Get in the Fracas
Woe are we!
Across the nations, high school teachers are collectively wringing their hands. This time it’s not over any curriculum-distorting policy or suffocating shortfall of funds. We are in the heart of midterm exam season, and teachers are swamped.
I understand the indispensable value of scrutinizing student work— but grading a stack of sixty-six midterms in a weekend is just downright painful. Each six-section test takes about fifteen minutes to read carefully, annotate, and score. That’s 16.5 hours with no breaks.
When I was a student teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, I worked with teachers who carried five classes maxed out at 34 students apiece. With 170 kids, even assigning essays felt prohibitive. Putting 15 minutes into each student’s exam equals 42.5 hours of grading— with no breaks or pauses to scream included in the calculation.
According to NEA research publishing in The American Public School Teacher: Past, Present, and Future, heavy workload is the most frequently cited by teachers as the top hindrance to quality teaching.
So how to get through it? I wish I had some brilliant organizational strategy to share. My best tip is to just get started. Eyeing the stack without tackling it can bring on paralysis. Breaking through those first few papers— before late Sunday night— is key.
There’s a silver lining in grading dread; I’m extra-productive elsewhere. To duck the exams, I’ve run long-delayed errands, cleaned the office, put together a photobook, fired off overdue email, and now I’m writing this blog...
Back to the stack for me.
Last night in the State of the Union address, President Obama directly addressed the dropout crisis:
We also know that when students aren’t allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma. So tonight, I call on every State to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn eighteen.
Forcing students who want out to stick around will have limited returns. Reversing the dropout crisis, a crucial goal, would take a extraordinarily comprehensive effort to undo the systemic elements to facilitate students’ decisions to walk away from school. Many young people (7,000 per day; 30% of all students) may wait until high school to disappear physically, but the damage that ultimately manifests in dropping out has likely been done much earlier in their lives.
Russell W. Rumberger has answers. The University of California professor has written Dropping Out: Why Students Drop Out of High School and What Can Be Done About It, published last year by Harvard University Press. In the Washington Post, Jay Mathews called it a “masterpiece” and summarized Rumberger’s key takeaways on how to reverse the dropout crisis:
1. Redefine high school success. The measure of a school should not be just mastery of reading, writing and math, but what are called noncognitive skills, such as motivation, perseverance, risk aversion, self-esteem and self-control. This would help both potential dropouts and kids going to college who need work on their social skills.
2.Change the dropout accounting system so schools aren’t rewarded for transferring problem kids. Even students who spend only a semester in the ninth grade before transferring to another school should be counted when the original school calculates how many ninth-graders completed high school four years later. Otherwise, schools will have an incentive to send students most likely to drop out to other schools rather than try to help them.
3. Stop trying to improve schools by forcing them to change their practices over the short term. Instead, help them build their capacity to improve, with more money and staff, over the long term.
4. Work harder to desegregate schools. Rumberger cites a study that found two-thirds of high schools with more than 90 percent minority enrollment had fewer than 60 percent of their students remain in school from ninth to 12th grade. “In short,” he writes, “it matters with whom one goes to school.”
5. Strengthen families and communities. Compared with other developed countries, the United States has one of the highest rates of children living in poverty. Those are the kids most susceptible to dropping out. Anything that improves the health and job security of school neighborhoods improves graduation rates. More early children education and preschool are also useful.
Sign me up as a supporter. The Obama Adminstration should be all over this!
I’m leading a faculty book club on Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? The subtitle is a mouthful: A Cognitive Science Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means For the Classroom. It’s the most eye-opening edu-book I’ve read in quite some time. Each chapter addresses a different core question asked by teachers like. “How Should I Adjust My Teaching for Different Types of Learners?” and “Why Do Students Remember Everything That’s on Television and Forget Everything I Say?” I highly recommend it.
In the chapter on different types of learners, Willingham makes a compelling case that the theory that students are either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners is bogus and kept alive by confirmation bias— the need to seek support for something we want to believe. When instruction matches a student’s supposed cognitive style (they learn better through seeing images, hearing sounds, or making physical contact with materials), optimal results do not follow. He explains (italics are mine):
Most of the time students need to remember what things mean, not what they look like or sound like. Sure, sometimes that information counts; someone with a good visual memory will have an edge in memorizing the particular shapes of countries on a map, for example, and someone with a good auditory memory will be better at getting the accent right in a foreign language. But the vast majority of schooling is concerned with what things mean, not what they look like or sound like.
This blows a hole in the conventional wisdom about differentiation.
The whole book is not this “Grinch-like,” a comparison that Willingham invites for the chapter on different types of learners. It’s an illuminating and substantive book— all insight and evidence, no fluff.
Get it, teachers.
I’m one day into my career as a mentor for a student-teacher, and while I can’t speak for her— though she seemed very positive— I know I’ve already gained a lot.
Since we are now a team and I’m responsible for helping her to get a foothold on the craft of teaching, I am upping my game. Prior to class today I took more time with my plans, talked through all of my decisions, and afterward sat down to scrutinize student work as soon as it was handed in. That level of reflectiveness can be hard to gin up when you’re on your own.
Today I tried to model my best practices as a teacher and it felt good. The class was clicking a notch or two better than usual. As the semester progresses and I hand over more and more control of the classes to my student-teacher, I expect to gain a whole new perspective on what works with my students, with ample opportunities to talk it all through.
Alone, teachers can become islands and slip into lax practices. With a good match, both become stronger teachers.
The NEA has come a long way. Last year, the largest union in America assembled an all-star team of educators for its Commission on Effective Teaching and Teachers (CETT), provided them with all the resources they needed, and provided no editorial guidance. I had the privilege of lunching with some of the commissioners at the NEA convention in July, and they are definitely some of the most impressive teachers I've met.
Earlier this month, the commission delivered their report, a brilliantly articulated vision for “Transforming Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learning.” It's a blockbuster.
I highly recommend reading the whole thing. We need to rally around this. Our disparate voices have weakened us for too long. My hope is that 2012 will be the year that educators finally move towards a common platform— and the CETT report is it.
These books are burning holes in my shelf, just waiting for me to finish Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. (I know I’m late to the party, but it’s pretty fantastic!) What education books are you looking forward to reading in 2012?
Finnish Lessons by Pasi Sahlberg
Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham
Why School? by Mike Rose
The Good School by Peg Tyre
Courageous Conversations About Race by Glenn E. Singleton and Curtis Linton
Tough Liberal by Richard Kahlenberg
The Influence of Teachers by John Merrow
Georgia may still be reeling from the eye-popping cheating scandal uncovered this year in Atlanta, but things are getting worse.
The governor’s Special Investigations division has just released a bombshell report detailing systemic corruption in the administration of the state exans, I’ve reprinted most of the overview below. Check out the whole crazy thing here and here.
How can anyone say with a straight face that these are just bad apples and this high-stakes testing regime is the right thing for kids?
(The italics and bold print below are mine. Hat tip to Bob Schaeffer at FairTest for the links.)
The disgraceful situation we found in the Dougherty County School System (DCSS) is a tragedy, sadly illustrated by a comment made by a teacher who said that her fifth grade students could not read, yet did well on the Criterion Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT). This incredible statement from a teacher in a school where the principal flatly refused to cooperate with our investigation is indicative of what we found in many of the schools we visited.
To our amazement, this top-level administrator would not even answer questions about how she mishandled her duties as the person who is most responsible, at that school, for overseeing all testing activity.
Another school principal, whose salary was over $90,000 per year, allowed her family to falsely claim that they were eligible for a federally-funded free lunch each school day, even though official guidelines required the annual income to be no more than $24,089.
Yet another principal, with regard to our interviews, told a teacher: “Don’t you tell them anything, you hear?”
Notwithstanding these examples of misconduct, there are skilled, dedicated and well-meaning educators in this school system. But their work is often overshadowed by an acceptance of wrongdoing and a pattern of incompetence that 1is a blight on the community that will feel its effects for generations to come. This is the Dougherty County School System.
Hundreds of school children were harmed by extensive cheating in the Dougherty County School System. In 11 schools, 18 educators admitted to cheating. We found cheating on the 2009 CRCT in all of the schools we examined. A total of 49 educators were involved in some form of misconduct or failure to perform their duty with regard to this test.
While we did not find that Superintendent Sally Whatley or her senior staff knew that crimes or other misconduct were occurring, they should have known and were ultimately responsible for accurately testing and assessing students in this system. In that duty, they failed.
The 2009 erasure analysis, and other evidence, suggests that there were far more educators involved in cheating, but a fair analysis of the facts did not allow us to sufficiently establish the identity of every participant.
The statistics, and the individual student data, leave little room for any other reasonable explanation, save for cheating. For example, the percentage of flagged classrooms for DCSS is ten times higher than the state average.
Last week I had the privilege to sit on a panel of National Board Certified Teachers at the White House with Arne Duncan. It was heartening to really get the sense that the Department of Education does get the pulse of teachers' attitudes and is actively making efforts to hear teachers' voices. Full video of the event is here. (I come in close to the 33-minute mark.)
On the stage, my palms were sweaty and my throat was dry. I've transcribed my answer to the first questions sent my way. What do you think? What would you have said to the Secretary of Education?
(Official White House photo. I led with my signature claw dance move. Sec. Duncan looked on inscrutably.)
Question: What is your vision for the future of the teaching profession?
It’s often said that we need to base decisions on the facts on the ground. That’s true and on the ground in education teachers know what’s going on. NEA research published last year showed that among teachers, the number one most cited hindrance to good teaching is “heavy workload.” The default mode for teachers is swamped. Teachers are by nature doers and go-getters, so they’re going to go the extra mile, so people get isolated into their little pockets where they either burn out or just create pockets of excellence but aren’t really in a position to spread the wealth.
The second hindrance is “hostile or unsupportive school leaders” so teachers that could be great are misused. Imagine if in the very beginning of Tom Brady’s career he was forced to play a different position or benched the first time he threw an interception. At the first school I worked at in the Bronx, nobody was a NBCT. I’d never even heard of it. The atmosphere was one of fear and intimidation. So a lot of people with talent weren’t able to realize it.
So how do we activate the talent? There are over 3 million teachers in this country and they’re overwhelmingly smart people, talented people— but swamped. If I wasn’t here right now I’d be teacher three consecutive 100-minute blocks. It’s brutal— for me and my wife.
What if teachers could have more career ladders and hybrid positions or job-sharing opportunities to keep them in the classroom but also to provide time and space for them to use their talents in their school communities? I have a degree in Film & Television from New York University and I have experience teaching filmmaking to young people. If I could cut my teaching load in half, I’d love to travel to schools all over DC and help them set up AV programs. We can systemically spread the wealth.
Teaching is great. It’s great work and I love being with the kids, but it can really burn you out. When I did my student teaching at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, one of the last huge five-thousand-student comprehensive high schools in New York, teachers carried 5 classes per day with 34 students per class. They saw 170 students per day. It was prohibitive not just to go through the National Board process where you really have to scrutinize student work, where you have to examine how to promote listening and speaking and fairness and equity and diversity with a fine tooth comb, but also even to assign essays. It’s staggering if it takes you 15 minutes to really read and provide quality feedback on a piece of student work. The math is mind-boggling.
There’s so talent that’s lying dormant in our teaching force. It’s dying on the vine. But the whole profession is under attack because there’s this big suspicion out there hovering over all teachers now: Are you a bad teacher? Are you one of the bad ones? Let’s plug in our algorithm and find out.
It’s scary. Teachers really need to advocate for their vision of the future of the profession. This is a fight and NBCTs need to be on the frontlines.
Where’s Hunter S. Thompson when you need him? Our national discourse has gone gonzo, hijacked by maniacs.
I’ve done my best to tune out the cynical cluelessness permeating the Republican primary race, but these guys are actively working to ruin the country. It’s hard to single out only a few howlers, but just this month we’ve seen:
Mitt Romney: brazen distortion and lies about President Obama’s positions
Herman Cain: knew from the beginning this was only about self-promotion
Rick Perry: wants to radically reform government but can’t remember how. (Oops.)
New Gingrich: Child labor laws are in the way of really making our economy work.
The disingenuousness takes your breath away.
I feel an indirect link between these out-of-touch corporatist ideologues and a New York Daily News story by Ben Chapman this week on the insane new expansion in New York State testing. Check out this lunacy:
State Education officials are expanding mandatory reading exams that students across the state take each spring, according to documents posted on a state website Monday.
Third graders would spend 245 minutes on a reading test given over two consecutive days in April 2012 — up from 150 minutes over two days last year. Other grades will see similar gains.
Teachers and parents slammed the state’s new, super-sized testing schedule.
“It’s insane to make third graders sit still and take a test for that long,” said Lisa North, a reading teacher at Public School 8 in Brooklyn who administers the tests.
I truly don’t know what’s next in this brave new world: four-hour reading tests in second grade? Why not in first grade too? Why not a three hour reading test in kindergarten? Capture the data early! Where is this all leading? How much of our soul are we selling in the name of data?
No one wins here— except for-profit corporations selling tests and test prep. (And privatizers who cheer the demise of public education.)
I recently received an email from Peggy Robertson, an administrator for the grass roots group United Opt Out National. They’ve got something strong to say about this.
Principals don’t revolt against the system. It just doesn’t happen. Until now.
High-stakes testing has become downright Orwellian and finally principals are speaking up. In his stunning article in Sunday’s New York Times, Michael Winerip (perhaps the top edu-journalist out there right now) gives voice to the over 650 New York State principals who have been pushed past the breaking point. And the rebellion is growing.
Read Winerip's whole piece, but here are two tasty tidbits:
“It’s education by humiliation,” Mr. Kaplan [20-year principal of Great Neck North High School on Long Island] said. “I’ve never seen teachers and principals so degraded.”
The trainers at these sessions, which are paid for by state and federal grants, have explained that they’re figuring out the new evaluation system as they go. To make the point, they’ve been showing a YouTube video with a fictional crew of mechanics who are having the time of their lives building an airplane in midair.
“It was supposed to be funny, but the room went silent,” Ms. Burris said. “These are people’s livelihoods we’re talking about.”
Katie Zahedi, principal of Linden Avenue Middle School in Red Hook in Dutchess County. said the training session she attended was “two days of total nonsense.”
“I have a Ph.D., I’m in a school every day, and some consultant is supposed to be teaching me to do evaluations,” she said. “It takes your breath away it’s so awful.”
She said one good thing about the new evaluation system was that it had united teachers, principals and administrators in their contempt for the state education department.
Isn’t public education supposed to be about strengthening future generations of citizens with skills they need? Why does it feel like the education train— conducted by consultants and ideologues— is plowing in the wrong direction?