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Open Letter to Bill Gates, after Oct. 7, 2015 Speech

Dear Mr. Gates,
I just read the speech you gave on October 7, 2015 to the USP Education Learning Forum.  I am a teacher.  In fact, it is my 29th year as a public elementary school teacher in the classrooms of Southern California. According to what you said, no one speaks with greater authority about what I need than I do, so I hope that means you will listen.
In your speech, you seem to suggest that High-Quality Feedback will increase Teacher Effectiveness, and Teacher Effectiveness is what we need to fix our achievement gap.
I believe that the suggestion is deeply flawed, but I will go ahead and ‘insist’ that you look at what The Cotsen Foundation is doing with The Art of Teaching in California.
http://cotsen.org/
This is an ‘improvement system’ that has been in place for ten years now, since before the Common Core was even a twinkle in your eye.  I was a Cotsen Fellow from 2009-11. Cotsen gave me an opportunity to work with a cohort of 4 other teachers and a mentor, all teachers from my school, for a period of two years.  We each got $2000 to spend on ‘improving our learning line’ as we saw fit, as long as it was aligned to the Professional Teaching Standard we had each chosen for ourselves.  We got six release days (the Art of Teaching paid for the substitutes) so that we had time to observe and collaborate with other teachers.  Our cohort met monthly in an inquiry meeting.  We had time to reflect on the work we were doing, and to exchange feedback. The Art of Teaching did not choose for us what we needed to learn to be more effective teachers.  The Art of Teaching let us choose for ourselves.  The Art of Teaching actually responds willingly to the learning choices the teachers in the program make; there is no need for us to ‘demand’ anything.  You may wonder what has risen to the top as far as professional development (PD) for teachers participating in the Art of Teaching.  For ELA, it is overwhelmingly PD related to Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop from Colombia Teachers College and for Math, Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI).  Since you have been so involved in effective teaching and learning practices since 2008, I trust you know what I am talking about.  The Cotsen Art of Teaching is the most effective (and meaningful) professional development with which I have been involved.
It is also ‘of the teachers, by the teachers, and for the teachers’.  The teachers in the program do not have to ‘move up on their own’ and they get excellent feedback (from peers working in similar situations, not from people outside the field of education) and “tools they need to improve their practice.”  The principals are, of course, on board, and for many of them, it increases their ‘learning line’ as well.
You mentioned in your speech that “the field did not have a clear view of the characteristics of great teaching.”  I disagree. Back in 1987, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards was born.  There have been clear standards for what teachers should know and be able to do in place for almost three decades.  From their website:
“Created by teachers, for teachers, National Board Certification is the profession’s mark of accomplished teaching. It is: Built upon National Board Standards and the Five Core Propositions
•    Rigorous and performance-based
•    Based on multiple measures
•    Peer-reviewed
•    Voluntary
•    Valid and reliable
To date, more than 110,000 teachers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia have achieved National Board Certification.”
http://www.nbpts.org/national-board-standards
I received my National Board Certification in 2010, Middle Childhood, Generalist.  I earned my Masters of Science in Science Education in 2006.  Together, those accomplishments must be worth a step or two on my ‘learning line’.  The work on the master’s degree and on my board certification was initiated by me as an individual (it was voluntary), but I hardly earned my masters or my certification “on my own”.  (Note:  I did pay for it on my own; same goes for the cost of National Board Certification.)
In your speech, you go on to mention that “every student deserves high standards.”  I’m sure you are aware that, according to the Fordham Institute’s own evaluation system, California LOWERED its standards in both ELA and Math when we adopted the Common Core State Standards (along with the District of Columbia (D.C.) and Indiana).  To quote from Mercedes Schneider’s book,  Common Core Dilemma, p 60:
“In 2010, in an effort to promote the CCSS as “clearly superior to standards in most states,” Fordham assigned letter grades to CCSS and to all state standards.
They gave CCSS an A-minus in math and a B-plus in English Language Arts (ELA).”
http://www.amazon.com/Common-Core-Dilemma-Owns-Schools/dp/0807756490
Using the same grading system, Fordham gave California an A in Math and an A in ELA.  Let me restate that.  The standards for ELA and Math that California had had in place (created of, for, and by teachers), were better than the Common Core State Standards.  So in an effort to implement your vision of high standards for every student, California’s students get lower standards.  Of course, how could we have known that, when the Governors’ CCSS  Memo of Understanding was signed before the standards were even finished?  I can still remember our staff’s first CCSS staff development, which was held in the spring of 2009.  2010 was to be Year One of the implementation, which would roll out over three years.  Our SBAC testing began in the 2013-14 school year.  That was the ‘norming year’ when 4 million students in 22 states took the SBAC, but the scores didn’t count, and not even our superintendent got to see any results.
The part of your speech where you are actually citing data is, for me, the most troubling.  I’m referring to this part:
“A growing body of evidence told us that teacher effectiveness is the single most important in-school factor in student achievement. If you take two classrooms from the same school, both starting out at the 50th percentile, and assign one to a teacher in the top quartile and another to a teacher in the bottom quartile, there will be a 10 percentile difference in achievement at the end of the year.”
“Ten points is a big difference for a single year—it’s nearly a third of the achievement gap between white students and African-American students. The data showed us the enormous potential for helping teachers improve their practice. We believed that if we could identify the most effective teachers, figure out what they do so well, and spread that to all teachers, it would have a decisive impact on student achievement.”
In truth, I am completely befuddled by these two paragraphs.  Here is how I read it.  So we have two classes of students, both classes from the same school; same grade level, different teachers, (I am making that assumption here).  Both classes are starting out the year at the 50th percentile, which I also assume is being based on last year’s standardized test scores.  (Wait, every single student in the class is exactly at the 50th percentile ranking? I guess I can go with that.) Okay, so two perfectly, average classes, exactly at the 50th percentile, the top-of-the-bell-curve average; (not to be confused with a score of 50 percent, which in most cases means failure,) but the 50th percentile, so exactly average when compared to…to what? To the rest of the students in the same grade level in the district? the state? the nation?  The percentile ranking has to be compared to a bigger group than just that school, (I am again making that assumption).
Okay, so we take two classes of average-scoring students from the same school. I am assuming that the ‘top quartile’ teacher is ‘top quartile’ because that is how his or her students scored on the standardized test last year. Is that a correct assumption?  And same with the ‘bottom quartile’ teacher?  Okay, so the teachers are moved from elsewhere where their scores were equidistant  from the center, average, (50th percentile ranking) on the standard deviation bell curve.  And that is because both the top and bottom quartiles are exactly the same distance from the middle (50th percentile), two and a half deciles (25 percentile points), to be exact.  Okay, I’ve got that.
And you are saying that the teacher whose students last year scored in the top quartile on the test (75th percentile ranking and above) will be more effective when assigned to a 50th percentile class this year (an average class) than the teacher whose students last year scored in the bottom quartile on the test (25th percentile ranking and below), who is also assigned to a 50th percentile class for the year at the same school. To the best of my ability, that is what I think you are saying.  And that at the end of the year, there will be a 10 percentile difference in achievement.
So that would mean that the students in the ‘top quartile’ teacher’s class would move to a 55th percentile ranking? And the students in the bottom quartile teacher’s class would move to a 45th percentile ranking?  Or maybe the ‘top quartile teacher’s class scores at the 60th percentile at the end of the year, and the ‘bottom quartile’ teacher’s class maintains their 50th percentile ranking?  Or some other possible 10 point shift? The ‘bottom quartile’ teacher’s class could fall to the 40th percentile ranking, and the ‘top quartile’ teacher’s scores could remain the same?  Did I read that correctly?  It just sounds so logical and statistically significant, doesn’t it?
Well, I beg to differ.  I spent the first 16 years of my teaching career in an 85th percentile and above school in the Santa Monica/Malibu Unified School District.  But on my salary, I couldn’t afford to buy a house where I worked, so mid-career I moved my home and my job to Long Beach Unified School District (lbusd); I’m sure you have heard of it.  600 teachers were hired that year (2000), and since I had a little bit of experience, I got to have some say in my site placement.  I chose a 100% free lunch, mostly English as a Second Language Learner, 40th percentile and below school…on purpose.  I purposefully, and with full intention, took my 85th percentile and above teaching to a 40th percentile and below school.  I was my own Action Research project.
But at the end of the year, there was no 10 percentile point difference in achievement (based on the CST, the norm-referenced, standardized test in use in CA at the time). My new lbusd students still scored in the 40th percentile and below.  However, based on teacher-created and district level formative and summative ELA and Math assessments in use at the time, my students were showing more progress (growth) over one year than my SMMUSD students had.  But it sure didn’t show up on the standardized test.  Now, Michelle Rhee would say that on that 35 mile drive south on the 405 from Santa Monica to Long Beach, I became an ineffective teacher.  It’s impossible for me to be impartial here, but I think not.  I am the highly qualified, (based on NCLB) highly effective (based on administrator evaluations, colleague’s input, and parent approval ratings) experienced (29 years), Masters of Science Education holding, so STEM worthy, (Nationally Board Certified) teacher that some education reformers say refuses to teach at low performing schools.
I stayed at that school for ten years, earning that master’s degree I mentioned earlier, as well as my National Board Certification, and participating as a fellow in the Cotsen Art of Teaching.  If anything, I am a more effective teacher now than I was when I left Santa Monica nearly 15 years ago.  Qualitatively speaking, of course. I stayed at that particular Long Beach school until I was (involuntarily) displaced, because after the recession, to meet their budget demands, lbusd raised class size back up to 30:1 (from 20:1) in grades kindergarten through third, (as a fifth grade teacher, class size in lbusd has always been and remains 35:1) and our school lost ten teachers.  I moved, purposefully and with full intention, to another lbusd school 6 blocks up the street, with demographics as close as I could find to the school from which I had been displaced.
Here are my conclusions.  I am an experienced, effective teacher.  I am a life-long learner, and strive to hone my craft each day with the goal of being that much better tomorrow than I was yesterday.
Your CCSS, for better or worse, are not the issue.  I can live with them. Standards, as they always have, drive my curriculum.  The students drive my instruction.
However, I cannot live with the SBAC; the high stakes test intentionally and inextricably tied to the CCSS (in the SBAC states).  The SBAC has narrowed the curriculum I teach.  The SBAC (not the CCSS!) is driving the professional development provided by my school district. We are teaching to the test, not to the standards, because the stakes of the test are so high. The students most certainly are not learning “in a way that is tailored to their needs, skills, and interests”, but rather to the needs, skills, and interests determined by the district to best match those of the test.  Our district adopted the Math Curriculum that was deemed most aligned with the SBAC, based on the ‘Claims’. We are a big district; that’s a lucky publisher.
The carrot and stick approach put in place by No Child Left Behind is a failure, as is the Race to the Top that followed.  Charter schools, at least those that use federal dollars without public oversight (like the kind ruled unconstitutional in your state) are not the answer.  Neither is big data from standardized tests.
I was told the SBAC would give me immediate feedback that I could use to inform my instruction.  I got the scores for last year’s students (now in middle school) on September 9 of this school year. I was told the SBAC would give me specific information about each student and what that student knows and is able to do.  What I got was a 1 to 4 score, the result of a ‘cut score’ based on a standard deviation (sounds norm-referenced to me!) and a ranking of my school’s scores in ELA and Math as compared to the rest of my district.  I do not know which students got which questions right and which ones wrong; I am not even allowed to discuss the content of the questions, (which I don’t remember from the 6 days my class spent in the computer lab taking the test last year) anyway.  No immediate feedback, and no specific information about what my students (from last year!) know or are able to do.  Oh, and the test was supposed to be ‘adaptive’ last year; I have no idea if that worked or not, and if it did, I have know idea for whom the test adapted itself, and whether it adapted up or down.  The data you rely on so heavily is of little use to the actual classroom teacher, and of even less use to the students’ parents.  You said yourself in your speech,
“Test scores are a useful way to measure what students know, but they are not a diagnostic for teachers. They tell you very little about what skills you need to improve—and they don’t tell you anything at all about how to improve. I’ve never heard a teacher say, “I got those test scores and now I know what I need to change.”
I disagree with the statement that [Standardized] “Test scores are a useful way to measure what students know” for reasons stated above, and more.  But I concur with the rest of the paragraph.
When you talk about “creating strong feedback and improvement systems” as “a defining feature of better achievement”, and of being “focused heavily on spreading it”, I’m afraid I really don’t know the systems to which you are referring.
“For example, some states now use peer reviewers and coaches in the classroom. Some teachers welcome this step. Others are reluctant to have outsiders assess their work. But we’ve found that when they see the point is to help them improve their practice, most teachers crave the feedback.”
As a negotiator for the Teacher’s Association in SMMUSD, I helped write the language for PAR, the Peer Assistance and Review program that we wrote into our agreement in the late 1990’s. And by we, I mean the district together with the Teacher’s association.
When I was hired in Long Beach in 2000, I was a BTSA coach for my first two year.  BTSA coaches were assigned as mentors to first and second year teachers.
The Art of Teaching was developed around an inquiry model with mentors and fellows working together collaboratively to coach, model, and give and receive constructive feedback.
For my entire career, we have used “observations, student feedback, and other factors” to determine the effectiveness of teachers.  And I use some form of formative or summative assessments to measure what my students know and are able to do, as well as show growth over time, every single day.
You say that “the standards are starting to work for students and teachers.”  What evidence do you have to support that?  Our SBAC scores were exactly as the SBAC consortuim predicted they would be:  70% of the students would not be proficient.  Then the cut scores were set.  Then only 30% of our students scored at the proficient or above level.
So what do I need?  I need to be able to teach without the threat of a standardized test score hanging over my head and the heads of my students.  Your entire premise is that teachers need to be’ more effective’ but these data on which you base teacher effectiveness are deeply flawed, because you believe teacher effectiveness can be determined by student test scores from a big, standardized test.  The big, standardized test is the problem, not the answer.  What I  need is for the standardized test to go away.
Sincerely,
Linda Warner Mank, NBCT

I Become My Own Action Research Project

Nutshell:

For my first 16 years, (starting in 1984) I taught mostly 4th and 5th grade at a public elementary school in a middle to upper-middle neighborhood.  It was a high-performing school, based on state test scores in the 85th percentile and above.  I was considered a Highly Qualified and Effective teacher.  I couldn’t afford to buy a house in the city where I worked, so I bought a house in Long Beach, about 35 miles south.  I changed districts mid-career! I arrived in Long Beach (lbusd) in the year 2000, and I chose to teach at a 100% free lunch, mostly English Language Learner school in central Long Beach.  I wanted to teach there. On purpose.  I took my 85th percentile and above teaching to the 40th percentile and below school, and guess what?  Although I taught the 5th grade GATE/Excel class pretty much the same way I had taught in Santa Monica (because I’d been doing it for 16 years, so I couldn’t really not, so I thought I might as well!), and although my teacher-collected data using authentic assessments and pre/posts tests showed that my students were learning as much (or more!) than the Santa Monica students had, the percentile ranking on the norm-referenced, standardized tests required by the state and federal government (thank you, NCLB) did not reflect the growth and progress my Long Beach students were making.  My Long Beach students continued to score well below the Santa Monica students, even though I had collected data that could show evidence of similar academic progress! Not to mention that while teaching here in Long Beach I have I earned a Masters of Science in Science Education (2006) and I have become a National Board Certified Teacher (MC-Gen, 2010).  I AM one of those highly qualified and experienced teachers that the reformers claim refuse to teach in low-performing, high-needs schools.  And speaking of…Michelle Rhee would say that I suddenly became an ‘Ineffective’ teacher as I drove that 35 miles south on the 405 freeway that fateful day in August of 2000 when I moved to Long Beach. I beg to differ.  I’ll be starting my 29th year in the next few days, and I can’t wait!

Long Version.