Wednesday, July 31, 2013

My GRE Experience

This summer I am spending some time getting ready to take the GREs, in case I want to go back to school for something or other. Despite some misgivings, I have decided to "go public" with my experiences preparing for and taking the test. Since I write so much about high stakes testing and since it has had such an effect on the educational lives of my children and on my life as a teacher, I figured writing about it was too good an opportunity to pass up-- like when Katie Couric broadcast her colonoscopy live on public television. Not, mind you, that I am Katie Couric and not that I wish to increase the incidences of GRE test prep, nor will I broadcast live my review or examination sessions (can you imagine?).

So, other than this introductory post, I will also write posts about each of the sections: verbal, quantitative, and analytical. I am reluctant to submit to this test, but I can't get into graduate school without it, so I don't have much choice. If anything, the place I find myself in will authenticate (that sounds like one of those words that isn't a real word, doesn't it?) my experience. Despite other and superior means of demonstrating my qualifications for entry into graduate school, I am stuck taking this test. Am I a hypocrite for deciding to prepare when I deride test prep so much? Maybe--you'll have to see how much and in what ways I've decided to prepare before you judge that.

I took the GREs once right after I graduated from college. I was told this was the best time to take it when everything, especially test taking, is still "fresh." I actually found it was a horrible time to take it because I was burnt out and had no thoughts of going back to school anytime soon. Also, the GREs were nothing like the tests I had in college, thank god. I did not prepare, I did not take it seriously, and I scored poorly. The second time I took it was a few year later-- fifteen years ago (fifteen!) when I was applying to masters and teacher certification programs. (In case you're interested, I wrote about my experience in ed school here.) I reviewed a little--I was motivated to have a strong application--and then just took the plunge. I did surprisingly well--not like Merit Finalist well but well enough, for me--I'm not a good test taker.

For this time, I checked out a GRE book from the library and I'm currently plugging my way through it. The verbal section is really not something I can practice for. The best I can do is be familiar with the format and stick to the format. I will probably write the most about this section--it's the most problematic as far as I'm concerned. The quantitative sections, I do need to review for. Most of the math is rattling around in my brain somewhere but I wouldn't be able to access it without reviewing first, especially with the math I don't use on a regular basis. There's also some types of questions that I don't remember being on the versions of the SATs and GREs I took long ago. Preparing for the writing section will probably just mean familiarization with the format. I think the biggest hardship will be losing the ability to sleep on what I wrote and edit it later. My usual writing process is to think and read for days or even weeks or months about something, then vomit out a draft and then leave it for a bit, think more, and then clean up the mess in stages. Can't do that on the GRE.

Now, it's been very hard for me to accept that I have to take this god foresaken test. Though it's kind of fun to re-learn the math and I know that at least some of it will be helpful in certain graduate programs (and in understanding what the heck Bruce Baker is talking about), I resent having to take the test and I resent the time I have to spend reviewing for it. I feel like once you reach a certain age, you should be excused from the GREs, like age out of it or something. To be honest, I think about it (or actively avoid thinking about it) every day: I need to to study. I'm going to bomb it. The admissions folks are going to think I'm an idiot. I can't believe I missed that question. I feel so stupid. I wonder if there are any pickles left. And then when I start to resent it: Isn't there a lot more than these test scores that would show I'd be a good graduate student? I mean, I practically am a graduate student. I read and write all of the time and make no money! What a waste of time! 

And then I start to understand how so many American children must feel during every testing season, or even every school day.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

TFA: Yup, still an Industry

A little over two years ago, I published a long form commentary about TFA based on the work of other TFA critics and researchers, such as Barbara Miner, Julian Vasquez Heilig, and Su Jin Jez. I had initially hoped to get it published elsewhere, and I submitted it widely. Since I had no takers, I went ahead and posted it myself. Its popularity surprised me--with close to 10,500 hits it is my most popular post. I still share it and it's a strong part of my education writing portfolio, but I moved on after a while. I felt like I had said my piece and I didn't want "TFA critic" to become my identity, or my obsession.

While I would likely write the piece differently now, in the two plus years since I published that post, TFA hasn't seemed to change much. Most of what I wrote is still relevant. TFA continues to grow and accumulate great wealth. It is particularly hard to see TFA in a flattering light now given sequestration, severe post-stimulus budget cuts, and the amount that TFA charges school districts despite their own robust financial health. Finally, TFA continues to refuse to remake themselves in ways that would make them more palatable to their critics. Here were, for example, some of my suggestions:
People work as paralegals before deciding to go to law school, why not have TFA candidates work as teachers’ aides and then fund their further education if they pledge to go on to teach in high-poverty schools? Why doesn't TFA start programs for top students such as this amazing one that is being phased out by Yale University? Why not have alternative certification programs that allow credit for non-traditional but still relevant and substantial experience? Why don’t we stop speaking disparagingly of our teachers from state and public universities, start recruiting them to teach in their home or high-poverty districts, and fund their teacher education and apprenticeships with loan forgiveness programs such as is offered by Sallie Mae?

I am, however, pleased to see more critical pieces about TFA popping up in the liberal media. Although there were several pieces before that, some of the most recent coverage has been spurred by a group of TFA alumni who met in Chicago around the idea of pushing back against the organization. James Cersonsky wrote about this in The American Prospect and even the Atlantic featured a decent piece about it.

Unfortunately, a response from Justin Fong, an employee of TFA's "internal communications" department who attended the conference in Chicago reflects, well, a lack of real reflection on TFA's part. While Fong expressed heartfelt appreciation of the criticism, the nuts and bolts of TFA skeptics' concerns about TFA just didn't sink in. For example, Fong opined (bolded emphasis mine):
Teach For America isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s not. For me personally, I can’t wait for the day that TFA closes its doors and is no longer relevant. That is a day when our education system finally works for everyone, not just for those with privilege and power. The ultimate victory for the organization is to become obsolete, to become no longer necessary
Teach For America has financial and political support because many people understand the value that it brings in creating a force for change of an education system that’s not working. It’s not spin. There’s a great deal of good that comes out of Teach For America—you have to settle with that.
Mr. Fong and TFA see themselves as necessary, not potentially or possibly helpful but necessary. That is quite a presumption. TFA critics believe that not only is TFA not necessary but that it's harmful. That's the whole point. And would TFA really pack up shop "when our education system finally works for everyone, not just those with privilege and power"? As I pointed out in the opening paragraph of my original piece (and I am not alone in this), this statement represents a change in TFA's mission. It began with "we help in areas with teacher shortages." Now it is "the educational system is broken, we're here to help fix it."  And increasingly, "fix it" means replacing, not complementing experienced teachers--isn't TFA in its current incarnation expanding into places where there are adequate numbers of professional teachers? Isn't the KIPP model touted as highly successful within pro-TFA circles? Wouldn't it follow, then, that TFA would no longer be necessary there?

Mr. Fong and TFA believe they are "a force for change of an educational system that's not working" and that this "brings value." There are many troubling assumptions here. First of all, is TFA a force for positive change? Does it "bring value"? TFA critics and their research would argue, no. Again, that's the point of their criticism. Second of all, while many TFA critics agree that reforms are needed, they don't agree that "the system is not working" is a useful starting point for productive reform. Reformers who begin with "the system is broken" often use that as an excuse to ignore their responsibility to find whatever is working and not break that, too. Furthermore,"you have to settle with that" does not sound as if it is in the spirit of collaboration, or like working together; it sounds like you have to believe that TFA is necessary and great, period.

If Justin Fong is meant to emblemize TFA 2.0, a kinder, gentler TFA, well, not much seems to have changed.Though not without good intentions, it's the same patronizing ideology masked in reformy teamwork! speak. You can't "peacefully co-exist" with an organization that says that you're not good at what you do and we're going to do it for you and "you have to settle with that." That's not what teamwork looks like. Alas, the more things change. . .

Monday, July 8, 2013

Gifted and Prepped

Gary Rubinstein, one of my most favorite education bloggers, has written a fantastically interesting post about his own experience with the kindergarten lottery/enrollment process in New York City. Anyone who's interested in the whether-where-high-profile-education-people-send-their-children-to-school-matters conversation should read this, as well as advocates of lottery or "choice" systems, gifted educators, and people who study school accountability and ratings. Gary has given his readers a real and honest window into all of this.

The New York City Public School lottery system, which I have read a lot about, just seems crazy. Calling it a choice system is a joke, unless you mean that the schools choose the students, not the reverse. And even for families, it's so complicated. I can't imagine most people can navigate it. And even many savvy parents don't navigate it on their own--they pay someone to help them navigate it. I remember reading an argument that this system is more fair than the previous system, and that may be so, but I don't know if that's saying much.

I also want to address the twenty children with a mediocre or bad teacher vs. forty children with a great teacher debate. I think that's a false dichotomy. First of all, as I've said here, I don't really believe in inherently great teachers (teachers are made not born) and I think that circumstances such as class size or total student load can help to make or break great teaching. Yes, some teachers are just bad at their jobs, no matter what, but good teaching is highly dependent on working conditions and other circumstances.

And then there is something Gary totally left out: curriculum. He says for his child, peer group is more important than the teacher to him, that
 I’d want my daughter, ideally, in an ethnically diverse class where all the students are functioning above grade level. 
And I totally agree with him about the peer group effect and honesty and charter schools (bolded emphasis is mine):
Here I want my daughter to be in a ‘peer group’ with kids, like her, who come to kindergarten already able to read while I seem to have a problem with charter schools excluding the toughest to educate kids and then kicking out the few that make it through their initial defenses, thus creating a peer group of motivated low-income students with motivated parents.  The truth is, though, that I wouldn’t have such a problem with charters creating this enhanced peer group if they would not lie about doing more with the ‘same kids’ as the nearby ‘failing’ school.  What this has caused is those ‘failing’ schools getting starved of resources, their schools shut down, and their teachers fired.  All because they did not try to game the system.
But for me, while the teacher and the peer group are important neither is as important as the curriculum, what my children are being being taught. Now, I do acknowledge that math curriculum works differently--after a certain point, it's very hard to differentiate a subject that is so heavily dependent on sequence, on mastering a previous skill, concept, or even set of math facts. I say this as a language and social studies teacher, though I guess I should be careful in asserting myself with too much confidence here because Gary is a maestro of math teaching. But anyway, I don't see what good it does my child if they're in a room full of above-grade level peers with or without a "great" teacher if they're learning gibberish.

Finally, I want to address the gifted identification and placement process he discusses. I have to admit though I don't advocate against it and I am relatively uninformed about it, that I have some reservations, generally, about gifted education. I think there are very few truly gifted people in the world. Hence, I am deeply skeptical of any gifted assessment(s) that would find as many as 40% of any population gifted, as the assessments do in NYC. That's not gifted-ness that being identified, it's something else. Second of all, I am deeply skeptical that you can prep for gifted diagnostic tests without invalidating their results. I understand that most people of means get their children prepped for these tests in New York City--this is not about judging Gary for following suit (and I deeply respect him for his honesty about it); the system only works as it should if no one preps their kid. As for the Hunter School and the playdates and the clipboards, that's mostly a matter of luck--what any four-year-old happened to say in that time and what the clipboard-wielder happened to denote is random. There has to be some way of choosing, but I don't see this way as being any more scientific than a lottery is.

In response to the question at the end of his post, I do not think Gary is a hypocrite for wanting the best place for his children, but I do not envy his having to be a part of a such a rat race. Most people prep for gate-keeping tests (I will write a series about my recent personal experiences with the GRE soon), but there's something obscene about preparing and assessing four-year-olds in this way--it makes it almost totally about the parents and their resources.

My father, a native New Yorker and (Gary should appreciate this) a Stuyvesant grad, often repeats this quote which he attributes to Norman Mailer, "New York has the best of everything: the best restaurants, the best plays, the best criminals. . ." and the best gifted and talented program, and the best ways to game it.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

On being an active (local) citizen

Being an active citizen is important. This is our community, these are our schools, and our local government is supposed to, within reason, work for us. But we need to work for us, too. We have to do what I call, “earning our right to complain.” Issues of local government often get the least attention and local election often have the lowest turn-out, but these issues and elections actually affect our everyday lives the most. They are not glamorous, but they matter.

First of all: Get informed. This will take some work. But the good news is, there is a learning curve. If you invest some time up front, it will save you a lot of time later. Subscribe to your local paper. Read publicly available government documents. Watch your local news reports. Observe. Ask questions and listen.

Second, be present at meetings. This will take a lot of time. But it’s part of getting informed and it’s also a signal to your local decision makers that you are watching and that you care.

Next, speak up. This will take courage. One place to speak up is at the meetings of local governance I just mentioned. You can also write your local appointed and elected officials letters, e-mails, and you can call them on the phone. You can write letters to the editor or post your thoughts on a local on-line publication. Your local decision makers want to know what you think and if you don’t speak, they will act upon what everyone else who speaks tells them to do. If you do speak and they don’t listen then help get someone else elected who will listen and who will act. As much as possible, include anecdotes, data, research, and evidence to help support the case you’re making.

Finally, be respectful and don’t burn bridges. This will take perseverance and it will take diplomacy. You will not make one phone call or write one letter and get your problem fixed. You have to keep at it. Also, you will not get everything you want. These issues are often complex and democracy means that we have to compromise. For democracy to work, we have to accept that we live in a society of “we,” not a society of “me.” On that note I will leave with a quote from the English writer, R.H. Blyth:
Perfect does not mean perfect actions in a perfect world, but appropriate actions in an imperfect one.

Think Educationally, Act Locally

Since last fall, I have spent significantly less time writing and blogging. For one, I started a part-time teaching job. Also, as I wrote about here, in light of recent destructive parent trigger-type actions, I wanted to get more meaningfully and positively involved as a parent. Finally, as you may recall, I had decided to make a concerted effort to act less from behind a computer screen and more locally and face-to-face. So, mostly my writing has been in the form of PTA meeting minutes and e-mails, letters, and public statements to my local decision makers.

Besides the school-level work, during winter break I got (unfortunately) the perfect opportunity to be more active in local education matters. We're in year five of devastating budget cuts in my county. Some of this is due to budget constraints as a result of the economic downturn but it's also due to ideology which has taken a hold of our local governing body which says that 1) no matter how small or efficient already, government is too big and 2) all services belong on a magical free market. Paradoxically, many people who seem to support this ideology also want roads and services, like education, and a decent quality of life. It seems they just don't want to pay for it and they certainly don't want to pay for them for anyone else--see here for a good example of what I'm talking about.

Besides serving on the boards of two PTAs, I joined up with a group called Friends of Hanover Schools which is dedicated to advocating for enough funding (but coupled with smart budgeting) for our schools to be great and to electing pro-public education local and state decisions makers.

Volunteering and being an active part of our schools' PTA has given me humbling insights into how much work it is to run a school. On the one hand there are little tasks that can get big rewards and on the other hand there are big tasks that take lots of work which pay off only so much. It's also given me a new perspective into how schools and systems are run and what role parents can play (hint: It's VERY different from being a teacher). I've learned it's better to ask and listen to what is needed first and then see if it maybe ties into what I'd like to get done, rather than the inverse. Sometimes, for example, helping with something as mundane as making copies can make a big difference.

Being active in a local public education advocacy group has also been very educational. For one,  I have learned to put aside, without prejudice, goals that are important to me (elected school boards, rich and meaningful curriculum, and reducing the emphasis on high-stakes testing) in the interest of furthering the mission of our particular organization. I will still work on the other goals, but adequate funding was an issue around which this non-partisan group could rally.

If I compare my work on national education policy versus local/state education policy, it's been very different. It takes a lot more courage and also diplomacy to have conversations face-to-face and about every day, practical matters, than it does to have them on-line about theoretical matters. Things get far more complicated from the former perspective and much more rhetorical from the later.

That's not to say that being active at the national level was a waste of time. That was an education, too. For one, it prepared me to face people who disagree with me and who might say not-so-nice things. But I also learned the hard way the first time around that shaming helps no one, and that it's a mistake to assume that I'm a better person for valuing some things over others than someone who values others things over what I value. That doesn't mean I am not fairly confident that what I value will make our society a better place, but I realize that folks with another POV think that what they value will make society a better place, too. Lastly, at both levels, in the face of short-term defeat or disappointment, I have learned to not take disagreements personally, to plug along, and to keep my mind on the bigger picture.

So, what did I actually do as a citizen to take action? My first act was to write a letter to our Board of Supervisors (our local governing body). I sent a version of this letter to every member of the Board of Supervisors and of the School Board, I read a version of it out loud as a comment during citizens' time at the Board of Supervisors meeting, and I submitted it as a letter to the editor to our local newspapers. Second, I gave a presentation at an FOHS forum about how to be a more active citizen. Finally, despite our Board of Supervisors' failing to do anything to raise revenues and correct tax rates to 2007 levels, my fellow activists and I are not giving up. Their failure was a disappointment but was not surprising. And I am in this for the long haul.