Oakland teacher turned activist rallies for education reform

Flickr photo by Thomas Favre-Bulle. http://www.flickr.com/photos/lnx/6783644/

President Obama’s Race to the Top program has challenged schools to excel, providing grant funding for states that implement measurable programs to achieve “significant improvement in student outcomes.” He talked about the program in a commencement address this year at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And as a country, we need all of our young people to be ready. We can’t just have some young people successful. We’ve got to have every young people contributing. Earning those high school diplomas, then earning those college diplomas or getting certified in a trade or a professions. We can’t succeed without it. Through education, you can also better yourself in other ways. You learn how to learn. How to think critically, and find solutions to unexpected challenges.

But many educators don’t believe the federal Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind programs encourage critical thinking, largely because the measurables involve high-stakes testing.

One of them is former high school science teacher Anthony Cody. Cody, who taught for 24 years in the Oakland Unified School District, says standardized testing has stifled creativity in schools. He thinks there are better solutions, and he’s organized marches around the country for this Saturday to demonstrate against the federal education reform programs. KALW’s Ben Trefny sat down with Cody and asked him to explain his criticisms with national education reform efforts.

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ANTHONY CODY: No Child Left Behind set up a timetable by which 100% of our students were supposed to be proficient by 2014. The Obama Administration has continued that same timetable but they’ve also introduced things like Race to the Top, which incentivizes states to tie teacher pay in evaluations to student test scores. So we really have an intensification of a lot of the pressures to increase standardized test scores and that has really resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum for our students, especially those in high poverty schools.

The thing that is striking about Race to the Top and the current education reform push is that there is a lot of rhetoric about basing programs on sound principals. But the research that keeps coming back shows that paying teachers more for test scores doesn’t even work to improve test scores; it just encourages the kind of cheating we’re seeing around the country.

The kind of thing that really works, if we look internationally at a country like Finland, is really investing in the teaching profession, paying teachers better, giving them the time to collaborate. Our teachers work more hours teaching than any other nation in the world, and we don’t give our teachers time to develop as professionals. As a result, we have a very high turnover rate. We don’t have the kind of stability and growth in our profession that we really need. So those are the kinds of reforms that we’re pushing for and that we’re hoping will emerge from this march.

BEN TREFNY: If I’m a parent of children – and I am – then I’m concerned about the quality of schools and I need that quantifiable in some way, so how do you quantify it?

CODY: Well I would really wonder whether the word “quantify” is the right word for what you want. It would be interesting to find out what you’d really want. If you look at the school that President Obama sends his children to, Sidwell Friends School, they don’t do a lot of standardized testing. According to President Obama, they do low-stakes tests, and the quality of the program can be seen by going in and seeing the work that the students are doing. That’s what you need as a parent, is evidence of what your students are being challenged with and what they’re achieving. But to me quantification is the wrong framework to work with.

TREFNY: Isn’t it to some extent though, because the school districts are so large and there are so many students to measure in some way, that using numbers and quantification makes it a little bit simpler so that you could then have apples to apples, if you’re comparing programs to programs that are all a little bit different? When you have such huge systems and big bureaucratic school districts it makes it extremely difficult to then measure it by any other measure.

CODY: Well you know it’s funny that you say that because actually only about half of what is taught is even covered by the standardized test scores, so you have a lot of teachers, a lot of education taking place, that is not being quantified. So do we assume that that is worthless? I mean what we’ve decided is that that which can be measured is the ultimate value and in the process we’ve really lost sight of the underlying mission of our schools, which goes so far beyond that which we’ve been able to measure.

TREFNY: During your career of more than two decades as a teacher, you saw national standards changing, you saw the perspectives of the federal government, and the ways that they oversaw schools changing. How did you see then students learning changing during that time?

CODY: Well what I saw especially in the last 10 years was first of all students were getting less and less science, they were coming to me with less science, because the elementary schools were emphasizing reading and math to the exclusion of science.

Second of all, I found that when I went to work with students as a coach, a teacher coach – I went to work with a fourth grade class a couple of years ago, and I was working them to design an experiment. I gave them some seeds and some dirt and I said, “Let’s figure out what are the conditions that would make these seeds grow? And what could you do to experiment?” And we talked about the different variables. And so it was an open-ended question. I wanted them to design their own investigation. About at least half of the kids just kind of looked at me and said, “I don’t get it.” And I tried to explain it. I explained it backwards, forwards, and sideways. And they just couldn’t. I gave them a sheet where I wanted them to write down what the variables might be. “What are we supposed to put here?” They were so accustomed to filling in worksheets where the answer could be found if you just listened to the teacher, eventually the teacher would tell you what you were supposed to put in that box. And the idea of an open-ended challenge was just completely foreign to them. And I think that’s part of the problem that we’ve gotten into where the answers are predetermined and students are just waiting to figure out what that answer is supposed to be.

TREFNY: So in your experience you came across many, many different teachers, I’m sure. How would you maximize their potential and therefore the potential of the students they’re teaching so that could excel and not have to have high-stakes standardized testing in order to make sure they are supposed to be performing at a certain level?

CODY: Well, the first thing you need to understand is that we certainly need to strive for excellence in every school. But when students are English language learners, when students are living in poverty, there’s a lot of conditions that affect them and their ability to perform academically.

So we have to be careful that we designed programs that are challenging for all students but we don’t punish schools the way they’re set up, or punishing schools for having different outcomes, when they have vastly different conditions their students are coming to them with.

In terms of how to really foster excellence at all of these schools, my experience at the school I worked in had a very high turnover rate among science teachers. And we decided to create a collaborative community within our department. We had all the experienced teachers take on the novice teachers as their sort of mentor-mentee relationships. We worked to really support one another. We did lesson study together. We read books together. We met and we really worked on our curriculum and improving our curriculum together. We worked on our assessment so we were really measuring student learning. And we retained a hundred percent of the teachers for several years. That’s the kind of collaborative community that needs to be supported.

Right now that kind of community is being undermined because these schools are being labeled as failures. They’re actually encouraging turnover because they require, if a school is labeled a failure, they require that as many as half the teachers be fired or reassigned in order to supposedly improve the school.

TREFNY: What do you think of the idea President Obama is adjusting No Child Left Behind and creating Race To The Top while his children are in a school that uses low-stakes-testing to measure them?

CODY: Well, President Obama was asked about this in March and he spoke very clearly about the fact that his daughters had low-stakes tests and thought that that’s what everyone should have. He said he thought tests should be cut back to maybe every other year. He said he thought that students should be tested more on critical thinking and projects. We really agree with what President Obama said that he wanted for his children and for the rest of this country. We just wish that the Department of Education would follow his advice on that.

Anthony Cody is the organizer behind the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action, which took place the weekend of July 30 in Washington, Sacramento, and other cities around the country. Click here to read Cody's blog reflecting on the rally.