Teacher Tuesday

Teacher Tuesday: July 18, 2017

Stephanie Brennan, an amazing K-3 Life Skills Support teacher at Whitemarsh Elementary School in the Colonial School District — and this week’s #TeacherTuesday — learned at an early age how much she loved supporting others. She was a 15-year old volunteer working for the summer with a 19-year old student with significant multiple exceptionalities. The challenge was to help the young adult strengthen his arm by moving his forearm and hand across his lap to his mouth.

Stephanie says, “One day this child would independently use a spoon to eat. We were working so hard on a skill so many people take for granted. I was hooked…. I wanted to be a teacher to be part of something bigger than all of us.” (She’s pictured here in front supporting a student.)


Teachers Don’t Want All Of This Useless Data

I always thought the purpose behind student data was to help the teacher teach. But it has become an end to itself.

One of the most frustrating things I’ve ever been forced to do as a teacher is to ignore my students and concentrate instead on the data.

I teach 8th grade language arts at a high-poverty, mostly minority school in Western Pennsylvania. During my double period classes, I’m with these children for at least 80 minutes a day, five days a week.

During that time, we read together. We write together. We discuss important issues together. They take tests. They compose poems, stories and essays. They put on short skits, give presentations, draw pictures and even create iMovies.

I don’t need a spreadsheet to tell me whether these children can read, write or think. I know.

Anyone who had been in the room and had been paying attention would know.

But a week doesn’t go by without an administrator ambushing me at a staff meeting with a computer print out and a smile.

Look at this data set. See how your students are doing on this module. Look at the projected growth for this student during the first semester.

It’s enough to make you heave.

I always thought the purpose behind student data was to help the teacher teach. But it has become an end to itself.

It is the educational equivalent of navel gazing, of turning all your students into prospective students and trying to teach them from that remove – not as living, breathing beings, but as computer models.

It reminds me of this quote from Michael Lewis’ famous book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game:

“Intelligence about baseball statistics had become equated in the public mind with the ability to recite arcane baseball stats. What [Bill] James’s wider audience had failed to understand was that the statistics were beside the point. The point was understanding; the point was to make life on earth just a bit more intelligible; and that point, somehow, had been lost. ‘I wonder,’ James wrote, ‘if we haven’t become so numbed by all these numbers that we are no longer capable of truly assimilating any knowledge which might result from them.’”

The point is not the data. It is what the data reveals. However, some people have become so seduced by the cult of data that they’re blind to what’s right in front of their eyes.

You don’t need to give a child a standardized test to assess if he or she can read. You can just have them read. Nor does a child need to fill in multiple choice bubbles to indicate if he or she understands what’s been read. They can simply tell you. In fact, these would be better assessments. Doing otherwise, is like testing someone’s driving ability not by putting them behind the wheel but by making them play Mariocart.

The skill is no longer important. It is the assessment of the skill.

THAT’S what we use to measure success. It’s become the be-all, end-all. It’s the ultimate indicator of both student and teacher success. But it perverts authentic teaching. When the assessment is all that’s important, we lose sight of the actual skills we were supposed to be teaching in the first place.

The result is a never ending emphasis on test prep and poring over infinite pages of useless data and analytics.

As Scottish writer Andrew Lang put it, “He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts – for support rather than for illumination.”

Teachers like me have been pointing this out for years, but the only response we get from most lawmakers and administrators is to hysterically increase the sheer volume of data and use more sophisticated algorithms with which to interpret it.

Take the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System (PVAAS). This is the Commonwealth’s method of statistical analysis of students test scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and Keystone Exams, which students take in grades 3-8 and in high school, respectively.

It allows me to see:

  • Student scores on each test
  • Student scores broken down by subgroups (how many hit each 20 point marker)
  • Which subgroup is above, below or at the target for growth

But perhaps the most interesting piece of information is a prediction of where each student is expected to score next time they take the test.

How does it calculate this prediction? I have no idea.

That’s the kind of metric they don’t give to teachers. Or taxpayers, by the way. Pennsylvania has paid more than $1 billion for its standardized testing system in the last eight years. You’d think lawmakers would have to justify that outlay of cash, especially when they’re cutting funding for just about everything else in our schools. But no. We’re supposed to just take that one on faith.

So much for empirical data.

Then we have the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT). This is an optional computer-based test given three times a year in various core subjects.

If you’re lucky enough to have to give this to your students (and I am), you get a whole pile of data that’s supposed to be even more detailed than the PVAAS.

But it doesn’t really give you much more than the same information based on more data points.

I don’t gain much from looking at colorful graphs depicting where each of my students scored in various modules. Nor do I gain much by seeing this same material displayed for my entire class.

The biggest difference between the PVAAS and the CDT, though, is that it allows me to see examples of the kinds of questions individual students got wrong. So, in theory, I could print out a stack of look-a-like questions and have them practice endless skill and drills until they get them right.

And THAT’S education!

Imagine if a toddler stumbled walking down the hall, so you had her practice raising and lowering her left foot over-and-over again! I’m sure that would make her an expert walker in no time!

It’s ridiculous. This overreliance on data pretends that we’re engaged in programming robots and not teaching human beings.

Abstracted repetition is not generally the best tool to learning complex skills. If you’re teaching the times table, fine. But most concepts require us to engage students’ interests, to make something real, vital and important to them.

Otherwise, they’ll just go through the motions.

“If you torture the data long enough, it will confess,” wrote Economist Ronald Coase. That’s what we’re doing in our public schools. We’re prioritizing the data and making it say whatever we want.

The data justifies the use of data. And anyone who points out that circular logic is called a Luddite, a roadblock on the information superhighway.

Never mind that all this time I’m forced to pour over the scores and statistics is less time I have to actually teach the children.

Teachers don’t need more paperwork and schematics. We need those in power to actually listen to us. We need the respect and autonomy to be allowed to actually do our jobs.

Albert Einstein famously said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Can we please put away the superfluous data and get back to teaching?

Credit: Huffington Post


Central Bucks leads Bucks, area Montgomery high schools in STEM rankings

Central Bucks’ three high schools are the best in Bucks County and among the tops in Pennsylvania for STEM education, according to a study released this week by Niche.com.

Central Bucks East was ranked ninth by Niche while CB South finished 17th and CB West 18th among all state high schools. Rounding out the top 20 are Wissahickon, 19th, and North Penn, 20th, in Montgomery County.

“We have 14 different technology and engineering courses at our high schools that our kids are taking advantage of and are performing well,” said John Kopicki, Central Bucks’ superintendent. “They go to college and major in science and technology and engineering, courses they’ve been exposed to in Central Bucks, and pursue careers. This survey is another indicator our kids are continuing that successful trend.”

Niche, a Pittsburgh-based website that analyzes education data to rank schools, used math SAT and ACT scores, math state test scores and enrollment in advanced math and science courses, in addition to data from the U.S. Department of Education as well as student and parent reviews in their methodology.

There are 618 public high schools included in the Niche study. High schools in Bucks and Eastern Montgomery counties finishing among the top 100 in the rankings are New Hope-Solebury, ranked 32nd; Council Rock North, 33rd; Upper Dublin, 38th; Council Rock South, 43rd; Pennsbury, 54th; Palisades, 58th; Lower Moreland, 61st; Souderton Area, 64th; Pennridge, 70th; Cheltenham, 74th; Hatboro-Horsham, 82nd; Abington, 85th; and Quakertown Community, 97th.

The Downingtown STEM Academy, in Chester County, is ranked number one in Pennsylvania.

These schools have a strong focus on STEM and provide a solid foundation, preparing their students to focus their college majors on STEM fields to meet the increased demands of rapidly evolving technology careers, said Alan Malachowski of the Council for the Advancement of Public Schools.

With the high ranking of so many Bucks and Montgomery County schools, Malachowski, a teacher in North Penn, said area students are afforded a “unique opportunity.”

“We have communities, school boards and school districts that encourage the development of rigorous curriculum, especially in STEM,” he said. “We have really strong teaching, too. Those things come together to provide opportunities for kids that they’re really not going to get anywhere else.”

Malachowski cited North Penn’s Engineering Academy and similar school and community partnerships in other area districts that set the region’s schools apart.

Ed Tate, Council Rock’s school board president, said the combination of teachers, parents and students working together has led to the STEM success in its two high schools.

“We hire great teachers and they work hard because it’s a great atmosphere for them to teach in,” he said. “We also need to credit our taxpayers for their support. We’re very fortunate in that respect. Our parents send their kids to school well-prepared and our students work hard.”

Matt Oberecker, a QUEST teacher at Cold Spring Elementary School in Central Bucks, said the district teaches 21st century skills to help prepare students for jobs that have yet to be created.

QUEST, which stands for “Questioning and Understanding through Engineering, Science, and Technology,” incorporates the four Cs — collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking — into elementary school classes.

“We’re all about resiliency and trying things from different angles … practicing 21st century skills,” he said. “My job as a teacher is to provide pathways for them to practice that.”

As part of a new middle school schedule, Central Bucks is adding two new courses: innovation and creativity, and integrated technology. These courses are being written this summer with input from newly hired teachers.

It will help prepare middle schoolers to make even greater STEM strides in high school, Oberecker said.

“It used to be that you’d look at a school yearbook and a student would write ‘I want to be a football player’ or ‘I want to be a baseball player,’ ” Oberecker said. “Now it’s ‘video game designer’ or ‘civil engineer.’ I know we’re definitely teaching them.

“I’m proud to be part of a program like that.”

Credit: Intelligencer/Bucks County Courier Times

Teacher Tuesday

Teacher Tuesday: July 12, 2017

Miandabu Mbuy, also known as Mia, is an eighth grade U.S. History teacher at the East Norriton Middle School in the Norristown Area School District, and this week’s #TeacherTuesday. Although she double majored in education and vocal performance — with the ultimate goal of becoming a Broadway musical star — she quickly realized her true passion was in teaching.

While developing a lesson plan as a student teacher, Mia broke into tears. When her mother reassured her that she’d get her Broadway break, Mia said, “I’m not going to be on Broadway because I really, really love what I’m doing now. I’ve prayed on it and the drive and passion I have for teaching these kids is so much stronger than anything I have ever felt while performing.”

Her students are indeed lucky that Mia made this life-changing decision and enjoy the way she brings history to life, especially through her end-of-year living museum project.

Teacher Tuesday

Teacher Tuesday: July 4, 2017

Stacy Kirsh, the focus of this week’s #TeacherTuesday, is a sixth grade Language Arts teacher at Pennwood Middle School in the Pennsbury School District. She believes that “Great teachers don’t teach their students, they change their students. It is not simply about academics, but about creating a bond and affecting lives. This is what inspires me to lead my class every day.”

Clearly, Stacy’s goal is being met. We’ve heard that, “Stacy goes above and beyond for each student in her classroom! She finds a way to reach them and pushes them to do their best. She is a mentor!”

CAPS Original

CentennialX – Expanding the Educational Paradigm

#CentennialX is gearing up for its opening day on July 6, with William Tennent welcoming students from Upper Dublin High School, who will join this incubator/accelerator, to generate new ideas under the guidance of teachers and industry partners. Now in its third year, #CentennialX is an innovative program gaining attention in outlets such as Education Week for its ability to revolutionize the traditional educational paradigm. It guides students through the process of developing new ideas and products that solve “real-world” problems while bringing genuine value to the immediate and extended communities.

The program provides a stage where students can gain the transferable skills — collaboration, problem-solving, creativity, design thinking, and communication – needed to succeed in today’s college and tomorrow’s job markets.

Specially selected teams of students will work on various challenges including:

·       Eli Lilly project with iCAN (a worldwide consortium of children’s advisory groups) – seeking to design additional ways to collaborate with researchers, thus deriving even more value for patients, science, and iCAN members

  • PRA Health Sciences/Rare Diseases project team — will work on novel approaches to connect various stakeholders and expedite cures
  • PRA Health Sciences/Pediatric health challenge — aims to determine how to engage and educate children involved in pediatric clinical trials
  • Branta Group, LLC/MIT Bike Team – will conceptualize, ideate and build a prototype for a bike accessory that will make the biking experience better
  • Accelerator Team – working to develop a “market-ready” prototype for a disease educational kit using ideas from the first two years of CentennialX
  • Event Planning Challenge — will develop and organize the 2017 CentennialX Conference

We’ll be following their progress throughout the summer, and you can too, by visiting their blog at https://www.centennialx.com/new-blog/.


Opinion – The Supreme Court just let a church use public funds to fix its playground. Will this shift public education’s terrain?

Here’s why the ruling in favor of Trinity Lutheran may not be a green light for vouchers


June 27, 2017


When the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in 2016 to hear arguments in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, school voucher advocates saw an opportunity.

The case actually revolved around the specific question of whether the state of Missouri could refuse a grant to resurface a playground to a church solely due to the fact that the church is a religious institution.

But a broad enough ruling in favor of the church could dismantle so-called “no aid” provisions that states have enacted to ensure that state resources for public schools were not diverted to private religious institutions. This was the invitation voucher proponents made to the nine justices.

On Monday, the court turned down the offer.

In a 7-2 ruling, the justices ruled that while Missouri could not refuse a playground grant to a church solely due to the fact that the church is a religious institution, the court was not “address[ing] religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.” In other words, the ruling was not a green light for school vouchers.

Educators and parents across the country should applaud the court’s refusal to place in doubt decades of precedents enforcing state constitutional protections of our public schools.


“Improving public schools requires more money, not less, and public money should only be used to help public schools.”

It doesn’t matter how their backers try to disguise them — “education savings accounts,” “tuition tax credits,” “opportunity scholarships” — vouchers are a destructive and misguided program that take scarce funding away from public schools, where 90 percent of America’s students attend, and give it to private schools that are unaccountable to the public.

Unlike public schools, private schools have almost complete autonomy with regard to how they operate: who they teach, what they teach, how they teach, how — if at all — they measure student achievement, how they manage their finances, and what they are required to disclose to parents and the public.

While there are no data to support the claim that voucher programs increase the opportunities for low-income children to attend higher-performing schools, there is considerable evidence that voucher programs increase the “opportunity” for more affluent families to receive public subsidies for private education.

In Indiana, the largest voucher program in the nation has morphed into an entitlement program which, in large part, does nothing to close the achievement gaps for low income students — a false promise lobbyists claimed it would do if enacted. In fact, more than half of the state’s voucher recipients have never attended public schools, so Indiana taxpayers are subsidizing private school education for many students whose families could already afford it.Top of Form Bottom of Form

This slow but steady expansion of voucher programs is being duplicated elsewhere. It’s become a familiar story; voucher bills are rebranded and targeted towards specific populations — low-income students or students with special needs, for example — to make them more politically palatable.

Once the legislation is implemented, eligibility requirements are soon eased, and funding is increased. Meanwhile, funding for public schools is further eroded, leaving students with less of what they need to succeed.

Shifting massive amounts of valuable (and limited!) taxpayer money away from public schools to pay for private school vouchers is the cornerstone of the Trump-DeVos budget, which slashes the federal investment in public education programs by a whopping 13.6 percent, while providing $1.4 billion in spending on voucher-type programs — a costly seal of approval of a scheme that has experimented with our children’s education without any evidence of real, lasting positive results.

The best option for our students has and always will be strong, well-funded schools in their own neighborhoods.  Improving public schools requires more money, not less, and public money should only be used to help public schools.


Lily Eskelsen García is president of the National Education Association, a labor union representing three million educators. She is also the 1989 Utah Teacher of the Year. She tweets at @Lily_NEA and blogs at www.LilysBlackboard.org.



PA Lawmakers Approve State Budget; Need Revenue Package to Fund It

The 2017-18 budget agreement includes key public school spending priorities, including:

  • A $100 million increase in basic education funding
  • A $25 million increase in special education funding
  • A $30 million increase in pre-kindergarten funding

Read more about the budget and other legislative developments in the latest issue of Partners Post.

Credit: Partners for Public Education




Teacher Tuesday

Teacher Tuesday: June 27, 2017

Cynthia Swiech, a life skills support teacher at East Norriton Middle School in the Norristown Area School District, is this week’s #TeacherTuesday. We’ve been told she is “truly a great special ed teacher,” with incredible patience while working with 11 wonderful students from fifth through eighth-grade this past school year.

“I knew I wanted to be a teacher in eighth grade when I started babysitting for a little boy with autism; I knew it was my calling. Throughout high school, I became more excited about working with individuals with intellectual disabilities,” said Cynthia. “My kids (students) are my life and what makes me smile every day. I love my job and look forward to teaching every day!”

We think Cynthia’s students are incredibly lucky to have such a great teacher to interact with on a daily basis.

CAPS Original

We Will Provide a Quality Education for Our Kids

The state budget, scheduled to be voted upon before the end of the month, is critically important to public education. In this video, you’ll learn how budget cuts in the previous administration negatively impacted students, why we need sufficient resources to provide a quality education, and how vitally important it is that promised funding be provided to meet state and federal mandates.

You’ll also learn how more funding helps to appropriately educate student populations who may struggle in school and translates to 21st century classrooms. And you’ll see from these thoughtful local education and legislative leaders why the schools in Bucks and Montgomery counties are doing such a great job in offering a safe, sustainable, quality education that is making our students career- and college-ready!

Contact your legislators to voice your support for Gov. Wolf’s proposed education budget here: http://www.legis.state.pa.us/…/leg…/home/findyourlegislator/