Keeping Teachers in the Classroom

Keeping Teachers in the Classroom

by Priya Abraham

Given our still-sputtering economy, Americans have grown used to their public schools facing tight budgets. This fiscal squeeze has drawn out a hidden crisis in public education: How do we keep our best teachers in the classroom?

The short answer is, we don’t.

Between 2009 and 2012, public schools laid off about 140,000 teachers across America. In most places, teachers are let go in order of seniority, based solely on how long they’ve been in the system.

According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, only 15 states require teacher performance to inform decisions about layoffs. But, as parents and school administrators realized they were losing their most effective young teachers, fights erupted from California to Connecticut.

Most recently, the battle has come to Philadelphia, America’s eighth-largest school district. There, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is in a tense standoff over the rehiring of 3,800 laid-off teachers and other school employees.

In the midst of a longstanding budget crisis, Philadelphia school district officials can’t rehire every teacher. Their solution? Suspend seniority rules and put the best teachers back in the classroom. Naturally, the teachers’ union is fighting them tooth and nail.

As in other cities, seniority is harming Philadelphia’s parents, teachers, and some of its most disadvantaged students. For Philadelphia Rep. Vanessa Brown, chairwoman of the Pennsylvania’s black caucus, seniority rules were nearly a matter of life and death.

Learning was always a struggle for Brown’s special needs son-until the second grade. Then one day he told his surprised mother that he loved school. The reason was a dynamic new teacher, who connected so well with her son, the boy moved up three grades in just one year.

By the time Brown’s son reached ninth grade, however, a massive teacher layoff in Philadelphia cost the teacher his job. He got “bumped” by a more senior teacher, according to teacher union rules and state law. His excellent results with students like Brown’s son didn’t matter.

The more senior teacher, according to Brown, interpreted her son’s every learning obstacle as a disciplinary problem. The boy grew frustrated, and started acting out. He missed an opportunity to go to college, and that was the beginning of a “long, dark” depression, Brown says.

Were it not for Brown’s vigilance, thoughts of suicide might have overwhelmed him. Now Brown remains the only Democratic co-sponsor of a bill that would retain teachers based on performance, not on how much time they’ve served.

Seniority rules hurt some of the worst-off schools even within failing school districts like Philadelphia. Urban schools tend to attract young zealous teachers. But when layoffs hit, those teachers are the first let go.

In Los Angeles, Markham Middle School-one of the lowest-performing schools in the state-was on track for reform under a new operator and new teachers.

When the Los Angeles Unified School District laid off 9,000 employees in 2009-a tenth of the workforce-Markham lost half of its mostly young staff. Even when re-hiring began, the school was required to hire from a pool of displaced senior teachers first, most of whom didn’t even want to teach at Markham. The school ended up having to rely on substitute teachers, derailing its reform efforts.

The National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers have staunchly opposed seniority reform, even when it’s meant jettisoning their younger, due-paying members.

That’s why detailed teacher evaluation systems, such as those enacted in Florida or Indiana, are important. Used well, and with the goal of providing detailed feedback so teachers know how to improve, such systems tie teacher retention to student performance.

The battle playing out in Philadelphia-and which has been repeated across the country-has real victims. Both teachers and some of our most vulnerable students suffer when we rely on seniority alone to decide who gets to stay in the classroom. But if our public school system is to thrive, we must fight to keep our best teachers teaching.

Is it time to stop doing ‘common’ assessments…?

Is it time to stop doing ‘common’ assessments…?

by Justin Tarte

Most have been using common assessments for quite some time now. The idea in theory is good because teachers can collaboratively develop an assessment that assesses the most important skills that students need to demonstrate in that particular course or grade level

Once the assessment is complete teachers can then sit down and collaboratively go through the data to determine where a majority of the kids are finding success or perhaps even struggling. This will allow teachers to discuss which activities and instructional strategies they are using that yield the best results in terms of student learning.

Now, like I said, this is all good in theory and common assessments have shown to be effective to some degree.

Most have seen this image before. Most chuckle and give a little laugh when looking at it. Most nod their heads in agreement and question why we force kids to all take the same types of standardized assessments when we know it’s not appropriate and an accurate measure.

So, I go back to the title of this blog post… is it time to stop doing common assessments?

If we all agree that this image is not fair and is not an appropriate measure for assessing students, then we have to question the practice of common assessments.
What if as Rick Wormeli believes we started using ‘common evidence’ as our new assessment practice?

What if teachers worked collaboratively to determine the most important skills and knowledge that should be acquired by students but they gave each other the freedom to determine how best to evidence that learning?

What if teachers had the autonomy to develop their own assessments that are personalized, customized, and differentiated to best meet the needs of their students?
What if students were given the option of choosing an assessment that is most appropriate to demonstrate their mastery of the content?

What if…

How Much Freedom Should A Teacher Have?

How Much Freedom Should A Teacher Have?

by Grant Wiggins

In a recent blog post I commented on my dismay at the result about teaching in the just-released annual Kappan poll on education. Most American think teachers are born not made; I disagreed. Today I want to comment on what to me was another troublesome finding: the public’s view (presumably held by many teachers) about a required curriculum, and the broader question – vital for all educators to ponder – as to how much freedom should exist, and where, in teaching.

The poll question: Should education policies require teachers to follow a prescribed curriculum so all students can learn the same content, or should education policies give teachers flexibility to teach in ways they think best?

First, a comment on the question itself: apples and oranges, alas. The question is not well framed. The survey conflates the “what” with the “how” of teaching. Content can be mandated while teaching can still vary: the question obscures this important distinction as framed (probably just to be sensible to laypersons). In fact, this distinction probably reflects the norm. i. e. in most districts and even many private schools there is a curriculum framework that obligates all who teach the courses/grades in question, while little is mandated in terms of specific teaching techniques or instructional activities; that is typically left up to teachers. The public’s response – 70% want teachers to have the flexibility – probably reflects a broadly-held view that practitioners (in any field) should be able to exercise judgment about what clients need.

Yet, this result (and the conflated version of the question) begs an important question about just what it means to be a professional. How much freedom to teach a certain way should a professional educator have?

I trust readers agree that professional freedom does not permit one to deviate from the content of the curriculum to ignore specified content goals. Teachers aren’t self-employed entrepreneurs to whom we “rent space in the educational mall” (as one exasperated high school principal once said to me.) There is an organization and it has a Mission; and students have a right to a valid and coherent education over time and across teachers and schools if they move. Indeed, the research is clear and common sense about the virtue of such a mandate.

A “guaranteed and viable” curriculum in Marzano’s phrase (summing up all the meta-analysis over the years) is key if you want to ensure that the largest number of students achieve desired outcomes. The success of the Standards movement among rank and file teachers shows that we have come to accept this view. However, not enough frank discussion has been had in schools about the other issue – the so-called right to teach as one sees fit.

Though the 25-year-old rebel in me says “Of course!” and the 61-year-old in me has a negative visceral reaction to scripted teaching programs like Success For All, it is in fact a difficult position to maintain objectively. All learning goals imply that some pedagogies are appropriate and others are not – given the stated goals and given how people learn.

You can’t only lecture if you aim to develop critical thinkers.

You can’t merely march through textbook exercises in math if you seek to develop great problem solvers.

You cannot just tell students what history means if you want them to develop the ability to analyze events and documents themselves.

Aligning Your Instructional Practice With Learning Goals

Alas, many teachers and (especially) college professors often rely on instructional methods that are completely incompatible with stated course and program goals. We also needlessly more many students by using ineffective and unvaried approaches. So, I think it is reasonable to ask: can’t we tighten this up professionally? Can’t we be more clear and less loosey-goosey about just what is and isn’t negotiable in instruction, given the stated goals and what they logically demand of the use of class time and the learners’ minds?

Furthermore, in few professions are novices allowed to free-lance. No doctor or electrician can blithely invent basic technique or simply decide not to use by-the-book solutions to diagnoses or problems. In fact, in medical education (as I have since learned from discussing these issues with medical school educators), no intern or resident has the authority to administer any intevention without the sign-off of superiors; and few doctors would deviate from prescribed responses to common ailments unless those prescribed approaches failed to work.

Why should teaching be any different?

Why, for example, would we allow a 22-year-old teacher, fresh out of college, to decide on her own (working mostly in isolation, on top of it) what her students need all year as readers in terms of learning activities and assessment? Why wouldn’t we frame core high-quality math units in some detail and only give math teachers the authority to deviate from them if student results and indicators gained via supervision and walk-throughs suggest that they are effective as teachers?

More generally, don’t many of us now subscribe to the view that there really is “best practice” to be learned and used when called for, as in the case of medicine? Then, why would we permit as the default action that you are free to ignore best practice and invent your own? This doesn’t mean that there has to be a rigid inflexible script. Nor does it mean that we take good judgment away from practitioners. On the contrary, as medicine reveals, good judgment best enters when conventional diagnoses and prescriptions fail to work.

The curriculum could thus map out in some detail a few excellent options, based on what wise practitioners know is optimal for causing the desired results. Perhaps more importantly, a professional curricular guide would specify in detail a troubleshooting guide: here are signs that things aren’t going optimally, and here are tries and true alternative solutions for addressing the situation. Jay McTighe and I have long argued that all curricula should have a major section on trouble-shooting as part of the document. (See Schooling by Design Chapter 3).

Alas, far too many college professors and many high school teachers hold the misguided notion that their “academic freedom” protects them from any mandates about how to teach. This is nonsense: they conflate intellectual freedom with pedagogical obligation. No teacher, not even a professor with tenure, has the right, for example, to design invalid and capricious exams for which students are not prepared. No professor or teacher has the right to use pedagogical approaches that are unethical or totally inappropriate for the goals of the course. But too few college and high school leaders want to go there.

If we want to be a profession it’s time we went there.

Let’s finally have a proper debate, then, in staff and department meetings. Here are 4 questions to start our thinking:

1. Where should there be obligation and where should there be freedom in choice of pedagogy?

2. How much variance should be built into curricula?

3. Where is there a clear set of bona fide “best practices” that must be used and used well if one is to be called a professional educator?

4. What should we do when teachers persist in doing things that are primarily comfortable for them instead of doing what best practice demands?

3 Creative Tools to Encourage Student Feedback and Improve Teaching Skills

3 Creative Tools to Encourage Student
Feedback and Improve Teaching Skills

By Laura Iancu

Teachers, let yourselves be graded by students!

At the end of each course, every educator tries to harvest the efforts allotted through good results. Student achievements give purpose to all the hard work and every hour spent to find new activities. But sometimes it is not enough. To be able to properly comprehend the bad and the good, to develop your teaching skills and manage to provide a better learning environment, it is necessary to request feedback from your students.

Choosing the best tools to gather this kind of information can be difficult. Students are often reticent to such evaluations or lie because the might be afraid to tell their real opinion. It is best to allow them to use anonymity, this will not affect their judgment or the final results.

Of course you will receive funny, impossible or strange answers, especially if you work with teenagers. So don’t be surprised to find under suggestions tips like “next time come with tighter jeans” or “I don’t like you so you are to blame that I can’t focus on final exams”. We all have been there and we know that our students can come up with the most ridiculous ideas but at the same time their imagination, creativity and rationality surprises us in the most wonderful ways.

So what tools should we use to collect valuable feedback?

 Feedback Forms

They can always be adapted to your own needs. You can use it if you need complex evaluation with clear, measurable results. You can request them to grade you, as a teacher or the course they just took. Ask about favorite homework, least favorite project and always make them justify their answer. That is the beauty of online feedback forms, they are really easy to fill, they remain anonymous and student will surpass the fear that you might recognize their handwriting. To easily gather feedback, you can use any online form builder and simply create the desired form.

Mind Mapping

A creative way to find out what really stuck to their memory. You can ask your students to create a mind map during a lesson. It is really easy for them to understand the app and it is a fun, visual way for them to express. You can ask them to create a presentation with fun facts they remembered, with the most important resources they will use from your subject, fun moments, activities or any other topic. At the end, it would be nice to present your students a final mind map with the most common thing they wrote so both you and them will see the overview on this assessment. For tools, you can use MindMeister , SpiderScribe or other free online mind mapping tools.


It can be the easiest way to draw some highlights over the course experience. Explaining something by using only one or a few word often is really relevant and can give you the general perception that your students have over the subject they just learned. Using a free online poll maker such as 123ContactForm will let you create simple, shareable polls which can be accessed on PC, laptop or any mobile device. Or you can use dedicated widgets available on the platform you are using to publish class related content. At the end, you can use a word cloud generator to present the results in a creative way. This could be your inspiration for your next course. You can try online word generators such as Wordle or Tagul.

You have to prepare yourself that not everyone will give you positive feedback and you have to manage all the information you accumulate with these evaluation. Hence, you must be able to discard useless comments and leverage the valuable inputs.

Because, as Charles Darwin said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

A Prop. 8-style attack on transgender student rights

A Prop. 8-style attack on transgender student rights

An effort to repeal new state protections
is based on unfounded fears and intolerance.

Here’s something that California doesn’t need: a replay of Proposition 8 in slightly different form. But it may get one. Opponents of a new state law that expands the rights of transgender students say they have submitted enough signatures to place a measure on the ballot to repeal it. Recent spot counts by the secretary of state show they may not have reached the threshold. In our view, California would be better off if the petitions were found to be lacking.

As with Proposition 8, which altered the California constitution to ban same-sex marriages, this proposal is based on fear of and intolerance toward people whose sexuality falls outside of traditionally accepted norms. Once again, voters will be told that a ballot measure will protect children and families and sexual normalcy. But protect them from whom? The supposed threat in this case comes from some of the state’s most vulnerable individuals — youngsters who were born “male” or “female” but who feel that those descriptions are wrong or incomplete.

The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, would allow transgender students to use the school bathrooms and locker rooms and to participate on athletic teams that correspond to the gender with which they identify. Just as the American public understood little about homosexuality in years past, most people know little about transgender identity today. It’s understandable, perhaps, that some react with raised eyebrows at the thought of a fourth-grader with male genitalia using the girls’ bathroom, or a teenager with female physical sexual characteristics playing on the boys’ volleyball team and using the boys’ locker room. It’s not at all surprising that some parents wonder — and worry — about their children seeing the naked bodies of students of a different gender.

The issue isn’t simple. But extending the rights of transgender students is neither as groundbreaking nor as certain to cause trouble as opponents claim.

To start with, the California Interscholastic Federation, the body that governs high school sports, got there ahead of state law. It adopted a bylaw change in February that allows student athletes to compete on the teams of the gender with which they identify; it is working out detailed rules to keep the policy from being gamed.

What’s more, the Los Angeles Unified School District has operated for the last two years under rules practically identical to those in the new law. A couple of hundred students — of the district’s total enrollment of more than 600,000 — have made their transgender identity known to their schools, and L.A. Unified officials say the full-access policy has gone smoothly so far, without students or parents registering complaints or accusations.

Opponents of the law will try to convince voters otherwise. Expect arguments like these: Boys will get into college by faking their way onto the girls’ teams and unfairly using their added height and musculature to become athletic stars. Worse, they’ll flash the girls in the locker room. And think of the trouble that would arise if a teenager who is physically female showers with a bunch of 6-foot-tall guys.

This is modern myth-making, similar to the old canard that gay men don’t form stable, long-lasting relationships. But public understanding of homosexuality has grown; 17 states recognize same-sex marriage, and several more are on the verge of doing so. And now voters in California are being asked to acknowledge that just as gay marriage does not in any way harm traditional heterosexual marriage, transgender children and teenagers represent no threat to schools or to other students.

Quite the contrary. It is extremely difficult for many transgender youngsters to admit to themselves that they’re uncomfortable with their physical gender, much less admit it to fellow students.

That’s not to say conflicts won’t occur. Some students will feel uncomfortable if someone of the opposite physical gender is changing in the same locker room, and schools should look for ways to reduce tensions and give students the option of changing elsewhere if they’re bothered. What schools shouldn’t do is use that discomfort as an excuse to deny the rights of transgender students.


Why corporate reformers fabricate public school failures

ALEC2One interesting phenomenon that many of us see is how people, particularly parents, will say that schools are failing but the school that their children go to is fine.   They also say that they like the teachers and are satisfied with the education their child is receiving, it’s just those other schools that they constantly hear about that are failing. Which ones exactly? They’re not sure but “you hear about it all the time in the news”.   Hmmm.   And to continue in that vein, the Seattle Times is going to publish, with the help of Bill Gates, everything you wanted to know about the test scores and other “data” of all students who attend public schools in the state of Washington along with information about their teachers and staff.   Our Christmas bonus from Bill Gates.

It has been said when the new state test goes into effect which replaces the WASL,   test scores will initially go down. My guess is that all of those teachers who taught to the WASL, and there were plenty, will not be able to prepare their students for this new test. It will be interesting to see how that all shakes out.   But, if test scores are published, thanks to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the Seattle Times and “education reporters” who know nothing about education or statistics, showing a dip in test scores, many of our children will be labeled “failures” along with their teachers and schools.   When the Los Angeles Times reported children’s scores and the ratings of their teachers based on test scores,it had dire consequences as it did in New York when one teacher was featured in the NY Post as the “Worst Teacher in New York City”.   With this information becoming public, schools, teachers and students will be rated and inevitably some will be recorded for all to see as “failures”. Race to the Top requires that at least 5% of all schools with the lowest test scores be labeled as failures.   Recently I came across an article that addresses why the corporate reformers work so hard at drilling into people’s minds that our children and their schools are “failing”. Mind you that none of their solutions include adequate funding, addressing poverty, the drastic reduction of resources in our schools or the increase in class sizes, none of that matters, it’s all about just the right standardized tests, taught with mass-produced standardized lesson plans and provided to  ”teachers” with little to no experience educating children…oh yeah, and privately run and operated charter schools.

ALEC1Why ALEC Fabricated Public School Failures (And Why We’re Not Surprised)   ALEC vs. Kids: ALEC’s Assault on Public Education. That’s the alarmingly accurate title of a new report that focuses on how the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) education task force has used a state-by-state report card to fabricate failure in state public education systems in order to create sales opportunities for their corporate membership.   ALEC – All About Favoring Corporations   ALEC was formed in 1973 by a group of conservative activists who came together to advance a national right wing agenda in state legislatures across the country. They do this by coordinating and connecting corporate special interests, insurance companies, lobbyists, right wing think tanks, the super rich and conservative state legislators.   They then produce model policies on issues affecting many facets of American life, with the goal of making conditions as favorable to corporations as possible. The group is behind just about every bad Republican initiative, including union-busting, Voter ID and Stand Your Ground gun laws that helped George Zimmerman go free after murdering an unarmed Trayvon Martin.   Recently the conservative lobbying group has found its way into the previously untapped market of public education by producing an education “report card.” And the 2013 result is not a pretty sight.   Report Full Of “Shoddy” Research   Professor Christopher Lubienski and doctoral candidate T. Jameson Brewer, both of the University of Illinois, reviewed the document:

The ALEC report card assigns its grades based on states’ policies regarding their support for charter schools, their implementation of school voucher plans, and the permissiveness they display toward homeschooling. The authors contend that these grades are based on “high quality” research demonstrating that the policies for which they award high grades will improve education for all students, Lubienski and Jameson write. Instead, the report card draws on the work of advocacy groups and is grounded in ideological tenets, leading the authors to assign high grades to states with unproven and even disproven market-based policies, the reviewers add. They point out that the authors’ claims of a growing body of research lacks citations; their grading system contradicts testing data that they report; and their data on alternative teacher research is simply wrong. In fact, the research ALEC highlights is quite shoddy and is unsuitable for supporting its recommendations, Lubienski and Jameson conclude. The report’s purpose appears to be more about shifting control of education to private interests than in improving education.

Virginia is one of the nine states profiled in the report. Here’s what happened there:

Putting Profits Before Children

Governor Bob McDonnell received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from virtual learning company K12 Inc., and promptly requested the introduction of ALEC model legislation to expand virtual education in 2010.   It passed in the Virginia legislature, and K12 Inc. swung into action in Carroll County, one of the state’s most impoverished counties, to maximize the public money it would receive. Even when the school board voted to close K12 Inc. down because it did worse than traditional schools on 20 out of 22 measures, Virginia legislators with ALEC connections enacted a law in 2012 requiring high school students to take an online course to graduate.

71 Bills Based On ALEC ‘Models’

ALEC’s ‘model’ bills are making their way into state legislatures, as in Virginia, and they are dangerous.   Currently, at least 71 bills introduced in 2013 that make it harder for average Americans to access the civil justice system resemble ‘models’ from ALEC, according to an analysis by the Center for Media and Democracy.   These are bills that would weaken the legal rights of people who are wrongfully harmed by a corporation. Not surprisingly, given the interests of ALEC, they are bills designed to provide protection for the industries who wrote them, by changing the rules to limit accountability when a corporation’s products or actions cause injury or death.   Even though the marriage of big business and education is not unheard of — for example, the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) provided billions of dollars in profits to corporate clients through dubious processes of testing and assessment and supplemental educational services instead of delivering equal access to public education to millions of American children — we cannot sit back complacently.

We need to kick ALEC out of education, and indeed, out of our lives.

Home (and hungry) for the holidays: Families struggle to feed kids during school break

Home (and hungry) for the holidays: Families
struggle to feed kids during school break

By Nona Willis Aronowitz

The snow was blowing sideways in New York City last Saturday, but parents still streamed in to New York Common Pantry, some leading as many as four or five children by the hand while they sat with volunteers and chose their food on an iPad.

“I’m here to stock up,” said pantry client Theresa Garcia. In one week, Garcia’s three children, who attend public school, would be home for an eight-day holiday break, a long stretch of going without the two free meals they eat in school every day.

The East Harlem pantry was Garcia’s second stop for supplies that day; she already visited a food bank near the shelter where her family is staying in East New York, more than an hour away on the subway. “I also had to give my church a heads-up that these next weeks I’ll need extra help,” she said. “You hit it from all angles.”

Garcia’s kids are among 24 million American children who qualify for free or reduced lunch and breakfast at school—48 percent of all public school students. For many kids, those meals are the only ones they will eat all day. That all changes during school holidays, when the burden falls on low-income parents to provide three meals a day. The United States Department of Agriculture provides food assistance to many families during summer break, but there’s no similar infrastructure in place for the end-of-year holidays, when kids are home for up to two weeks.

And they have healthy appetites.

“Especially with boys, they’re never, ever full,” says Elizabeth Salyers, who’s raising her three young grandsons in Abingdon, Va. Salyers had been getting by on social security and the spousal benefits from her late husband, a disabled veteran, when the kids came to live with her in 2009. But four years later, she says her “funds are slowly dissolving.” She has had to rely on the Abingdon Soup Kitchen and other programs around town in order to feed the kids. It’ll be doubly difficult to keep the boys’ bellies full until January 8th, when they go back to school.

Elizabeth Salyers, 71, looks through a box of vegetables at the Harvest Home Kitchen in Abingdon, Va., with grandchildren Dashaun and Ector Taylor.

“You just take what’s available, and you can stretch it 50 different ways if you have to,” Salyers said. She prepares hearty dishes that “expand when you cook ‘em,” like oatmeal and spaghetti. On days the boys sleep late, she breathes a sigh of relief; she can get away with serving them breakfast, a snack, and supper.

Kathy Underhill, the executive director of Hunger Free Colorado, is well aware of this annual problem facing low-income families of school-aged children. “What the holidays mean is that families already on a razor-thin margin have to struggle even further,” she said. In her state, 10 percent of households—about 511,000 families—are currently on SNAP benefits, and another 390,000 more are eligible.

Mildred Floyd of Golden, Colo., is the head of one of those families. Even with just one teenage son at home during break, “the impact on my budget is astronomical,” she said. “[My son] is in his comfort zone, sitting in front of the TV, so sometimes he eats even a little more than usual.”

For Floyd, who is unemployed, it’s not just the money that poses a problem but the logistics.

“During the holidays, you have to be able to get to whatever site that’s giving food,” she said. “You have to get creative. You have to drive all over town.” During school breaks, filling the gap of school meals becomes an elaborate dance of research, transportation, and sign-up sheets.

“Families start mixing and matching with other community resources when they don’t have school lunch, but with overworked parents and bus routes being cut, this isn’t always possible,” said Peggy Halderman, founder of the Golden Backpack Program, which tries to simplify parents’ holiday juggling acts.

Every week, the program sends 588 local students—including Floyd’s son—home from school with enough food to feed a child over the weekend. During the holidays, students get a “double backpack,” stocked with supplies for four days. This year, another group at the Rotary Club of Golden, of which Halderman is a member, packed 80 boxes for a similar Holiday Food Box Project and dropped them off at the local elementary school.

Ector Taylor, 9, checks to see how he measures up to his grandmother, who often worries if she can provide enough for three growing boys.

Some programs across the country go a step further and maintain children’s school meal routines during the holiday season. Kids Unlimited in Medford, Ore., which runs an academics-focused afterschool program during the school year, offers a 10-hour-a-day enrichment program for elementary-, middle-, and high school students during holiday breaks, on site at the students’ schools. The holiday program includes meals through Sodexo, which gets reimbursed by the USDA, said Tom Cole, director of Kids Unlimited.

“Being able to feed kids is part of creating a level playing field, because kids can’t learn or focus when they’re hungry,” Cole said. “We keep that going [during holidays] to take the pressure off families.”

These programs strive to make a difference, yet some who staff them are indignant that the government and public schools aren’t doing more to help. Kathy Underhill points out that the SNAP program, or food stamps, usually picks up the slack when kids are out of school, but with cuts that kicked in November 1, lots of families are “waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Cole says our country’s education system “hasn’t thought outside the box about social service issues they can help with. Most schools don’t have an infrastructure in place to support kids outside the normal school days.” They don’t have partnerships with community organizations like Kids Unlimited, he says, or aren’t willing to open schools during breaks for outside programming.

As for parents, they say they work hard to maintain the holiday spirit despite the added stress—but it’s not easy. “I force a smile sometimes,” Floyd said. “It’s overwhelming. You not only have those three meals a day, but you have to put something in that Christmas stocking.”

Minor Glitch Leads To Major Criticism Of Michelle Rhee’s Signature Initiative

Minor Glitch Leads To Major Criticism
Of Michelle Rhee’s Signature Initiative

by Joy Resmovits

The evaluations of 44 Washington public school teachers — out of 4,000 — were compromised by an outside contractor, an email from a D.C. official to the city’s teachers union reveals.

The union is slamming the school system for the mistake and raising broader questions about the system.

D.C. Public Schools’ chief of human capital, Jason Kamras, wrote to Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, on Friday. In the email, which the school system provided to The Huffington Post, he told her of two errors in the evaluation of teachers for the 2012-13 school year.

First, Kamras wrote, the policy on appropriate weighting of administrator and master educator observations of teachers under the evaluation formula, known as IMPACT, was “not clearly communicated.” IMPACT scores can affect teachers’ bonuses and job security. So the District has recalculated all observation scores that might have been affected by that miscommunication, according to Kamras.

Second, he wrote, the outside contractor, Mathematica Policy Research, “found a small technical error” that affected some teachers’ Individual Value-Added scores. Those scores have been recalculated as well. Kamras assured Davis that teachers who would have had a lower IVA score as a result “will be held harmless.”

The teachers unions, both local and national, are calling attention to the errors, saying that they highlight inherent problems with these methods for sorting and evaluating teachers.

“These errors make clear that this evaluation system is flawed,” Davis said in a statement late Monday. “Teachers, parents and students deserve full transparency and accountability.” Davis also wrote to D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson seeking more details on the extent of the errors.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, chimed in with her own condemnation of the system. “There’s something very troubling when the district continues to reduce everything about students, educators and schools to a nameless, faceless algorithm and test score,” Weingarten wrote. “You can’t simply take a bunch of data, apply an algorithm, and use whatever pops out of a black box to judge teachers, students and our schools. And now, we have the disclosure that even the number was miscalculated, affecting dozens, if not hundreds, of educators. Our children deserve better.”

Michelle Rhee, then D.C. schools chancellor, instituted the use of IMPACT in 2009, making it one of the first teacher evaluation systems to treat students’ test scores as a significantly influential factor. The system uses “value-added measurement,” a complex algorithm that aims to remove the statistical effects of factors like students’ socioeconomic status to uncover how much teachers truly affect their students’ test scores. During its first year, IMPACT used value-added measurement to account for a full 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation; that has since been reduced to 35 percent. IMPACT also considers administrators’ and master educators’ observations of the teachers.

When Rhee first announced that D.C. would be using IMPACT, it was a controversial decision: Many statisticians question the reliability of value-added metrics, and the use of standardized testing to separate good teachers from bad has always received vocal opposition from skeptics such as teachers unions. But as Rhee’s signature reform, the use of IMPACT has gained a broader symbolism for the so-called education reform movement, which has sought to emulate the program across the country.

A recent study of the IMPACT system found that it did help D.C. Public Schools keep successful teachers while losing its laggards. D.C. Public Schools advocates have also cited the city’s higher national test scores as evidence of the program’s success. But sociologist Matthew di Carlo of the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, warned that the study’s conclusions shouldn’t be interpreted as an “overall assessment of IMPACT” because they only pertained to certain groups of D.C. teachers.

See Kamras’ full letter below:

Hi Liz,

I hope this message finds you well. I am writing to communicate two important updates regarding last year’s final IMPACT scores for teachers.

First, during the 2012-2013 school year, IMPACT policy was to calculate final TLF scores using a weighted average wherein administrator observations counted for 60% and master educator observations counted for 40%. Though this was the policy, it has been brought to my attention by several employees and by our legal counsel that the policy was not clearly communicated. Given our commitment to transparency, all final TLF scores that were lower because of the weighted average policy have been recalculated using a straight average. Later today, the IMPACT team will issue 2012-2013 revised reports for all teachers with higher final TLF scores as a result of the recalculation. For the 2013-2014 school year, all final TLF scores will be calculated using a straight average.

Second, our external partner Mathematica Policy Research recently found a small technical error that affected some teachers’ 2012-2013 Individual Value-Added (IVA) scores. Mathematica corrected the error and recalculated the value-added results. Later today, the IMPACT team will issue 2012-2013 revised reports for all teachers with higher IVA scores as a result of the recalculation. Teachers who would have had a lower IVA score as a result of the recalculation will be held harmless and will not be informed of the IVA recalculation.

If you or any of your teachers have any questions, please contact the IMPACT team …

As always, we thank you for your collaboration and partnership!

With appreciation,



Book Bannings Are On The Rise

Book Bannings Are On The Rise

It’s been a busy year for The Kids’ Right to Read Project. The anti-censorship organization’s coordinator, Acacia O’Connor, recently revealed that she has confronted 49 book banning incidents in 29 states in 2013, a 53 percent increase from 2012.

During the latter half of the year, 31 books were banned, and a trend surfaced among them: many of the censored titled were by minority authors, such as Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Rudolfo Anaya. Says O’Connor:

“Whether or not patterns like this are the result of coordination between would-be censors across the country is impossible to say… But there are moments, when a half-dozen or so challenges regarding race or LGBT content hit within a couple weeks, where you just have to ask, ‘What is going on out there?'”

One such author, Sherman Alexie, has been hard at work this year promoting independent bookstores, and speaking out against banned books. His novel, The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian, regularly appears on the American Library Association’s list of most-challenged books. Earlier this year, it was banned for mentioning masturbation.

According to the ALA, the most commonly cited reason for banning a book is its inclusion of “sexually explicit” content. Other reasons cited include drugs, violence and offensive language. While most challengers are parents, some are local or state government officials.

Also challenged this year was Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, after a mother in Alamogordo, New Mexico deemed it “inappropriate.” Today, Gaiman said:

“I’m just glad that organizations like the Kids’ Right to Read Project exist, and that so many of these challenges have successful outcomes.”

Conservative groups spend up to $1bn a year to fight action on climate change

Conservative groups spend up to $1bn
a year to fight action on climate change

by Suzanne Goldenberg

Author: ‘I call it the climate-change counter movement’

• Study focuses on groups opposing US political action

Conservative groups may have spent up to $1bn a year on the effort to deny science and oppose action on climate change, according to the first extensive study into the anatomy of the anti-climate effort.

The anti-climate effort has been largely underwritten by conservative billionaires, often working through secretive funding networks. They have displaced corporations as the prime supporters of 91 think tanks, advocacy groups and industry associations which have worked to block action on climate change. Such financial support has hardened conservative opposition to climate policy, ultimately dooming any chances of action from Congress to cut greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet, the study found.

“I call it the climate-change counter movement,” said the author of the study, Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle. “It is not just a couple of rogue individuals doing this. This is a large-scale political effort.”

Brulle’s study, published on Friday in the journal Climatic Change, offers the most definitive exposure to date of the political and financial forces blocking American action on climate change. Still, there are big gaps.

It was not always possible to separate funds designated strictly for climate-change work from overall budgets, Brulle said. “Since the majority of the organizations are multiple focus organizations, not all of this income was devoted to climate change activities.”

Some of the think tanks on Brulle’s list – such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) – said they had no institutional position on climate change and did not control the output of their scholars. In addition, Brulle acknowledged that he was unable to uncover the full extent of funding sources to the effort to oppose action on climate change. About three-quarters of the funds were routed through trusts or other mechanisms that assure anonymity to donors – a trend Brulle described as disturbing and a threat to democracy.

“This is how wealthy individuals or corporations translate their economic power into political and cultural power,” he said. “They have their profits and they hire people to write books that say climate change is not real. They hear people to go on TV and say climate change is not real. It ends up that people without economic power don’t have the same size voice as the people who have economic power, and so it ends up distorting democracy.

“That is the bottom line here. These are unaccountable organisations deciding what our politics should be. They put their thumbs on the scale … It is more one dollar one vote than one person one vote.”

Top-tier conservative think tanks

The vast majority of the 91 groups on Brulle’s list – 79% – were registered as charitable organisations and enjoyed considerable tax breaks. Those 91 groups included trade organisations, think tanks and campaign groups. The groups collectively received more than $7bn over the eight years of Brulle’s study – or about $900m a year from 2003 to 2010. Conservative think tanks and advocacy groups occupied the core of that effort.

The funding was dispersed to top-tier conservative think tanks in Washington, such as the AEI and Heritage Foundation, which focus on a range of issues, as well as more obscure organisations such as the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the John Locke Foundation.

Funding also went to groups that took on climate change denial as a core mission – such as the Heartland Institute, which held regular conclaves dedicated to undermining the United Nations climate panel’s reports, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which tried and failed to prosecute a climate scientist, Michael Mann, for academic fraud.

AEI was by far the top recipient of such funds, receiving 16% of total funding over the eight years, or $86.7m. Heartland Institute, in contrast, received just 3% of the total, $16.7m. There was also generous support to Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group affiliated with the conservative Koch billionaires, which received $22.7m.

‘It won’t be going to liberals’

Brulle admits, however, that he was far less successful in uncovering the sources of funding for the counter-climate movement. About 75% of such funding sources remain shrouded in secrecy, with wealthy conservatives routing their donations through a system of trusts which guarantee anonymity.

The leading venue for those underground donations was the Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, which alone accounted for 25% of funding of the groups opposed to climate action. An investigation by the Guardian last February found that the Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund had distributed nearly $120m to more than 100 anti-climate groups from 2002-2010. The Donors group has now displaced such previous prominent supporters of the climate denial movement as the Koch-affiliated foundations and corporations like Exxon Mobil, Brulle said.

Other conservative foundations funding climate denial efforts include: the Searle Freedom Trust, the John William Pope Foundation, the Howard Charitable Foundation and the Sarah Scaife Foundation, which also promote a free-market approach on other issues.

A number of the groups on Brulle’s list – both as funders and recipients – refused to comment on his findings or disputed his contention that they were part of a movement to block action on climate change.

Whitney Ball, the president of the Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, said the organisation had no say in deciding which projects would receive funding. However, Ball told the Guardian last February that Donors offered funders the assurance their money would never go to Greenpeace. “It won’t be going to liberals,” she said at that time.

“We do not otherwise drive the selection of grantees, nor do we conduct in-depth analyses of projects or grantees unless an account holder specifically requests that service,” Ball said in an email. “Neither Donors Trust nor Donors Capital Fund as institutions take positions with respect to any issue advocated by its grantees.”

Recipients of the funds also disputed the assertion they were part of a larger effort to undermine climate science or block action on climate change.

“Each of the scholars that work on any particular issue speaks for his or hers own work,” said Judy Mayka Stecker, director of media relations at AEI, in an email. She went on to write, however, that most of the AEI scholars who have worked on energy and climate change have moved on and would be unavailable to comment.

David Kreutzer, an energy and climate change fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said Brulle was unfairly conflating climate denial with opposition to policies that would require industry reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“We do believe that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that man-made emissions will lead to some warming,” said David Kreutzer, an energy and climate-change fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “We are opposed to mandatory greenhouse gas emissions cuts.”

He said many conservatives saw a carbon tax, cap-and-trade and other climate policies as a government takeover by stealth.

“What we are not interested in doing is a huge shift of power to the government under the guise of preventing some climate problem,” he said.

The Hoover Institution, which received about $45m, claimed to produce no work on climate change – while displaying on its website an article by a Hoover research fellow on an August 2013 Hoover poll on economic, energy and environmental issues.

“Hoover has no institutional initiatives on climate change,” a spokeswoman, Eryn Witcher, wrote in an email. “Individual Hoover fellows research and write on a wide variety of topics of their own choosing, but we’re not aware of any who are working in that field at this time, nor are we aware of any gifts or grants that have been received for that purpose.”

In the article, the Hoover fellow, Jeremy Carl, who works extensively on energy and climate issues, discussed climate change and fracking, concluding: “Many Democrats and liberals are in denial when it comes to reality on energy and climate policy, endorsing both science and political fiction.”