My letter to Governor Cuomo

Dear Governor Cuomo,

This is my first year as an elementary school librarian in Ithaca, NY. I absolutely love my job, and I am proud to be making a difference in my students’ lives. But because of the Gap Elimination Adjustment, this may also be my only year as a school librarian. Like many communities in the state, the Ithaca schools are facing another terrible budget year. Without sufficient state aid to support education, and without the ability to raise taxes to make up the difference, Ithaca is facing its second year of brutal cuts to staffing and services.This means that many librarians, library clerks, social workers, classroom teachers, special educators, aides, and other vital educators in the schools face the prospect of losing their jobs this year. I simply fail to understand how the state of New York can be looking at a budget surplus and still holding back these funds from public schools. Don’t our students deserve better?

Just to use my own position as an example, I teach literacy skills (print, digital, media, information literacy, etc.) to about 300 students in grades pre-K through 5. Many of my students enter the school without any prior exposure to books or to technology. The part of the job that I am most passionate about is my ability to level the playing field by providing access to these resources for all students. I teach my students to love reading. I teach them to seek and use information wisely and responsibly. I teach them to use technology tools to deepen and demonstrate their learning. I teach them to think critically. I do this while also managing the administrative side of the library: purchasing, cataloging, and circulating books and other resources. I do this job alone, since the elementary library clerks in the district all lost their jobs due to last year’s budget cuts. I know that my principal, district administration, and school board members value the work that I do with students every day. However, the GEA has put them in the impossible position of weighing the value of librarians against teachers, coaches, aides, bus drivers, and others who are vital to schools. Districts should not be put in this position of choosing which essential staff to cut due to the GEA. Schools should be able to provide all the staffing and programs that are essential for students to learn and thrive.

Please end the Gap Elimination Adjustment and return to school districts the state funding they so urgently need. I hope that you do this so that passionate and committed educators like me can keep our jobs. But more importantly, I hope you do this so that the students of New York state public schools can have access to the people and resources they need in order to succeed. I know you care about the students of your state. Please do the right thing.


Milly Stephenson
Teacher librarian
Caroline Elementary School
Ithaca, NY


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Tested, part 2

Since my last post, I have been pondering this question: how can the state of New York maintain high standards for potential teachers without ruling out good candidates for the wrong reasons, and without handing over too much power to a for-profit testing corporation? My answer is simple: trust the programs that prepare teachers; trust the professors that teach and assess students; trust the mentors who oversee practicum experiences. These are the people who know the candidates, who see a complete picture of a candidate’s intellectual ability, teaching skills, and professional dispositions. These are the people who should determine if a candidate is ready for the classroom.

With this overarching principle in mind, I would reform the current situation in several key ways. First, I would continue with an online portfolio similar to the EdTPA. I believe this provides a very complete picture of a candidate’s abilities to plan, teach, and assess students. However, I do not believe this portfolio should be assessed by Pearson. Instead, each candidate could submit a portfolio to his or her own program and receive feedback from the faculty and mentors who know that candidate best. Alternatively, a statewide committee of educators could be formed to assess portfolios from across the state. I see no convincing reasons why the assessment of future educators needs to be outsourced to a for-profit corporation.

Second, I would do away with most of the standardized tests that candidates currently take. Instead, these concepts could be taught and assessed as part of teacher preparation programs. Take the Child Health and Safety topics, for example. As it stands now, prospective teachers madly study these online modules, take the test, and then promptly forget this important information. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have these concepts taught in the classroom, thoughtfully processed and assessed, and then retained? In my opinion, most of the concepts covered in the many standardized tests would be better addressed in this way.

If the state of New York wants to provide an additional hurdle to certification above and beyond graduation from an accredited program, why not create one single test? This test could measure a candidate’s reading, writing, and reasoning skills with a combination of multiple choice and constructed response questions. It could also cover a range of topics, from teaching students with disabilities to classroom management to child safety. Although one test could be time-consuming and stressful, I would have much preferred to take one test on one day rather than traveling the state for five separate tests in different locations, with different price tags, some online and some paper-based. Quite simply, the existing requirements are overkill.

In my streamlined vision of measuring the readiness of prospective teachers, the state of New York would require that all teacher preparation programs teach and assess certain key concepts. Then the state would step back and trust its colleges and universities to do so. An online portfolio similar to the EdTPA would be another measure of candidate readiness, along with a single standardized test measuring a variety of skills and knowledge across content areas. In this vision, teacher candidates would be held to high standards. However, their progress toward these standards would be judged primarily by their professors and their mentors, not by Pearson. I don’t imagine that the state of New York is going to follow my advice anytime soon. But I believe that the system would be rigorous, fair, and reasonable if they did so.

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I just wanted to give a brief summary of the hurdles I have had to go through in the past month in order to apply for New York State teacher certification. I am not doing this to whine publicly (well, not much, anyway…) but because I think everyone should know what NY asks of its teacher candidates.To be clear, all of this is above and beyond Syracuse coursework and existing requirements such as fieldwork and practicum. Here are the highlights:

  • EdTPA: This is a brand new requirement beginning in the spring of 2014. Although other states are considering this requirement, New York is so far the only state to fully implement EdTPA and require it of all teacher candidates. It involves a detailed unit plan, videotaping of several lessons delivered to students (plus all the permissions that requires), examples of lesson materials and assessments, and 30+ pages of detailed reflection. All this is submitted to Pearson to be evaluated (by whom? This is still unclear…) and a judgment made regarding my readiness to teach. Plus it costs $300. Although I have my doubts about the value of this requirement, I will say that I felt this project created an accurate picture of who I am as an educator, how I teach, and all that I have learned in library school.
  • Educating All Students and Academic Literacy Skills Tests: These are two standardized tests that are taken on a computer at a Pearson Professional Center (anyone noticing a trend?) They are made up primarily of multiple choice questions, though both do involve some writing in response to prompts. The first test measures a teacher candidate’s awareness of issues including teaching students with disabilities, English Language Learners, “gifted” students, etc. The second test is a more general measure of a candidate’s reading comprehension and writing skills. These tests cost $233 combined.
  • Content Specialty Test: Although this test is due for an update, as of this spring, candidates still take the “old” version. This is a paper and pencil test with questions at least ten years out of date. There is a specific test for each content area. As you might imagine, an outdated test for librarians barely mentions the internet, focusing instead on overhead projectors, film strips, etc. Besides being embarrassingly dated and irrelevant to the libraries of 2014, this test is badly written, with unclear multiple choice questions attempting to measure dispositions rather than facts. This joyful experience costs $79.
  • Child Health and Safety Exam: Although this is the shortest of all the tests, it covers a dizzying array of information, including fire safety, child abuse, transportation, substance abuse, playground safety, and just about anything else in the world that can cause injury to young people. Although I know that prospective teachers need to have an understanding of how to keep their students safe, I am not sure how much of this information will be retained after the test. I am already forgetting the details, and I took the exam just one week ago. This test, which can be taken through teacher preparation programs at various universities, is the only one that does not come with a financial cost.

So what is my point in agonizingly detailing these exams? I admit that the experience of spending countless hours in preparation, driving to test sites, and taking the exams themselves has left me with more questions than answers. Here are a few of the burning ones… What becomes of outstanding prospective teachers who may not have $612 on hand for these tests? Not to mention outstanding prospective teachers who struggle with test anxiety? Of course there should be rigorous standards for those entering the teaching profession, but I don’t think New York state should rely so heavily on money, inconvenience, or narrow multiple choice questions to narrow down the field. And then there’s the Pearson question. This large for-profit testing corporation now controls every stage of a teacher’s career, from determining who enters the profession to determining who is “succeeding” as a teacher based on student test scores. Is it right for any corporation to have so much power over the field of education? Might there be a better way? This post is getting awfully long, but perhaps I’ll devote my next post to offering a few possible solutions to these questions.


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The end of the road, the start of the road…

It has been a while since I posted here. For the last two semesters, I’ve been so busy with class discussions and final projects (not to mention EdTPA!) that my blog has fallen by the wayside. Now that I’ve officially graduated and have my MSLIS in hand, I can finally take a moment to reflect on all that I have learned.

I’d say that graduate school overall was quite a balancing act… balancing school and family, balancing new learning with past experience, and balancing the convenience of distance education with the need for meaningful connections with classmates. I know that I didn’t always strike that balance gracefully. My children are certainly glad that I won’t spend any more weekends hidden away with the computer having “conversations” with distant classmates. I am, however, content with the balance between my new learning and my past educational experience. It’s been incredibly helpful to be able to view new information through the lens of my past teaching experience. This has given me a firm grounding in the realities of the classroom, and how best practice for teacher librarians lines up with my own strengths and values. I feel as if my library-specific training and my prior professional experiences have melded together to create quite a thorough education.

This morning I sent off the first of many applications for library jobs, and I am excited to be heading into this next stage. Wish me luck. And I’ll keep you posted.

Farewell to Syracuse friends. Let’s keep in touch…

Graduation day!

Graduation day!

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MOOCs and the future of education as we know it

My introduction to this issue came several months ago when my husband, who works in higher education, passed on to me a video he had seen, called EPIC 2020. This very provocative video discusses the rapid progress of open education systems and forecasts the end of higher education as we know within the next ten years. (I recommend checking out the video here if you haven’t seen it.) Although I found the video fascinating, I don’t think the time-frame for a complete overhaul of education is realistic or advisable. Although MOOCs and other incarnations of open education show remarkable potential, I for one don’t see them replacing traditional educational institutions, but rather offering a broad spectrum of options for lifelong learning that complement school as we know it.

So if the concept of free open courses is so exciting in terms of universal access to information, why shouldn’t it replace our current educational system? For me, the answer to this question comes down to community. Learning, as in meaningful learning that will be retained, is so much more than soaking up information. It occurs through dialogue, connections with others, and interaction with the material learned. This can happen best (I would argue) in a physical classroom with real people. The best online courses can mimic these human connections by creating a vibrant online community of discussions and meaningful feedback on assignments. Can MOOCs create these communities of learners in a class of 100,000 students from around the world? Perhaps, but I have yet to be convinced.

So, no, I do not get excited about a future in which colleges and universities fade into obscurity while MOOCs take over education. HOWEVER, I believe that MOOCs have enormous potential as an alternative or complement to our higher education system. In certain fields, MOOCS may be an ideal way to learn. For students who cannot afford (or do not choose to invest in) a traditional university degree, MOOCs may be an ideal way to learn. For life-long, self-directed professional development, MOOCs may be an ideal way to learn. To sum up, when I finish my library degree at Syracuse, I very well may use MOOCs as an avenue to continue my learning. But do I think that MOOCs could replace all that my Syracuse program has offered in terms of building community, connections with professors, and meaningful feedback on my work? No, no, and no.


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My library advocacy video

This is the type of video I might make as a teacher librarian, to recruit students to make videos of their own…


April 18, 2013 · 2:23 pm

Students as library advocates

This week we’ve been discussing evidence-based practice and advocacy in school libraries. In a nutshell, the questions are: how can we gather evidence that demonstrates the library’s value, and how can we share that evidence in a way that is convincing to the library’s many stakeholders? For today, I’m going to focus on the advocacy side of the equation, and particularly the idea of involving students as advocates for their school library program.

My first reaction when faced with many school library tasks (design a website, create a display of new books, create book reviews or book talks, etc.) is the following: how can I get students involved in that job? When students take an active role in the design and maintenance of their school library, they benefit, the library program benefits, and the teacher librarian benefits. The same would be true when it comes to advocating for the school library program. Of course the teacher librarian should have a voice in library advocacy, as should parents, teachers, community members, etc. However, in my opinion the student voice may be the most important of all. The library program is really about their learning, after all.

There are many ways that a teacher librarian can encourage students to speak out about their library experience. One idea, that I’ve mentioned in this blog before, is to recruit a group of library helpers (it’s Sue Kowalski’s i-staff again!) that take an active role in all aspects of library upkeep and programming, including advocacy. Creating some sort of i-staff volunteer group is central to many of my visions about my future library work. However, when it comes to library advocacy, I would also want to appeal to the student body at large to contribute. This could be as simple as collecting and sharing student reflections on what they learned in the course of various projects. Web 2.0 tools also offer excellent opportunities for advocacy. Getting students involved in maintaining the library blog, creating pro-library videos, or adding student voices to facebook and twitter updates would all be excellent ways to broadcast student advocacy.

When it comes to advocacy (and many other aspects of the teacher librarian job as well), I see myself working behind the scenes to facilitate student voices being shared. Of course my own voice will be a crucial one in speaking out for the library program, but if I am doing my job properly, it will only be one voice among many.


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