Standardized Testing: A Brief Overview

“Educators today face a dilemma. Should they support current presidential, legislative, and corporate initiatives that claim to ensure a quality education for all children through the escalation of standardized measurement of predetermined learning outcomes? Should they accommodate standardized testing within a contemporary learner-centered paradigm, which endorses a more eclectic “toolbox” approach to assessment that allows the informed educator to select among diverse gauges of learning progress” (Gallagher, 2003)?” The answer remains to be seen…

One of the most controversial aspects of American education in the 21st century is the widespread use of standardized tests within our public schools. Teachers and parents alike worry about the high-stakes nature of these assessments, which are increasingly used to sort students and evaluate teachers worldwide. Even many educators disagree with local testing policies, while others debate whether these exams are valid metrics to assess student learning. Understanding the results themselves can even be confusing: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made national headlines in 2017 when she fumbled through the difference between proficiency and growth during her confirmation hearings.

Long before No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the ‘Every Student Succeeds Act’ were used in our daily lexicon, the American Psychological Association was asking powerful questions about the use of standardized testing in our schools. Specifically, the APA wanted to know why “American schools continue to rely on group-administered, standardized test scores for educational decision-making purposes” and how this “powerful historical tradition become a foundation for educational practices.” (American Psychological Association, 1993)?

Let us consider that last question: How did this powerful historical tradition become a foundation for educational practices?

Professors of education have longed used international benchmarks, such as the PISA, to compare countries, often to mixed results. As previously noted, many countries outperform the United States on these standardized metrics, most notably in Scandinavia and Asia. Recently, comparative education researchers have looked to these countries to better understand why these countries are so successful, especially in east Asia.

A contemporary belief many Americans hold about Asian countries is the high cultural values eastern countries attach to education. In reality, this belief is “an illusion at best and a cruel glorification of authoritarianism at worst” (Zhao, 2014). One author has noted that this perceived culture is actually, “a survival strategy the Chinese people developed to cope with thousands of years of authoritarian rule that has been glorified as China’s secret to educational success” (Zhao, 2014).  It is important to know the rich history behind this phenomenon, leading back centuries to Confucius’s time and when the majority of Asia was under imperial rule:

“The first examinations were attributed to the Sui emperors (589-618 A. D.) in China. With its flexible writing system and extensive body of recorded knowledge, China was in a position much earlier than the West to develop written examinations. The examinations were built around candidates’ ability to memorize, comprehend, and interpret classical texts. Aspirants prepared for the examinations on their own in private schools run by scholars or through private tutorials. Some took examinations as early as age 15, while others continued their studies into their thirties. After passing a regional examination, successful applicants traveled to the capital city to take a 3-day examination, with answers evaluated by a special examining board appointed by the Emperor. Each time the examination was offered, a fixed number of aspirants were accepted into the imperial bureaucracy” (U.S. Congress, 1992).

This imperial exam system, known in Mandarin as 科舉 or keju, was originally viewed as an equitable way to ensure that all students had a chance to rise up from their current caste. From the perspective of those in power, “keju was a tool to identify and recruit the most capable and virtuous individuals into government instead of relying on members of the hereditary noble class” (Zhao, 2014). Perhaps most notably, and because of its perceived fairness, objectivity, and openness, “keju gave birth to the idea of meritocracy, a core value in many eastern countries” (Zhao, 2014).

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A painting of the ancient Chinese keju (科舉) system

Even hundreds of years later, Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China, often praised keju as the underpinnings of the world’s best education system. Dr. Young Zhao often refers to a fable that Sun often told about the drawbacks of a society without standardized tests. In the story, Sun talked about an election in the west between a doctor and a truck driver. “Of the two candidates, the doctor is certainly more knowledgeable that the driver, but he lost. This is the consequence of popular election without examination” (Zhao, 2014). When Sun Yat-sen set up a new government after overthrowing the Qing dynasty (the last imperial dynasty of China), the new constitution included an entire branch of government focused on standardized testing; this Examination Yuan continues in modern day Taiwan.

The rigorous, day-long written keju tests were quite different than what the academy offered elsewhere. In the Western world, for example, “examiners usually favored giving [oral] essays, a tradition stemming from the ancient Greeks’ affinity for the Socratic method” (Fletcher, 2009). These oral exams, which were typically held once a year and in public, “were more in the nature of public displays or exhibitions to show off brilliant pupils or to glorify teachers.” (Kandel, 1936, p. 24) These tests were often highly subjective, and by the mid-nineteenth century, “it was clear to [western] philosophers, scientists, and educators that the popular college tradition of oral qualifying examinations was flawed” (Gallagher, 2003).

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Raphael’s The School of Athens, one of the most famous frescoes on display at the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, highlights education in ancient Greece.

It was during this time period that Horace Mann argued for widespread adoption of the common school, “a free, universal, non-sectarian, and public institution” (Warder, 2015). The father of public education, Mann was a revolutionary who saw schoolhouses as “the best means of achieving the moral and socioeconomic uplift of all Americans” (Warder, 2015). As such, Mann “persuaded the Boston Public School Committee to allow him to administer written exams to the city’s children in place of the traditional oral exams. Using a common exam, he hoped to provide objective information about the quality of teaching and learning in urban schools” (Gallagher, 2003). Similar to the Confucian tradition of keju, Mann thought that these common exams would be more equitable than the centuries-old tradition of oral exams. In doing so, “Mann’s goal was to find and replicate the best teaching methods so that all children could have equal opportunities” (Gershon, 2015).

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One of the first Common Schools

Unfortunately, unlike Mann’s exam, “many of the first widely adopted standardized school tests were designed not to measure achievement but ability” (Gershon, 2015). Thus,

“as early as the mid-19th century, there existed a belief in the role of testing as a vehicle to classify students ex ante, commonly viewed as a necessary step in providing education. Also emerging during this period was an interest in uses of tests ex post: to monitor the effectiveness of schools in accomplishing their purposes. Visionaries like Mann saw testing as a means to educate effectively; administrators, legislators, and the general public turned to tests to see what children were actually learning. The fact that the first formal written examinations in the United States were intended as devices for sorting and classifying but were used also to monitor school effectiveness suggests how far back in American history one can go for evidence of test misuse” (U.S. Congress, 1992).

Written intelligence tests grew in prominence in the early twentieth century, and had an aura of scientific objectivity (Gershon, 2015). By the turn of the century, French psychologist Alfred Binet “began developing a standardized test of intelligence, work that would eventually be incorporated into a version of the modern IQ test, dubbed the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test” (Fletcher, 2009). Less than ten years later, the U.S. government developed the Army Alpha and Beta test during World War I to “sort soldiers by their mental abilities, which soon became a model for schools” (Gershon, 2015).

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The original Army Alpha & Beta tests

Shortly thereafter, the College Entrance Examination Board started administrating exams in the 1920’s, which was later renamed as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or the SAT. Similar to the goal of the Chinese keju system and Mann’s push for more objective common exams, “the SAT was designed partly to make top colleges into places for clever young [people] from all backgrounds, not just the children of the elite” (Gershon, 2015).

These early standardized tests were still somewhat subjective, however, as they were often short essays and almost always graded by hand. In 1936, IBM released the first rudimentary automatic test scanner, which allowed standardized tests to be graded faster than ever before. In 1959, “an education professor at the University of Iowa named Everett Franklin Lindquist (who later pioneered the first generation of optical scanners and the development of the GED test) developed the ACT as a competitor to the SAT” (Fletcher, 2009). And in 1965, The Elementary and Secondary Education Act in particular opened the way for new and increased uses of norm-referenced tests to evaluate programs” (Alcocer, 2014), which was further exacerbated by the infamous No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

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The first SAT

A millennium after the Tang dynasty started the eastern practice of keju, centuries after Mann advocated for the use of common exams, and decades after the SAT tried to level the playing field for underprivileged children, standardized tests are just as controversial today as ever before. “Modern critics note that standardized test scores largely reflect socioeconomic privilege,” but it is unclear whether those differences are due to the inequities amongst schools or the tests themselves (Gershon, 2015). In fact, “tests don’t necessarily create more social stratification. Instead, they mostly seem to reflect the academic advantages that go with socioeconomic privilege among American kids. But, of course, that’s evidence that despite Horace Mann’s hopes for standardized tests, equal opportunity for all children still hasn’t become reality” (Grodsky et. Al., 2008)

In other words, what was originally thought of as an innovative way to increase equity has actually made our system more inequitable. Even in Taiwan, a country where the OECD reports as having one of the most equitable public education systems in the world, the practice of after school bǔxíbān (cram schools) are quite pervasive. Although many schools in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan are remarkably equitable, these night classes are one way that parents with means use their resources to give an unfair advantage to their children, at often an incredible financial and emotional cost.

Compared to the United States, many countries have a more effective and efficient method to assess their students. In Sweden, for example, “standardized examinations are used as scoring benchmarks to help teachers grade students uniformly and properly in their regular classes” (U.S. Congress, 1992). In Taiwan, all students take a national two-day exam at the end of junior high school, which is administered by the Ministry of Education. Students interested in looking to attend university then have to take two tests at the end of high school, specifically the Subject Competency Test and the Designated Subjects Examination. And contrary to popular belief, even students in Finland take a standardized test, called the “National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.” (Partanen, 2011). In many of the best education systems around the world, Finland included, teachers focus more on formative assessments, which an abundance of research has shown to have incredibly positive effects in the classroom (Black & William, 2010).

Another major problem with standardized testing in the United States is that private companies with heavy financial incentives are often the entities that administer these tests. These large companies also have significant lobbying power and have tremendously affected domestic education policy. As it has been said, “only in the United States is there a strong commercial test development and publishing market. The importance of this sector, in terms of research, development, and influence on the quality and quantity of testing, cannot be overstated. Even when States and districts create their own tests, they often contract with private companies. In Europe and Asia, testing policies reside in miniseries of education” (U.S. Congress, 1992). This should be a major wake-up call for all parents, educators, and policy-makers alike.

Looking forward, more colleges than ever are participating in the FairTest movement, which encourages universities to consider allowing students to apply without submitting any standardized test scores. Some critics point to the fact that “while our understanding of the brain and how people learn and think has progressed enormously, standardized tests have remained the same” (Fairtest, 2012). In other places, many parents have opted their students out of taking high-stakes common core exams, such as the PARCC exam or ‘Smarter Balanced Assessment.’

Although we are centuries removed from the keju, the United States still uses remnants of the imperial exam system today. Every major professional field, from accountants to teachers to the foreign diplomatic corps, requires some sort of standardized test to become licensed in their field. This ideology in deeply ingrained: would you want a doctor to examine you or a lawyer to represent you without passing their qualifying exams? It remains to be seen how standardized tests will impact our future, but it is important to understand their history if we are serious about engaging in a policy debate over how to best serve our youth moving forward.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of Testing in American Schools, feel free to read the OTA report on the subject matter here

 

Works Cited

Alcocer, P. (2014). NEA Education Policy and Practice. History of Standardized Testing in the United States. Retrieved February 01, 2018, from http://www.nea.org/home/66139.htm#1958-present

American Psychological Association (1993). Learner-Centered Psychological Principles: Guidelines for School Redesign and Reform, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC. Google Scholar

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2010). Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(1), 81-90. doi:10.1177/003172171009200119

Fairtest.org (2012). What’s Wrong With Standardized Tests? Retrieved February 15, 2018, from http://www.fairtest.org/facts/whatwron.htm

Fletcher, D. (2009, December 11). Standardized Testing. Retrieved February 4, 2018, from http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1947019,00.html

Gallagher, C. (2003). Reconciling a Tradition of Testing with a New Learning Paradigm. Educational Psychology Review, 15(1), 83-99. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23361535

Gershon, L. (2015, May 12). A Short History of Standardized Tests. Retrieved February 1, 2018, from https://daily.jstor.org/short-history-standardized-tests/

Grodsky, E., Warren, J., & Felts, E. (2008). Testing and Social Stratification in American Education. Annual Review of Sociology, 34, 385-404. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/29737796

Kandel, I. L. (1936). Examinations and their substitutes in the United States. New York: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Google Scholar

Partanen, A. (2011, December 29). What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success. Retrieved February 1, 2018, from https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/what-americans-keep-ignoring-about-finlands-school-success/250564/

U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment (1992). Testing in American Schools: Asking the Right Questions, OTA-SET-519. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office

Warder, G. (2015). Horace Mann and the creation of the Common School. Retrieved (February 4, 2018) from http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/edu/essay.html?id=42.

Zhao, Y. (2014). Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

 

Why Taiwan? (Part 1: An Educational Perspective)

I was born to be a teacher. For as far back as I can remember, I have always loved school and valued education as one of life’s most valued treasures. While I have always had a passion for education, teaching has lit a fire in me; I truly feel alive when leading instruction in front of a classroom. Though I love what I do, I take my role as an educator seriously, as I fundamentally believe that we are teaching the future leaders of our world. As it has been said, we are currently preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist, using technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve a wide variety of complex problems.

During the 21st century, our international community will need to respond to these critical global issues, including food security, public health (and the so-called “death gap”), and world peace. To solve these obstacles, we will need a new generation of creative leaders: people who appreciate diversity, can think ethically, strategically, and divergently, and refuse to be satisfied with the status quo.

To create these transformational leaders, we arguably need an education revolution in this country. The achievement data is clear: a significant opportunity gap exists between middle- and upper-class students and those living in poverty. As our schools slowly become re-segregated, many of our most vulnerable communities are being left behind (Frankenberg, Lee, and Orfield 2003; Orfield, Kucsera, and Siegel-Hawley 2012). Although we have made some progress over the years, I must ask: how can we live in the richest country in the world and continue to allow the opportunity gap to be so wide?

Over the past six years, I have had the absolute privilege of serving the students and families of the Newark Public Schools. During this time, I have learned so much about the unique challenges facing urban communities and the incredible resolve of Newarkers fighting for a better tomorrow. Between the city’s inspirational residents, delectable cuisine, and exceptional transportation options, Newark has genuinely become one of my favorite places in the world. As it has been said, Newark, like ancient Rome, is “a living reminder of a glorious past, a predictor of a possible future, and a lesson in the persistence of the individual and of the human spirit.”

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Newark, affectionately known as the “Brick City,” at dusk.

While I have a deep admiration for the “Brick City” and the people that live there, I have also witnessed first-hand the educational inequality that has plagued our country for decades. I have previously written about the unacceptable transportation issues within our district bureaucracy, but busing logistics is just the tip of the iceberg. Last week, the Baltimore City Public Schools made national headlines when the press learned that some of their schools had broken heating systems and children needed to wear their jackets to  class. Year after year, I have watched students fight an uphill battle within a system that, arguably, was not designed with their success in mind. If I have learned nothing else over the course of the last six years, it is that we have a long way to go until every young person has the opportunity to attend a great public school.

To re-think education in the United States, we need to look critically at a number of issues both within and outside our current system. While we still have a great deal to learn from ideas, research, and innovation carried out from universities, think-tanks, and scholars in the states, there are also many creative developments underway in schools throughout the world. Over the course of the past decade, Finland’s unique educational philosophy has become a worldwide sensation. Although Finland has plenty of progressive schools, efforts to replicate their instruction model has had its fair share of challenges, and students living in Asia perform better in higher-level mathematics, especially in Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. U.S educators and policy makers alike have only recently begun looking towards the far east in search of best practices beyond the primary school level. Though several white papers, policy positions, and research projects have tried to expand this effort to high school mathematics instruction, little success has been realized.

Taiwan leads the world in mathematical performance among all students in their country. The results of the Programme for International Student Assessment, colloquially known as the PISA, are clear: for the most recent year in which data is available, Taiwan was ranked as the 4th best country in the world for mathematical performance. The United States finished 36th.  The OECD (who organize the PISA) also uses a so-called “snapshot of equity in education” to determine how equitable the education system is in any given country. In this category, the U.S. currently ranks 25th, while Taiwan ranks 4th. It is worth noting that the Republic of China’s success in education stretches beyond the area of mathematics, as Taiwan currently ranks 8th internationally in reading comprehension and 13th in science, too.

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Using another standardized metric, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), eighth graders in Taiwan ranked 2nd internationally in science and 3rd in mathematics. Taiwanese students also achieved outstanding results in the International Mathematics and Science Olympiad. The Ministry of Education also has a plethora of current initiatives that are aimed at increasing creativity through art and music programs. If you put any faith in these standardized metrics (which, to be fair, are inherently controversial), it is clear that Taiwan is doing something special when it comes to educating its youth.

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During my time abroad, I will have the opportunity to observe hundreds of educators teaching at dozens of schools, learn more about their pedagogical approach, and work to apply as much of it as possible to my work with under-resourced students back home. Although a few ideas in this area have emerged from Japan and Singapore, the approach taken in Taiwan has received little public exposure despite the tremendous success on international benchmarks. This Fulbright project looks to change this paradigm once and for all.

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Stock photo of Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan.

As we look forward towards an ever-changing global economy, we as educators need to do a better collective job preparing our students for the complex world in which they will live and work. Commenting on the results of the 2015 PISA, the report’s authors noted that, “while changing how teachers teach is challenging, school leaders and governments should try to find ways to make teaching more effective.” Perhaps I am hopelessly optimistic, but I do believe success is possible.

I have worked hard the last six years to ensure that all of the students whom I taught received a great education, but I must confess that I have learned far more from my students over the years than I have ever taught them. While I am truly excited for the year of personal and professional growth that lies ahead, I also want to ensure that my time abroad actually makes a difference for our most vulnerable students. I hope that my studies in Taiwan can be part of the revolution that is committed to giving all students the chance to attain a truly excellent education.

 

This post is the first in a two-part series that attempts to answer the question, “Why Taiwan?” The second essay, focused on a “cultural perspective,” will be posted next week.

 

Teaching at Northern State Prison

Last October, Netflix released an original documentary directed by Ava DuVernay called 13th. As originally put forward by the NY Times, this full-length feature film is “powerful, infuriating, and at times overwhelming,” and “will get your blood boiling.” The film takes a close look at the 13th amendment, which was originally passed in 1865 and “ended” slavery in the United States of America, with one major caveat. Here is the text taken verbatim from section one of the 13th amendment to our constitution:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Ava DuVernay’s documentary then goes on to show how much those fourteen words, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” have been systematically abused in this country for decades. I honestly cannot recommend watching the movie enough. That being said, watching the film seriously challenged my previous notions and ideas about the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States. For me, it was the second time in my life a documentary shook me to my core, and I knew that I needed to do something – anything, to stop these systems of oppression from moving forward. (The other movie being the highly controversial Waiting for Superman, which pushed me to apply to Teach For America). In Michelle Alexander’s terms, I needed to stop standing still on the moving walkway once and for all.

While having a conversation about the movie with my student teacher at the time, he told me about an incredible nonprofit called the Petey Greene Program. The mission of the organization is to supplement education in correctional institutions by preparing volunteers, primarily college students, to provide free, quality tutoring and related programming to support the academic achievement of incarcerated people. The Petey Greene Program “is named after Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, Jr., a TV and radio talk show host and community activist who overcame drug addiction and a prison sentence to become one of the most notable media personalities in Washington, D.C. history.  While incarcerated for armed robbery, Greene became the prison’s disc jockey and subsequently a role model for many other individuals incarcerated in the facility.  Greene’s close friend and mentor, Charlie Puttkammer, was inspired by Greene’s life, and founded the Petey Greene Program in his honor, to strengthen correctional education services and offer college students the opportunity to pursue meaningful and valuable work in the criminal justice system.”

For the past year, I have been privileged to teach adjudicated adults at Northern State Prison through the Petey Greene Program. After two months of paperwork, background checks, and an intense DOC volunteer training, I received my approval, and have subsequently volunteered at Northern State Prison every Thursday afternoon for the past year. Northern State Prison is a mixed security prison, meaning that the facility detains people with different levels of custody, including general population, special needs, administrative close supervision unit (adults who have incurred serious disciplinary charges) and therapeutic community (addictive behaviors). I normally arrive at the correctional facility at around 3:00, as the prison is less than ten minutes from the high school that I currently teach at. After about 20 minutes of processing, including signing in, verifying clearance status, going through airport-style security, and getting frisked down, we are escorted by a corrections officer to the secured area through the prison yard and then to the library.

Once we arrive, our students are typically waiting for us at large tables in the library (see picture below). The students range in age from early 20’s to late 50’s, and  are all working relentlessly to pass the T.A.S.C. (test assessing school completion), formerly known as the G.E.D.  Almost universally, the students are hungry for knowledge, and are always appreciative of the time we spend with them. I found out recently that Northern State also has a pilot program with Rutgers for those that are looking to attain a college education after they get their high school equivalency.

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The library at Northern State Prison

It is one thing to read about mass incarceration in The New Jim Crow or watch Ava DuVernay’s 13th, but it another altogether to experience what a prison is like first hand.  As officials at Petey Greene often say, for many of the incarcerated adults we are working with, we are not giving them a second or third chance at an education, but rather a genuine first chance. Study after study shows the effectiveness of prison education programs. This NY Times article point out that “every dollar spent on prison education translated into savings of $4 to $5 on re-imprisonment costs down the line.” An NPR report put forward research that shows that “when inmates get a college education, they are half as likely to end up back in prison.” I think we as a country need to do some serious soul-searching about mass incarceration; we must look to other countries that use their system as a legitimate corrections system, as opposed to a mundane punishment system. After all, isn’t the point of prison to rehabilitate people, not make their lives worse? Can we honestly say that the corrections system we currently have in America is achieving that vision? (Recommended video: Bill Whitaker of 60 Minutes reports on the German prison system, which emphasizes rehabilitation rather than punishment and allows convicts an astonishing amount of liberty.)032017_6895_Tutors-at-Northern-State-Prison

This entire experience has truly been transformative in ways previously thought unimaginable. For me, volunteering has brought up dozens more questions than answers, such as why we deprive thousands of people of their liberties, often for nonviolent crimes, and why some states permanently take away voting rights from former inmates even after they have paid their “debts” back to society. From a financial perspective, it costs more than $40,000 to incarcerate one inmate per year in New Jersey alone. To put that in perspective, we spend less than half of that on each of our public-school students annually. As a teacher, I am of the belief that an excellent education is the only true inoculation for mass incarceration, yet we still cannot get policy makers to vote for common-sense legislation, such as universal pre-K. As Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times points out, the “growing mountains of research suggest that the best way to address American economic inequality, poverty and crime is early education programs.” In another study, there was a 59 percent reduction in child arrests at age 15 among students who had gone through an early childhood education program. In a way, universal pre-K is one of the best interventions we have to fight the school-to-prison pipeline.

To quote Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” I have seen weekly how we systematically remove the humanity and dignity from incarcerated people, and it begs the question as to who we are as a society. I often hear people proclaiming how the U.S. is the “home of the free,” yet we have the highest imprisonment rate per person in the world, including oppressive places like North Korea. As it has been put forward, ending the era of mass incarceration while simultaneously increasing the funding and attention paid to our public schools AND correctional education programs is the only way that will prove that the United States still stands for liberty, opportunity, and an inextinguishable chance at individual achievement.

Every Thursday evening at 5:00pm, a corrections officer comes into the library, gives us the signal to wrap things up, and escorts us out of the prison. As I walk through the prison yard each week, I cannot help to wonder about what all of the incarcerated people are thinking about, many of whom have never held a smartphone or even used the internet. As I wait for the control tower to open the stereotypical series of electrically-locked steel doors, I question how far we have come as a society, and reflect about how much progress we still need to make. For at the end of the day, at 5:00 p.m. every Thursday, I ultimately get my liberty back. Shouldn’t everyone?

Interested in learning more about or applying to the Petey Greene Program? Click here 

 

When Ed Reform Goes Too Far

As all of my friends and co-workers would attest, I am extremely passionate about the field of education. I fundamentally believe that our students and thus our schools are essential to the future of our great nation. I also believe that every student can be pushed onto a track towards future success; Stanford Professor Dr. Jo Boaler pointed out during a recent conference in Boston that 95% of our current students have the mental and physical capacity to attend a post-secondary institution if they are taught in the right way. It promptly follows that we must make our schools better if we are serious about the lofty goal of putting every student on the road to college and career readiness.
Over the course of the last five years, I have read almost every book I could get my hands on that examines various theories about so-called education reform. I have considered a wide range of diverse opinions, ranging from Diane Ravitch to Michelle Rhee to Joel Klein. More recently, I have become immersed in the work of Elizabeth Green and more specifically the notion that we need to move away from the vicious ‘accountability vs. autonomy’ arguments that permeate the discussions surrounding education reform today.
One may be wondering where all of this incredible passion comes from. Over three years ago, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime as one of the 17% of applicants accepted into Teach For America’s 2012 corps, and was subsequently placed at East Side High School in Newark, New Jersey. Although there have been many emotionally draining and stressful occurrences over the course of the past three years, my experience working in Newark has shown me the potential our astonishing students really have. I think of my many students who are first generation immigrants, excelling at school while struggling to learn a language and grow accustomed to a new culture that is so very different from the one in which they have grown up. I think of students like Melissa, a junior who is poised to become the first person in her family to attend college, and has led the Robotics team to the first ever district finals. And then I think of students like Austin, a senior that has become like a little brother to me, who, through unimaginable stress and tremendous adversity, has persevered and risen to the top of his class, being named Salutatorian while being elected President of the Student Council and serving as captain of the varsity soccer team. Austin has also won some of the most competitive scholarships (including the prestigious Coca-Cola Scholarship and the NHL’s Thurgood Marshall Scholarship) while being offered admittance into some of the most elite universities our country has to offer (including Duke, the University of Pennsylvania, and Cornell). And they have all done well in part because of the opportunities they have had while attending East Side High School.

East Side is the largest high school within the governance of the Newark Public Schools. It is one of the few Newark high schools with high demand as enrollment has skyrocketed over the course of the past three years due to more families wanting to enroll their children at East Side High School. As a designated Title 1 School, 81.9% of our students are considered economically disadvantaged, 15% of students are classified with special needs, and 18.3% are English Language Learners (Source: The New Jersey Department of Education state report card for East Side High School). While our school has had and will continue to face many difficult and sensitive challenges in the road ahead, one thing that no one can argue is which direction East Side is headed. As many “Data-Driven” educational leaders would say, let us look at the data. Star-Ledger Reporter Naomi Nix has recently put forward that, “the share of students considered proficient in language arts increased from 67 percent during the 2010-2011 school year to 79 percent during the 2013-2014 school year, while the number of students considered proficient in math has increased from 63 percent during the 2010-2011 school year to 75 percent during the 2013-2014 school year.”

It sure seems as though there are many great things going on at East Side High School. I am not sure anyone would consider East Side a great school – yet – but we are definitely in the process of becoming one. Any reasonably coherent person would see the overwhelming positive trajectory that East Side High School is on.

Which is exactly why our entire building – teachers, administrators, and students alike – were shocked to discover that the Newark Public Schools has designated East Side High School as a turnaround school for the 2015-2016 school year.
Huh?
When pressed with any possible rationale as to why a state-appointed administration would aim to turnaround one of the brightest beacons of hope in the Newark Public Schools, they responded with saying that the incoming 8th graders are achieving at a significantly lower rate than last year’s cohort, and it is those students that truly need to be “turned around.” I am not sure I follow this argument; if this is true, why not turn around the K-8 schools first? For me personally, I already get to school by 7:00 am and leave at around 5:00 pm everyday. If these reforms are to go through, I would lose about 90 minutes of daily lesson prep time (40 minutes from a shortened prep and 50 minutes from the extended school day) in addition to gaining a 6th class. Until what time does the Newark Public Schools want me to work? Do they want me to put in 12-hour days on a consistent basis? I need at least two hours to plan a highly effective lesson that is culturally relevant and engaging for our students. This is in addition to all of the extremely important extracurricular activities, extra help, and empowering conversations that I have with students on a daily basis. I am worried that I will burn out even earlier next year, and that I will not be as mentally ready to give it my all during class day-in and day-out.

This past Saturday, in protest of this decision, our school community held an inspirational #WeAreEastSide rally to showcase some of the great things that are going on at East Side High and to highlight everything that would be lost if these changes go through. As our fearless principal Dr. Mario Santos has said, “East Side has been on a road to greatness and the results have shown it! The key ingredient of any great school is great teachers, and my focus and my goal is not to lose any great teachers. The term turnaround…can affect that. Obviously, I don’t want to lose any great teachers.” As our vice principal (and TFA alumna) Meg Murray said during the rally, “East Side IS a turnaround; we are a great school and constantly getting better!”
At the #WeAreEastSide rally
I worry that some of our educational leaders have lost touch with reality, and that we are starting to lose focus of the bigger picture. I resonate strongly with Nicholas Kristof’s recent piece in the NY Times, which put forward the notion that improving our schools is essential, but at what cost? While working in an inner-city school for the past three years, I agree with him that we must “support education reform. Yet the brawls have left everyone battered and bloodied, from reformers to teachers unions.”
Our principal Dr. Santos speaking at the #WeAreEastSide rally
To my peers and fellow educators: let us keep showing the world what Newark and East Side High School is capable of doing. Let us keep pushing ourselves to improve our craft and become the very best teachers that we can be. And let us keep up with the biggest responsibility we have – to pass down knowledge onto the next generation of leaders while preparing them for the dynamic and globally connected world that is the 21st century.
And to the Newark Public Schools: as a Teach For America alum, I want to be on your team. I want to believe in what you stand for, but it has become increasingly difficult to support a vision that completely decimates our public schools. I share in your resolve to make the Newark Public Schools a great school district, but I promise you that “turning around” East Side High School would do nothing more than de-stabilize the most stable comprehensive public high school that Newark has to offer. If the turnaround designation stays, many of our best teachers will choose to leave the district in large droves. The fallacy with many of these reforms is that the best teachers – “The Irreplaceables,” as they are often called – will have opportunities in other districts, and that only the worst teachers will be stuck in the Newark Public Schools. At the Partner’s for Excellence reception the district held earlier in the year, district leaders declared how we as a district must do everything we possibly can to retain our highly effective teachers, yet the actions of the district seemingly advocate for the exact opposite. I worry that if these reforms go through and there is a mass teacher exodus as expected, it will take at least a decade to restore the school to anything faintly resembling East Side as we know it today. I urge the district to reconsider this turnaround designation, and instead give our instructional leaders worthwhile professional development that will truly improve our pedagogy. I lobby for new teacher coaches so that my colleagues and I can continue to grow as educators, which will help our students far more than simply extending the school day by an hour.  And please allow for an open and honest dialogue with the people that have the biggest impact on student achievement and the ones who are fighting on the front lines every single day – your teachers.
To close, I must ask: Are we creating conditions in our urban schools such that our best teachers leave and our worst teachers stay? Does urban education go too far when it does more to drive away the irreplaceable teachers to other districts or professions than to keep them in the classroom? And when will we learn that education reform must be done WITH schools and communities and not TO them?
As for me, I still have tremendous hope for our future. Perhaps I am an eternal optimist or a hopeless romantic, but I am a teacher because I fundamentally believe that education has the power to change the world. I know that our schools can do better and that many things in the K-12 system need to change. But is there a point when education reform goes too far?

2014: A Year in Review

2014 was the year of traveling and the year of weddings, and it was definitely a year to remember. As I mentioned in last year’s year in review, I rung in 2014 sixty-feet underwater in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on an amazing dive trip with two of my teacher friends, Nick and Karina. It was my first live-aboard, and it was an absolutely incredible experience that I will always cherish; I already cannot wait to go diving again! Later in the month, Matt, Victoria and I flew down to Louisville for our good friend Steve Townsend’s wedding. Although we were there for only a few days, we tried to make the most out of the experience, and checked out the Louisville Slugger Factory, ate some delicious Hot Brown’s at the eminent Brown Hotel, and had an Inside-the Gates tour of Churchill Downs, too.
At Steve’s wedding in Louisville
Spring went by so fast. Our basketball team won the state tournament, Teach For America-New Jersey celebrated their 20thanniversary, and we celebrated MIPO’s 35th anniversary in the city, too. In March, I was once again privileged to chaperone another overnight college visit trip to Connecticut and Rhode Island, which was humbling and empowering as usual.
Eric showing me around Turner Sports
April was one of the best months of the spring, as I was able to get to two new cities: New Orleans and Atlanta. In short, both cities lived up to the hype. In New Orleans, we went for the annual NCTM conference, which was just as informative as the conference in Denver. I would highly recommend checking out my full write-up about New Orleans here. After landing in Newark, I had less than 12 hours before I was on another plane bound for Atlanta. It was my first time to visit “Hotlanta,” and I was excited to see my good friend Eric Vander Voort, who I hadn’t seen for a while, and is currently working at Turner Sports. In the five days that I was there, we killed the city, going to just about every famous restaurant and museum the city had to offer. Oh, and did I mention that we ran into Shaq at the Turner Sports building, too? Talk about once in a lifetime!
 
In May, some of my best friends in the world graduated from Marist, and in June, between chaperoning more trips, speaking at Honor Society Dinners and gearing up for the World Cup, I moved out of Newark to Rahway, which is about fifteen minutes south of the city. Speaking of soccer, this was the first year I actually followed the World Cup, and it really got me into soccer.
At the College Summit at Yale University
In July, I was invited to be in Dan Torres’ wedding, which was incredible! It was held in upstate New York, and it was great re-connecting with so many people I hadn’t seen in over a year. I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to chaperone a weeklong overnight College Summit visit to Yale, and met some great rising seniors that all had unique stories about their pursuit of their future. The following week, I was able to visit my longtime friend Johnny Delgado in St. Louis, and return to the baseball mecca that is Busch Stadium. In addition to visiting Johnny, it was my second time to the city, although it was my first time seeing the new stadium.
On the field at Busch Stadium
In August, I was so blessed to be able to visit Spain for a month. I went to study Spanish, live with a host family, and experience as much of the culture of España as I possibly could. In the three weeks I was there, I was able to get to four major cities, including Madrid, Toledo, Valencia and Barcelona. I had the best paella I’ve ever had in my life, experienced my first professional soccer game, y aprendí un poco más español. Quite frankly, it was one of the best trips that I have ever taken in my life. I never had the opportunity to study abroad while I was in college, so I felt that this was my chance to study abroad and take in a new culture while learning a new language along the way.
Before I knew it, the summer was over, and a new school year was around the corner. This year, I was appointed to be a lead teacher in the math department, something I was extremely excited about. My classes were awesome, and it is honestly hard to believe how fast the first four months have gone.
At Austin’s last high school soccer game
Just when the leaves were changing colors, we took a busload of students down to Rutgers for the day to check out the New Brunswick campus, and I also saw my first Red Bull soccer game, too. In October, I saw the U.S. men’s national team play Ecuador in Connecticut with Rob and Jeff, which was really cool (even if I did get to the game a little late…). One of the funniest aspects of the trip was that many of my students are Ecuadorian, so it was a lot of fun leading up to the game. At the end, the teams tied 2-2. After getting back, I was able to cheer on our boy’s soccer team and watched them win the Newark City Championship, and go to Austin’s last high school soccer game, too.
At the game that night with Jeff and Rob
During November, a bunch of friends and co-workers went down to Jamaica for my friend Nuno’s wedding. It was my first destination wedding, and it was awesome! In between the wedding festivities, I was able to squeeze in a trip to the famous Dunn River Falls and embark on a scuba diving excursion, too. The wedding itself was picturesque, as shown below. Two weeks later, I had another wedding, and Ryan and DJ got married, too!
Congrats to “Nuna”
In December, I had one of the most memorable days of my teaching career to date when I took almost 50 high schools students to visit my beloved alma mater, Marist. In between working with seniors on countless college and scholarship applications, I was able to go to a soccer scholarship dinner and finally try some authentic Norwegian food, too. For New Year’s, I went up to Connecticut, and had such an amazing time.
Another late night working on college applications
As I said, 2014 was the year of weddings and trips, and it really was quite a memorable year. It seems as though every year goes by faster, but I guess that is to be expected, especially as we get older; maybe that is why we need to make every second count!
One of the most memorable days of my teaching career
 
Here’s to a great 2015!

2013: A Year in Review

It is hard to believe that it has been a full year since I wrote last year’s ‘year in review.’ 2013 has gone by so incredibly fast, and since there have been so many great moments along the way, I sure hope I did not forget any here!
With the ESHS Student Council at the 2013 Inauguration

In January, I started off the year by attending the 2013 Presidential Inauguration with the East Side High School student council. It was so surreal to be standing on the national mall, listening to our president get sworn in and give his inaugural address. It was also great having higher level political conversations with some of our all-stars from East Side. Obama gave such a great speech, and I will never forgot when our students cheered like crazy when Obama mentioned immigration reform. Besides Obama, Kelly Clarkson perhaps unintentionally stole the show with her fantastic rendition of “My Country, Tis of Thee.” Attending the Inauguration was an experience I will undoubtedly never forget.  

In February, I officially started my masters program at Seton Hall University, which I was extremely excited about. The masters will be a M.A. in Educational Leadership, Management and Policy, with a concentration in educational administration. I also had the privilege of meeting Bobby Marks, a Marist alum who is currently the assistant GM for the Brooklyn Nets, before watching a game at the brand-new Barclays Center with Meaghan and Brian. 
In March, I had many TFA-related activities, and was able to visit Marist one weekend as well. After Easter, I geared up for April, which was one of the busiest and most fun months of the year. In April, it felt like just about every weekend I was in a different city. Between Boston, Denver, Newark and Poughkeepsie, I sure had a fantastic journey going across the country for everything from NCTM conferences to high school college visits. I would strongly recommend reading my full post on my adventures in April here.

Playing some kickball to end the year
May was a graduate-filled month, as my first set of graduate classes were coming to a close and my next semester was already beginning. June went really fast as well, especially since we spent so many of the last days of school playing kickball with students and attending our high school’s graduation. I also experienced my first Portuguese Festival which was, well, one of the most interesting nights of the year. During the second weekend in June, my cousin Danny and his beautiful wife Elisabetta got married on Long Island! The wedding was so much fun, and one of the best I have ever been to. 
The Wedding Party!!!
A week after school was over, I went on a family vacation to St. Maarten. It was, quite frankly, one of the nicest islands I have ever been on. Between amazing food, breathtaking views and an unbelievably relaxing atmosphere, it was the best way to wind down after a busy year. Perhaps most notably, I decided to get my open water scuba diver certification, and I went diving four times, including two deep dives to a coral and an old wreck. It was one of the coolest activities I have ever done.
With my family in St. Maarten

When I got home from the Caribbean, I worked summer school for a few weeks. In between teaching summer school, I had the opportunity to visit many places, including Princeton (as one of my good friends Kassie was staying there for the summer) and the floor of the New York State Exchange. I also squeezed in a boat tour of NYC sponsored by the Marist Alumni Association and a quick trip to Philadelphia and Boston before the summer was over. (I finally was able to get to the Sam Adam’s brewery, as well, which was something I really wanted to do for a while.)

With Kassie at Princeton University

And just like that, August was winding down, which meant school was just around the corner. After a few weeks of cleaning up my room and setting up my class, I went up and visited my beloved alma mater for one last time during Labor Day weekend. The end of the summer means the annual Brazilian festival comes to Newark, which of course means lots of great food, drinks and music to be had by all!

At the annual Brazilian Day Festival in Newark

September and October flew by, as we had so many different things going on. Between so much controversy in the Newark Public Schools and new laws being passed seemingly daily, it was hard to not get overwhelmed in all of the commotion brought upon by education. There was even more controversy in November, when the district and the union fought over teachers going to the annual NJEA conference held in Atlantic City. Unfortunately, no matter whose side you were on, the only people that lost at the end of the day were our students. We need to stop putting adults in front of education in our schools, and continue to work hard to a day when all of our students have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.

Also in November, the East Side Student Council visited two colleges in Pennsylvania, including the University of Scranton (where my sister currently attends) and Penn State. As you most likely have come to expect by now, it was another great trip that always helps to reset my perspective on life. I wrote a longer debrief of the trip on a previous post, which can be found here.
With Danny watching the Packers/Giants at Metlife Stadium
To end the year, I celebrated with some of my teachers friends (Nick and Karina) on board the Turks & Caicos Aggressor II. It was my first live-aboard, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone that is interested in Scuba Diving; It was honestly one of the best weeks of my life. And hey, what better way to start the New Year than be scuba diving fifty feet underwater?
Hanging out with the Delgado’s during Christmas Time
Well folks, that just about does it for 2013. Who knows what 2014 will have in store for us, but if the past is any indication for the future, I think I’m in for a really great year.

Here’s to 2014!

How about a simple solution?

In recent times, in seems as though everyone talks about how complex and controversial education reform is and how many elements need to evolve for schools to become better. While many solutions put forward push for massive institutional change and heavy financial commitments, I ask, “How about a simple solution?” 

This post is exactly that. 

Let’s start with an even simpler question: What science classes did you take in high school, and in what order?

If you are with the overwhelming majority of people who graduated high school in the last few decades, you undoubtedly took Biology first, then Chemistry, followed by Physics, if you chose to take it. Most high schools in America, whether an elite private school in Westchester or a public SIG school in Chicago, offer these three science classes in that order.

Perhaps the better question is, why do schools sequence science classes in the way that they do?

Most people, myself included, would probably give a reason involving math, putting forward an argument that Algebra I is required for Chemistry and Geometry is required for Physics. Since most students only take Algebra I freshman year and Geometry during their sophomore year, they would not be qualified to comprehend the higher levels of science without the strong backing in math. Another often-held thought is that Biology is an easier course than Chemistry or Physics, so students will be more likely to pass that class during freshman year. These sounds like reasonable arguments, no?

Here’s the kicker: It turns out that, the real reason why high schools sequence their classes as Biology-Chemistry-Physics has nothing to do with math, student achievement levels, or even teacher certifications. Originally, some school administrator somewhere ordered these classes like so because they were in alphabetical order (B-C-P).

Yes. I know it is hard to believe. If you doubt that claim as I did, look up some historical information, and you will be just as surprised as I was. 

But what’s the “so what?” factor here? This past weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Michael Kuchar, Superintendent of Bergenfield Public Schools in New Jersey. Explaining the background of a Physics First curriculum, he flopped the order of the science classes in his district, so that all students, including honors and classified special education students, took Physics before Chemistry and then finished with Biology. 

How did Bergenfield High School do, you ask? In one year, proficiency rates on the Algebra I EOC test skyrocketed from a 36% passing rate to an 80% passing rate. That is an increase of 46% in one academic year!

My question: If such an easy fix can drastically improve student achievement in one year, what are other basic changes that we could make that could help transform our school system? 

Education Reform is often heralded as this massive beast that involves complex ideas and ideologies to completely overhaul the system. Switching Physics and Biology seems easy enough to me. 

Now, how about another simple solution?