Monday, April 07, 2014

Technology, Ethics, and Education-- Ethical Issues in Education Reform: Privacy, Parents’ Rights, and Big Data

I spoke at a conference this weekend, as an education activist, because of ethical issues I faced in my public school classroom in the years following New York State’s inception of intermediate assessment. Here is part of what I told those who attended.

From 1998 to 2008, I saw my eighth grade students subjected to more and more testing.

An intermediate ELA assessment given to eighth graders in 1998 soon expanded to include ELA and math tests given to sixth and eighth graders, then tests given to seventh graders, and additional tests in social studies for eighth graders.

The cumulative science test of eighth graders was expanded to two different sessions where it had been only one before.

Our entire middle school faculty and support staff was enlisted to engage students in practice tests for each of these exams. Tremendous time and effort was spent to pin down the logistics of each practice test and then each official state assessment, as we provided testing modifications to suit all students’ needs.

Administrators insisted on seeing some form of test preparation, which they defined as practice tests and parallel tasks, in our classrooms. Then other teachers, of special subjects like technology, art, home and careers, other languages, and even gym class, were asked to contribute to that test preparation.

Time spent on test preparation and practice took away from time we could spend on activities that would increase my students’ skills as readers and writers. What we did in class each day no longer supported the curriculum and standards that had been in place for New York State already. Those standards had been developed by my professional organization, the National Council of Teachers of English, and adopted by the state education department, and rightly so. They were based on the very best research and scholarship into literacy development, but they went by the wayside.

Data-driven instruction took over our building and then our district. Administrators, trying to keep up with what they saw coming from Albany and from Washington, D.C., began to emphasize quantitative tracking of students’ achievements. Student writing achievement does not lend itself to quantitative measures, and I made my case to my principal, but my professional judgment was ignore in the face of tremendous pressure to attain higher scores on state assessments in any way that we could. Spreadsheets of vaguely-related information replaced attention to the details of each individual student’s strengths and weaknesses. Michael Apple has used the term “de-skilled” to talk about what has happened to teachers’ professional status. I definitely felt de-skilled, though I had not read Apple’s work yet.

By 2009, I could no longer be in my classroom doing what I knew was not the best practice in my field of teaching. I left to study for my doctorate so that I could perhaps effect some changes in the policies that I saw a wrong. This was a moral decision. I was ethically opposed to what was happening. I chose a path I felt I could follow. Many teachers stay on because they can see no other path, but many still have doubts about what they are being asked to do.

After I left public schools, the emphasis on data increased. Our state’s involvement in Race to the Top meant our school districts had to enter into a new approach to data.

I am a teacher, one who acts as an interface between new technologies and students. I provide a classroom teacher’s professional perspective on this slide away from  caring about students into caring about data points. My career spans decades, and while I would not advocate a return to any sort of “good old days,” I would urge our state and its citizens to rely on educators’ professional judgment rather than the urging of corporations with data management products to sell.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

My opening statement for the Board of Regents interview:

Legislators, I appreciate the time you are taking to be here for these interviews. I’d like to introduce myself. I grew up in the southern tier of New York and attended colleges and universities around the state. I taught English to over two thousand individual students, grades seven to twelve, between 1978 and 2009. I also taught writing to many students in our state college and university system, and I have been teaching pre-service teachers about the best ways to develop students’ writing and literacy over the past five years. My work in the classroom and my recent study and research into the transition of writers from high school to college have brought me here for this discussion with you.

New York’s public schools are not broken. NAEP scores have mostly been leveling off over the period of years leading up to Race to the Top. Students from other countries flock to our schools, colleges and universities, and have for some time.

Although some nations may have higher test scores on internationally-administered assessments, the United States provides universal, inclusive K-12 education, and thus we test all students, where some nations restrict the test-taking, or perhaps even the opportunity for education, to only their top students.

Our schools are not the cause of a weak economy or a compromise to our national security.

Many if not most of the problems our educational system faces cannot be blamed on teachers or principals, but rather on poverty and segregation, which are far more complex problems we need to tackle as a society. Teachers are not in the profession to make money. They DON’T make a lot of money, which may contribute to other problems we are trying to solve.

Accountability is a requirement in every job: elected representatives know that as well as anyone. But evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores is a flawed system. Teachers simply cannot control all the factors that affect student test performance.

All students, of differing abilities, from families with varying incomes, and from any school district, urban, suburban, or rural, should be able to attend a public school with adequate resources, with a staff that values learning rather than test scores. Not all learning can be measured by a paper and pencil (or computerized) test. We must rely on the informed judgment of professionals who spend time with our children as they are learning.

Policy makers must neither rely on Hollywood for information about schools nor encourage Hollywood to promote and disseminate erroneous educational narratives. Nor should we rely on those with a product to sell. Profit is not the bottom line in a school, nor is widespread, uncontrolled collection and storage of data about our children and their families.

Policies developed without consulting those who are in classrooms contribute to inequity. In the case of the increased testing that accompanied NCLB and now Race to the Top and the institution of Common Core Learning Standards, the increased time spent on testing and preparing students for testing situations reduces the time spent reading freely chosen books, writing sentences with original ideas, sharing those ideas with others, and pursuing in-depth understanding of topics in which they are interested.

As I talk to former students who are now parents, and other parents around the state, I find that their voices have been missing until very recently. The communities surrounding our local schools, our school officials, and especially students have felt trapped by the newest initiatives. Teacher educators, busy helping pre-service teachers negotiate an entry into real classrooms, are left out of discussions about teacher preparation. I would like to bring their voices into our discussions here in Albany.

When I began my teaching career, almost 40 years ago, New York State’s public schools were among the best in the nation. A Regents’ diploma was considered golden. I taught English classes using an excellent set of language arts standards developed and revised by teachers, informed by continuing research, over the years. I do not advocate a return to any “good old days,” but I hope to contribute to an informed collaboration between the Board and the legislature. Many eyes are on New York State, and I would like to help restore our system’s national reputation for the sake of all children across the nation.

Healthcare for new mothers and focused attention on early childhood education are excellent first steps. Involving experienced educators in all aspects of educational policy and practice will be another good step. Age-appropriate goals, smaller classes, access to a good library with a knowledgeable librarian, a balanced curriculum including physical activity, the arts, and a range of academic study every day: educational experts agree on these requirements. Involving teacher educators in planning will help us to prepare new teachers who can feel confident working in any public school. Time that is being spent on testing and preparing students for testing can be returned to children and their teachers for wide reading and thoughtful consideration of whatever they read about, to develop thinking, reading, and writing skills. Money that is spent on software, hardware, and printed material to support the tests can be given instead to principals who can make their schools marvelous places where students can become passionate about their learning.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

My dissertation is almost done.

Author’s Pain

(for all struggling writers navigating an unfamiliar genre)

Let the landscape
be smooth rolling hills,
fields of new-mown lawn
or green pasture.
But what I produce
instead are sharply chunked
wooden blocks in jagged
angled upheaval.

Words gasp out of me
falling on paper
like spent cartridges
rather than fertile seeds
hoped for.

Progress comes only
by stretching hamstrings,
scraping knuckles, elbows, knees,
tearing sleeves or pant legs
caught by hidden thorns
which harbor delicate jewels
of shining phrase
or flowing logic
not quite visible
almost out of reach
without exhausting

I fall asleep
each night to suffer
chaotic dreams
where the nightly problems
live long into the paragraphs

of the next day. 

Thursday, November 08, 2012

First Snow Poem 2012

Afterimage     November 2, 2012

home through the first wet snow of the season
heavy with long lists of things to be done on another day
lists that spill off the small papers they might have been written on
as these swooping flakes spill out of the gray clouds above the road.

a long way off
spectacular days of remembered summer sun
light-shot columns of cloud that float airily across the blue
unlike these metallic gates of vapor.

those days will return but sorrow faces the winter, the lists,
the cold tedium of woolly layers and icy winds.

hypnosis of the swooping snow tracks:
I follow the myriad upward arcs meeting my windshield
more arcs, and more, and more -- how can there be so many?
along the lines of the hilltops, more, wave after wave
lost in them, as when
gazing up at stars on the cold August lawn
staring into sparking flames
stepping onto wet overlapping leaves carpeting the walk.

in my driveway, breathing slows
brows unfurrow
I close my eyes and many smooth arcs rise to meet the backs of my eyelids.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Campaign for our Public Schools

Dear President Obama,

Four years ago, when you were running for president, I was participating in a life-changing professional development program called Summer Institute, sponsored by the National Writing Project in one of its many local chapters near me in upstate New York. It was a heady time, exciting, galvanizing, and transformative. Twenty-some teachers of all content areas gathered to read and study and discuss and write their way to new understandings about teaching writing. It turned out to be life-changing for me, as I soon left my classroom career of 23 years to return to school for a doctorate in education. Now I train teachers at a state college.

While I was there, we wrote daily and shared our writing. One of the writings I shared was a letter to you in which I wrote about the problems NCLB had created with its misguided approach to education. Imagine how disappointed I was when you, too, relied on advice from non-educators whose recommended policies intensified the worst aspects of NCLB! The high-stakes testing, already in place in New York State before NCLB, increased and then with Race to the Top, took over the schools like an insidious terrorism. Data-driven obsession replaced thoughtful consideration of students' needs and best practices. I saw many students suffer setbacks in their intellectual development because of the changes in the school atmosphere. Because pre-teens and teens are resilient, some may recover from this scourge as adults, to overcome the culture of regurgitation and the mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum encouraged by such a culture. Lucky for us - such recovery has brought us some of our most brilliant minds. But education doesn't have to be something to survive, and I believe we have made it an obstacle course with this emphasis on measuring learning in narrow ways.

It was also disturbing to watch as the teaching profession, not particularly honored or respected to begin with (certainly not when I began teaching in 1978), become the target of witch-hunters and nay-sayers in our society, on a grand scale. Yes, I know some teachers should not be teaching, just as some politicians should not be in office, some religious leaders should be removed from their churches, some shop clerks make mistakes with numbers. This denigration of teaching was intertwined with anti-union efforts, and though I have never been a huge fan of teachers unions, I have been a member for decades, and I have served when I saw a chance to increase the quality of our professionalism. Teachers should lead teachers to better practices and choices of self-improvement.

Yet we continue to be judged by non-educators. In fact, non-educators spurred this entire movement, in our country's history, to make schools the newest market, the locus of exploitation and profiteering. This velvet takeover of curriculum and instruction, out of the hands of the experts who have studied and prepared for it, into the hands of publishers and technology marketeers and politicians, is perhaps the biggest indignity. I pride myself on keeping up with what is best for children and helpful in my field, but my expertise was overlooked again and again in my 30 year career in public schools. Here it was overlooked by those who had no connection to schools except the desired connection to the funds that drive our schools. Those funds come from the people living in local communities, taxpayers across the state. The emphasis on testing and the control of curriculum by businesses funnel the funds from hardworking citizens to enormous business interests.

Business owners profiting from massive testing and accountability systems, and the politicians who partner with them, claim they must wrest control of schools away in order be competitive around the world. Even when the flaws in that argument are pointed out (the United States tests all its students, not just the children of the rich and well-prepared), you continue with these policies. These purported solutions will not, cannot be successful, until we solve the complex and difficult problems underlying our spotty performance on any standardized tests: the problems of poverty and inequity. You know that those problems are the knottiest; you spoke of them as you campaigned. For that reason I supported and voted for you, only to watch these problematic NCLB practices continue and worsen.

You stand by as the teacher-bashing continues, even as your daughters study in schools where poverty is not a problem, where teachers are considered the experts who should make the decisions about curriculum and assessment. Meanwhile, in most of the schools across the nations, power is taken away from children through the delivery of the shallow intense curriculum and the massive time spent on test delivery. They no longer have time to develop their literacy and numeracy skills in nurturing atmosphere that encourages mindfulness. The intensity of the pressure on teachers and administrators is passed on to them, and they associate school with all that is awful and anxiety-producing. They do not love learning and they will not be thoughtful, well-informed voters.

We will start to see all sorts of unintended consequences in our citizenry. I only hope that you will stop this madness so that teachers can be freed to prepare our students for active involvement in a democracy and discerning contributors to our economy.

Note: I have sent this letter to Anthony Cody ( who is collecting teachers' letters to submit to the White House on October 17 in a special effort to engage his attention. See Diane Ravitch's blog: .

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Awakening, Part Two

This morning, I'm continuing to examine the Sojourners' 12 Symptoms of Spiritual Awakening. I prefer to re-cast this list, not as symptoms (a humorous metaphor to some) but as rungs of a ladder to a new and contended place.

7. Once you have cultivated the attitude of gratitude discussed in number 4 above, you will find that it is more difficult to worry. It will not come as easily as it did before. Your frequent smiling (see number 2 above) will forestall the frown and wrinkles that accompany worrying, requiring an act of will to settle into serious anxiety. It will simply happen less often. It is also good to allow that things might happen for a reason, which also forestalls worry, since you can instead think of the mystery of why something is happening -- what good reason there might be for it -- rather than how bad it is. You may not subscribe to the popular idea that "things happen for a reason," but it can be a more productive way to approach what seems to be a random and catastrophic existence, whether it is true or not. In this, I am a pragmatic rather than a romantic (my more usual mode).

8. Conflict tends to be interesting to those who are worrying, who are disconnected from nature and isolated from others, who do not perceive what they have that they should be grateful for.  Insecurity, disconnection, anxiety, make it more interesting to watch others fight or engage with difficulties. This is not the same as enjoying a good story, nor is it even the same as escaping into a good story. This is more about pot-stirrers, who deliberately egg on those who would gossip or otherwise engage in and encourage alienation, disturbance, emotional fighting. This is about those who would rather talk about others than collaborate with others. 

All of that interest falls away as one perceives connection and expresses gratitude. The lives of the rich and famous, whether on television, internet, or down the hall at work, are simply less interesting when one's own life becomes less fraught. It is good when you no longer have to look for someone in bigger trouble than you are. If you are attuned to letting things happen for yourself, you don't have to look to others for excitement. You just don't care about the Kardashians (less accessible) or the Jones (right in the neighborhood) who have this, that, and the other thing. Less comparison with others means more satisfaction and contentedness. You'll find you can resist major advertising campaigns more successfully, and with practice, you might be able to ignore them completely.

It helps if you avoid reading glossy magazines that act as mass pot stirrers to get us interested in Kardashians and Joneses. Try giving up newspapers, magazines, even television or radio news for short periods of time. Re-introduce small doses of headline radio news, to avoid the pot stirring and visual advertising onslaughts. It also helps to avoid staff lounges or other gathering places of the meddling and vindictive. Remember that some people use those spaces with no malign intent (do not judge; see number 10 below) but they are also Petri dishes for those who cast their eyes about looking for trouble to nudge and poke into full conflagration. Go to such places, but do so with open eyes, with a strong heart to resist them, and instead connect and collaborate with the others.

9. Now that you are less interested in the actions of others and more focused on your own spontaneity and living in the moment (see numbers 5 and 6 above), you will also spend less time wondering why other people do the things they do and spend more of your valuable time in this life on just living it. This leads to more of number 5 and 6 above: more intensely joyful experiences that will give you a feeling of truly being alive and aware, connected in the most positive ways to nature and society. You will approach a feeling of being one with the universe. That may sound hokey, but wait until you have that feeling, and your smile stretches across your face, and your tears well up. And you wonder why but you know it doesn't matter. It could be myriads of small joys or several big ones.

10. The kind of reflection that allows for gratitude and joy also leads to an attitude that makes it difficult to judge other people. You know how you have grown and changed; you know from whence you came. You will not be so quick to put someone else down (except perhaps for a moment in your own mind, and certainly not out loud and publicly). You will no longer be the judgmental bitch or bastard you might once have been, and it will free up all sorts of energy for new projects and thoughts that present themselves in the void created when you leave all that behind. You will find that you will judge less and less even in your own mind. Your energy just will not support it anymore.

11. One of the best results from number 10 above is that you will also become less judgmental of yourself. You will allow yourself to be nurturing and encouraging, and those voices that used to say "you can't, you can't" will start saying, "let's! let's!" You will be amazed at the possibilities that open up before you. It will bring you great joy. You will smile more, and tears will well up at odd moments.

12. With the inordinate amount of interest in others reduced and moments of joy greatly increased, you will find that you have a lot of love in your heart. Because you are not focused on others but simply connected, you will not expect anything from them in return for your own love and encouragement. You will find yourself filled with love. It is a really different way to live, so don't expect every step of the way to be easy. You may draw attention to yourself in ways you did not anticipate, but be strong. Be brave. Love is a good foundation for living, especially supported by numbers 1 through 10 above. 

Because of the great shining light of love and joy that will surround you at this point, more light and energy and joy will come to you. It seems to be how this universe works. I could be wrong, but it feels really good anyway.

Lastly, I'll share the prayer that helps me keep all this in mind as I sit, in the morning, and face a new day:

Lord of light, constant, unchanging, 
shine on me and shine in me. 
Hear my prayers. 
Hear me declare that I am letting go of the struggle, 
that I am eager to learn through joy, 
eager to claim all the blessings that are waiting for me. 
Protect me from my own desires. 
Teach me to find truth in my mouth, in my heart. 
Keep me from taking anything personally. 
Put questions on my lips 
rather than assumptions in my mind. 
Give me patience to listen closely, 
that I may hear others' stories, 
and that I may know 
what it is I am meant to learn from them. 
Push me to do my best always, in everything. 
Lead me from the darkness of pain and fear 
into the marvelous light of grace and peace.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Awakening, Part One

A spiritual friend sent out an interesting list that came to him from a group called Sojourners, people who describe themselves as Christian activists for social justice. It describes 12 symptoms of Spiritual Awakening. As I read down the list, I realized that I have cultivated these symptoms deliberately over the last 20 years, and that they really define my approach to existence, in this universe, anyway. I'm altering the list of "symptoms," since I find that word to be misleading, with spiritual awakening likened to a disease. It can be a humorous way to treat a serious topic, but I prefer to present the list as a series of recommendations that promote personal growth, with advice about how to scaffold and encourage that growth in each of these twelve areas.

1. Let things happen sometimes, rather than orchestrating and insisting and controlling. It is a pleasant feeling to roll down a river without a paddle, if you know you are in no danger. "Go with the flow," is the expression that came to us from Marcus Arelius' writings. This is a synonymous expression, although it doesn't have exactly the same meaning as this first piece of advice. Controlling and orchestrating and insisting takes psychic energy, and sometimes you would be better off reserving that energy for other undertakings, picking your battles, perhaps. Life has plenty of situations where your planning and organizational skills are essential. Allow yourself to have some measure of time that is not planned and organized.

2. Smiling is really an important strategy for life. Cultivating an easy smile is not listed as a management technique, and yet it accomplishes so much in the larger social realm. Besides that, it is a great way to be remembered. Think, right now, about people you know and love and respect - how many of them have a great smile, one that lights up a room, or at least lights up the heart of the person they are listening to at the moment? That smile signals attention, positivity, encouragement, love - all conducive to social and professional situations.

3. Spend time outdoors. Walk outside every day near grass, bushes, trees, and water. If you can't bring yourself to hug a tree, at least sit under or near trees, especially trees that contain life in the form of squirrels and birds. If you are confined to the indoors, sit where you can look out a window at trees, sky, clouds, far hills, or some other form of nature. Grow a small plant on a windowsill. Allow yourself to really look at the plant, clouds, trees, that are in that frame you have set up. Listen to the water you are near; watch it move. Connect with this place that you are from, that is part of you.

3b. Connect with people near you every day. Use that smile (see number 2) to make connections with the strangers who cross your path, and use your heart to make connections with loved ones. If you live far away, use e-mail or social networks to keep in touch. If you must spend some long hours working apart from people, take breaks that bring you near people again. Remind yourself of this human network you are part of; don't forget it for too many hours at a time. Such isolation brings errant thoughts and inhumane behavior.

4. Take some time each day (many of us favor early morning or right before sleeping) to appreciate, or in other words, show gratitude for some small number of aspects of life that day or the previous one. Let this habit build, through practice, until the day comes when you are overwhelmed with positive appreciation at an odd time, that is, at a time when nothing in particular has occurred, yet all seems to be well and good. This is called joy. It leads to recurrent episodes of joy, and sometimes they can bring tears to the eyes, they are so sharp and sudden. These episodes can also lead to prolonged periods of feeling on top of the world. The positive energy generates more and more positive energy. This is a good thing.

5. This one is related to number 1 above. Allow yourself to act spontaneously from time to time, to choose to do something that appears on your event horizon unbidden, that is unplanned, that has come to you seemingly from nowhere, and practice the art of NOT LETTING FEAR (based on past experiences) control your actions. We humans, in our superior evolutionary position, use past experience to guide us, but sometimes we let that happen too much. Sometimes it paralyzes us, freezing us in a rut or pattern of activity/inactivity that threatens to bury us. Scientists are studying, right now, how change and growth is essential to the elderly in order for them to live a bit longer with some quality of life. Let's not wait for the final results -- do something new every other day, or every week or so. Do something that someone suggests and do it without weighing and thinking too hard. Be safe, but don't turn down what could be the key to your next phase of existence.

6. Ancient wisdom tells us to enjoy each moment. We who plan and organize or let televisions or internet plan and organize our time sometimes lose sight of the present moment in our anticipation of future moments. It is such an easy trap to slip into. As teens we are chomping at the bit for the future. Wait until I get out of here. Wait until I live on my own. Wait until I get a good job instead of this crappy summer job. Wait until I'm the manager. Wait until I find my one and only. I can't wait until this, that, or the other thing. Throughout our twenties, we say phrases like these often until we build up a pattern. As parents, we live through difficult phases of our childrens' growth by reminding ourselves that they won't be inarticulate infants forever, that they won't be toddlers forever, that they will someday learn to wash their ears and brush their teeth on their own. Then our children are grown in the blink of an eye, and we wonder where those moments went. Stop yourself, if you find yourself in the middle of one of these thoughts. These moments are our life. Don't wish them away. Breathe - it can make a difficult moment not quite so difficult. Find ways of thinking about the difficult moments, as you are in them, that allow you to live the moment rather than wish it away. You will not want to awaken from a life that is wished away to say, "where did it go?"

There are twelve items on the list - I'll deal with the other six in my next post.