Six and a Half More Years…

I truly hoped never to reach a point where I’d look at my career in teaching and think to myself, “Six and a half more years… Six and a half more years… Six and a half more years…” which is what I have until I can retire with full benefits.

It’s not because of the kids.  They continue to remain wonderful, but the institution of education is imploding.  In my school district, bit-by-bit, we are turning the study of literature into mere readin’ and writin’.  The district has issued a mandate that literature is not to be studied in terms of “Shakespeare” or “American Literature” or any other such focused examination, and the next step is to phase out the novel completely.  The idea is to teach lots of short works, test for basic things, like comprehension and understanding of terms like “foreshadowing” and “metaphor,” and then have kids reproduce these techniques in short writings of their own.  Study a work of literature because in it we might come closer to understanding ourselves and the human experience?  It’s not readily measurable.  Can I determine the exact percentage of my students who got “what it is to be human”?  Can I measure exactly to what extent they got it?  Can I ensure that they all got the same thing?  No?  Then forget about it.

Write a structured essay?  No, no, no!  Their writing must only mimic “real world” writing, like blogs.  Don’t get me wrong—I love a good blog, but essay is as much about how to think as it is about how to write—hence its often contrived structure at the 9th or 10th grade level.  The problem seems to be that assessing how well a kid thinks is time consuming.  Assessing a piece of writing for devices (simile? check; vivid description? check; rhetorical question? no? too bad) can be done much more quickly by whatever sots get stuck reading “constructed responses” that are chock-full of literary devices, however poorly executed.  I’m not kidding.  I once saw an exemplar for an “advanced” constructed response used on our state test.  I don’t know how to teach anyone to write that badly.  Strunk and White had to be turning in their graves.  Lord!  How many adjectives and adverbs can you squeeze into a single paragraph?  That’s what passes for “vivid and precise use of language,” which is one of our state standards.  The end result is that we are eliminating the formal, structured essay in favor of the crazy prose that is so popular today—long on emotion and short on evidence or deep analysis.

The funny thing is, I used to be the one who railed about the fact that the only writing we taught was the five-paragraph literary analysis.  “Not all of our kids will be English majors,” I protested.  Well, gee, I didn’t mean get rid of it.  I just meant, let’s do some other stuff, too.  What’s with the all or nothing bit?

The district is also pushing “research-based instruction.”  Again, don’t get me wrong.  There are some good ideas that come from this.  But when every lesson plan is supposed to use a graphic organizer (various charts kids can fill in) or “think-pair-share” (where kids pair up and talk about the lesson), it gets cluttered.  Some lessons are truly enhanced by visual organizers.  Some lessons are complex enough that kids need time to process verbally.  But for cryin’ out loud, not every lesson requires them.  I think it’s OK to let kids figure out how to process a piece of information for themselves every now and then.  I think a master teacher doesn’t merely use these tools, she knows when to use them for maximum effectiveness.  But again, they can be checked off.  Measure the precise degree to which a teacher inspires students to think, to examine their lives?  Can’t be done, so it doesn’t matter.

And I’m not bitching because I suck.  I’m being evaluated this year on a new and much more concrete rubric.  Actually, I like a lot of the rubric.  I think much of it really does cover good teaching.  It has things like making purposeful connections between my subject and other disciplines, which I am really big on.  In any given unit in my class you will also learn about history or science or some other subject that’s connected.  (Of course, none of the district staff development covers this, and it’s never talked about—it’s just quietly on the teacher rubric no one sees unless they’re being evaluated.  And I’m not asking that the district focus on it because they’ll end up over-simplifying and screwing that up, as well.)  The rubric is designed so that most teachers will simply meet the standard.  They really have to go above and beyond to exceed.  So far, I’ve exceeded in a number of areas, and nothing is below the standard.

Last year, 40% of my sophomores attained “high growth” on the state test and 30% had “typical growth.”  Of the 30% who achieved “low growth,” a quarter were already in the “advanced” category and stayed there.  Yes, if I have high achievers who merely stay high achievers on the state test, I must count them as “low growth” students.  Another quarter of my “low growth” students had excessive absences, so they weren’t in my room for me to teach them.  This leaves about 15% of my whole class who have low growth that is probably due to some less-than-effective teaching on my part, and/or parents who don’t care or rescue too much, or a million other factors.  I don’t make excuses.  I am always looking at what’s not going perfectly in my classroom and working on solutions.  That 15% is important, but not every teacher will reach every kid.  I’ll never get it down to 0.

To me the data suggests that, as I continue to ignore the district’s mandates and insist upon teaching literature as a means of understanding what it is to be human, most of my kids seem to be testing just fine.  The overall body of evidence suggests that I know what I’m doing.  The district’s overall scores, though, are declining.  For the past 5 years, district CSAP scores in language arts have fallen.  What does that data suggest about the district’s instructional leadership, I wonder.

So I’m glad I only have six and a half more years—because until someone actually comes into my classroom and directly tells me that I must stop teaching the way I do, my kids will be reading novels and writing structured essays (as well as other kinds of reading and writing).  I do think, though, that central administration will become more and more invasive, and I’ll be bailing right about the time someone gets around to coming into my room and telling me that I absolutely must stop teaching effectively.  As for my son, who will be graduating with his teaching license in two and a half years?  His will be another story.  I worry.

About admin

Paula is an author of historical fiction as well as a wife, mom, and teacher.
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9 Responses to Six and a Half More Years…

  1. HatGirl says:

    Hi Paula,

    Call me a skeptic. These new methods, which put students and teachers into one size fits all boxes defy the very nature of education and anyone in the field knows it. I hope I’m wrong, but could this be about money; you know, fire the high salaried teachers with the Rubric to prove it and thus, hire two for one?

  2. Elizabeth says:

    May I please ask you to contact me off line? I am writing an argument about involving the students themselves in this issue, and I need to cite examples of districts that are phasing out literature in favor of reading for information and research based instruction. Thank you in advance and please, do contact me!
    With gratitude,

  3. admin says:

    Hatgirl, this is education reform today. It is the essence of NCLB. Americans “know” kids aren’t doing well because we can watch documentaries about urban schools that are struggling. The assumption, by-and-large, is that teachers unions resist testing because teachers are lazy and don’t want “accountability,” which is what the tests and all their measurements supposedly provide. There is almost no understanding in this country that what teachers are really resisting is the dumbing-down of education. Granted, there are schools that are in trouble and that need clear ways of measuring progress, but to force high-performing schools to engage in the same practices as low-performing brings them down. To force high-performing kids in urban schools to take classes that use the same basic, basic practices as their low-performing peers brings them down.

    You’re not going to like my saying this, but the one-size-fits-all approach is the conservative politicians’ rhetoric (well, Obama, too, for all that he’s supposedly a flaming socialist), and it’s working for them. There is draconian austerity or reckless spending–nothing in between. There is traditional marriage or the unraveling of civilization as we know it. There is teaching to the test or tolerating lazy, slacker teachers. Complexity, subtlety, nuance–Americans don’t do these anymore.

    • HatGirl says:

      Hi Paula,

      If this is education reform today, we are in trouble. Actually, I was opposed to NCLB for the very reason that, although it sells well to the public, state assessment tests cause the dumbing down of content so students pass and, of course, intimidates some to simply teach to the test.
      It is said that the most important element in successful learning is a competent teacher, but these policies in place now will not a better teacher make. Teachers are thrust into the classroom without much training (except student teaching ) and many are left clueless as to exactly what actually constitutes ” effective “teaching. We need reform that tackles that.

      • admin says:

        I couldn’t agree more, Hatgirl. All these gimmicks, poorly executed, will not help at all. In many ways, I think some people are born to teach. They just have that skill-set, and many new policies try to strip those skills right out of them because they can’t be “measured.”

  4. HatGirl says:

    Don’t know why this comment box is appearing on the reply site and I can’t get it to go away (don’t know if it’s seen by others on your blog), so I’ll post in hopes of putting it to rest.

    As per your message to me, Paula, again, I say,

    Amen to that.

  5. Michael says:

    Oh JeffCo. I just recently did the undergraduate, graduate and med school circuit. I can guarantee that higher education still requires structured, well-written essays to be produced. I was shocked at the quality of writing some of my classmates at Arizona State produced as an undergrad. I was equally shocked at the quality of writing in some of my PhD programs in neural systems. They were functionally illiterate. It’s really sad that kids are getting to the college level lacking these basic skills. And as far as the upper levels of science, it doesn’t matter how brilliant you are if you aren’t able to clearly communicate your ideas. It’s a real shame.

    I can only imagine watching politicians run education is like watching them try to run health care. As a doctor it’s infuriating to see people with no true knowledge of medical care trying to force us to follow their policies, education seems a hundred times worse. Sometimes I feel like anyone writing policy for either should be required to work in either field to truly understand the effects of their legislature.

    Hang in there, my parents are complaining another democrat took the governorship in Colorado, maybe CSAPs will start to fade away?

  6. admin says:

    I don’t know, Michael. Politicians are so enamored of tests, I don’t see their demise soon. The real question, to me, is have we prepared our kids for college? If so, back off. Sigh.

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