Hildegarde

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Rain

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So it’s Sunday, and outside it’s muggy and foggy and depressing.  It feels like I’ve been up forever, but I don’t have music on yet.  Some of the schools start up this week, at the very end of the week, although there seems to be a trend to go back to starting just after Labor Day for most of them. 

And I am, I think, in something of a slump. 

Part of it is just unhappiness with what we do at school and what we don’t do–at what has become increasingly a system obsessed with “assessment” at the same time as it’s become one where no actual progress takes place.

I’m sure that sounds more confusing than enlightening.

The mania for “assessment” is new even since I went back to teaching in 2000.  And it’s new on all levels.  It’s the very essence of No Child Left Behind. 

On the “college” level, it’s a weird set of confusions and contradictions that never seem to meet in the middle.

I’ve got a lot of sympathy with the people who want standardized testing to figure out whether schools are actually teaching what they’re supposed to be teaching.  Too much of the elementary and secondary system seems to have been erected in order to make it impossible to know whether anybody is learning anything.

The problem is that I’m not sure how we would test what we actually need to test.   Even in the cases where school districts are not cheating to make their results look better, students who score high on these tests are often incapable of doing what the tests are supposed to be testing.

I have sat in classrooms and watched students who are incapable of reading a paragraph in English and writing about it grammatically sail through “exit exams” meant to test just that while students I know can do the work fall apart and fail to pass.

I don’t see how any employer anywhere thinks that the “degree” we offer our students is evidence of any ability at all, good or bad.  And it seems to me that what we actually need is a way to tell if job applicants can actually do the work we want them to do. 

At the same time, I think that schools obsessed with constant “assessment” are not schools.  To think that the only point in a child or adolescent’s being “in school” is to be endlessly and unrelenting judged is repugnant to me on so many levels, I don’t know where to start. 

It changes the fundamental relationship between student and teacher, for one. 

There’s an enormous difference between “I’m here to teach you something” and “I’m here to judge you and everything else is irrelevant.”

And it’s that latter thing we’ve gotten to.  In elementary and secondary schools, the judging is not just on academics, but on every aspect of the child’s life.   The kid goes to school and is under a microscope at almost every moment–and any deviation from some abstract norm is automatically a “disorder” or a “disability.”

“College is different,” my father used to say, when the early stages of this sort of thing used to drive me completely crazy.  And college is different.  We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about their social inadequacies. 

In other ways, though, it’s exactly the same.  We don’t care if you’ve learned anything.  We only care that you can pass the test that says you’ve learned something. 

And the test isn’t really testing anything that anybody wants to know.

If we did this right, we could teach people what they needed to know to prosper at most jobs in the first eight grades–we could stop wasting their time and everybody else’s, and we could stop sticking them with loan bills in the tens of thousands of dollars.

We’d have to drop the whole child approach and let the “issues” be handled by other people in other places.  We’d have to change the curriculum and change the curriculum in the ed schools–or abolish the ed schools entirely, which makes more sense to me. 

And we’d have to be willing to risk the possibility that there would be a “disparate impact’  on children of different races.

I said risk it–I don’t actually think that, in the long run, it would come to pass. 

I do think that the fear that it would is what is killing education on every level these days. 

And I think that if you want to find Americans so racist as to think that black people are inherently intellectually inferior to white people, you shouldn’t look at backwoods hillbilly trailer parks. You should look at teachers and administrators on every educational level from Head Start to the Harvard Graduate School.

And this, you see, is why it’s always a bad idea to talk to me when I’m about to go back to school.

Written by janeh

August 21st, 2011 at 8:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

17 Responses to 'Rain'

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  1. We went back this past Wednesday for three administratively orchestrated “duty days” before the students come tomorrow. We had to sit for an hour and a half listening to “how to create a syllabus that engages students” which was really a session where we were told everything that MUST go into our syllabus in order to protect the college against any kind of student complaint and what we MUSTN’T put in our syllabus because the lawyers would have a cow.
    As mind-numbing as this session was it, of course, in no way lived up to the two hour Assessment session. This year we are all expected to assess one of our college-wide ‘outcomes’ which is ‘Civic Engagement’ (and don’t get me started on our College-wide ‘outcomes’). Our Assessment Coordinator stressed the importance of pre- and post- testing in order to ensure valid and reliable data. She then went on to explain that we might assign an exercise or activity at the beginning of the semester and evaluate it – and then we might change the assignment or use a different assignment and a different evaluation system to assess them at the end of the semester. Seriously. It’s what she said. My departmental colleagues and I were left speechless (hard to do to a Communication department.)
    Of course the point, as we discussed at our department meeting later in the afternoon, is exactly as you state. It is NOT to actually assess student learning. It is NOT to determine what is happening in the classroom, what is being taught or what is being learned. It is not to collect any data that could seriously be considered valid or reliable. The point is that administrators’ bonuses are, to a large degree, dependent upon delivering assessment “data” to AQIP evaluators. It is truly immaterial whether students learn or not as long as the faculty supplies data that administrators can use in their reports that says that we are doing SOMETHING (valid and reliable or not) to assess student learning.
    So every year we are required to create an individual and a departmental assessment ‘plan’, and at the end of the year we must supply ‘data’ which relates to that plan – unless, of course, we change our plan mid-semester or mid-year and we supply data that relates to that plan instead. It doesn’t take much to imagine how some faculty handle this assignment. And how do we make the time to do this ‘work’? Of course, it comes out of the time we would spend in preparing for our classes, meeting with students, and actually evaluating and assessing their work and helping them to improve it. It’s crazy!

    judy

    21 Aug 11 at 9:29 am

  2. And how is this not blatant fraud, Judy? Taking money under false pretences?

    Mique

    21 Aug 11 at 11:09 am

  3. Thank the FSM I teach in a graduate program that answers to accrediting agencies that actually care that our graduates are competent and that we assess that in valid ways!

    When the university came to us and started telling us we had to define and assess outcomes (in ways that sound startlingly similar to what Judy describes), I described what we were already doing. The university said “Oh, cool. Carry on.” Many of my colleagues (I am ashamed to admit that I am in a College of Education) responded in several ways, including “That’s so reductionistic!” and “We could never do that!” What, because it is so much easier to define what a psychologist should be able to do than what a teacher should be able to do? Sheesh, a lot of what we have to teach our students to do is how to work with teachers who think “data” is a dirty word, and “evidence based” is evil, and doing things from gut feel is better than doing what has been demonstrated to work–and get them to change! Feh.

    Of course, we live in a society where “data” is a dirty word etc., and teachers are no different. Actually expecting kids to learn stuff is “cultural hegemony” and actually pointing out that some kids aren’t good at some stuff “damages their self esteem” and direct instruction of what kids need to know is “drill and kill.” Not to mention that even small groups of people can’t agree on what, exactly, kids should learn.

    Cathy

    CAFiorello

    21 Aug 11 at 12:45 pm

  4. You know, there was a lot I disliked about the Army, but it’s training program was often pretty good. At the start of any “block of instruction” we were told what we’d be able to do at the end of it–disassemble and reasemble a rifle, identify friendly and enemy tanks, or describe the paragraphs of the Five Paragraph Operations Order, for instance–and what the passing standard was. And when they were at all serious, someone would proctor the test who had no stake in the outcome. Testing the unit-level requirements–conduct a fighting withdrawal, advance to contact and what have you–was trickier, but still generally done to an established standard by people with no stake in the outcome, much like a driving test.

    I see no reason why for math, science and some parts of English–vocabulary and parts of speech, for instance–a multiple-choice test should take more than half a day in total at the beginning and end of the school year, proctored and graded by outsiders.

    Advanced English skills are trickier. The tests of careful reading and essay writing ARE careful reading and essay writing. But the English have been doing this for generations. Give the student a set of five essays and a set time to write a response on his choice. Send it to someone who doesn’t know who the kid is to grade–one mark for comprehension of the original writing, one for literary competence of the response. Anyone can appeal, but they’re stuck with the second grade.

    This, I think, is why so many schools would prefer to “teach” attitudes: they’re less strain on the faculty, and it’s impossible to prove the teaching was inadequate. If war is too important a matter to be left to the generals, education is certainly too important to be left entirely in the hands of the faculty and administration.

    On the race thing, put me down as a skeptic. I doubt the median scores vary much by race, but Eskimos, pygmies, waTusi, Han Chinese and Nordic Europeans are so clearly differently optimized physically, that I’d be rather surprised if there were no mental differences, especially at the margins. Complete racial blindness may not produce a set of Physics Nobel Prize winners who look like a random sample of the human race.
    Serious problems arise when we go from pursuing equality of opportunity to pursuing race-neutral outcomes. It’s the same with “multi-culturalism.” I do not doubt every culture has strengths and weaknesses, but it would be an astounding thing if they all produced the same proportions of salesmen, mechanics, teachers and physicians, and it’s no good denouncing “the system” when they don’t.

    Define what you want to teach. Establish how to test the learning, and have a disinterested party conduct the test. Those are the basics. The rest is details, but we don’t have the basics right.

    robert_piepenbrink

    21 Aug 11 at 1:13 pm

  5. Judy, I have to say my more rebellious self was thinking, as I read your response, “why don’t they just stage a quiet rebellion, make up the freakin’ scores, and submit some fiction that satisfies the venal and self-serving administrators? Then they could spend their time actually *teaching*.”

    I’ve had clients who were on the reporting end of state-mandated programs and seen the absolutely useless, yet expensive and time-intensive “evaluations” come and go. “Longitudinal studies” that change evaluation points 5 times in three years. Milestones that shift and appear/disappear apparently at random.

    As far as I could determine, it was all in service of maintaining the existence of the state administrators of this whole farrago. The children in the programs certainly didn’t benefit. The caregivers and teachers were not better off. I guess I could feel guilty myself as having made money off of continuing to change the programming of the software I built to continue to comply with the shifting sands of state requirements.

    But I don’t. Feel guilty, that is. Better I should get back some of the state taxes I paid. ;)

    But I honestly don’t think I could continue to work under circumstances like you describe. I’d be out there trying to find some way to spend my time teaching, if that were my calling.

    Lymaree

    21 Aug 11 at 2:05 pm

  6. The problem with multiple-choice questions is that it only tests the students’ ability to answer multiple-choice questions. Very smart children are often at a disability because they can often see how multiple answers could be correct, depending on the interpretation of the question. Some students who haven’t really learned much can get very skilled at guessing the correct answers. Yes, there are ways to do that. I used to do that with any questions where I didn’t know the answer, and my percentage of correct guesses was considerably more than 50%.

    When I taught German, the new methods of language learning (which should have been called ‘language instruction’ since all language is learned — or not learned — in essentially the same way) were in their infancy, and the old methods (read and translate) were still being used in more than half of the schools across the country. The problem with the read and translate method is that all it teaches you to do is read and translate. It usually requires the student to memorize a lot of vocabulary words, which of course teaches the student to memorize a lot of vocabulary words. I took Latin and French in high school, both taught by the old method. I learned to read and translate and memorize vocabulary words very well. Had trouble speaking a word of French. Had trouble understanding spoken French. (Never actually met anyone to talk Latin with). I was not surprised when I got to France and all my years of studying French in high school and college still didn’t give me the skills I needed to get around in France.

    When I started college, I had an opportunity to take an intensive German course in the summer — one year of college German in ten weeks. We met for an hour of class, had an hour break in which we were expected to study, had another hour of class, then a two hour break for lunch and study, then a third hour of class. It was a great schedule, but the real key to learning is that the professor spoke not one word of English from the first day he walked into the classroom. He had previously taught German for several years at the Army Language School in Monterey, California, and he adapted their program slightly for college teaching. By the end of the summer, I could carry on simple conversations in German. That following school year I took second year German (same professor), and at the end of it I was fluent enough to go to the University of Heidelberg and pass their German proficiency test for admittance to the University. All of this in a 12-month period.

    I contrast this with some of my students when I was teaching in high school. They had been part of an experimental program to teach foreign languages in grade school. They started learning German in fourth grade. Then continued through junior high school and senior high school, where I got them. At the end of their senior year, they had been studying German for 9 years, and they had learned less than I had learned in a 12-month period (although technically it was considered to be the equivalent of two years of college German). What did this slow pace mean to the students? The early stages of learning a language are not fun because you can’t really do anything with with the language. It is only when you start being able to talk it and read it and understand someone talking to you that it becomes fun. Stretch out the early “not fun” period for years, and not unexpectedly, I got students who had become totally bored with learning German long before they arrived in my classroom. I was able to save some of them, but not all. Two girls who had not shown much interest at all had a turn-around when they happened to meet a German couple in a mall. My students were actually able to speak enough German with them that they could help the couple find where they needed to go. The two girls came into class the next day bouncing with energy and enthusiasm because they had finally discovered what learning a language was all about — We can actually TALK with someone in their OWN LANGUAGE!

    I have nothing against starting language learning at an early grade, so long as you treat it like a “real” subject and spend enough time on it that the student can get past that horrible “not fun” stage. But if all you’re going to do is have a teacher bounce into the classroom once a week for half an hour of teaching the students to say, “Bon jour!” or “Was ist das?” or “Hola, chica!” then I say forget it. All you’re teaching the dear little tykes is that learning a foreign language is boring.

    For those of you who have never learned a foreign language, think of it like learning to swim. Suppose you start learning to swim when you are in fourth grade. And for that whole first year, all you learn to do is stick your face down in a bucket of water and then pull it out. The second year you learn to stand in water up to your waist, and duck down under the water and then stand up again. The third year you learn to hang onto the side of the pool and kick your feet while occasionally sticking your face into the water. Contrast that with taking swimming lessons for an hour a day for four weeks, where at the end of the sessions you are swimming the length of the pool, diving in off the side, swimming across the pool under water, and so on.
    Which method of learning to swim do you think is better?

    I say all this because I agree wholeheartedly with Jane. The tests that we are using to ‘assess’ the students, from kindergarten through college, don’t actually test for anything that is meaningful.

    The problem with essay tests, of course, is that they take so long to grade. Multiple-choice questions can be graded by machine. Essay tests don’t just take longer to grade, but the grader needs to have the necessary skills to do a decent job of grading. As a grader, you have to know first and foremost what level of English usage you are grading for. If you are grading essays written by sixth-graders, for example, you have to know what level of English usage sixth-graders are supposed to know, plus, because the students will be at all different levels, you have to know how to differentiate between someone whose essay is at a fifth-grade or a fourth-grade level, or a 9th-grade or 10th-grade or even college-level. And, of course, each essay is testing for multiple abilities, not just language usage. An essay test also tests for reading comprehension and for ability to organize one’s thoughts in a logical, coherent manner. And of course they test for cultural literacy, because students who are below grade level in that won’t be able to understand the essay the test questions are based on, not because they don’t have the English skills required to read the words, but because they have not been exposed to a lot of the concepts.
    And the person grading the essay questions has to be able to evaluate all these different things being tested for.
    Take it from me, who has been there and done that: The really, really bad answers are very easy to grade because they are usually only a few words that don’t make any sense at all. And the really, really good answers are easy to grade because they not only make sense, but there are almost no mistakes in the language. It is the answers in the middle (the vast majority of the answers) that are a real challenge to grade effectively.

    And as far as grade school teachers go, I’m afraid many of them would fail if they were given essay question tests to take, so how can we expect them to be able to grade tests like that?

    Then you add to the mixture the students whose anxiety levels are so high when being tested that they freeze up and can’t answer a single question, whether it is multiple-choice or essay questions. It is difficult for many people who don’t suffer from this level of anxiety to understand what it is like.
    I can understand it by relating it to stage fright. I can stand up in front of any group of people and talk my head off (as unbelievable as that may sound to those of you who know me only from these postings… yeah, right!). But put me in a situation where I am being graded on what I say, and my brain shuts down and my mouth just continues to babble. As you might anticipate, I did not do great in debate tournaments (I was great in debate practice), or in speech class, or even in graduate school when I had to take an oral exam to determine my German conversational ability.
    So I understand just how real test anxiety can be, and I am only glad none of my children suffered from that affliction.

    Robert, you are living in a dream world if you expect standardized testing to take only half a day. My granddaughter just took the “No Child Left Behind” required achievement test at the end of the fourth grade. The tests themselves killed two full days, because the students needed breaks between the tests. Trust me on this — fourth graders cannot sit at a desk taking tests for hours at a time. Of course since the teachers and administrators all understand about testing-anxiety, a couple of weeks before the required tests they spent about a week giving the students pre-tests (sort of like pre-inspections in the army) so that the kids would get used to doing the tests. And unfortunately, after the two days of ‘real’ tests, everyone, teachers and students alike, acted as if the school year were over, and they essentially did nothing for the remaining week and a half of classes except fun activities. I shudder to think what would happen if they had to add standardized testing at the beginning of the school year also!

    Charlou

    21 Aug 11 at 3:33 pm

  7. Oooo – educational assessment. And I’m getting to it late, so I won’t repeat everything that went before. But multiple choice questions are a perfectly good method to measure educational results. Not ALL results in ALL subjects, of course, but good mc questions targeted at the kind of knowledge they’re useful for measuring are just fine. Of course, it’s very hard to write good mc questions that and tempting to use them even when they are clearly inappropriate because they’re fast and cheap to score, and therefore much beloved by certain teachers and administrators.

    And accreditation processes are not necessarily a guarantee against pressure to document EVERYTHING to such an extent that the documentation gets in the way of the teaching.

    Assessment, both individual and school and district-wide, is an absolutely essential part of education. It’s appalling that it’s so often done badly – and even more appalling that some teachers of the student-centred learning school of thought, don’t do it at all. If you don’t assess your students, you don’t know whether they’ve learned what you think they have. If results aren’t aggregated and compared (and designed to be comparable!!!) at the school and district level, you have no idea which teachers and schools are doing well and which aren’t. This doesn’t mean you have to spend hours out of every year testing the poor kids – you can get valuable information on a school and district level testing well but less frequently. A classroom teacher will, of course, assess progress much more frequently – and not always with pen and paper tests, much less multiple choice tests. Or my favourite, by giving the students a series of questions and answers to write out and memorize and then pick from them for the test (true story).

    I’ve spent most of my life in an area in which ‘public exams’ contributed to your final grade at the end of high school. In my youth, they were 100% of the final grade, although that is now considered too stressful. We didn’t do much in the way of practice sessions, although many teachers would assign practice problems and homework consisting of ‘and this is the type of question you might get on the public’. Exams were held AFTER the end of the school year, with people from the community hired as invigilators. That’s changed now, too, to save money, and schools have all exams during the year spread out and wasting time much as Charlou describes – but these are regular exams, not standardized ones. When they introduced some standard ones – I think they started with an elementary school one in math – it took less than a day. Proper evaluation can be taken care of without disrupting the actual teaching time, if there’s a desire to do so (and money, if you want to do it outside the academic year).

    And Robert? You don’t need ethnic differences to have people claiming that it’s not their fault, poor souls, and certainly not the fault of the teaching they’re getting or their home lives, but some poor souls just can’t learn and it’s not fair to expect them to. Certainly, I’ve heard ‘cultural differences’ applied to the very small Native population in my population to explain their terrible educational performance, but in practically every small lily-white town there’d be a family or a group of people living in a neighbourhood – rarely, everyone from a particular village – who would be described in such terms, and I’m not talking about kids who might have some kind of developmental delay or other physical or psychological problem. This handily excuses anyone from looking at the teaching they got, the effect of teacher and parental expectations, the effect of the chaos (not even ‘chaotic family life’) some of them have at home…

    At least the worst of the early streaming of all the ‘kids like that’ into very low-level academic courses seems to have stopped. They still tend to settle in the lower level classes in high school, but they aren’t like one boy I knew who arrived out of such a program in about grade 7 or 8, realized how limited his future was going to be without academic math, and tried to switch, but was literally years behind the other kids, and couldn’t catch up.

    I do agree with most of what you said. Some of the Canadian military approaches to education were used as good examples back when I was taking courses in this kind of stuff.

    Cheryl

    22 Aug 11 at 7:08 am

  8. Back when I was taking first year Calculus in university, our 20 student section was taught by the Dean of Students. He held a voluntary tutorial every week and encouraged general questions. (It was his way of keeping in touch with students.)

    I once asked why he graded on a curve – either I knew the answer to a question or I didn’t. His reply was that the results of an exam measure (inversely) how well he had taught the subject. I have since come to realize that asking students questions is the only way to tell if they understand the material. At least in science and math.

    That seems to be the basis of Australian teachers unions objecting to testing, they are afraid the results will be used to measure teacher performance.

    jd

    22 Aug 11 at 3:19 pm

  9. For the record, I also don’t think there is any way to to convince some people they don’t have an equal chance–and one reason is that some of the time, for each of us, it’s true.

    Always remember the words of Morgenstern: “Life isn’t fair. But consider the alternative.”

    robert_piepenbrink

    22 Aug 11 at 6:12 pm

  10. I never understood the use of grading on a curve for small classes. Large ones seem much more likely to follow a normal distribution.

    At one time, we had the only teachers’ union in the country; probably in the continent, that supported testing. They didn’t even lobby to eliminate testing entirely when most of the other provinces teachers did. I don’t know what their stand is now.

    There are obviously many dangers from the use of student testing to measure teacher performance – even assuming that the tests are well-designed, the same teacher wouldn’t get the same results from different classes. And then you compound this by the tendency of some places to assign the newest or weakest teachers to the poorest students and the most experienced and senior teachers to the kids who could probably learn the stuff on their own.

    I don’t think most administrators need this tool anyway. I was never much impressed by the type of teacher evaluation that consisted of someone sitting in the back of the classroom to watch you teach and reviewing your lesson plans. It’s easy enough to produce the desired kind of lesson plans, and most students will play along. But a decent administrator often has a pretty good idea who’s struggling even when he doesn’t have two nearly identical classes, Mr. Smith’s always doing well and Mr, Jones’ always doing badly on the same external evaluation. Even with a union, it only takes a few efforts to provide support to the bad teacher, appropriately documented, and if they don’t work and the teacher doesn’t take the hint and quit, or slide out quietly after a period of ‘stress leave’, he can easily be fired, union or no union. Some administrators would rather not document the problem teacher (or employee, in other settings). They want to be able to fire them without having to give reasons, and without the embarassingly painful process. And since they can’t fire them in that way, they blame the unions rather than doing their job, and providing evidence that on August 21 Mr. S.’s class was so noisy the class next door couldn’t work and on August 22, a parent complained that her child wasn’t learning anything. A review of the notebook showed little work done, and a meeting with Mr. S, the union representative to review the material covered revealed….

    That being said, I’ve known lots of people who left teaching, some essentially pushed out. I’ve known some whose methods were ones I thought extremely poor who nevertheless managed to keep order and get the kids through knowing enough of their work to perform well enought in the next grade. I can think of one person who the Powers That Be clearly wanted out, who was known to teach practically nothing, and who kept his job. He didn’t need no union. He allegedly threatened to sue the employer, which figured it was better off tolerating him until he retired.

    Cheryl

    22 Aug 11 at 7:59 pm

  11. A friend of mine was head of an English department, and had a teacher who simply refused to teach as prescribed, fouling up every other other class which geared on the students having been taught what she was supposed to teach them. He was formally pointing this out to her, beginning the process which would lead to her dismissal. If she completely refused to cooperate, he estimated it would take three years to dismiss her for cause.

    That’s not quick or easy in my book. It’s a LOT of kids not being taught what she was paid to teach them. And the state was not a notable union stronghold. By all accounts many would be worse.

    “Not a good enough teacher” is slippery, a bit subjective and could understandably take years–and why, precisely we ought to check what the students knew when they began a class, and what they learned that year. “Refusal to carry out a lawful order”–including what is to be taught, when and how–shouldn’t take more than two weeks.

    robert_piepenbrink

    22 Aug 11 at 9:02 pm

  12. On the other hand, the first year I was student-teaching, the principal decided he didn’t like the librarian. She had been the librarian in the high school for over 25 years. The teachers liked her, the students liked her, the parents liked her, her former students remembered how wonderful she had been. She was good in her job.
    The principal decided he didn’t like HER. Her, personally. So he decided to get rid of her. She had tenure, so he couldn’t fire her without cause. He took her out of the library and reassigned her to supervise five study halls a day. The students signed protest petitions. After about a month she resigned.
    This was before the days when the teacher’s union got enough power to do anything about cases like this. So for every story of abuse of tenure, there are similar stories about abuse against teachers with no tenure, and against teachers even when they have tenure.

    As I believe I have mentioned (or ranted about, whichever), there has to be a balance of power. When the balance is skewed either way, then bad things happen.

    I know it is hard for some people to believe, but there are school administrators out there (at all levels, grade school through universities) who are vindictive enough to do whatever is within their power (or whatever they think they can get away with) to destroy the careers of teachers they just plain don’t like. And yes, there are teachers who are good as gold during the pre-tenure period, and then turn into a completely different kind of teacher once they have tenure.

    But arguing for one side or the other just on the basis of one or two examples doesn’t really prove one’s case. It’s kind of like using the Bible to prove your point — you can find a Bible quotation to prove just about anything you want to prove, even to prove two things that are exactly opposite and mutually exclusive.

    Kind of like arguing for socialized medicine — for anyone arguing in favor of socialized medicine, there are enough “horror stories” about what happened to certain patients in Canada or in Great Britain or in the Netherlands to keep any right-thinking person from ever, EVER supporting socialized medicine. And yet… if you are arguing in favor of socialized medicine, there are certainly enough horror stories coming out of the United States about what has happened to some people who needed health care and couldn’t get it because they didn’t have the money to pay for it.

    If you really want your argument to be valid, what you need to do is find out what the level of incidence of incompetent teachers being kept on because they had tenure and their school couldn’t get rid of them, vs the number of good teachers forced out of teaching because someone in the school’s administration didn’t like them.

    But even that wouldn’t really give you a good answer.

    What you actually need to know is how many good teachers were forced out of teaching back in the days before ANY teacher had tenure.

    The sad fact is that in the same school you can have a totally incompetent (or just plain lazy) teacher kept on because he or she sucks up to the principal, and a really good teacher forced out, with or without tenure because the principal doesn’t like him or her. One thing that teacher tenure does is limit the power of a principal. It is a lot harder for a principal to be a tin-pot dictator when 80% of the teachers who are working in his school have tenure than it is when, say, only 20% have tenure.

    Sure, there are not a lot of principals who are as vindictive as the one I had when I was student teaching.

    On the other hand, what’s an easy way for a school district to cut costs?

    Well, let’s see… they could fire all the teachers who have been teaching the longest, since they have the highest salaries, and then hire brand new, no experience beyond student teaching teachers because they get the lowest salaries, sometimes only a third of what the experienced teachers get.

    When I first graduated from college with my brand-new B.S. in Education, I was warned away from one school that invited me for an interview. I was told, and later verified, that that school never hired a teacher for more than two years, because in Illinois the third contract gave a K-12 teacher tenure (more was required in college). So this entire school district only had first-year teachers and second-year teachers.

    Can you imagine going into a hospital for surgery and finding out that none of the nurses (registered and practical) or surgeons or anesthesiologists or pathologists or phlebotomists had more than two years of experience? Would you want your surgery to be done in that hospital?

    It’s not an exaggeration. Experienced teachers are good for education. They are not, unfortunately, always good for the “bottom line” when school districts decide that it is time to cut costs because the taxpayers (especially the rich ones) don’t want to foot the bill.

    Let’s see. Politicians don’t really do a good job of policing each other. And teachers don’t always do a good job of policing other teachers. And doctors pretty much do a rotten job (my opinion) of policing each other. And we all know what a great job stock brokers do in weeding out the rotten apples in their barrel. Yeah, right! What about lawyers?

    You may say that, hey, if a lawyer is incompetent or lazy, then the situation is self-correcting because he won’t get any clients.

    So does this mean that the good teachers would get lots of students and the poor teachers wouldn’t get enough students to keep teaching…

    Oh, wait, might it be possible that the students would actually sign up for the teachers who were the easy graders, who give the smallest amount of homework, who pretty much told the students what would be on the tests, who didn’t bother to keep roll… How about it? Are teachers in the same situation as lawyers?

    Are teachers in the same situation as mechanics? If a mechanic can’t change the spark plugs on a car correctly, then of course he should be fired and probably will be. But a teacher — who decides what a teacher is supposed to be achieving? The best teachers tailor their efforts to the child. Maybe one child doesn’t do well on the NCLB test, but hey, maybe he/she started out a non-reader, and the teacher managed to get them up to reading only a grade or two below grade level. Or maybe the child came to school the first day of class withdrawn and hating everyone, and the teacher managed over the course of the year to get through to the child and make the child a little less miserable. Or maybe the child came to the first day of class already reading and doing math and spelling years ahead of his/her grade level and was bored out of his/her mind by the teacher and started out on the road to being a drop-out even though at the end of the year he/she was still reading and doing math way above grade level. And maybe one student didn’t especially make an effort or participate but something the teacher said or did close to the end of the school year got that student to feel the joy of learning, and maybe even though he/she did crappy on the NCLB test, maybe over the summer the student actually did some learning on his/her own, and maybe the next year the student really got going and progressed a couple of years in one year. So who was the good teacher — the one who inspired the student too late for it to “count” on the NCLB test, or the teacher who got all the advantage when her stats came back?

    How do we decide what results the teachers are supposed to be getting when none of us actually knows what each student is capable of, what each student needs on a particular day.

    I have a daughter who is NOT hyperactive in the slightest. But her brain works so fast that she cannot concentrate on what the teacher is saying because her brain is multi-tasking in so many directions, that she can’t focus on the teacher. She has discovered all on her own, with no help from councilors or psychiatrists or other doctors, that if she is knits (her choice of handwork) in class, then the knitting takes up enough of her brain activity that she can then focus on what the teacher is saying. She usually knits small projects, like socks or hot pads, she sits in the back of the room so that she won’t disturb the other students, and she checks with the teacher at the beginning of the semester, making sure that the teacher knows that if she doesn’t get permission to knit in class, she will switch to a different section.

    My point? There is NO one-size-fits-all when it comes to education.

    And that is exactly what I HATE about standardized testing. There is no standardized test that provides any kind of accurate results for all the students who are taking it. Okay, maybe 60% fall into the category of “well, it’s a close enough fit.” But that leaves a lot of students out.

    I likewise do not agree that achievement tests are a good way to evaluate either students or teachers.

    My father was a college chemistry professor for most of his adult life. After he had been teaching for several years at the Kansas State Teacher’s College in Emporia, he got a call from Texas A & M asking him if he’d be interested in coming down there for an interview. He asked them why they’d called him out of the blue, and they said that they’d noticed that every chemistry student in graduate school who’d had my father for a teacher as an undergraduate did really well in graduate school, which they thought was a better recommendation than anything written on paper by a department head or a dean.

    As far as things like calculus class go, then yes, I thoroughly agree that there should be department wide final exams — even department wide tests all through the semester. Because calculus is something that has definite right and wrong answers, which everyone can agree on.

    When I was teaching German in Champaign-Urbana, we had one of the usual teacher workshop days. This particular set of workshops was being held at the University of Illinois (they rotated the location around the area of the state that was included in any particular workshop–think we were all of central Illinois). So I went to the workshops for foreign language teachers. At one of them the head of the German department at the U of I gave the talk. Among other incredibly stupid things that he said was, “Of course you have to teach your classes in English because otherwise how are you going to know if your students are understanding what you are saying?” I jumped to my feet and said, “Well, I can usually tell because if I ask a student, ‘What day is it today,’ and they say, ‘My name is John,” then I can probably assume that they don’t understand me. And if I say, ‘What day comes after Thursday,’ and they say, ‘Friday,” then I can assume that they did understand me.” Later in his talk, that same department head said, “The only reason for learning a foreign language is be able to read the literature of that country in the original, because something is always lost in translation.” I jumped back to my feet and said, “I think that being able to talk to someone in the language is another very good reason to learn the language. In my classes, out of over 100 students, I doubt if more than one of them will ever read any Germany literature after high school, in the original or in translation. But I bet quite a few of them will be drafted and stationed in Germany, and I think it would be nice if they knew more German than ‘Noch ein Bier, bitte.” I was the only high school teacher in that entire workshop session who offered an opinion, but during the break between sessions several teachers sidled up to me and said out of the corners of their mouths, “I agree with you, but I was afraid to say anything.” In my opinion, this man was a total incompetent, and yet he set the standards for every German teacher and teaching assistant at the U of I, with no one to say, “You’re being incredibly short-sighted and downright stupid.” So does anyone out there think that allowing someone like this to write the department-wide test for all the German students (which he may or may not have done) makes any sense whatsoever?

    And when you get into English or history or even education classes (and I had a lot of those back in college), then you cannot even get people to agree on what the correct answers are. I get sick to my stomach thinking about being a student in an English lit class where the teacher has been told, “This is what you are supposed to teach the students this year, and this is what they are supposed to learn.” How does this allow for student input?

    Do you know one of the problems with education in the United States these days? I cannot speak for other countries, not even Canada. What is wrong with education these days is that the primary lesson we are teaching our children is that there is always a right answer, and that’s the teacher’s answer. When my granddaughter was in kindergarten and first grade at the University Primary School (under the auspices of the University of Illinois) the director of the program said that one of the hardest things they had to do was to get the students to think for themselves. Already at five years of age, the children had learned that their job was to figure out or just plain guess what the answer was that the teacher wanted. They all expected that as soon as one of the students came up with THE correct answer, then the discussion would be over. They were hesitant to come up with any suggestions on their own because they’d all learned, every one of them, any answer other than the teacher’s answer was wrong. Only the bravest of them would guess and then look at the teacher to see if they’d guessed right and gotten approval.

    I am happy to report that by the end of first grade, all the students were able to sit in a circle, discuss a problem that one of them had brought up, make suggestions, and then decide among themselves what they thought was the best thing to try, and all without any input from any of the teachers, and without looking to the teachers to see if the teachers agreed with them as to the best course of action. (Unfortunately, no matter how the parents begged, the school only went through first grade because the money wasn’t there to support it.)

    How do you evaluate this type of learning on any kind of a standardized test?

    Do we really think that training our children to spit back the approved answers prepares them in any way for life?

    Yes, in the military it is important that every soldier learn to obey orders. And that they have training in how to clean a gun and fire a gun and set up fields of fire, and how to withdraw from an untenable position. But they also have to be able to adapt and improvise and overcome conditions that no one had anticipated. Therefore they have to have more in depth training than just what it is anticipated that they will need.

    “and why, precisely we ought to check what the students knew when they began a class” just doesn’t make it, Robert. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t. It may take a good teacher months to figure out just what is preventing Johnny from learning to read. That he can’t read is immediately obvious.

    Putting numbers on the students is not helpful to anyone.

    Admittedly, the further through school you go, the easier it becomes to quantify, because the students tend to self-sort. If they have been bored to death, they have dropped out. If they never learned to read, they dropped out. If they have learned that education is something to hate, they’ve dropped out.

    When I was teaching in high school (yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ve probably all come to hate that phrase), I had a friend who taught earth science. In that school, everyone had to take beginning biology. If you flunked it, you had to take general science. If you flunked that, you had to take earth science, because you had to have some kind of physical science in order to graduate. My friend had a Ph.D. and had been a tenured teacher in high school, but he liked the high school age group better than he liked the college age group. He had been working as a high school principal when he had been hired by our school district because “We want you to come in and help us upgrade the earth science curriculum and make it really strong academically.” So he had moved to Champaign-Urbana, and the school councilors had continued to dump all the students who had flunked the other science courses into the earth science class. Would any non-flunking student take earth science? Not on your life — “Me, take earth science? Who you calling a dummy!” So I asked my friend why he hadn’t left and gone somewhere else when it became obvious that the school had no intention of every letting him upgrade the earth science curriculum. His answer was, “Well, these kids need a teacher even more than most. Somebody has to do it. I guess in this school, that’s me.” On parents’ night, I would average 40-50 parents who would show up for each of my classes of about 30 students. My friend would go through an entire parents’ night without one single parent showing up. And yet a few of his students would come in and hang out in his classroom before school, and a few would hang around his room after school. So how do the tests evaluate how many (not many, admittedly) students he kept from dropping out? Of course you can measure the “facts” that they were supposed to be learning about earth science on a standardized earth science test. Is this really a measure of his effectiveness as a teacher?

    Gosh, it’s amazing how much one can write when one has insomnia!

    I welcome counter-arguments to everything I’ve said above. But let’s do try to keep it above the level of “I heard about someone where he was supposed to have his right leg amputated but the doctors made a mistake and amputated his left leg so we need to encourage patients to sue the bejeesus out of doctors if the doctors make any mistake,” or “Let’s be sure and not let teachers have any job security because I know about a teacher who should have been fired but they couldn’t fire him because he had tenure.”

    Charlou

    23 Aug 11 at 4:11 am

  13. Well, you’re not going to get much more than anecdotes from me. I’m just writing this stuff as a form of mild entertainment rather than an attempt to provide a solid analysis – not that I think that the state of teacher assessment has reached the point at which it’s easy or even possible to identify good and bad teachers with any degree of reliability. Not unless the state of art has improved considerably in the last few decades, but I haven’t done the research on that opinion, either.

    This situation, even if true, is no excuse for not doing anything. In spite of the weak tools available and the guaranteed vindictivess of certain administrators, teachers and students (they’re all human, so it’s pretty well certain they all have some level of vindictiveness and some are going to be posssessed by it), someone, somehow has to figure out how to do as good a job as possible at getting rid of the bad teachers and keeping the good ones. Aside from certain cases (eg, in most jurisdictions, allegations of sex with a student), it’s going to take time to gather the information, make the charges, listen to the defense etc. This can’t be helped, even if it does mean that sometimes a poor teacher will linger on in the system while the process is carried out.

    I think that both learning to think for oneself and learning the correct answers are essential skills. We aren’t born in a vacuum. We need to learn as children what the ‘correct answers’ are to any number of questions. Later, as older children and adults, as we independantly collect information on whatever it is, we may challenge the correct answers and come up with new ones of our own, but we need to know what others in our society think are correct, too. Moreover, we need to learn that science, for example, has a number of ‘correct answers’ to questions such as ‘what is an atom?’ and different ones are useful for different levels of study and different sorts of calculations.

    I firmly believe that it is essential in public education to have a core program that every child (barring those with severe mental disabilities) should cover, and that this program may be supplemented by the teacher but cannot be discarded. And it must be evaluated, because what’s not evaluated isn’t taught.

    And (warning, Charlou, here comes an anecdote!) I think this because I’ve seen and heard too many teachers who decide themselves that certain children can’t handle the work that’s essential for admission to almost any post-secondary program, so they don’t teach it to them. And I’m not talking about children of a certain race (usually; this does happen in some areas) or children who have a disability that prevents them from learning. I’m talking about poor children, often from a chaotic family background, who are being cheated of any chance of working their way out of that by well-meaning teachers who ‘know’ what kind of education these children need and can handle, and that it’s not the kind that will get them anywhere. Without independant outside testing, carefully designed to be as good as possibly and monitored by outsiders to reduce cheating, there’s no way of stopping this. Unfortunately, proper testing programs are very expensive, so there’s a strong tendency to do it on the cheap and pretend the results are more meaningful than they are.

    Cheryl

    23 Aug 11 at 6:34 am

  14. Sorry, Charlou. I said nothing about a soldier learning to obey orders–and you’d be surprised how much emphasis winning armies place on initiative. My point is that they knew what they were trying to teach and how to tell whether or not they’d been successful.

    I’m not a big fan of invisible learning. Certainly you can test to see whether your student has learned calculus. Is the implication that you can’t test to see whether the student has learned English? History? German? If we need different tests, by all means let’s find them, but the unverified word of the instructor that the kids learned the material is not sufficient.

    Nor, incidentally, am I convinced of the inherent value of experience. I’ve had too many teachers–including professors–working from lecture notes that have turned yellow, and who stopped keeping up in their field as soon as they had a little seniority. (The term in the Army is ROAD–Retired On Active Duty–and fits entirely too many people who would prefer not to have to demonstrate competence.) Experience is valuable when and only when someone learns from it, and can produce demonstrable results.

    If there is no way to test whether an English teacher is doing a good job, why on earth should I pay one of them three times what I pay another? In fact, if I can’t tell whether or not the kids learned English in class, why am I paying any of them?

    There are words for people who don’t think they have to demonstrate their right to a paycheck, but “teacher” is not the one I use.

    robert_piepenbrink

    23 Aug 11 at 3:40 pm

  15. Yes, there are a lot of ROAD teachers out there, I cannot deny that. Unfortunately, all the ‘brooms’ that people have come up with to sweep out the ROAD teachers also can be used to sweep out the non-ROAD teachers.

    Okay, let’s use the military analogy a bit more.

    Let’s suppose that you have an army unit where no one in the unit has had any training beyond basic training, except for a couple of days a year they have workshop days where someone gets who has never actually served in a combat situation and who has never led troops gets up and tells the officers in the units how it should all be done. Oh, and they get a monthly magazine with articles telling them things they need to know, except most of them are written by people who have never done anything except develop basic training courses, without, of course, ever having had any actual experience teaching basic training or any experience in combat. That’s it. Everything else that the officers (commissioned and non-commissioned) have to know about how to lead the troops they are supposed to have learned from experience.

    How well do you think this unit would function?

    That’s essentially how teacher education works. Of all the teacher education classes I took in college (and there were a lot), NONE of them were taught by a professor who had any experience teaching in grade school or high school. None of the teacher education textbooks was written by someone who had actually taught in grade school or high school. Yes, the people who taught had done “studies” of teaching and had published papers on how to teach and had written textbooks on how to teach. But they hadn’t actually taught in grade school or high school. Yes, they had taught college classes on how to teach. Trust me when I say that the experience of teaching in college is not a whole lot like teaching at the grade school or high school level.

    To give you one example, I was taught the then-modern method of using language tapes in a language lab, and of drilling sentences and dialogs in the classroom. I was told that I should open the class period with three minutes of review of old material, followed by five minutes of introduction of new material, followed by four minutes of drilling this and seven minutes of drilling that and three minutes of this and five minutes of that until the entire 50 minute class period was filled. I had to write several weeks of lesson plans for teaching a beginning German course based on this type of outline.

    What the professors teaching the Methods of Teaching Foreign Languages professor didn’t tell me because he didn’t know (having never taught in high school), is that the students would drill the first day of class because they didn’t know the teacher, but the second day they would turn off completely because, well, hey, you know, drilling like that is BORING. And in all the education classes I’d taken in college (and had gotten A’s in), not a single one of the professors had addressed the question of how do we capture and hold the students’ attention?

    They also didn’t tell me that even though one student can put his book away in his backpack and get out a piece of paper and pencil in a minute or less, when you tell a roomful of thirty students to put their books away and get out a piece of paper and pencil, you will have about ten minutes of thumps and bumps and rustles and mutterings and whisperings and gigglings before maybe — maybe — you have 30 students with 30 pieces of paper and 30 pencils. Or you may still have one student who is trying to get someone to loan him a pencil and one student trying to get someone to give her a piece of paper and one student who is still looking at his book, completely oblivious to what’s been going around him.

    I learned very early on to plan for only one activity change per class period (roughly half way through the period), which left me about 40 minutes to actually teach… except, of course that the students rarely settled down for the first five minutes after the bell rang. And students today are much less ready and willing to settle down than they were back when I was teaching.

    So here’s my problem.

    I reject the idea that the only cure for poor teachers is to fire them. Where are you going to find better teachers? Are you just going to replace poor teachers with other poor teachers?

    As long as you have professors who have never taught in grade school or in high school teaching the college education courses that are supposedly training our future grade school and high school teachers how to teach, then you are going to be turning out a lot of teachers who have taken all the required courses and who have the teaching degrees but who don’t have a clue how to teach.

    So what can be done?

    First of all, fix teacher education so that it is reality based and not pie-in-the-sky theory based. Require professors of education and authors of textbooks on teaching methods to have actually spent at least a year teaching in grade school or high school classrooms.

    I am fortunate to have a niece who teaches in the Fairfax Co., Virginia, school district, which is consistently rated as one of the top five school districts in the country.

    She started out as a first grade teacher after she had been a teacher’s aide for several years (she had a bachelor’s degree, but didn’t have the required education credits to be a teacher, so she worked full time as a teacher’s aide and took night classes). She was an outstanding first grade teacher and really loved what she was doing. She did so well in her first year of teaching (same school where she had been a teacher’s aide) that the principal moved her down to kindergarten.

    The reason? The kindergarten program was nothing but playing and doing mickey mouse worksheets. The principal wanted my niece to design a curriculum that would get the kindergartners excited about learning rather. She did. She developed a kindergarten curriculum that was effective, that got the students excited about learning, and that the teachers were actually able to implement.

    The school district employed her during the summers to work on more curriculum development.

    The district had a program set up where teachers could give feed-back so that teachers could learn from each others experiences.
    Teacher A’s report: I did this, and it didn’t worked the way I thought it would because…”
    Teacher B’s report: I tried this and it worked even better than I had anticipated. Here’s what happened…”

    As one might expect, the teachers were excited about reading other teacher’s reports, they just didn’t want to write reports themselves, especially the “I tried this and it didn’t work” reports. My niece was given the task of analysing why get most of the teachers were failing to report their experiences.

    Later my niece’s job was changed to teaching kindergarten part time and spending the rest of her time working with teachers to get them to do the feedback reports that would help the other teachers learn from their experience.

    Now my niece has her Ph.D. and is still working on curriculum development during the summer, but during the year most of her job is helping train teachers who are already teaching in the school district. This is on-the-job training at it’s best. And it’s working.

    Do you know how much practical help teachers get from their school administration (usually a principal and one or more assistant principals)? In most schools it’s one of those infinitely small amounts that is approaching zero. Do you know how many principals and assistant principals took classes in school administration so that they could get out of the classrooms where they were incompetent teachers? A whole lot of them.

    There’s an old saying, “Those who can’t do, teach; those who can’t teach become school administrators.” Unfortunately in too many cases it is true, which makes it not really very funny.

    Charlou

    23 Aug 11 at 6:54 pm

  16. It’s not that I’m against anecdotes. I think they’re important because they give us places to start thinking. They help us identify problem areas.
    It’s that I’m against people who say (and I’m not necessarily talking about people who post on this blog) things like, “There was this teacher who was doing a terrible job, but the school district couldn’t get rid of him/her because he/she had tenure, so let’s get rid of tenure for all teachers so that we won’t have trouble getting rid of incompetent ones.”
    Believe me, there are people out there who would like to do that. The efforts are growing in certain states to the extent that this is becoming a very real issue. Under whatever guise it masquerades, when politicians at the state level talk about doing away with teacher tenure, what they’re talking about is not weeding out incompetent teachers, it is about cutting the budget for education by getting rid of the experienced teachers and hiring cheaper, less experienced (or completely inexperienced) ones. Wasn’t it Wisconsin that was recently trying to push that one through? And it’s also about holding a sword over the necks of teachers so that principals and school superintendents can go back to being dictators and despots.

    I have also read about and heard about programs that are being developed in schools around the country that actually do help the culturally deprived and academically poor students catch up. They are good programs, and they actually work. The No Child Left Behind Act is NOT one of the things that actually increases teacher effectiveness, and it does nothing to help children learn. It interferes, actually, with the good programs and drives them out of the schools.

    The problem is that the No Child Left Behind Act is that it is a one-size-fits-all “solution” to the problems you describe above, of teachers who give up on some students. For every teacher who does that, you probably have a hundred or two hundred teachers in our schools who do not do that kind of thing. But the NCLB Act treats all of them the same way, no matter if they are good or bad.

    And the thing of it is, schools know already when they have a problem like that. They don’t need to spend megabucks giving standardized tests to find that out. Spend a little time in a teacher’s lounge talking to teachers, and you’ll find out who the bad teachers are. You’ll find out if there are a few teachers who give up on students, you’ll find out if most of the teachers in a school think like that, and likewise you’ll find out if there are lazy teachers and incompetent teachers being kept on because someone in the administration is protecting them. And you’ll find out if the principal is incompetent. And all you have to do to get into the school is to get a job as a substitute teacher.

    Actually, the schools would get a really good start at curing most of their problems by simply reinstating the policy of “if you don’t pass this grade, you will be held back and have to (or get to) repeat it.” Passing a child on to second grade when he doesn’t understand the material in first grade is cruel and inhuman punishment, because that child will never catch up. I’ve had students like that, where the school wanted to hold them back in first grade, but since the school wasn’t allowed to “fail” children (because that might scar them emotionally), they had to get the parents’ permission, which they didn’t get. And the parents therefore doomed the child to year after year of being passed along through the system, never managing to learn much of anything because way back in first grade (or kindergarten or second grade or whatever) he/she didn’t master the skills he/she needed to learn the second grade material or the third grade material or whatever.

    The damage occurs so early in school. I substituted in a sixth grade class for a day one year. I had to read a geography test aloud to four of the students because they couldn’t read. This was school policy: If a child can’t read, he still had to be tested over the material by having the test read aloud to him. (This is also the way driver’s license tests are conducted in most states.) I have had experience teaching adults to read, and I inquired as to whether I could come in as a volunteer and tutor the students who couldn’t read. I was told that I could, but only from 10:00 to 10:30, because that was the half hour for reading class.

    I couldn’t believe it! This was not an individual teacher being this short-sighted, but school policy. To my way of thinking, if a school discovers they have children in the upper grades who can’t read (and you don’t need an achievement test to determine this, you can just give the child a book and ask him to read a paragraph aloud to you), then EVERYTHING else should be put aside and the child should receive as much help as he needs to learn to read.

    Another anecdote.
    My mother was an English teacher before she got married. After all of her kids were grown, she spent several years as an adjunct teacher at the college where my father taught. The school’s problem was they had large numbers of freshmen students the first trimester, fewer students the second trimester, and even fewer the third trimester. All of the freshmen students needed to take freshmen English. The school needed one additional English teacher in the fall trimester, half an additional teacher in the winter trimester, and no additional teacher spring trimester. My mother was happy to teach full time, half time, and not at all, and the college was overjoyed with that solution.

    But one year a consolidated high school about thirty miles outside of town came to her and asked her to teach English in their school. For those of you who are city folk, consolidated means that all the school districts in the county went together to have one high school because there weren’t enough students to have a high school in each district. Actually, they could have had (and originally did have) high schools in each district, but they could not afford subjects like chemistry or auto mechanics or other classes that required more than a classroom and a teacher.

    So my mother signed on to teach three sections of “college bound” sophomore English classes plus they wanted her to try to develop better some kind of curriculum for three sections of the “we’re just trying to keep them from dropping out of school” junior English classes. Note: At this time the normal load for high school teachers in Illinois was five classes, all of which met all five days, i.e. 25 hours/week of class. My mother was teaching 30 hours per week.

    She had no trouble at all with the sophomore classes. The only problem was that one of her sophomore classes was so huge she asked the school to let her split it into two sections, so that she was teaching seven classes out of seven class periods (35 hours of class/week, plus of course class preparation and paper grading).

    The first week of school she found out (without the aid of any achievement tests) that in her junior “we’re going to drop out as soon as we’re old enoug” classes if you added up the totally illiterate students and the functionally illiterate students, the total was about 90% of the students. The other 10% fell in the “barely literate” category. So she stopped teaching the material she was supposed to teach, got some programed reading materials from the grade school, and taught all but one of her more than 90 junior students to read. She didn’t succeed with one student because he was working eight hours every night to support his mother and younger siblings, and when he did show up for class he usually fell asleep. Once she taught her junior students to read (which she did in about eight weeks despite all the other English teachers saying, oh, you’ll never get any of them to make any effort to learn anything), she worked very hard to find reading material for them that was pertinent to their lives.

    What happened the next year? Well, she was so exhausted from teaching seven classes all year that she resisted the entreaties of the consolidated school district and went back to being an adjunct teacher at the college. If they had let her teach a normal load of five classes per day, she probably would have stayed there for years.

    Here’s the kicker. Out of all her students in her three non-college-bound junior English classes, about 95% of them not only graduated, but they also got some kind of additional education after high school. Not many went to the traditional 4-year colleges, but they went to community colleges, vo-tech schools, beauty schools, etc.

    Doctor’s have to take an oath. Part of it goes, “First, do no harm.”

    There should be an oath for teachers also: “First, teach them to read.”

    I don’t know how many of you are aware of this, but in almost all U.S. schools reading SKILLS are only taught in the first three grades. Starting in fourth grade, phonics, for example, is usually no longer taught. So if a student can’t read when he gets to fourth grade, he’s not going to be able to read when he is a senior in high school unless he is darned lucky and crosses paths with a teacher who is going to make an extra effort to teach him the skills he missed learning in grade school.

    My idea of a core curriculum?
    Teach them to read.
    Teach them to write.
    Teach them addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, and decimals.
    Teach them how to look up any facts they might need to know.
    Teach them to love learning.

    An awful lot of what is “taught” in schools today needs to come under that last one. Want to teach them history? Either teach history in a way that makes the students love learning it or DON’T TEACH IT. Want to teach geography? Either teach geography in a way that makes the students love learning it or DON’T TEACH IT. Want to teach science? (ditto) Foreign languages? (ditto).

    If you want teach, say, history the right way, then what you are actually teaching is very little history and a whole lot of how to hate history.

    There are teachers out there who have come up with ways to teach all these subjects in ways that are exciting for the students. There is not enough feed back. Those teachers are like single candles in a vast darkness. They burn with a beautiful flame, but they are too few and too far between to have much of an effect against the overwhelming darkness. And then they go out. And nothing remains.

    We need more teacher feedback. We need more classroom teachers teaching other classroom teachers, hey, this worked for me; you might want to try it.

    Charlou

    23 Aug 11 at 7:40 pm

  17. Charlou, I taught briefly and not successfully many years ago – I was, and I suppose in some ways still am, on the fringes of the education system, although it’s been an increasingly long time since I had anything to do with K-12.

    Your stories remind me of the time I found a young boy, about 8-10 years old, sitting in the staff room haltingly reading to an elementary grade teacher I didn’t know well with a rather martyred expression on her face. Later I asked what was going on. He’d been identified as having problems reading, but in a small rural school, there weren’t many options for remedial work. So they allowed him out of class to practice his reading with the only teacher who had a free period in the only free room. So she sat him down adn told him to read to her.

    Even I didn’t think that was a useful exercise – although it could have been. Well-meaning, but not useful.

    Cheryl

    24 Aug 11 at 6:12 am

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