Archives for category: Teachers and Teaching

In an article in The Atlantic, Paul Barnwell describes how difficult it was for him when he was a new teacher assigned to a low-performing school.

 

In a span of three minutes, the group in room 204 had morphed from contained to out of control. Two boys were shooting dice in the back of the room, and as I instructed them to put their crumpled dollar bills away, several others took off their shoes and began tossing them around like footballs. Before I could react, one boy broke into my supply closet. He snatched handfuls of No. 2 pencils and highlighters and sprinted out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

 

He was 22 years old, and he was working in one of Kentucky’s most troubled, underperforming, and dysfunctional middle schools. He quit before Christmas. Eventually, he realized that the school needed experienced teachers and stability, but federal policy does not set a priority on either. In fact, NCLB and Race to the Top encourage churn, pretending to “fix” schools by firing principals and teachers and moving in new and often inexperienced teachers.

 

How can struggling schools attract experienced teachers? Combat pay has repeatedly failed; so has merit pay. The practice of tying teachers’ compensation to test scores will only make matters worse by incentivizing teachers to avoid the toughest schools.

 

He concludes:

 

I asked several of my public-school teaching colleagues from around the country—from New Hampshire to Washington—what it would take for them to voluntarily switch to the neediest schools in their regions. Julie Hiltz, an educator in Hillsborough County, Florida, with nearly 13 years of teaching experience, told me that the following would need to be in place: The ability to make local decisions, professional development designed and led in-house, more time for collaboration, and smaller class sizes, among other factors. Unfortunately, current guidelines for struggling schools under No Child Left Behind often disenfranchise administrators and staff.

 

Lauren Christensen, a social-studies teacher in the Waltham, Massachusetts, with six years of experience, currently works in a low-poverty school. I asked her if she’d voluntarily transfer to a high-poverty school in her area. “Maybe, she said, “but I would need to know that the whole school would be supported with a long-term commitment [from decision-makers]. I think the pressure of standard assessments and the stress put on educators to turn ‘failing’ schools around immediately might be too much to overcome.”

 

When I think back to my first year, I’m no longer bitter. I’m now completing my 11th year as a teacher; I mentor new educators and advocate for better support and working conditions. But unless those resources are in place, I wouldn’t voluntarily work in another struggling school.

 

 

In this post, Valerie Strauss interviews Rafe Esquith. It was published in 2013, in connection with the publication of his book, “Real Talk for Real Teachers.” He started teaching in 1983.

It is a fascinating interview. I urge you to read it. These are excerpts.

Why did he write the book?

“I want young teachers to understand what they are getting into. They are swallowing this line that they are going to save every kid. And when that doesn’t happen they are crushed and they give up.

“I am not saying this to be conceited, but I’m a very good teacher and I want them to know that I fail all the time. There are factors beyond my control. But I have to understand there are issues of family and poverty. Sometimes even if you do reach a kid it’s not going to happen in the year you have them. They aren’t going to sing ‘To Sir With Love’ at the end of the year.

“And to the veteran teachers who really understand what’s going on, every month it’s a new [school reform] flavor of the month. The Common Core [State Standards initiative] isn’t going to do anything. They are spending tens of millions of dollars but it isn’t going to do anything. In my classroom you still have to put a period at the end of a sentence…. I don’t need a new set of standards to make that clear to me.

What’s changed in teaching since you started teaching?

“The obsession with testing. We always gave tests, but basically now it’s the entire day. Basically if it’s not on the test don’t teach it. Teachers spend hours and hours and hours trying to figure out what’s going to be on the test. They will teach that there are four chambers of the heart, but not why we have a heart or why it works…. The data you are looking at — I feel like the emperor has no clothes. Somebody has to say this stuff. I think teachers will feel better to see in print what they think all the time.

“So the obsession with testing is one big change. Also, the economy has declined, families are hurt and I deal with many more family problems. Some of them are really difficult… Most of the parents I deal with try hard for their kids. One of the myths is that poor kids have parents who don’t care. That’s crap. They care.

“But I definitely deal now with more poverty and family troubles and the effects of poverty. I had a great kid this year. His father is gone. His mom works from 5 in the afternoon to 5 in the morning, so he doesn’t really see her. He comes home to an empty house. For teachers to be expected to have the same results as teachers in Finland where there is much less poverty, it’s absurd.”

What do you think about Teach for America?

“They [TFA corp members] are in my room all the time. Good kids. Nice. Bitter joke: TFA really stands for ‘teach for a while.’ Like all other teachers there are some great ones who are there for the right reasons who want to make a difference and some who want to pad their résumés. I certainly don’t think anybody can be a great teacher in five weeks. I hope this book helps them think a little bit about what they are getting into.”

“They [TFA corps members] are obsessed with test scores. It becomes all about this: If you have a kid who gets a 75 on a test and then the kid gets an 85, you are a good teacher. My wife didn’t fall in love with me because of my test scores…. They [TFA leaders] are incredibly defensive about hearing an alternate idea. What’s said is that they are constantly throwing data and money showing they are successful. But they are really not. They are no more successful than any other teachers and if you read their blogs a lot give up in horrible frustration.”

He concludes:

“The point of my new book is that it takes years to be a good classroom teacher. It takes years to be good at anything…

“With Teach For America, I just want to tell them that there’s another problem. Most TFA teachers don’t stay in the classroom long. I want them to know that Room 56 matters. What we do matters. But the kids see teachers shifting back and forth, leaving for other jobs, why would they believe anything matters if their teachers keep leaving?”

Mississippi teacher-blogger James Comans has indulged in Swiftian satire in this post about “reform.” He informed me that he was inspired by the post “Is It Really ‘All About the Kids.'”

Comans assumes the voice of a reformster. Why not require teachers to live in monasteries? Why pay them? If they are “called” to teach, they should volunteer. If they get minimum wage, they should be shamed into donating their meager salaries to worthy causes,like charter schools.

Will this make teachers better? Who knows? It will surely cut costs. What else matters? That’s how you put Children First and show that Students Matter.

Carol Burris writes of the terrible consequences that will follow implementation of Governor Cuomo’s teacher evaluation plan.

She urges support for the plan created by seven (of 17) dissident members of the Néw York Board of Regents. Almost all are experienced educators who have carefully reviewed research. Cuomo is not an educator and obviously paid no attention to research.

Two more Regents and the dissidents are a majority.

Lester Young of Brooklyn? Roger Tilles of Long Island?

Pasi Sahlberg, the distinguished Finnish educator who has been in residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for the past two years, has written a terrific essay about the myths and fallacies that govern education policy today. One is that schools should be able to do more with less. This myth enables policymakers to cut the education budget, eliminating vital programs and services, while expecting schools to get better results. This is nonsense. It makes no sense.

 

Sahlberg writes:

 

Governments in Alberta and Finland are under economic pressure to reduce public spending as a result of failed national politics and unpredictable global economics. When government budgets get off track, bad news for education systems follow. The recently defeated Finnish government carried out huge cuts in education infrastructure. As a result, small schools were closed, teaching staff lost their jobs and morale among educators declined. Albertans are now facing similar threats.

 
When the going gets tough in our wealthy societies, the powers-that-be often choose quick fixes. In search of a silver bullet instead of sustained systemic improvement, politicians turn their eyes on teachers, believing that asking them to do more with less can compensate for inconvenient reductions in school resources. With super teachers, some of them say, the quality of education will improve even with lesser budgets. While some might suggest leadership is doing more with less, I would counter that real political leadership is about getting the appropriate resources in place to create a vibrant society.

 
“Teacher effectiveness” is a commonly used term that refers to how much student performance on standardized tests is determined by the teacher. It plays a visible role in the education policies of nations where there is a wide range of teacher qualifications and therefore uneven teacher quality. Measuring teacher effectiveness has brought different methods of evaluation to the lives of teachers in many countries. The most controversial of them include what is known as value-added models1 that use data from standardized tests of students as part of the overall measure of the effect that a teacher has on student achievement.

 
Alberta and Finland are significantly better off than many other countries when it comes to teacher quality and teacher policies. In the United States, for example, there are nearly 2,000 different teacher preparation programs. The range in quality is wide. In Canada and Finland, only rigorously accredited academic teacher education programs are available for those who desire to become teachers. Likewise, neither Canada nor Finland has fast-track options into teaching (although Teach for Canada is entering the game in Alberta with 40 new recruits in 2015/2016). Teacher quality in successful education systems is a result of careful quality control at the entry stage of teacher education rather than measuring the effectiveness of in-service teachers.

 

He then goes on to demolish other myths of our time, such as the myth that the teaching profession gets better by recruiting and accepting only “the best and brightest.”

 

Another myth is that super-teachers can overcome all obstacles. He reminds us that teaching is a team sport, a collaborative activity.

 

He writes:

 

The role of an individual teacher in a school is like a player on a football team or musician in an orchestra: all teachers are vital, but the culture of the school is even more important for the quality of the school. Team sports and performing arts offer numerous examples of teams that have performed beyond expectations because of leadership, commitment and spirit.

 

Take the U.S. ice hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics, when a team of college kids beat both the Soviets and Finland in the final round and won the gold medal. The quality of Team U.S.A certainly exceeded the quality of its players.

 

The third, and related, fallacy is that teachers are the sole determinant of student achievement. He demonstrates that this is wrong. Other factors beyond the teachers’ control are even more important.

 

Sahlberg reminds his readers that the search for “super-teachers” is a dead end. Schools need to be well-resourced and to base their work on solid research, not hunches by politicians or economists or ideologues.

Phil Lanoue, the superintendent of schools in Athens, Georgia, offered his teachers a reward: those with perfect attendance would get a day off. Some teachers resisted the offer because they didn’t want to miss their classes.

 

He and other administrators became substitute teachers for those who accepted the day off. He taught a class in life science.

 

He wrote:

 

 

While the original idea was to reward teachers, I know it ended up making far more of an impact on those of us who walked in their shoes for a day.

 

 

At the end of the day, he had new respect for his teachers:

 

 

I made it through the day, exhausted, and having developed an even deeper understanding and appreciation for our teachers. I tried to make my teaching interesting, interactive and relevant, but I could see that there was something that only the regular classroom teacher could offer: the foundation of strong relationships.

 
Teachers connect with students in many ways and are so familiar with their strengths and areas of growth. They know the struggles they are facing, what gets them excited and how to say just what a student needs to hear — and when they need to hear it. They know when to push and when to hold back. Knowing that our students walk into our classrooms and are met by such caring individuals is everything — our teachers go the distance to ensure that students receive what they need — academically, social/emotionally and more.

 
I left Hilsman Middle School that day with a lot more than tired, achy feet from being in a teacher’s shoes. I left seeing firsthand that our students can truly receive no better education than in the Clarke County School District because of the tireless work of our teachers. The design of the lessons, the relationships that are built, the digital learning, the International Baccalaureate framework, the opportunities available through our partnerships — I am truly humbled. I am humbled to work with an incredible community of individuals who are committed to the wellbeing of our students.

 
I encourage all interested community members to consider volunteering at one of our schools next year so that they, too, can be a part of this incredible Clarke County School District community. Spend time in our classrooms, and gain a renewed sense of why Athens-Clarke County has every reason to be “Proud To Be CCSD.”

 

 

Ohio Algebra II Teacher, a regular commentator on the blog, wrote the following wonderful speech to the graduating class at Madeira High School.

 

 

As a Harvard-educated public school teacher, I’ll paste in my speech to graduating seniors from last week. I’ll also note that I wouldn’t have become a teacher had I known what was coming.

 

 

Superintendent Kramer, Assistant Superintendent Matsudo, Mr. Olson, Mr. Kimling, President Gelis, Graduates-in-waiting for the Class of 2015,

 

 

Last month I attended my 20th Class Reunion at Harvard Law School. Just another event that lets you know you’re getting older and time is passing quickly. When you attend something like this, you can’t help but reflect and assess where you stand among your peers. The boy I played squash and poker with is the junior Senator from Texas and is running for President of the United States. The guy who put me in his makeshift home movie wrote the screenplay for “Precious” and won an Academy Award. Every one of my best friends from law school is making seven figures a year in exciting cities like New York, Washington DC, and Atlanta, and another one of my friends started an internet company that landed him in Forbes Magazine of richest people in the world. Everyone around me is rising, rising, rising. Meanwhile, I look in the mirror every morning and find myself exactly where I was 18 years ago…right here…teaching at Madeira High School.

 

 

Now it’s not like nothing has changed. Physically, I’m a little slower and weaker than when I arrived in the 90’s. The hair’s a little thinner, a little grayer, and there’s been an ever-so-slight deterioration of my natural good looks. Mentally, I tire a little more easily. I can’t do math in my head as well. I occasionally forget things, sometimes forgetting what I’ve forgotten. And I’m not even that old! I look to my more experienced friends in administration and…just teasing Mr. Olson!…But I have to believe what we lose in physical strength and mental sharpness, we make up for in wisdom.

 

 

The last time I spoke at Baccalaureate in 2007, I spoke about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay called “Compensation.” In this essay, Emerson spoke of the fact that for every loss you suffer, there is an equal and opposite gain – you just have to find it. I have been fascinated by this idea over the years, and I have found it to be true. So often disappointment is followed by fulfillment, defeat is followed by glory, pain is followed by a healing leaving you stronger than you ever were before.

 

 

I have always marveled at Helen Keller. This deaf, mute, and blind woman was one of the most brilliant philosophers our world has ever seen. Would she have had such insight had she been “normal” and “just like you and me?” Helen Keller is the model of compensation – someone who found the equal and opposite benefit associated with loss.

 

 

And compensation is all around us. Your class has shown me dozens of examples. Our terrific musicians and singers, our wonderful actors and artists, our award winning students in so many competitions including the state Latin convention, Budget Challenge, Cincinnati Academic League Tournament Champion Academic Team, and our National Champion Jets Squad, but the coach in me gravitates to the athletic field. I first met Toni Alloy when she moved to Madeira in junior high school and attended my soccer camp. I instantly knew that Toni was my kind of player – a combination of streetball meets master tactician – and I’ve loved watching her play both soccer and basketball in high school. When Toni was seriously injured last fall, my heart bled for her. I can remember in high school when I was injured and how much it upset me. You still root for the team, but there’s a tiny part of you that hopes that the team misses your presence. Toni refused to let the setback affect her attitude or her spirit. She vocally supported her teammates. When the team had big wins without her on the field, no one was more celebratory. Toni rehabbed behind the scenes, and somehow managed to return to action. Even at less than 100%, from central midfield, along with her fantastic senior teammates and Coach Brady, she was able to help lead our Zons to another District championship. Toni may have moved here, but from the classroom to the athletic field, she represents everything that is great at Madeira.

 

 

Kyle Rizzuto was the one member of the Varsity basketball team short enough that I can look at him eye-to-eye. For years Kyle worked on his ballhandling, passing, fitness, defense, and shooting to be able to compete well with players much bigger than he is, and his efforts were rewarded when he earned the starting point guard position. The team was doing well – much better than preseason expectations – but Coach Reynolds believed the team could be even better if Kyle would be available to give the team a spark off the bench. Being replaced in the starting line-up is difficult for anybody. Now, add in the fact that Kyle was replaced by a freshman. The situation could have easily shattered the team, and I’m sure it would have if the individual involved was someone with less maturity and less character. Not only did Kyle accept his new role with the same energy that he attacks all challenges, but he did everything in his power to help his freshman replacement thrive. I can remember when I was a freshman soccer player doing whatever I could to both survive and make a positive impression on the coach. I vividly remember the senior who tripped me in the middle of one of my sprints because I was trying too hard. I also remember well the senior who told me I could make it. Kyle, the consistent overachievement of your teams began with your example. At one of the best athletic small schools in the state, I want to congratulate you on being named the outstanding senior boy athlete. I salute you for your leadership, and I want you to know that your example will live on in future Mustangs.

 

 

One of those future Mustangs is second-grader Will Unger. I’m not sure there is a bigger Madeira fan than Will. Will’s favorite team this year, of course, was our awesome Madeira Amazons basketball team. I can’t tell you how many times he’s made me play Kline v. Kline on our front yard basketball hoop (he was always Celia, but don’t worry Mallory, I played lockdown defense on him). But Will’s imagination was also captured by a less publicized winter sport. On Friday, February 27th, four members of our school…including two of our outstanding seniors, Ryan Stephenson and Jack Mantkowski, competed in the Ohio swimming state championships. Thousands of laps, countless strokes, endless practices before school and late at night resulted in a number of dominating performances. Will and I saw these awesome competitors triumph multiple times in the District meet, and he peppered me with question after question about the swimmers who could become the first boy state champions at Madeira in over a decade. During the state meet, we were glued to our internet as the live results came in. In the 200-yard medley relay, we placed 5th. In the 200-yard freestyle relay, we placed 5th again. The final event of the meet was the 400-yard freestyle relay. With one lap remaining, our boys were in the lead. Coming down the stretch, we were stroke for stroke with Seven Hills. At the wall, it was impossible to see which team had won…but the electronic timer showed we had come in second place…by 5 hundredths of a second. Five hundredths of a second! 16 laps and 400 yards came down to the length of a knuckle. If the race is 1 yard shorter or 1 yard longer…we win. What possible compensation could come from this heartbreaking result?

 

 

The situation brought me back to one of my favorite soccer players on one of my favorite soccer teams. In 2006, I had a senior, Nate Ervin Class of 2007, a back-up who – despite battling a knee injury his entire career – did everything a coach ask for. His example raised the level of more talented teammates, and he became a legitimately strong substitute forward for our team. With twelve seconds remaining in the State Semifinals, our boys had valiantly fought to a one-one score against the #1 ranked team in the state, and it looked like we were heading to overtime when a ball flew out of bounds by our bench. Nate easily could have let the ball roll harmlessly to the fence. Instead, he made the sporting gesture of retrieving the ball for Worthington Christian. Our opponents took advantage of the situation by scoring a dramatic last-second game-winning goal and three days later followed up by winning the State Championship. To lose that way was shocking. Just like that, I was no longer coaching the most overachieving group of seniors I’d ever had the privilege of coaching. Needless to say, Nate was devastated. A few months later, I received a letter from the parent of a Worthington Christian player. In it, he wrote: “On watching the videotape of our winning goal against you, we were stunned to see that one of your players got the ball for us on the sideline. It was a class act by a class team. Through the years, we’ve learned that Madeira players show great respect for their opponents and great respect for the game.” The defeat was gut-wrenching, but what an unbelievable compliment this was to my player. As I told the boys after the game, you should never have to apologize for acting with decency and honor. That game and that moment were among my proudest as a coach.

 

 

I left law to become a teacher and a coach. I can say with complete honesty, that it kills me to be away from coaching. I want to thank the senior boys soccer players for making me feel as much a part of things as they possibly could. In the best programs, tradition never graduates, and thanks to you, it doesn’t retire, either. The greatest compensation I’ve had as a retired coach has been the opportunity to spend more time with my son. But, boy, does he wear me out with his questions. As I mentioned earlier, he couldn’t ask enough about our swimmers. And what could I tell him about Jack and Ryan? Both are outstanding students. Both are super citizens. Both are great friends to many. And, like so many of you, they are shining examples of this incredible class from this wonderful school. Was Ryan and Jack’s effort diminished by coming 1 inch short of their ultimate goal? The longer I coached, the more I understood Kipling’s famous quote: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.” Through the years I’ve learned that in the end, competition and participation is not about the glory, the wins, trophies, banners, or titles. Rather, it’s about the created memories, the character developed, the stories shared, and the relationships forged during a pursuit of excellence. As I told Nate Ervin back in 2006, if my son could grow up to be like Ryan Stephenson and Jack Mantkowski, I’d be a very proud father.

 

 

Over the past four years, I’ve read my fair share of books. I’ll read just about anything, but my favorite books are biographies and autobiographies of great men and women. I read these books in the hopes that I can learn from these people. Some common lessons have come through. Nearly every successful person I have read about has had a period in their lives where they were down and out, periods of terrible frustration, periods where they made horrendous mistakes, periods of desperation where achievement seemed beyond reach. Thomas Edison had over 10,000 failed experiments before he finally invented the light bulb. One of my favorite coaches, Joe Torre, set a Major League Baseball record for having the longest career as a player and manager without ever reaching the World Series. That was before he managed the New York Yankees to four World Series titles in five years. Anne Sullivan was Helen Keller’s phenomenal teacher. After being taken for granted and stymied by Helen’s parents, Ms. Sullivan, who was legally blind herself, became so depressed with her situation that she nearly left the Keller household in disgust before seeing even a fraction of what was to become Helen’s miraculous progress. Abraham Lincoln lived through “many days which tried men’s souls” before bringing a conclusion to the Civil War which ended slavery and saved the United States of America.

 

 

A common theme among nearly every great person who ever lived is that they were able to hang on just a little longer where other people may very well have given up. They were able to find the positive aspects of negative situations. They were able to demonstrate an understanding of Emerson’s compensation.

 

 

Understanding compensation and reaping its benefits largely comes down to your attitude. Will you be the type who wallows in self-pity? Will you be the one who always sees the sky falling? Or will you be the one who sees the silver lining in every dark cloud? And will you be the one who anticipates the sun coming up tomorrow?

 

 

As you move into your futures, I am not going to wish you a fairy-tale life where you live happily ever after. I am not going to wish you a road without bumps and dead ends and obstacles. I am not going to wish you a world without hardship. Instead, I am going to wish you the strength to persevere when everything around you is falling apart. I am going to wish you the ability to rise from the ashes and bounce back stronger than ever when it seems like nothing is going your way. I am going to wish you the faith, wisdom, and guidance to overcome all which comes to you, to find the silver lining in every cloud, to find the compensation in every loss. Vince Lombardi, the famous football coach, put it well when he said: “The glory is not in never falling down. The glory is in fighting to get up every time you do get knocked down.” Another writer said this thought in a different way which I have always found inspiring: “Only when the sky is darkest can I see the stars.”

 

 

Yes, my friends from Harvard are garnering fame, fortune, and power. They can order meals at the fanciest restaurants in the world, while I get to jostle with you in our cafeteria lunch line. They can pay for all the hired help they could ever need ten times over, but they can’t get the gratification I feel when students like Colin Voisard or Franny Barone or Madeline Gelis and many others are ready and able to help me with the cheapest of labor when I need help running a dodgeball tournament or keeping my son occupied during a basketball game. They get interviewed by the New York Times and Oprah, while I get interviewed by Bianca and “What’s up, Madeira?” You don’t become a teacher for the fame or the money. And I’ve got a news flash for all those educational policy experts in Columbus and Washington D.C. You don’t become a teacher to raise a student’s math score three points on a test. I didn’t enjoy the great company of Patrick Miller and Julie Yeomans nearly every day after school last year for them to become nuclear physicists but to learn that with extra effort they could do better than they every believed they could. I didn’t treasure Theodore Graeter’s otherworldly class participation in the hopes he might uncover some unknown theorem but to further develop his one-of-a kind personality. I had no illusions that making my good friend Marc Puma spend time on Khan Academy during all vacations to raise his otherwise unacceptable grades would lead to a Nobel Prize in Mathematics. Now, Jack Good, on the other hand… Like every teacher at this tremendous school, I became a teacher for many reasons. Maybe the biggest reason I became a teacher was to help my students dream just a little bit bigger, and to have just a little more confidence when pursuing those dreams and just a little more ability to achieve them. I am proud of my famous and successful friends, but I am just as proud of being a small part of your achievements. I look forward to many more of your success stories, and I look forward to sharing those stories with William Jason Unger, Madeira High School Class of 2025. It has been a privilege teaching you and an honor speaking to you tonight. I wish congratulations and Godspeed to the Madeira High School Class of 2015.

 

The Albert Shanker Blog posted the findings of a study about the importance of school contexts in retaining teachers and helping improve their practice.

 

Matthew Di Carlo introduces the scholars:

 

“Our guest authors today are Matthew A. Kraft and John P. Papay. Kraft is an Assistant Professor of Education at Brown University. Papay is an Assistant Professor of Education and Economics at Brown University. In 2015, they received the American Educational Research Association Palmer O. Johnson Memorial Award for the research discussed in this essay.”

 

The authors write:

 

“When you study education policy, the inevitable question about what you do for a living always gets the conversation going. Controversies over teachers unions, charter schools, and standardized testing provide plenty of fodder for lively debates. People often are eager to share their own experiences about individual teachers who profoundly shaped their lives or were less than inspiring.

 

“A large body of research confirms this common experience – teachers have large effects on students’ learning, and some teachers are far more effective than others. What is largely absent in these conversations, and in the scholarly literature, is a recognition of how these teachers are also supported or constrained by the organizational contexts in which they teach.

 

“The absence of an organizational perspective on teacher effectiveness leads to narrow dinner conversations and misinformed policy. We tend to ascribe teachers’ career decisions to the students they teach rather than the conditions in which they work. We treat teachers as if their effectiveness is mostly fixed, always portable, and independent of school context. As a result, we rarely complement personnel reforms with organizational reforms that could benefit both teachers and students.

 

“An emerging body of research now shows that the contexts in which teachers work profoundly shape teachers’ job decisions and their effectiveness. Put simply, teachers who work in supportive contexts stay in the classroom longer, and improve at faster rates, than their peers in less-supportive environments. And, what appear to matter most about the school context are not the traditional working conditions we often think of, such as modern facilities and well-equipped classrooms. Instead, aspects that are difficult to observe and measure seem to be most influential, including the quality of relationships and collaboration among staff, the responsiveness of school administrators, and the academic and behavioral expectations for students…..”

Vicki Cobb, author of many children’s books about hands-on science, recently spoke at a children’s literature conference in Florida. She was disturbed to meet a new breed of teacher: teachers who had grown up in the era of high-stakes testing and scripted lessons. Too many thought that this is the way school was supposed to be, because it was all they had experienced.

 

She attributes the change to the takeover of education policy by non educators:

 

The business and government suits, who have hijacked educational policy in a top down approach, are not professional educators. Their knowledge of education comes primarily from what they themselves survived (endured?). Most do not know what good education looks like. Their idea of a well-ordered classroom is rows of desks with students quietly bent over a test. Now, the chickens are coming home to roost in the preparation of the next generation of Florida’s classroom teachers. Their professors tell me that they call them the “FCAT babies.” These young people are the pre-service teachers who have grown up in Florida’s test-taking climate. They have a “mother, may I?” permission-seeking approach to their own classroom behavior as teachers. They think test-taking and test prep is normal. They have seen nothing else. They are afraid to think for themselves.

 

As she posed questions to a group of students, she noticed that they answered quickly to her questions, not pausing to think. She sensed the test-prep culture, the reflexive search for the right answer. And that was not what she wanted to see.

 

She missed what she calls “the artist-teacher.” What is the “artist=teacher”? “An artist is someone who brings his or her own self-expression to an activity. An artist expresses personal, closely held views, thoughts, images and passions with such truth and clarity that others immediately connect with this revealed humanity. Thus the personal becomes the universal. Therein lies its power.”

 

Instead, teachers in Florida told her about scripted programs whose goal was to make sure that every teacher was on the same page at the same time teaching the same things. Scripted lessons are “turning teachers into automatons, when American education is crying out for the return of the artist-teacher. This is the teacher who takes one look at the textbooks and goes to the library to find much more powerful reading on the same subjects. This is the teacher who knows each student intimately and can write a poem for each one. This is the teacher who figures that good teaching trumps test prep and is not afraid for her kids’ test outcomes. This is the teacher who has the courage to justify what he’s doing and why he’s doing it to powers-that-be who are not fully equipped to evaluate creativity. It includes a lot of the “best teacher” awardees. This is the teacher who wants to spend more time creating powerful lessons and less time doing accountability paperwork. For the artist-teacher, teaching with autonomy, mastery and purpose is a subversive activity, much as art is subversive in a dictatorship.”

 

Our current educational culture, driven by No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core standards, is rewarding robotic behavior and punishing artist-teachers. In the current climate, good teaching is a subversive activity.

In this brilliant article, Marc Tucker explains why the civil rights community is making an error by supporting annual testing as a “civil right.” He knows their leaders believe that poor and minority children will be overlooked in the absence of annual testing. But he demonstrates persuasively that annual testing has done nothing to improve the academic outcomes of poor and minority children and that they have actually been harmed by the pressure to raise scores every year.

 

Tucker writes:

 

First of all, the data show that, although the performance of poor and minority students improved after passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, it was actually improving at a faster rate before the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. Over the 15-year history of the No Child Left Behind Act, there is no data to show that it contributed to improved student performance for poor and minority students at the high school level, which is where it counts.

 

 

Those who argue that annual accountability testing of every child is essential for the advancement of poor and minority children ought to be able to show that poor and minority children perform better in education systems that have such requirements and worse in systems that don’t have them. But that is simply not the case. Many nations that have no annual accountability testing requirements have higher average performance for poor and minority students and smaller gaps between their performance and the performance of majority students than we do here in the United States. How can annual testing be a civil right if that is so?

 

 

Nonetheless, on the face of it, I agree that it is better to have data on the performance of poor children and the children in other particularly vulnerable groups than not to have that data. But annual accountability testing of every child is not the only way to get that data. We could have tests that are given not to every student but only to a sample of students in each school every couple of years and find out everything we need to know about how our poor and minority students are doing, school by school.

 

 

But the situation is worse than I have thus far portrayed it. It is not just that annual accountability testing with separate scores for poor and minority students does not help those students. The reality is that it actually hurts them.

 

 

All that testing forces schools to buy cheap tests, because they have to administer so many of them. Cheap tests measure low-level basic skills, not the kind of high-level, complex skills most employers are looking for these days. Though students in wealthy communities are forced to take these tests, no one in those communities pays much attention to them. They expect much more from their students. It is the schools serving poor and minority students that feed the students an endless diet of drill and practice keyed to these low-level tests. The teachers are feeding these kids a dumbed down curriculum to match the dumbed down tests, a dumbed down curriculum the kids in the wealthier communities do not get….

 

 

It turns out that there is one big interest that is well served by annual accountability testing. It is the interest of those who hold that the way to improve our schools is to fire the teachers whose students do not perform well on the tests. This is the mantra of the U.S. Department of Education under the Obama Administration. It is not possible to gather the data needed to fire teachers on the basis of their students’ performance unless that data is gathered every year.

 

 

The Obama Administration has managed to pit the teachers against the civil rights community on this issue and to put the teachers on the defensive. It is now said that the reason the teachers are opposing the civil rights community on annual testing is because they are seeking to evade responsibility for the performance of poor and minority students. The liberal press has bought this argument hook, line and sinker.

 

 

This is disingenuous and outrageous. Not only is it true that annual accountability testing does not improve the performance of poor and minority students, as I just explained, but it is also true that annual accountability testing is making a major contribution to the destruction of the quality of our teaching force….

 

The evaluation systems recently created has serious flaws. Their goal is to fire teachers, and those likeliest to be fired are teachers in minority communities. Meanwhile applications to professional education programs are plummeting. This is a very bad scenario for children and teachers alike; it harms teachers by putting the fear of failure in their minds, and it harms the children by giving them a stripped-down schooling and a revolving door of teachers.

 

Time to think again, says Tucker. I agree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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