Teachers Are Not Meant to Be Martyrs: Why We Need to Give Educators More Power to Shape Policy: High School Graduation Requirements


 Every week I leaf through Education Week, a compilation of the issues of the day in the world of education across the nation.

An Education Week Opinion essay is especially timely [Teachers Are Not Meant to Be Martyrs: Why we need to give educators more power to shape policy]  as the state considers sweeping changes to high school graduation requirements in New York State.

Teachers need more power. They are the street-level bureaucrats carrying out the work on the ground. If policies are going to be successfully implemented in a practical context, then teachers need to be given the time and the space to reconcile the requirements with their own practice.

Policymakers need to recognize that policy does not operate in a vacuum. Policymakers need to make sure the bureaucrats on the ground have the time and resources to carry out new education objectives in a real-life context.

Teacher educator programs need to better prepare teachers for the onslaught of policy that they will face from all levels of governance. Teaching is a political process, and teachers enter the field unprepared for that reality.

Researchers need to recognize the need for more pragmatic research and advocacy on what happens when “the rubber meets the road.”

In short, teachers don’t need a seat at the table. Teachers need everyone, themselves included, to realize that they own the table.

Absolutely on target!

Remember the Common Core? The National Governors Association “adopted” the Common Core State Standards  (Read here), David Coleman, ironically currently head of the College Board, entwined in AP Afro-American History kafuffle; led the rollout, a disaster, critics on the “left” and the “right” and states who jumped to adopt, including NYS, backed away.  Sol Stern and Peter Wood debated the pros and cons, Read here

 The CCSS faded into the dustbin of history, NYS adopted Next Generation Standards, I call Common Core-lite (Read here) and unfortunately abandoned EngageNY, a compendium of teacher designed curriculum modules that were widely used around the nation.

 NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, called the gold standard, assesses students in the 4th, 8th and high school every three years, NYS falls just below the 50th percentile of states and has languished there for over a decade. Oddly, the high school graduation rate has continued to increase every year over the same period, currently 87% of students graduate within 4 years, almost all with Regents diplomas.

The sharp difference between NAEP scores and ever increasing graduation rates is strangely similar to the ever increasing state test scores under Commission Mills.  Chancellor Tisch and the successor Commissioner Steiner asked two testing experts to explore, and

“Another member of the Regents, former New York City schools superintendent Betty Rosa, went further, claiming that she was told by a high-ranking department official that [Commissioner]Mills and [Director of Testing[ Abrams had lowered the cut scores on the 2009 math test. Rosa even lobbied unsuccessfully to delay the release of the scores until there was an independent investigation of possible test corruption.”

 Tisch and Steiner asked a Harvard professor to take a deep dive, (see the Koretz Report here) and found “score inflation” and “leniency” in setting cut scores.

 The current Graduation Measures process raises similar issues, if the NAEP scores remain in the doldrums and graduation rates continue to rise how do you explain? (See latest Graduation rates here)

 The state has established a number of safety nets, superintendent determinations and “scales” the scores on Regents exams, technical reports that once were available in a timely manner on-line are no longer available.

 If the state decouples Regents Exams from graduation or simply does away with Regents altogether will graduation rates jump?

 Why has the state entered a review of the high school graduation process?

 A glass half full type of person would say we should carefully parse graduation requirements from time to time, a glass half empty might say the goal is simply to increase graduation rates, One could argue even if the requirements are reduced a diploma is vital either to move on to higher education or the world of work.

 Maintaining high standards and raising graduation rates is challenging, especially when reading/math scores decline from the earliest grades

 The state of Utah and many private employers are removing a college diploma as a job requirement, (See here and here) a discussion for another day.

 The Blue Ribbon Commission announced, 64 members, only seven of whom appear to be classroom teachers, are meeting from now into the summer to craft recommendations to pass along to the Board of Regents.

 At the end of the process it’s the classroom teachers, the “street-level bureaucrats” who will be expected to carry out the changes.

 The core questions do not come from classroom practitioners, A Connecticut-based organization produced a literature review, the Comprehensive Center Network, provided a 167 page document (see here) addressing five questions, why should the core questions be determined by an external organization, shouldn’t the Board of Regents or the Commission determine the questions?

 The core questions will result in a wide range of replies and moving from general to specifics will be a contentious process,

1. What do you want all students to know and be able to do before they graduate?

2. How do you want all students to demonstrate such knowledge and skills, while capitalizing on their cultures, languages, and experiences?

3. How do you measure learning and achievement (as it pertains to the answers to #2 above) to ensure those measures are indicators of high school completion while enabling opportunities for ALL students to succeed?

4. How can measures of achievement accurately reflect the skills and knowledge of our special populations, such as students with disabilities and English language learners?

5. What course requirements or examinations will ensure that all students are prepared for college, careers, and civic engagement?

 Instead of attempting to answer the Five Questions supra, shouldn’t we be asking: why are other states are doing so well?  Why is NYS in the bottom half while Massachusetts is consistently in the top five states?

 Should we be concentrating on grades 9-12 or should we investigate K – 12?

 Is the extreme difference in funding a factor from district to district?   The difference in funding from high wealth to low wealth is substantial. How about a 6th Question: Should the NYS School Funding formula reflect the needs of students rather than the wealth of the school district?

 Over the last three decades Massachusetts has been consistently in the top five states in NAEP scores and requires an exit in the 10th grade, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Test  [MCAT], additionally  – content-rich curricula and a heavy dose teacher training  (See in depth discussion here)

 In Massachusetts students must earn a passing score on the grade 10 MCAS tests in English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics, and one of the high schools Science and Technology/Engineering (STE) tests to meet their graduation requirement.

Students who do not pass the MCAS tests in grade 10 may take retests in grades 11 and 12 and beyond. Students may also be able to participate in an appeal process.

 The battle over the Common Core was not necessary, I watched Coleman on a webcast roll out the Common Core by teaching a lesson using the MLK Letter from the Birmingham jail, a magnificent document, at the end an audience of teachers asked questions, Coleman was, shall we say snarky; and the rollout went downhill from there.

 David Tyack and Larry Cuban in “Tinkering Towards Utopia” recount endless failed education reforms and point to a simple reason, teachers must be onboard.

 After the state dumped the Common Core they created what they call the Next Generation Standards.  A team of teachers spent part of a summer with State Education staff working on the standards and in the fall the state rolled out the draft, the teachers on the committee objected, they had not agreed to the document.

 I sat in on a subsequent meeting at the UFT, a group of the teachers who worked on the draft document and three members of the Board of Regents, Regents Cashin, Chin and Rosa, all experienced educators, listened to the teachers, who had a long list of criticisms, the draft was withdrawn, a few more months of meetings, and the final document was adopted without the Common Core fiasco.

Teachers need more power. They are the street-level bureaucrats carrying out the work on the ground. If policies are going to be successfully implemented in a practical context, then teachers need to be given the time and the space to reconcile the requirements with their own practice

Listen to Tom Lehrer on Mathematics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxFCQplZgKI

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