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TEACHER VOICES: Benjamin Dow, #3

Notes from the Test-ocracy

Teacher Voices Artwork
Art by Elijah Fenter

favicon In Washington State the following will designate you as a “highly-qualified” history teacher:

a. A Master’s Degree in Education from Stanford
b. A Washington State Social Studies Credential
c. AP and IB training in history courses
d. Fifteen years of experience teaching history & stints as department chair
e. None of the above

It turns out the correct answer is “e.” Despite the above credentials, I recently received an email letting me know that Washington State had decided that I was no longer a “highly-qualified” teacher and couldn’t teach history classes next year.

Fortunately, there was an answer to the question in Washington State: being highly-qualified can be measured by my ability to pass a multiple-choice exam.

That’s it.  One-hundred multiple-choice history questions and $155 would get me the “highly-qualified” stamp on my credential.

ben dowEverybody wants highly-qualified teachers, but when your state is unwilling to spend the money needed for a truly high-quality educational system, what’s the best free alternative to ensure “high-quality?” Make teachers take a test that they pay for themselves.

It’s brilliant, really. It costs the state virtually nothing, but shows up on paper as ensuring every teacher in the state is highly-qualified.

This testing solution to real, endemic problems in our schools is at work at all levels of our educational system, and (not) surprisingly seems to benefit the same company again and again in our state: Pearson, who in their own words is “the largest commercial processor of student assessments.”

Here’s how ingrained in our educational toolbox Pearson’s tests have become:

  • The Pearson PARCC test is taken by students across the country in grades 3-11,
  • The Pearson EdTPA assessment by legislative order is now required to become a teacher in Washington State,
  • The Pearson Washington Educator Skills Tests is required to ensure that teachers like me who completed our training in a pre-testing era are equally “highly-qualified.”

Welcome to the Test-ocracy. Pearson and testing companies like them have stepped into the void left by meaningful reform at every level of our state’s educational system—first with students, now with teachers.

Do these teacher tests do anything to improve the quality of instruction in Washington State? The answer to this question could probably be fodder for several dissertations, but we do have some anecdotal evidence about the overall pool of folks we are drawing our teachers from.

Since I first covered the growing rural teacher shortage in an earlier TEACHER VOICES piece, the phenomenon has morphed into a state-wide problem. In short, the answer is probably that your student’s teacher is not any better than they were in the pre-Test-ocracy days.

“Highly-qualified” mandates, though, have had a very negative and quantifiable effect on small, rural schools like ours. We recently had to cut our involvement in the Virtual High School (VHS) program that allowed our students to take literally hundreds of interesting electives we can’t afford to offer. Because it is a national cooperative, very few VHS teachers had jumped through Washington State’s specific “highly-qualified” hoops, and our funding was threatened if we didn’t stop offering VHS classes to students immediately.

Things become even more fun-house mirrored when you look at who grades the Pearson assessment for new teachers, the EdTPA, which each new teacher is required to pay $300 to take.

While I have to prove my own “highly-qualified” status, it turns out that Pearson is hiring experienced classroom teachers like me to grade the EdTPA at $75 a pop.

The circular logic is mind-numbingly silly, and raises the question, if we accept teachers’ judgment about the quality of instructional practice, maybe they don’t need further testing in the first place?

When you start to look at the Test-ocracy too closely it feeds a want for conspiratorial thinking—that big business has plotted to leech money out of our public educational system.  

The reality, though, is both more mundane and more depressing. Ironically, the EdTPA was developed by the same Stanford Department of Education where I earned the Master’s degree that is no longer sufficient to mark me as “highly-qualified.”  They and Pearson are offering legislators around the country an easy solution to the problem of how to fill our emptying classrooms with “highly-qualified” teachers.

I’m not an educational Luddite.  I believe in changing and improving the way we teach and learn. I believe in having high standards for our students and our teachers, but the Test-ocracy has become the default reform mechanism for state legislatures looking to appear like they are taking action to improve our schools, while failing to fundamentally fix the system.

It’s not an unfixable system.  Our state is home to Boeing, Amazon, and Microsoft and has created some of the deepest pools of wealth in the history of the world. We have a GDP roughly equivalent to Austria, a country that manages not only to fully fund their educational system, but offers no-cost college and university to its citizens as well.

President Obama has spoken out against the rise of excessive testing, and recently Congress finally abandoned the No Child Left Behind Act that had required each state to design their own “highly-qualified” designations.

It’s time for state legislators to follow the federal government’s lead and forge a path beyond the Test-ocracy. Because if you examine which parts of the Test-ocracy are actually improving teaching and learning, the answer might very well be none of the above.

(Benjamin Dow is happy to report that he passed his test and is, once again, a “highly-qualified” teacher.)

Ed. note: My claim to fame is that I got to co-teach American Studies with Benjamin Dow in the last century. Since then, Mr. Dow has taught English and social studies in China, Ghana, and Port Townsend, Washington, where he currently teaches Contemporary World Problems. He is published in Teaching Tolerance and recites an annual poem for graduating seniors.

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TEACHER VOICES: Benjamin Dow, #2

School lunch revolution in Port Townsend

ben dowfavicon Yesterday, I bought school lunch for the first time in years.

Usually, buying school lunch on a regular basis seems something akin to a form of slow-moving assisted suicide for teachers. Only in dire straits would I resort to the combination of tater tots and Taco Bell-branded burritos that were available under the heat lamps.

But all that has changed in Port Townsend schools. This February, in what felt like an overnight makeover, everything was suddenly different about our school lunch program.

Students’ trays started showing up to lunch-time meetings piled high with kale chips, couscous salads, and sandwiches on local, organic bread.

Lunches started to look like this:

For the record (from top left), that’s fish tacos made with fresh fish delivered from our city docks by Key City Fish Company, a vegetable bake, shepherd’s pie with kale salad, followed by mac & cheese with lentil salad.

Then came pizza day with fresh sauce and cheese donated by our local Mt. Townsend Creamery:

And just like that, this year in Port Townsend schools has become the year of the school lunch.

Crazy things started to happen. Our English teacher who teaches Fast Food Nation to sophomores every year and eats what can only be described as a radically healthy diet bought a school lunch for the first time in 20 years. Then he bought another. And another.

I was walking through the middle school commons with a group of community members who knew nothing about the changes in school lunch when they started exclaiming to each other, “That’s the best smelling school lunch ever!”

How did it happen? Of course this type of fundamental change required significant community, administrative, and kitchen staff support and coordination.

We were lucky to start off with a community that had already been supportive: an active Farm to School group, an elementary school garden, and a middle-school orchard of fruit trees donated and planted by a local gleaners group to grow healthy snacks for our students.

We also had a superintendent and wellness committee committed to the change.  “We just can’t keep feeding our kids the same processed food and sugar,” Dr. David Engle said. “We want to see a transition from a feeding program to a meals program.”

This winter, he helped bring in Hope Borsato, a local chef and caterer with a background in large-scale food services and local organic cooking to help advise on the change.

All this sounds great… and expensive, but according to Engle and Borsato, costs have been roughly the same.

Borsato explained that they’d made several fundamental changes to lunch delivery to increase efficiency and offset the cost of higher-quality, hand-made cooking.

Historically, our district had created three separate menus for our elementary, middle and high schools. Now we all eat the same thing on a given day, freeing up kitchen staff to cook rather than prep three different types of reheated meals.

Instead of serving large pieces of low-quality meat, we switched to small amounts of high-quality meat in meals supplemented with protein from lots of bean and lentil salads.

The district has been creative about procuring affordable, high-quality ingredients locally. We’ve worked with the Port Townsend Food Co-op to purchase organic carrots at wholesale prices.

We replaced industrial bread with local, organic bread from Pane D’Amore bakery by taking their end of the day loaves for a dollar a piece. The next day we get a sandwich bar with bread like this:

The community has also played a huge role. Local chefs volunteered their time to work with our kitchen staff and help plan meals during the transition. A community member came forward with a thousand dollar donation to support the purchase of the small-scale cooking hardware our food services staff needed to start making meals from scratch. Our local award-winning cheese makers Mt. Townsend Creamery have donated 30 pounds of cheese each month.

Looking forward, the district is working with Jefferson Healthcare, our local hospital, on pre-orders of fresh fruits and vegetables from area farmers–a sort of CSA for schools. This will help us source more local, and often organic, food for school lunches while supporting our area farmers as well. Students for Sustainability, a high school club, is working with the district to lead implementation of reusable plates and silverware this spring.

For the past month, all these changes in school food have been the lunchtime conversation for teachers and students alike. These conversations around food have blossomed into larger connections between our lunches, our curriculum, and our community.

Here’s what an integrated approach to food and education can look like:

At our elementary school, students learned about planting potatoes from Farmer Zach from our local Dharma Ridge Farm. That day for lunch across the district, we had a baked potato bar featuring organic potatoes from the same farmer’s fields. Later at the high school, local professor Wes Cecil and chef Arran Stark co-led an interactive lecture for our students on the history of the potato and its importance to the world.

Those are the kinds of interdisciplinary, real-world connections educational theorists dream about. In Port Townsend, they’ve become our students’ reality.

It’s easy to get bogged down in all the things that aren’t working well in public schools. Change like this gives you hope for what public schools can do and be. It feels authentic and it feels real. And it reminds you that given the right community and school support it can happen quickly.

Perhaps most hopefully of all, Port Townsend did it on our own.  In a small, rural district with an almost 50 percent free- and reduced lunch rate, we didn’t wait for the State of Washington to fund it. We didn’t wait for a Department of Education mandate. The community, schools and food services staff saw what was right and made it real. It was hard work and often a struggle for those tasked with implementing the change, but the results have been nothing short of revolutionary. favicon

(Photo credits: Benjamin Dow, Tom Gambill, and Jan Boutilier.)

Ed. note: My claim to fame is that I got to co-teach American Studies with Benjamin Dow in the last century. Since then, Mr. Dow has taught English and social studies in China, Ghana, and Port Townsend, Washington, where he currently teaches Contemporary World Problems. He is published in Teaching Tolerance and recites an annual poemfor graduating seniors.

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TEACHER VOICES: Benjamin Dow, #1

The Canary in the Classroom

ben dowEd. note: My claim to fame is that I got to co-teach American Studies with Benjamin Dow in the last century. Since then, Mr. Dow has taught English and social studies in China, Ghana, and Port Townsend, Washington, where he currently teaches Contemporary World Problems. He is published in Teaching Tolerance and recites an annual poem for graduating seniors. This is his first post for TEACHER VOICES.  

favicon Six Months. That’s the amount of time our middle school math position has gone unfilled in Port Townsend, Washington.

This year, amid the shift to Common Core and Smarter Balanced Assessments, perhaps the highest stakes year in the history of high-stakes testing, our students in seventh and eighth grade have been in a classroom with a substitute since the first day of school. Sadly, this is a scenario that is beginning to play out with regularity in small rural districts across Washington state.

Now I know, “small rural district” brings to mind pictures of cows and one-store towns that have always had trouble attracting professionals, but that isn’t Port Townsend.

I live in a small, vibrant arts community, with high-quality restaurants, independent movies, and festivals most weekends. Port Townsend sits on a small reach of the Olympic Peninsula surrounded on three sides by beaches with a Victorian-era downtown right on the water. We frequently make those travel magazine “Top Ten Small Towns in America” lists. It’s the kind of place where teachers talk about the “golden handcuffs” of living in an idyllic town that most folks just get to visit on vacation.

Historically, Port Townsend never struggled to attract teachers either. There were years in the 90s when we had more than a hundred applicants for openings in our district.

Those days are long gone. We’ve shifted from hundreds of applicants, to a handful, to literally classrooms still without teachers six weeks into the school year.

Parents are mad, the community’s mad, and for all the sound and fury of the parent meetings at school, there’s little that can be done.  We sit at the perfect confluence of two storms that have been battering small districts like ours.

On the one hand, Washington, like many states, has been ratcheting up credentialing requirements for teachers, especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) areas.

On the other hand, it doesn’t take a math major to realize that if you’re good at math or science, teaching isn’t a good economic opportunity for you. I’ve been teaching in Washington for close to 10 years and have yet to see the salary schedule for teachers go up once, while the job continues to get harder.

Imagine if Google decided to low-ball new engineers, pay them less than all comparable professionals, then simply ratcheted up the standards on the few employees they could attract. Would anybody expect Google to stay competitive? Of course, in the private sector, this kind of solution would be laughable. In education, it’s the norm.

College students are simply no longer interested. According to Stanford’s Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, by the end of 2012, enrollment in teacher education programs in California had dropped by 66 percent from a decade earlier. Similar trends have played out across the country.

Historically, discrimination against women in the workplace paradoxically buffered education from having to confront the problem of missing education majors earlier. As long as women were largely excluded from other forms of professional work, there were always capable, brilliant folks waiting to enter into the teaching profession. Thankfully, but problematically for teaching, this is no longer the case.

Combine nose-diving enrollment in teacher education programs with a wave of Baby Boomers set to retire, and schools like Port Townsend, which used to be able to pick from among a host of qualified candidates, are struggling to simply find teachers who are correctly certified to fill positions. And our students are struggling too. Like the canary in the coal mine that warned of impending doom for the whole mine, schools like Port Townsend have become the canary in the classroom.

None of this bodes well for the students in our small town.  None of this bodes well for the future of our country. The teacher shortages that have started in small rural districts like ours will spread. You simply don’t lose 66 percent of your supply of new teachers in a state like California without a tsunami of unintended consequences for the quality of education provided to students a few years down the road.

But back on the ground, things are both a lot less clear and a lot more concrete. Classes of seventh and eighth graders laying the foundation for their high school math trajectories, who are learning the building blocks of algebra that will support their drives into careers in math and science, are starting their sixth week of school with a substitute.

As a state and as a country, we are failing these students. We have to demand that our legislators make teaching a profession that will attract the best and brightest of the next generation. Legislators have to not just raise standards for teachers, but create the incentives and opportunities that will make people excited about the rewarding challenge that is teaching.

But right now, neither Washington is doing that.  Right now the people of Port Townsend and our children are waiting, without a teacher, for a change. favicon