feeling that amazingly these results will benefit the majority of teachers? I fail to grasp how they possibly have any value though. If you are applying the results to some teachers but not others, how are we going to establish any kind of baseline? Will the scores be not counted against teachers this year but utilized as part of a baseline in the future? Who knows?

It boggles my mind that we are going to take a measurement that people don’t even understand to begin with, add a mysterious number, and then inform people whether it benefits them or not. Children and teachers worked hard for these numbers. They are not random numbers at a bingo parlor to be juggled to produce winners. I dare you to try and explain this to people without them scratching their heads, not to mention how does an evaluation serve as a benefit if it only recognizes positive attributes?  It completely escapes me how these numbers will have any value at all. Name me one thing we measure where we only include results that favor what we are measuring.

The Tennessee Department of Education says that if, at any point in this three-year transition to TNReady, an educator’s evaluation would not benefit by including the student growth data from the 2015-16 test, educators will have that data excluded. Ok, but how is the state going to differentiate between who is choosing to use this data (it it’s beneficial to them) and who is choosing not to use this data (if it’s not beneficial to them)? Or do teachers even get a choice. If I were a teacher, I would probably tell all my kids to tank the test, ensuring that results got thrown out. I know that breaks all kinds of ethical rules, but I’ll be honest with you, I find giving a test without a clear plan of how to utilize its results after they come in to be unethical. So what’s the difference? Don’t the actual test takers deserve to know the truth here?

Before we get too far down the rabbit hole, let’s put the brakes on. Truth is, we are getting ahead of ourselves a bit, because this whole conversation is all hypothetical. Currently, the actual legislation to allow tests not to count for educators does not exist. That’s right, we are just in the talking stages. It passed through committee today, but it still needs to be scheduled for a floor vote in both the Senate and the House and who knows what it’ll look like after that.

Teachers, I’d like you to think back to last year’s proposed teacher’s salary increases. Now go look at your pay stub. Not exactly how it all worked out, is it? So they can talk about these results not counting all they want, but I personally would not believe tests won’t count until I saw it in writing with a signature on it. It’s kind of like a blackmailer who has naked pictures of you but promises that he’s not going to use them. I am not going to believe til I see them destroyed. We’ve played the shell game before and once again, we are giving teachers a task without a clear objective.

If you were to conduct a scientific experiment, you would start with a control group and you would have an experimental group. In your control group, you would control the variables while you applied a few to your experimental group. Then you would compare the data, allowing you to come to some conclusions. Since this is the first year of TNReady, its results could be considered the control group, except we haven’t controlled anything. We have no idea if these results represent actual learning or can be attributed to the method of testing, multiple delays in the testing schedule, daylight savings time, or whatever, due to the unreliable process.

Like I said earlier, others have done a better job of listing the screw ups with TNReady, but there have been a bunch. Meaning your aforementioned control group ain’t so controlled. To put it bluntly, it means that all your data going forward will continue to be corrupted. Imagine if a kid brought a project to the local science fair with a control group that was so corrupted. He would immediately be disqualified. Again, we preach accountability to children but fail to hold ourselves accountable at the same level.

Let’s talk about our kids for a minute as well. I know we prefer to talk at them, but I think they’ve had about enough of that. In Boston recently, more than 1000 students walked out to protest education policies. In St. Cloud, Minnesota, officials have spent the last year changing policies after a group of mostly Somali students staged a walkout. Right here in Tennessee, a school in Chattanooga has reported that 41% of their students have chosen to opt out of TNReady. I suspect that this is a sign of a growing trend, and we can either start to listen now or later, but I don’t think today’s students will allow us to ignore them. We can’t continue to turn a deaf ear to the effects of our policies on our children and expect them to just follow blindly.

If you don’t like what I’m saying about why we need to scrap TNReady this year, just listen to the Tennessee Department of Education’s response to proposed legislation to use ACT scores to measure student performance in place of TNReady tests. “For our accountability and evaluation system, we would need comparability across the state and the only way to do that is have students taking the same assessment,” said Elizabeth Fiveash, director of legislative of affairs for the state department of education. With tests changed from an online version to a more traditional pencil and paper version, with some students having calculators and some not, with multiple testing schedules changed and then changed again, with the effects of daylight savings time during testing, and on and on… does anybody believe that students are all taking the same assessment as it is? Seems to me that they are making the argument for scrapping the test themselves.

Lest you think I’m just one of those defenders-of-the-status-quo hippies, trying to get rid of all testing, listen to what one of the leading voices in the Tennessee education reform movement, Ravi Gupta, has to say: “We respectfully ask the state to go back to the drawing board and come back next year with a test and a process worthy of our kids.” It cannot get any clearer than that when you have a leader in the opposite camp than the one I’m in saying the same thing I am. It shows that the call to get it right is coming from all fronts, and therefore shouldn’t be ignored.

Tennessee Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen recently called for evaluation flexibility for teacher, and I appreciate that. But right now, this call feels a whole lot like when charter schools call for collaboration, which translates into do what I say and everything will be all right. The only people I can see benefitting from this proposed flexibility is the TNDOE and Measurement, Inc.

My favorite quote in the TNDOE FAQ on assessment is this one:

Will TVAAS be stable during the transition to a new assessment? Yes. It’s important to remember that TVAAS does not compare students’ absolute performance on TNReady to their absolute performance on the previous TCAP tests. Instead, students will be expected to perform about as well on TNReady as their peers who had similar TCAP scores last year.

I guess that about sums up our philosophy on testing this year. We are going to do about as well as we can. Unfortunately, “about as well” has never been the standard applied nor should it ever be. Just like we tell our children, if you can’t do as well or better, than we need to fix it. It’s always easier to fix things in the beginning than it is to wait until things are completely out of control.

Last year Nevada, Montana, and North Dakota were all beset with computer problems that led to them canceling tests. The Federal Government did not penalize them. It may have taken some willpower and the willingness to spend a little in order to get it right, but there is now precedent for canceling the tests. In my opinion we’ve got grounds to follow their lead and should definitely do so. It is time for leaders to lead and not wait until things are broken beyond repair before we fix them. Let’s do this now.


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You Got The Wrong Religion

indoctrinationLately in Tennessee there has been a lot of concern about religious indoctrination of our students. In fact, there is so much fear of Islamic “indoctrination” that the Tennessee State House felt the need to pass HB1905 to protect our students. According to this article in Christian Today, the bill requires that any inclusion of religion in textbooks, instructional materials, curriculum, or academic standards be for educational purposes only and not to be used to proselytize any religion or religious beliefs. I’ve got to say, I think the fear of indoctrination is very real, I just think they have the wrong religion.

I watched the growth of the testing culture and the worship of data from the front row, and it’s clear to me that it has reached a religious state. It’s a religion that, in my eyes, is ten times more dangerous than supposed concerns about the way religion is taught in school. This religious fervor surrounding standardized testing, accountability, and the data that comes from it threatens to shape our children’s priorities and supersede the values parents are attempting to instill. It’s a religion that is demanding a whole lot of time and sacrifice from our kids.

Some of you may be shaking your heads right now and thinking, “Man, he’s gone off the deep end.” But all you have to do is look at reactions to parents who try to avoid the indoctrination by opting out their kids because high stakes testing is not congruent to their beliefs. The Education Commissioner in Florida voiced a belief that “students who do not want to test should not be sitting in public schools, as it is mandatory and required for students seeking a standard high school diploma.” She is not alone in this belief.

Here in Tennessee, it’s been well documented what a fiasco the testing process has been, yet like ideologues, the Tennessee Department of Education continues to cling to the dogma like they were quoting scripture. Dr. McQueen and Governor Haslam recently announced a big reading initiative all the while ignoring that many schools in Tennessee were unable to participate in Read Across America activities because of revised testing schedules due to the state’s own snafus. It’s like they are completely failing to notice anything outside of their gospel. Unfortunately for them, though, parents are noticing and documenting.

Furthermore, the environment being created is one that tends to reinforce the value of the test over the value of learning. One parent I spoke with told me that even though they intentionally downplay the importance of the test while at home, their 4th grader still comes home with the belief that these tests will follow her for life. They had to spend a half hour convincing her that this was false and that test results were not a part of their family values. That’s 30 more minutes of family time taken from them because of a high stakes test and the emphasis placed on it by outside forces. Many parents will testify to the amount of propaganda, in regards to testing, they hear from their children and that they feel powerless to thwart it.

Another parent told me how her 2nd grade child spent part of a day making “good luck” cards for the 3rd and 4th graders who are getting ready for the test. Seems like a harmless creative activity, but what’s the message it’s sending? And is it not, in fact, indoctrinating the younger children into the belief in the power of the test? Reaffirming how lucky they’ll be next year when younger kids will make them cards. Does it even take into account the values that parents are trying to instill at home? It feels like something out of the “Hunger Games”.

I could list story after story that I have heard told to children. “The results from these tests will be used to place you in remedial classes.” Umm… results won’t be back until the fall, so how is that going to happen? Students are told these tests are so important that they can’t read or draw if they finish early. But that’s not true either. They’ve been told that tests won’t count against their teachers but whoops… that doesn’t mean it won’t be counted for the schools. Everything is done to reinforce the value of the test. Why are we lying to children in order to get their buy-in?

If a child by some means is indoctrinated into Islam, about the only thing that is going to happen is that they are going to worship a different deity. As different as Islam is from Christianity, it still believes in the same basic tenets, like compassion, service, gratitude, etc. But the testing religion works a little differently. Once indoctrinated, it sets children, parents, teachers, schools, and by extension, communities, up for failure. It sets the tone that only that which can be measured is important. Testing, therefore, dictates curriculum and, in essence, life choices. Also, in contrast to actual religious indoctrination – which isn’t actually happening in our schools – indoctrination into the cult of testing is practically inescapable because of all of the testing and accountability requirements imposed on all public schools in the state.

As parents, you may try to instill in your children the importance of the arts. You may stress the value of industrial arts like engine repair and woodworking, which by the way, happens to be a dying art. A testing culture wipes that away and indoctrinates your children into the belief that what’s on the tests is more important than what you are teaching at home. God forbid if you are a parent who values creativity because that’s got to go, too.

The testing religion gobbles up resources that schools could be devoting to actual learning. Just take a look at what happened this year in Dickson County. Because of the state’s failure and due to the switch to paper and pencil tests instead of online testing, they suddenly needed calculators for every student. That came at a $12k cost. “An expense of $12,000, that’s a third of a teacher’s salary,” said Josh Mason, director of secondary education at the school district. “That’s a lot of textbooks. That’s a tremendous amount of library books.” Also, what happens to those calculators next month? Another sacrifice made to the testing gods. More resources for learning lost.

Local teacher and blogger Zach Barnes has a different opinion than mine. He cites a recent Boston Globe op-ed and argues that testing leads to better retention of knowledge and that what’s tested is always influenced by “real classroom teachers.” He also argues that testing anxiety is a product of teachers’ and parents’ feelings projected onto children more than children’s actual fears. And like any zealot who refuses to accept any kind of reformation, he completely discounts widespread research and goes as far to say, ”If you think a test that is carefully crafted by teachers and researchers is biased, your own teacher assessments are much more biased.” Fortunately, his arguments run counter to the majority of teachers, parents, and administrators, but he serves as proof that even teachers can be indoctrinated into this cult as well.

I agree with Williamson County School Board members Susan Curlee and Beth Burgos that indoctrination of our children is a very serious issue. I also agree with their proposal that includes parent, taxpayer, and teacher review of the assessments that the state requires before they are administered to ensure that they are congruent with what parents are instilling at home – we need transparency. However they are focusing on the wrong indoctrination. Our children have nothing to fear from Islam or any other religion they might learn about.

I’m still baffled by what people fear could possibly happen if your 7th grader suddenly decided to convert to Islam. or Hindu? Or any other of the world religions that are taught in social studies classes. I can’t convince my child that wrestling is fake, yet a social studies teacher is supposedly going to convert him into worshipping Allah. Do we have that little faith in our children to make decisions?

On the other hand, the cult of testing is very real and very dangerous. It’s time we took steps to protect our children against this indoctrination. We need to untie these test from the accountability measures they have become associated with and rid ourselves of the hold they have on us. We need to return to teacher autonomy. In fact, we should get back to trusting our teachers to teach instead of basically forcing them to teach to the almighty standardized tests. We need to make sure that children understand that there is magic in life and not everything can be measured. There is no standardized test that can measure my love for my children and that is but one example.

Legislators we need your help here as well. There is so much money involved that with out them taking steps, this testing religion will only continue to grow. It’s imperative we make sure we are looking at all the ways that children are being indoctrinated (and I am not talking about Islam). Until then, parents should say, “No. You can not test my child.

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When Is Enough Going To Be Enough?

Be wiseI’ve got a friend who is starting the process of going through a divorce. Yesterday I asked her how it was going. “Insane,” she replied. “He continues to act as if absolutely nothing is going on. Even tried to cuddle up to me the other day. It’s surreal. It’s got me thinking I’m crazy and missing something. Maybe everything is fine.” I laughed and said, “I can relate. I’m having exactly the same experience with the Tennessee Department of Education.”

For those of you new to the game, let me give you a recap. This was supposed to be the year that everything was going to be different. But it didn’t take long for things to go awry. Within hours of beginning the administration of the test, the online testing platform failed. A mad scramble to affix blame ensued with the Department of Education ultimately deciding that pencil and paper would be the way to go. But in order to do that, schools would need to receive supplies in a timely manner, and now, that’s not happening either.

This is becoming a complete and utter fiasco. Some schools are having to change testing schedules for the third time. What that translates to is a loss of valuable instructional time and a huge inconvenience for children and teachers. It also fails to take into account special programs like field trips and such. One school in Chattanooga has two field trips scheduled for the end of April during dates they are now supposed to hold for testing. I guess they’ll have to cancel. Why are students going to be punished because adults failed to do their job?

Last week was a nationally recognized reading promotion in honor of the birthday of Dr. Seuss called Read Across America. Many schools in Tennessee, however, did not participate because they had been scheduled to start TNReady testing. See if the irony is lost here: in a state where reading scores dropped last year, we are now canceling activities that promote reading in order to test students’ reading skills. Granted, Read Across America isn’t going to single-handedly raise literacy levels, but should we really be sacrificing opportunities to engage children in reading just to appease adults?

I also heard last week that many schools were experiencing a shortage of calculators approved for use on the TNReady math tests. When testing was going to be done online, the calculator was part of the online platform. Schools got rid of calculators or didn’t order enough new ones, figuring they wouldn’t need them anymore, but lo and behold, here’s one more unforeseen consequence of the TNReady fiasco. The hits just keep on coming.

What’s been the response from the Tennessee Department of Education? Well, they’ve been acting like my friend’s soon-to-be ex-husband and continue to walk around and act like everything is all good. Last week, Commissioner Candice McQueen visited a school in Dickson County where she purportedly asked kids if they were ready for TNReady. I would have loved for one of the kids to have answered, “Yes, but are you? Because we’ve been ready for a while now and you can’t seem to get it together.” Kid’s are good for that kind of honesty.

Google “Tennessee Department of Education” and “TNReady,” and you’ll get a whole list of stories about districts across the state that have yet to receive testing supplies, but nary a one about how the DOE plans to fix this or even a clear picture on what scores are going to count for. We are just going to lie to kids by telling them that this test is important and expect that since we are the adults, they’ll continue to believe us. My favorite quote from the story on the visit to Dickson County is that when a student mentions that she appreciated her teachers, principal, and assistant principal, Dr. McQueen responds that “Leadership is important.” Oh, the irony abounds.

I like the quote the TNDOE gave WKRN on Friday  “We’ve shipped over 1 million tests in two weeks. At least 126 districts have already received their materials and about 60 districts have already completed testing. There was a delay with 13 districts last week, and department leadership reached out to each of the districts individually to discuss the revised timeline and address any concerns.” First of all, you know anything revealed on a Friday is meant to fly under the radar. And secondly, again, there was no mention of the KIDS. Has anybody really addressed any of the kids concerns? Yea, I don’t think so.

All the lectures I’ve received over the last couple of years about how the kids come first and now that we are in the midst of a fiasco that is basically robbing our kids of the last two months of their school year, nobody can address them. Here’s a newsflash: you only get one 4th grade March. You only get one 7th grade April. What the Tennessee Department of Education is essentially saying is that these tests supersede their needs and their right to an actual education, and that it’s not even necessary to ask kids if they are okay with giving up that time. As a parent, that angers me. As a kid, it would incense me.

And what about the teachers? The instructional time lost due to test preparation aside, teachers have been scrambling to create new lesson plans for all of these shifts in testing schedules. I guarantee teachers would prefer to not have to deal with this incompetence from the DOE and instead have the authority to plan lessons that would be truly beneficial to their students. It’s maddening and very time-consuming to constantly be changing the schedule. But hey, Governor Haslam and TNDOE are saying these tests won’t count, or well maybe they’ll count, but hey…let’s just take them and we’ll figure out what they count for after we have the results. Have you ever heard of such a thing? It’s insanity.

Furthermore, does anyone still believe that these test results will paint an accurate picture of student growth and achievement? When do we get to the point that we admit that the turmoil has corrupted these test results beyond redemption? Teachers are given a booklet that strictly defines what they can and cannot do during the week of testing in order to ensure the integrity of the test results, yet we are supposed to believe that multiple rescheduling of tests and changing the methodology will have no impact. Am I crazy for thinking that’s not right? Not to mention that at this point, most students are just over the whole process and I seriously doubt you’ll see their best effort.

After my blog last week, a fellow education advocate, Memphis Quest, made the observation that testing is now in our DNA, and we don’t know what to do if we don’t test. I think he’s 100% spot on, and if you don’t think that’s a sign of us losing our way, then I don’t know what it will take. To counter a popular idiom, you don’t need a scale to lose weight.

I’m going to say the same thing to the Tennessee Department of Education that’s probably very similar to the talk my friend is having with her soon-to-be ex-husband: We are heading towards a divorce. One that’s been spurred on by your actions and inability to see how they are affecting us. Without acknowledgement and correction, I think you will see an Opt Out movement next year that will rival those in the Northeast. And if you think it’s just parents, then you need to take a look at Boston this week where students walked out. State officials can not continue to pretend like everything is normal because it certainly is not.

New York listened and is starting to respond appropriately, I’d hate to see Tennessee backed into a corner before paying heed. Tennessee don’t become that single guy sitting in front of the tube eating TV dinners alone in your shoe box apartment wishing you’d just recognized the signs. Please TNDOE and State Legislators, I urge you to recognize that you are in a partnership – with teachers, parents, and perhaps most importantly, our kids – and to act appropriately. Stop, listen, evaluate and adjust. These four steps could clear away the insanity. If we truly have kids best interests at heart we will acknowledge our failings and get it right before it’s too late.