NEA Today The National Education Association online news and information resource. Tue, 02 Sep 2014 15:59:31 +0000 en hourly 1 The Testing Obsession and the Disappearing Curriculum Tue, 02 Sep 2014 11:52:19 +0000 twalker By Tim Walker

Not that long ago, elementary schools were places where students could discover what they were good at, explore the subjects that appealed to them, or maybe just be content with enjoying school.

But for many elementary school teachers who joined the profession during the last decade, and especially those who work in high-poverty schools, classrooms that provide vigorous learning opportunities to all students never existed—thanks, in large part, to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Today, more than a decade later, the law is uniformly blamed for stripping curriculum opportunities, including art, music, physical education and more, and imposing a brutal testing regime that has forced educators to focus their time and energy on preparing for tests in a narrow range of subjects:  namely, English/language arts and math.  For students in low-income communities, the impact has been devastating.

“Shouldn’t these early grades be a time to discover, play, and explore?” asks Los Angeles art teacher Ginger Rose Fox. “We talk all the time about making our kids ‘college and career ready’—even at such a young age. Let’s make them ‘life ready’ first. But I guess that doesn’t fit into our testing obsession.”

Like countless educators across the U.S., Fox has witnessed the way critical subjects have been crowded out of schools or even eliminated entirely by the lethal one-two punch of deep budget cuts and the singular focus on improving reading and math. In Los Angeles alone, one-third of the 345 arts teachers were given pink slips between 2008 and 2012 and arts programs for elementary students dwindled to practically zero.

The good news is that money has begun to trickle back in—to California, at least. But slowly improving state budgets can only go so far. Breaking the nation’s fever over high stakes testing is a steeper challenge.

Across the nation, the testing obsession has nudged aside visual arts, music, physical education, social studies, and science, not to mention world languages, financial literacy, and that old standby, penmanship. Our schools, once vigorous and dynamic centers for learning, have been reduced to mere test prep factories, where teachers and students act out a script written by someone who has never visited their classroom and where “achievement” means nothing more than scoring well on a bubble test.

“NCLB has corrupted what it means to teach and what it means to learn,” explains NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “Teachers have to teach in secret and hope they don’t get into trouble for teaching to the Whole Child instead of teaching to the test.”

In July, NEA launched a national campaign to bring an end to the testing obsession around the country, and to move real student-centered learning back to the forefront of public schools.

“It’s our job to bring back the arts and Social Studies and world languages and whatever it is our students need to leave behind the corrupting, unconscionable testing culture of blame and punish by test scores and move forward with an education that opens their minds to the infinite possibilities of their lives,” García says.

The strict focus on Math and English Language Arts and the resulting narrow curriculum has disproportionately affected students in high poverty schools. Photo: Associated Press

The One-Size-Fits-All Agenda

In a 2011 national survey, two-thirds of teachers said many academic subjects had been crowded out by an increased focus on math and language arts. About half said art and music were being marginalized, while 40 percent said the same for foreign language; 36 percent for social studies; and 24 percent for science. The results were particularly striking at the elementary level, where 81 percent of teachers reported that extra time devoted to math or language arts meant less time for other subjects. Over 60 percent of middle school teachers and 54 percent of high school teachers reported the same in their schools.

The culprit? More than 90 percent of teachers blamed state tests in math and language arts.

“I’ve seen students reduced to tears from these tests,” says Tom McLaughlin, a drama teacher in Council Bluffs, Iowa. “We’re robbing our students of the joy and adventure of learning.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When NCLB was implemented more than a decade ago, its promoters trumpeted promises about raising accountability and providing adequate resources to lower income students in struggling schools. But the law, with its sweeping mandates for standardized English and math tests in grades 4-8 and its crushing consequences for schools that fail to make “adequate yearly progress,” merely created a toxic culture of “teaching to the test” in order to raise test scores. It wasn’t long after its passage that a narrow, scripted curriculum blanketed schools coast to coast.

High-poverty schools across the nation have been forced to narrow the curriculum much more drastically than wealthier schools—with worse consequences for low-income students. While their more affluent peers may routinely visit museums or other cultural resources, many poor urban and rural students rely on their teachers to expose them to the kind of background knowledge that is essential to subject mastery. “It has been a disaster for social justice,” wrote E.D. Hirsch, a University of Virginia education professor who has championed the link between content knowledge and reading comprehension skills, in his book The Knowledge Deficit.

Richard Milner

But the architects of these test-driven policies do think they are addressing equity—and that’s frightening, says Richard Milner, a professor of education and director of urban education at the University of Pittsburgh

“We should be appalled. It’s tremendously short-sighted,” says Milner. “They think they are being responsive to kids who are underserved. But they’re clearly not looking at the lasting damage they are inflicting.”

While opposition to NCLB and testing has strengthened over the past few years, Milner has been underwhelmed by the level of outrage, believing that the devastating impact of these policies on students of color in low-income communities hasn’t been given the national attention it deserves.

“It’s really sad when you walk into these classrooms in these urban communities because these kids sit all day,“ Milner adds. “We’re taking away all the things about school they could attach themselves to—physical education, arts, history. All because some adult in some office, somewhere far away, has determined that they don’t need any of that in order to ‘achieve.’”

Integrating Disciplines—But at What Cost?

Thanks to the burgeoning STEM movement (science, technology, engineering and math), Brian Crosby believes science education may soon be removed from the endangered curriculum list. Crosby taught science in the Washoe County School district in Nevada for more than 30 years, recently leaving the classroom to become a STEM facilitator for the state.

“I do think there was what you might call an ‘oops’ moment,” says Crosby. “Decision-makers basically recognized that you can’t educate students, especially at-risk students, by hammering reading and math all day long. At least for science, there’s some good news. We’re getting the curriculum ‘un-narrowed’ if you will.”

Unfortunately teachers of other marginalized subjects can’t say the same.

Science educator Brian Crosby

In January, Texas lawmakers passed a bill that, among other things, cut the graduation requirement for social studies from four courses to three. The state’s social studies teachers protested, wondering aloud how they would counsel their students to choose between classes: World history or world geography? Civics or U.S. history? How do you make that choice between such valuable courses?

If it’s not outright cutting of requirements, states are commonly rewriting curriculum to more easily “integrate” sidelined subjects into core areas. Physical education becomes part of math. Art becomes part of reading. But tossing a ball with numbers on it isn’t really physical education, and writing about Van Gogh isn’t the same as developing a passion for color or practicing brush technique.

While integrating subjects can foster collaboration between colleagues, a good thing, notes drama teacher Tom McLaughlin, he warns what might be lost in the long term. “I do think integration can be dangerous if (any one subject) becomes too consumed or morphed into reading or math. We run the risk of putting these other subjects out of business.”

Social studies often falls victim to “subject integration” with reading, notes Margit McGuire, director of teacher education at Seattle University and a social studies specialist. “It doesn’t foster a very sophisticated treatment of the subject matter,” she says.

Lisa Steiner, a social studies teacher at George Fischer Middle School in Carmel New York, also has seen her subject receive less time, staff, and professional development opportunities compared to school districts’ chief priorities: math and English arts. Still, integration can work, she says. “Social studies as a discipline can reinforce core reading and writing skills. I have a background and certification as a reading specialist, so I see the close relationship between reading and writing in the content areas and it has influenced my teaching philosophy and approach.”

For many music educators, the most compelling case to be made for music in schools is its value as a stand alone subject—to bring the focus back to the benefits to students, not to their standardized tests.  In April, the National Association for Music Education (NAfMe) began challenge the assumption that music is merely a “supplement” to the core curriculum, and said the organization would no longer frame the importance of music around its potential to raise test scores.

“Every time we profess that students should have access to music so that their brains become better wired to solve math equations, we provide ammunition to the camp of ‘education experts’ who proclaim that music is an interchangeable, or, even worse, expendable, classroom experience,” explains Christopher Woodside of NAfMe’s Center for Advocacy and Public Affairs.

The Inconvenient Truth: Many Students Can’t ‘Catch Up’

While no one discounts the importance of reading and math, and the very real problem of students who can’t read or do basic math, defenders of the status quo often claim that glossing over science, arts and social studies is merely a fleeting elementary school experience—later to be recouped in middle and later high school.

But by then, says Rich Milner, it’s probably too late.

"It's our job to bring back the arts and social studies and world languages," says NEA President Lily Eskelsen García.

“Without learning opportunities, these kids can’t develop the competencies and skills that will help them transition from elementary school,” Milner says. “Kids in urban areas are in most need of a well-rounded education and yet they are the ones who have had it stripped from their classrooms—and they don’t have other avenues available to them that students in suburban communities have to at least partly supplant what is missing in schools.”

Brian Crosby recalls shaking his head in disbelief when he would hear school discussions asserting that it wouldn’t matter in the long run if certain subjects for at-risk elementary students were suspended so they could focus on reading and math.

“The assumption was, you could catch the students up in middle school because by then they would have a science teacher,” Crosby explains. “But they couldn’t just catch up. And by the time they got to high school many of these students were so far behind they were put into remedial classes. And people would wonder why kids were dropping out of school.”

What kind of citizens are these practices creating? Margit McGuire believes that continually pushing aside U.S. History or Civics robs low-income students of the opportunity to tell their stories and become invested in democracy.

“We marginalize our students when we don’t allow them to bring their own lived experiences into the classroom,” says McGuire. “Maybe we’ll get their test score up, but at what cost? We need to help young people, particularly children from impoverished backgrounds, understand or value our democracy and their role in society. That’s why we have public education.”

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Why One School System is Dropping Teach For America Tue, 02 Sep 2014 10:32:27 +0000 twalker The school board in Durham, N.C., has voted 6-1 to end its relationship with Teach For America after the 2015-16 school year, when all of the 12 TFA teachers hired in the past few years will have completed the two years of service they promise to make when joining the organization. several board members said they did not want to continue a relationship with the organization because TFA corps members are highly inexperienced. There were also concerns expressed that corps members are required only to promise to stay for two years. Source: The Washington Post/The Answer Sheet


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Reviving the Teaching of Cursive Tue, 02 Sep 2014 10:32:12 +0000 twalker The trend around the United States is to emphasize keyboarding – a skill that is included in the Common Core education standards adopted by most states. But Tennessee lawmakers, concerned that some children do not have a signature and struggle to read their teachers’ handwriting, overwhelmingly passed a bill making cursive a mandatory subject in grades two through four. Keyboarding and print writing will still have their place, but legible penmanship will be required by third grade. Source: The Huffington Post

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Lily Eskelsen García Takes the Helm of the NEA Mon, 01 Sep 2014 14:21:45 +0000 twalker By Brenda Álvarez

As a child, Lily Eskelsen García was quiet, studious and introverted. The second eldest of six siblings, she often played alone with her dolls while her sisters played together. She kept her head in books, did well in school, but never talking about her future.

The Lily Eskelsen García of today is far from quiet. Speaking to delegates who gathered in Denver this summer for NEA’s Annual Meeting, she served notice on those who try to undermine public education with deceptive and unproven reform practices. “We know what is at stake and it is why we are who we are. It is why we are fearless and why we will not be silent,” García declared.

She heard the call to teach while serving salad in a preschool cafeteria in Colorado Springs, Colo. She was good with kids and the gift was noticed. A year later, she was promoted becoming the aide to a special education teacher who suggested she attend college and become a teacher.

First, she became a teacher’s aide and then put herself through college on student loans, scholarships, and as a starving folk singer. She graduated magna cum laude in elementary education, earned a masters degree in instructional technology, and started her teaching profession at Orchard Elementary School outside Salt Lake City.

“She does what she wants to do and when she wants to do it,” says García’s mother, Chillie Pace, who is originally from Panama and emigrated to the U.S. after marrying García’s father, Bobby Earl when he was stationed in the Panama Canal Zone with the U.S. Army.

García’s “she does what she wants to do” spirit helped her ascend as an educator and as an NEA leader. In 1989 she was recognized as Utah’s Teacher of the Year. And in 1990, she was elected president of the Utah Education Association (UEA) as a write-in candidate.

Along the way, she has understood that her work was about more than her students. It was about being engaged and getting involved in the full spectrum of education. And she worked to instill the same commitment in her students—some whom have reached out to her years later.

Former fifth-grade student Chetta Defa is an example. Decades after leaving Orchard, García received an email from Defa who wrote, “The lessons you taught me during that time have proven to be invaluable. I learned that whatever the problem, you can be a part of the solution. I learned just being aware of things isn’t enough. You have to get involved to make a difference . . . You taught us to all do our part.”

In and out of the classroom, García has been doing her part for more than 30 years.

Teacher of the Year

An arbitrary moment helped to catapult García into the powerhouse that she is today. Her Orchard teaching partner Sue Veatch explains it best: García had left the room for a few minutes. When she returned she had been nominated Teacher of the Year, a prestigious honor that focuses public attention on excellence in teaching.

Check out Lily’s (new and improved) Blackboard!
Stay in Touch with the Issues and Activities of NEA’s New President

“She thought we had been joking when she came back in,” Veatch says, describing García as an outstanding teacher. “She was always doing those extra things for her students that went way beyond the regular curriculum . . . wanting the best for her students and more than just the three R’s. She wanted them to go out there and find out how they could impact their society.”

Once, García and her fifth-grade students orchestrated a blood drive for a local boy who had 200 blood transfusions by the time he was four months old. Students even sent a handwritten press release to local newspapers with the plea “You might need blood some day too.”

In her email to García Defa remembers the event fondly: “The blood drive wasn’t the end of the lesson, you didn’t stop there, you introduced us to Mathew, arranged a field trip to meet him and his parents. You didn’t just tell us what we were doing. You showed us why we were doing it. That is teaching.”

Never hesitant to take the next step, García took her classroom experience and style on the road as Utah’s Teacher of the Year to speak on behalf of students and educators.

She understood as far back as the late 80s that education is about more than testing students and pushed for multiple lines of evidence to show student achievement, which, today, positions her to effectively take on the nation’s testing-mania regime that uses commercialized, mass-produced, industrial-strength standardized factory tests to evaluate students and teachers.

Eskelsen García meets educators at Paul Revere PreK-8 School in San Francisco California during NEA's recent Back-to-School tour.

Toxic and manic testing is a top priority for her first 100 days as NEA president, and she does not mince her words on the topic. “I’ll be damned if I will sit quietly and play nice and say diplomatic things about something that has corrupted the profession I love,” she recently told the Washington Post.

From the onset of her profession, she has encouraged educators to engage in a whole child movement that is based on the idea that every public school is as good as the “best” public school and that the yardstick that is used to measure the things that matter takes into account the whole student, including mind, body, and character.

Veatch adds that García talked about professional learning communities long before they became popular. García also encouraged educators to take ownership of the teaching profession through collaboration and a genuine interest in public schools.

In a guest opinion for a Salt Lake City newspaper in 1989, García said, “We need to renew in ourselves the worth of our work. Is the high self-esteem we work so hard to instill in our students so wrong to foster in ourselves? And so for ourselves and our students we must make it a priority to impress others with our commitment, our ingenuity and our success.”

When confronted with the challenges of public education her stance was, “I can cry about it or I can get busy,” she once told educators of the Idaho Education Association during the organization’s summer conference in 1989. García encouraged them to “get busy” in the Association. Without a doubt, she has been busy ever since.

Pushing Boundaries

García often tells the story of a reporter who once suggested she was not supposed to be “here,” as in a top position for the largest labor union in the country. She is not from a big state or a state with a strong tradition of union and bargaining rights. She does not come from a blue state, either. But she has always pushed her own personal boundaries.

In 1998, she put her experience of working with small children toward a run for Congress. She was the first Hispanic to run for a federal seat in her state, earning 45 percent of the vote against the incumbent.

Today, she is the first Latina to lead the 3 million-member Association. Braulio Alonso, son of Spanish parents, was president of the NEA from 1967 to 1968.

While she did not grow up speaking Spanish, García was committed to learning the language. “Lily gets mad at me,” says Pace. “She says, ‘You didn’t teach me Spanish!’ I told her she had to take it at school.” García followed her mom’s advice, but also received help from a student she taught at a homeless shelter outside of Salt Lake City.

In an interview with the independent news outlet VOXXI, García describes eight-year-old Julio as “very angry” about living in poverty. He misbehaved in class and was aggressive toward other students. García asked Julio to help her learn Spanish, sparking a change in Julio that grew into a willingness to help his younger classmates.

As her time with Julio was drawing to a close, García had gotten him to start to think about college and possibly become a teacher himself. She remembers he laughed, saying, “I ain’t gonna be no teacher. When I go to college, I’m going to be a luchador. I’m going to be a wrestler with the World Wrestling Federation.” To García the occupation didn’t matter.  What she heard was “when I go to college.”

García did learn Spanish, and Pace says the reasons were so that she could speak to and represent the Latino community—something she has done with vigor and passion.

Cesar Chavez is one of Eskelsen García's favorite 'rabble rousers'

In 2011, she was appointed by President Obama as commissioner on the White House Commission on Education Excellence for Hispanics, a high-powered panel that works to create better programs for English-language learners, finding ways to train teachers in cultural competency, make college more affordable, and discard the standardized tests students must take to get into college.

More recently García has used her positions within NEA to speak on behalf of DREAMers who are seeking a path to U.S. citizenship, once saying that “There is no debate that these children didn’t do something wrong . . . they deserve to move into society and take their places.”

In a post to her blog, Lily’s Blackboard, she penned, “decades of a hopeless immigration system that defies logic has left entire communities frightened and confused—with mothers separated from children and families often the victims of unscrupulous people who cheat vulnerable people into paying their life’s savings to navigate the quagmire of an undecipherable bureaucracy only to find they have lost every dime and no promised papers to show for it…It’s broken. It’s time to fix it.”

García has taken many of her cues from fearless leaders who dared to dream, and she recently authored Rabble Rousers, which tells the story of ordinary people who used their voices, commitment, and passion to organize communities to fight injustice. Featuring social justice advocates like Mother Jones, Emmeline Pankhurst, Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Harvey Milk. The book is illustrated by García’s husband, Alberto.

In the book’s introduction, García writes, “These leaders have much in common . . . They all understood that the only way for them to win against such overwhelming power was to organize the little power, the only power that they had. . . . They understood that if they could rouse the common people, the “rabble,” to demand justice with a common voice, they could change the world from what it was into what it should be.”

Dolores Huerta, who with Cesar Chavez founded the labor union that would become the United Farm Workers, says in the forward of Rabble Rousers that the book “depicts how one does not have to have a lot of money or power to create change. It shows the power of the person, no matter what barriers may stand in the way.”

Proceeds for the book will go toward United We Dream, a national youth-led organization that organizes and advocates for the dignity and fair treatment of immigrant youth and families, regardless of immigration status, as well as others who support social justice.

A History-Making Trio

In an NEA first, García leads a historic team of NEA officers who are all women of color. Vice president Becky Pringle is a physical science teacher from Harrisburg, Pa., and secretary-treasurer Princess Moss is an elementary school music teacher from Louisa County, Va. Together, they’re proof that the glass ceiling continues to break.

ice President elect Rebecca Pringle, left, President elect Lily Eskelsen Garcia and Secretary-Treasurer elect Princess Moss celebrate after the election results were announced during the NEA Representative Assembly on July 4.

Prior to her election to the vice president slot, which makes her one of labor’s highest-ranking Black female leaders, Pringle was NEA secretary-treasurer. She oversaw the fiscal integrity of the organization, and advocated on professional issues that impact educators and students. She also focused on issues of equity in education, diversity in the classroom, and human and civil rights. Pringle helped see the union through one of the worst economic periods in recent history ensuring the Association emerged this year on a strong financial footing and on a path to growth.

“From the botched implementation of the Common Core State Standards to toxic tests that are hurting our students, there are many challenges facing students in public education,” says Pringle, who has more than three decades of classroom experience. As vice president, she vows to ensure that NEA lives up to its rich history and legacy of human and civil rights, which she says “is the foundation for realizing a great public school for every student.”

Princess Moss was elected secretary-treasurer. Her responsibilities include overseeing the multimillion-dollar budget of the organization. Additionally, she brings a commitment to bring back music and fine arts education to Americas public schools—an issue she has long championed.

“With an overemphasis on high-stakes standardized tests, we’ve seen the curriculum narrow and subjects like music, fine arts, and P.E. have been stripped from our students’ public education. That’s not right,” says Moss, who spent 21 years in the classroom. “NEA is leading the way to ensure all students receive a well-rounded education, and I’m honored to be at the forefront of that mission.”

Moss’ election to the office of secretary-treasurer rounds out an all-female leadership for the organization, and at the helm is García, who will lead with wit, grit, and candor.

Related Post:
Eskelsen García: We Are Fearless and We Will Not Be Silent

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Rating Teachers Not As Easy As 1, 2, 3 Mon, 01 Sep 2014 13:28:30 +0000 twalker The idea seems simple enough: Identify the best teachers and reward them. Pinpoint the worst and fire them. That’s been a linchpin of the Obama administration’s education agenda from the start. But now the administration’s initiative is in disarray, with states scaling back, slowing down and, in some cases, putting off tough decisions until Obama is out of office. Teachers union pressure, error-riddled evaluations and a wave of more difficult tests for students have won many teachers a reprieve from the newfangled evaluations during the school year now getting underway. Source: Politico

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California Governor Appeals Court Ruling Overturning Protections for Teachers Mon, 01 Sep 2014 13:05:49 +0000 twalker Wading into an intense national battle that has pitted teacher unions against a movement to weaken tenure protections, Gov. Jerry Brown has appealed a California judge’s sweeping ruling that threw out teacher job protection laws on the ground that they deprived students of their constitutional rights. “Changes of this magnitude, as a matter of law and policy, require appellate review,” the one-page appeal said of the case, Vergara v. California. Source: The New York Times

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If Your Class Looked Like America. . . Thu, 28 Aug 2014 12:48:06 +0000 twalker

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10 Time Management Tips for Teachers Thu, 28 Aug 2014 12:41:07 +0000 twalker For teachers, it never seems like there is enough time. Teacher Benjamin Schrage resisted turning his job into a 24/7 endeavor, and learned to work smarter, analyzing every moment of his work day, and identifying ways to get things done faster while improving efficiency. Here are 10 things he learned along the way. Source: SmartBlog on Education

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STEAM Gaining Momentum Thu, 28 Aug 2014 12:20:03 +0000 twalker STEM education–that’s science, technology, engineering, and math–has gotten an increasing amount of buzz over the past few years. And now, there’s a twist on STEM: the addition of the arts, making it STEAM. Supporters say a more focused inclusion of the arts helps kids become creative, hands-on learners by sparking innovation. A recent Michigan State study supports that notion, pointing to a higher number of patents created and businesses launched by adults who participated in arts and crafts in their younger years. But the STEAM model’s still relatively new – and unproven. Source: NPR/State Impact

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Four Skills to Teach Students In the First Five Days of School Wed, 27 Aug 2014 13:53:14 +0000 twalker The first few days of school are a vital time to set the right tone for the rest of the year. Many teachers focus on important things like getting to know their students, building relationships and making sure students know what the classroom procedures will be. While those things are important, Alan November, a former teacher-turned-author and lecturer says the most important ideas to hammer home will help students learn on their own for the rest of the year. Source: KQED MindShift

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