About two weeks ago I saw a video of a Chicago "professional development" session posted on Facebook. Shortly thereafter, it appeared here in Valerie Strauss' Answer Sheet blog, and has been viewed more than 126,000 times since then. Today, for the first time, I share the firsthand account of the teacher who recorded this session. Due to the tense environment in Chicago, she has asked to remain anonymous, but was connected to me by a trusted source who has worked for years in the Chicago schools. I have verified her identity.
Guest post by an anonymous Chicago teacher.
This now viral video shows a consultant modeling a lesson to be taught to 5th and 6th graders. The professional development is part of Chicago Public Schools' OS4 network. This network is a special project of CPS CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett that was funded for over $20 million even while 50 schools were being closed around the city.
Some have defended the video, saying that it may be out of context. I want to clarify that context. The presenter's script is meant to be repeated (and repeated) verbatim. She made it quite clear that fifth and sixth grade human beings are meant to say the exact words used in the video: "We will use accurately grade appropriate general academic and domain specific words and phrases when writing or speaking by choosing flexibly from a range of strategies."
Please stop for a moment and recite the script above in the style of the video. Is this a way to communicate meaning through language? How do you feel? Is it something you feel should be used with students?
When I have shown this video to acquaintances, teachers and non-teachers alike respond with cringes, sympathetic embarrassment, and anger. No one uses techniques like this one to talk to children they care about. This is barely comprehensible corporate jargon assembled by highly paid consultants that reads as though it were penned by someone who had heard a description of elementary education but had never actually encountered any elementary students or teachers. It is based on an instructional technique known as "Direct Instruction" - a research-based practice which involves highly scripted teacher speech, choral responses, and quick pacing that has been shown to be effective for students in a variety of situations. The lesson shown in this video, on the other hand, shows a total lack of understanding of how children learn, and even of how direct instruction can be used effectively. Repeating an incomprehensible statement is not an effective teaching strategy, nor is repeating a sentence that is broken up into syntactically illogical units. This is doing for the sake of doing what you're told, not for the sake of developing skills, supporting classmates, or engaging with learning.
It is demeaning and an insult to the dignity of the teachers and students who would like to use their time in school for worthwhile pursuits.
Throughout Chicago Public Schools, unfortunately, students and teachers are not strangers to daily attacks on their dignity coming directly from administration or the district. This PD was provided to teachers who were getting ready to teach a four-week Saturday School course that was to give students extra preparation for the ISATs - a standardized test which had by this time already been phased out of all high stakes purposes. In years past, the test had been used for all sorts of purposes - determining students' eligibility for the highly competitive selective enrollment high schools, determining promotion for students in certain grades, and influencing school ratings and teacher evaluations. But by the time teachers were being drilled in how to elicit corporate lingo from our students, the best reason CPS's CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett could muster for taking the test (as she explained in an email to staff on 1/29/14) was that it would provide an "additional opportunity to understand the increased expectations of a Common Core-aligned test." In other words, teachers were being taught to teach their students to repeat nonsense to prepare for a test that would prepare them to take additional tests in the future.
Parents, teachers, and students in CPS have made it increasingly clear that they are not interested in this culture of testing and retesting. In the past weeks, parent groups have mobilized to opt their students out of the no-stakes ISAT in unheard of numbers. Teachers at two elementary schools have voted to boycott the ISAT - refusing to administer a useless test that their students' families have made it clear they do not wish to take. CPS has responded with threats ranging from children being removed from school for the day to teachers losing their licensure for refusing to administer the test. In a climate where schools have been shut down based on invalid uses of data from testing, it is truly courageous for these parents and teachers to stand with their students against a district that has time and time again showed a complete disregard for their dignity.
When my sixth graders arrived for four weeks of Saturday school instruction, they were not greeted with robotic call and response or bubble sheets to fill in. We had roundtable discussions about what tests like the ISAT measure, about how they are used, and about how we interact with them. We read and analyzed arguments in texts written by supporters of the ISAT (including the letters written by Byrd-Bennett) and opponents. We also reviewed arithmetic with fractions, because my sixth graders asked me to and I knew from seeing their previous work that this was a tricky topic for them. In the end, just over half of my students have, in consultation with their parents, opted out of the ISAT, while the rest will take the exam. My goal for all of my students is that they can be active participants in their lives, making a beautiful life for themselves and their communities. My school community can develop and act on assessments of students' progress toward this goal much more empathetically and effectively than any standardized measure could.
In resisting the scripting and the pressure and coercion to comply with hurtful, noneducational testing culture, we are not being insubordinate; we are making a strong and conscious choice to do what's best for our community, our students and their education.
To learn more about the Chicago Community's struggle around the ISAT, please check out these resources:
What do you think of the perspective of this Chicago teacher? Have you experienced professional development of this sort?