Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Some thoughts on current education issues--But, of course, what do I know? I’m just a teacher.

Friends and family members often ask me about my thoughts on various changes and trends in education and education reform. The latest such question has left me dwelling on my thoughts on various issues with education reform. (These issues surround me on a daily basis, so they're never really too far out of mind.) 

The issue of fixing public education in American is most certainly big and complex. Our students deserve the very best education, and there are dedicated teachers, administrators, and advocates out there who are working towards positive change. I most certainly do not think that I have all the answers to the complex issue of fixing our educational system, but I definitely have some thoughts based on my years in the classroom and the impact that reform efforts have had in my classroom and on my students.

  1. We need to realize that it’s not as simple as blaming “failing” schools and “bad teachers.” We have a flawed system and failing societies. Read and follow Diane Ravitch. Enough said.   Check out her book The Life and Death of the Great American School System  
  2. Standardized testing is NOT the answer. It sounds like a good idea to have standards and to measure those standards. Despite the fact that standardized tests are not authentic assessments, they are being treated as the way to determine what a student has learned and can do. The standardized testing that has come with NCLB is not used as a diagnostic tool; rather, it is used as a weapon.  Yes, it points out that there are achievement gaps, “under-performing schools,” and links between academic achievement and social economic status, but it’s not fixing the problems.  Rather, it’s making them worse because of the focus on testing. Additionally, with the pressure to make AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress), some teachers, administrators, schools, and districts have resorted to cheating so that they pass. (And notice who is cheating in these situations. The students are not often stressing over those tests, but the teachers and administrators are. That alone should indicate a major problem.) For more about what is going on in “failing schools,” check out this TIME magazine article on the 10th anniversary of NCLB And then there’s this interview with George W. Bush. He clearly has no clue about the real impact of NCLB. 

3.       Teachers want to see their students succeed, and we want to help them reach that success. NCLB implies that teachers are willingly, knowingly leaving students behind. Good, true teachers are not out to get their students. Teachers also know that a student’s true worth and achievement can’t be measured by a standardized test.

4.       Enough with the testing! Standardized testing is flawed in so many ways. Many teachers find themselves having to “teach to the test” so that their students will pass the test (and so that they and their school “pass," too). Some subject areas have to struggle with the curriculum crunch more than others, but many teachers find themselves cutting activities and more authentic assessments for the sake of preparing for the tests. Note: I do believe that, as teachers, we can work against the “teach to the test” mentality and provide authentic assessments and ensure that students have the skills necessary to pass mandated tests. However, this mentality is a reality of the times.  Daniel Dyer has a wonderful blog post about how education has changed from when many of us were in school.

In addition to the crunch in the curriculum caused by the “teach to the test” mentality, testing takes up a lot of TIME! Because of testing, students miss valuable hours that could be spent on true, meaningful learning opportunities. Teachers miss hours of time that could (and should) be used to plan these meaningful learning opportunities and assess students’ work because we must go to training sessions to prepare for administering these tests. And then we spend hours each school year monitoring these tests. (Note-These hours come out of our planning periods and class time.) We pace up and down the rows of students taking tests, making sure that no one is cheating. And we often have to wake students up because they have fallen asleep while taking the test! (Remember—they’re not really stressing over these tests.) As proctors, we can’t work on anything because we must remain vigilant at all times. I work through lesson plans in my head. It’s really a truly productive time. (Can you hear the sarcasm?) This year, our state is piloting an electronic version of the writing test. Most of our standardized tests have been electronic for years, but the writing one is just making the change. Because we must pilot the test, my students have to take a test (that won’t count) over two days later in March. Oh, and this pilot test happens weeks after the real one. More valuable instructional time is just slipping away this coming month.

5.      Merit pay doesn’t work. Check out Daniel Pink’s eight points about why merit pay doesn’t work  Pay is not a motivator. Teachers didn’t enter the profession for the pay, trust me. We’re motivated by working with our students and watching them succeed. We’re motivated by sharing our passion for our subject area. I already work very hard (all year long, I might add). I want to improve, and I am constantly working on improving my teaching methods. And I revise lessons constantly to best meet the needs of my current students. More pay will not make me work harder. I can’t think of how I could work harder than I already do without completely sacrificing my sanity. If you haven’t checked out my Starbucks story, this would be a good time. And, if you’ve never seen it, watch this video of Matt Damon defending teachers. If you have seen it, watch it again, especially if you’re a teacher. It’s a great morale-booster!

6.       Teacher education programs need to raise the bar. Yes, there are, sadly, “bad” teachers in our public schools. But, as Matt Damon points out, there are “bad apples” in every profession or career. This is a reality, but it should not be our only focus. This being said, I believe that teacher education programs need to raise the bar. I’m aware of more than one instance in which a mentor teacher has recommended that a student not continue with her education program and receive certification, but the education program directors at the student’s school ignored this recommendation, and the student was certified and is now in a classroom. (Note-She had passed her Praxis exams, standardized tests. But does that mean she’s ready to teach?) Students in teacher preparation programs need to be fully prepared to enter the classroom. This means students in education programs must spend plenty of time  in a variety of classroom settings. They must have real teaching experiences and receive a lot of feedback before beginning a teaching career.

7.       Authentic teacher evaluation systems need to be created and put in place. A two-minute walk-through twice a yearor even one half-hour visit each year, is not enough to truly evaluate a teacher. A teacher’s evaluation and/or pay should not be determined by these superficial assessments. Granted, administrators have full plates, too. But there needs to be a better system. And good teachers want to improve. Although it may be uncomfortable at first, many teachers would probably welcome comments, observations, and suggestions from honest, well-meaning colleagues.

8.       Teachers shouldn’t be evaluated based on their students’ standardized test scores, and pay shouldn’t be tied to student achievement on standardized tests. Imagine that a doctor tells her patient that he has high cholesterol.  She writes a prescription for medication and advises her patient about dietary choices that will help improve the condition. The patient doesn’t take the medicine like he should and doesn’t make the dietary changes necessary. The patient has his six-month check-up and it’s obvious that the condition has worsened. Should the doctor now earn less because her patient hasn’t improved? This would be crazy, right? Yet this is the idea that many have when it comes to education reform and teacher pay and rankings. 
      It’s also unfair to rank teachers based on student achievement because not all classes are created equal. In our state, students take the reading and writing tests in the 11th grade. I teach IB HL 11th grade English. My students will do quite well on their standard-level reading and writing test. But does this mean that I should earn more than a colleague who teaches regular-level English 11? Of course not!

These are just some of my thoughts on some of the hot topics concerning education and education reform efforts right now. But I’m just a teacher. What do I know? Clearly the legislators (non-educators) have it all figured out.

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