Out of frustration, they’ll march

Anthony Cody organized disaffected teachers

Like no other, Diane Ravitch – author, polemicist, historian, Twittermeister – has galvanized classroom teachers to oppose the Obama administration’s vision of ed reform. And if she’s the James Madison or Thomas Jefferson of the rebellion, Anthony Cody is the movement’s Sam Adams.

With bulldog tenacity, the 24-year Oakland Unified science teacher and teacher coach has challenged teachers to speak out and take action – and put his organizing talents behind his words. Later this month, his two-year campaign will culminate in the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action on Saturday, July 30 in Washington, D.C., with a rally at the Ellipse followed by a march to the White House.

“We have really tried over the last two years to engage the administration in dialogue .. ,” Cody told me. “So, yeah, we do feel like we need to protest at this point, because, you know, we really expected much better from this administration, and we still do.”

In a recent video interview (here for the transcipt), Cody laid out his grievances – chiefly Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s embrace of the chief tenets of No Child Left Behind – and his goals for the march. He hopes that at least a few thousand teachers and sympathizers (he’s low-balling the number) will brave the potentially swampy Washington weather to attend. He and other volunteer organizers have lined up Ravitch, author Jonathan Kozol (Death at an Early Age), actor Matt Damon, and activist Deborah Meier (co-blogger with Ravitch in Bridging Differences) as speakers. Bookending the rally will be a conference on July 28 and 29 and a congress on July 31 to plan future actions.

The protesters will make four demands: equitable funding for all public school communities; curriculum developed for and by local school communities; teacher and community leadership in forming public education policies; and an end to high-stakes testing for student, teacher, and school evaluation. It’s clearly the last point that has fired up teachers and motivated them to travel to Washington. Cody argues, as do others, that fear of having their schools labeled as failures under NCLB has created an obsession with standardized tests, particularly in low-income schools where the curriculum has been narrowed to exclude subjects other than those that are tested, primarily math and English language arts. Low-income students, he says, “are losing the rich education that they really need. They’re losing the chance to be challenged, to think critically, and we’re developing a split education system” in which wealthy schools escape NCLB sanctions and can do the deeper learning denied poor schools.

Teachers who are feeling under siege are furious over the requirement in Race to the Top that states include student scores on standardized tests to evaluate teachers. Duncan and Obama have made more conciliatory statements this year, talking about the need for a richer curriculums  and multiple measures to evaluate teachers. But Cody says he hasn’t seen their more nuanced positions reflected in policies.

“I see them making rhetorical nods to how much they honor teachers; but you do not honor us by tying our pay to test scores, by tying our teacher evaluations to test scores,” he said.

In an explanation “A One-sided Dialogue on his popular blog “Living in Dialogue,” Cody lays out his disappointment and grievances. Eighteen months ago, he started a Facebook group Teachers’ Letters to Obama, in which he encouraged teachers to vent their frustrations in writing, for personal delivery to the White House. More than 100 did.

Then he and others pushed for a conference call with Duncan for them to explain their problems with NCLB. It did happen, after months of planning with a dozen teacher representatives from across the nation. But the call left Cody and others dissatisfied, with most of the half hour, Cody said, spent listening to Duncan instead of the other way around. The idea of a march took off.

Over the past two years of back and forth, Cody and I have sometimes agreed to disagree, but I admire his energy and savvy in creating his grassroots effort. He said he created Letters to Obama for less than $500. The Save Our Schools March has a $150,000 budget, with more than half raised from donations of $25 to $100. Both national teachers unions have kicked in $25,000 each. On Thursday, Ravitch will participate in  a fundraising webinar with a goal of raising $5,000.

“For the last decade, ‘education reform’ has been defined as No Child Left Behind, and the current administration picked that up, and is continuing to run with it,” Cody said. “We  are determined to show a different face for education reform.”


  1. Ze’ev,
    You wrote: “el is correct that items that are too easy or too hard have little discriminating power and tend not to show up on the test. In theory, it would tend to make the test objectively somewhat “harder” over time– as compared to its early versions — if the population achievement increased a *lot* overall.  However, it is important to note the “in theory” qualifier.”

    Why is a question that has a high discriminating power valuable on a test that is meant to assess students against a curriculum? Obviously we don’t want to waste test time on questions that are trivial, but just because ‘too many’ students get it right does not necessarily make the question trivial.

    I suspect we’ve seen some of both effects: questions that the kids get correct ‘too often’ have been retired, leading to more questions that require very close, tricky reading… and then the cut score gets adjusted down to compensate.

    The high discriminating power of a question is of course very valuable with a test like the SAT which is meant to rank students against each other.

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  2. Ze’ev, sheesh… just because I read “dramatic” instead of “significant” you make it seem as if I impugned your honesty. That still does not change the fact that 0.5 SD is not a significant change. Maybe in your world it is, but not in mine. And we will never get 100% proficiency at the rate you are happy with.
    (But at least you did not catch the two typos and lapsus stupidus on my part.)
    Mr. Fensterwald, thank you for the thanks.
    Still, we got something that looks like a duck, waddles like a duck, and quacks like a duck, regardless of what Doug and Ze’ev assert. I wonder why they insist in calling it a swan (and yes, I am “interpreting”, not directly quoting). And no, I am not trying to map it backwards. I am trying to make sense of what an examination of the empirical data is telling me rather than force into what I am being told by the sages of the field. Could it be that what the ultimate designers implemented is not what they directed be done? I can’t tell. I wasn’t there.
    The upshot is that whatever it is they are doing at ETS is not working. And I’ve heard ETS researchers admit that the CSTs should not be used for teacher evaluations (I was there, so it is not hearsay). But the political winds say they should and you seem to be in total agreement with that.
    But here’s another data point for your map: just today, the LA Times published an article about high turnover of teachers in charter schools. Not really news, but what caught my eye was the statement from a teacher who was the math dept chair at Animo Justice, a Green Dot school that has since been closed. He claims that he worked 70-80 hour weeks but it was worth it because he saw “positive outcomes.” Examination of the STAR scores show that Animo Justice had, in 2010, only 16% of its students as “proficient and above” in Algebra I, 0% in Geometry, and 12% in Algebra II. In 2009, it was 4% in Algebra I, 20% in Geometry, and 6% in Algebra II. In 2008, it was 4% in Algebra I, and 1% in Geometry. They were not able to even meet the standards I claim the CSTs go by. By your standards (and it sees that Mr. Stapolis wholly agrees with all his huzzahs), they should all be fired.
    Yet, this man and his colleagues seem to have gone beyond the call of duty to help their students, something that is not reflected in the CSTs. Now where do we go from here? Is it any wonder that teachers are marching in DC this weekend?

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  3. How you make questions that will get a spread of answers:
    On the 5th grade science sample exam, there’s a question that shows a picture of a sea arch being pummeled by waves. The question is:
    What is responsible for shaping this arch?
    A. Plate Tectonics
    B. earthquakes
    C. deposition
    D. erosion
    It’s clear to me as a good test taker that the answer they wanted is (d). But it’s also clear to me as a scientist and as someone who knows California geology that it’s likely that all four answers had a role. Plate tectonics lifted the rock above surrounding soil. Earthquakes have certainly shaped it one way or another over millions of years… and may well have been when a hole first formed. The rock may have been formed in part by deposition (unless they are solely volcanic). And, of course, erosion.
    Knowing too much, and being of a particular temperament, could lead a student who could tell you all day about geology to choose incorrectly.
    This question could have been asked much more precisely by asking what process is being actively shown in the photograph.

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  4. I just re-read Mr. McRae’s comments and I’d like to put in a few more cents into this:
    I have no knowledge of how the tests are designed other than what is spelled on the only document I’ve been able to find at the CDE web site that explains the CST sausage-making process: Key Elements of Testing
    . In page 6, it states:

    Item evaluation can be based on information gathered from preliminary tryouts that identify unclear wording or directions, inappropriate timing, and/or item difficulty levels. Formal field tests are conducted to provide more detailed technical data on item quality. Field testing strategies may include embedding new items in an operational test or conducting a separate tryout.

    as well as:

    Item difficulty can be determined by discerning the percentage of students that answered an item correctly. If the p-value is .80 (80% of students answer an item correctly), the item is considered easy. If the p-value is .20, the item is considered difficult. Item discrimination refers to how effectively each item differentiates between students who know most about the content area being tested and those who know least. For example, students with the highest scores should generally get hard items correct while students with low scores generally will not.

    Clearly, these paragraphs are subject to interpretation, but it seems to me that this opens the door to at least two things: 1) the tests are designed with a variety of questions whose “p” values give a test that has the spread shown in the score distributions. Do these distributions strictly fit a Bell curve? No, they don’t, but then again, I’ve never seen a perfect fit in systems like this (if you are talking about gases, that’s another story). To me, they are close “to be good enough for government work.” Given that, I think it is a fraud to expect these tests to take us to 100% proficiency. Especially at a 4% annual “growth rate”. It ain’t gonna happen, folks.
    Now, if the test makers/ed. bureaucrats do not have a model in mind, how in the world did they come up with the “predictions” on the number of proficient and above students who would take the new STS and CAM tests? Yes, they are based on prior test administrations, but they must have started with something. Why did they design the test such that only 50% (roughly!) would be proficient and above? Unless this was the mandate from the beginning. And until I have documentation on why they chose these levels I will clung to my belief that “they” don’t want me to know about it and “they” don’t really care what these numbers do to schools, teachers, administrators, and school districts.
    Thank you for reading this far.

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