Saturday, March 27, 2010

Keep Your Merit Pay

According to an article in the LA Times, quality-blind layoffs harm teachers and students. The authors, Timothy Daly and Arun Ramanathan, are encouraging an end to quality-blind layoffs, and a shift to a system that favors job performance over seniority.

As teacher layoffs begin, and as a new teacher myself, it is impossible not to see that there are injustices to the quality-blind system. New teachers are fired first, no matter what, and teachers that are well known to be ineffective are allowed to keep their jobs, year after year. There is something distinctly demoralizing about this system. After all, if your talent and skills in no way effect your yearly income or your job security, than what motivation is there to continue to excel?

Teacher's unions opposed to changing the quality-blind system, point to the fear that older, more experienced teachers will be let go because they make significantly more than new teachers. Enter injustice number two. As a new teacher, I am making about thirty thousand less dollars a year than my close to retirement co-workers. That's a huge difference in pay, and yet no matter how many extra hours I put in, no matter how hard I work to make my classroom an effective place of learning, I must watch in horror as I inch my way up the pay schedule in such pitifully small increments that the idea of ever making a proper living seems but a mirage in the far off distance of my future.

Enter merit pay. Why, if hard work so often goes unnoticed and unrewarded, would any teacher oppose the chance to be rewarded for their extra work? Because merit pay will be attached to test results, that's why, and merit pay attached to test results will lead to a further crippled curriculum. Many teachers point to the unfairness of merit pay for those who work with at-risk youth, at continuation schools, with special needs kids, or in low income neighborhoods. However, we need to shift our attention away from this arguement. Obama and Arne Duncan merely reply that merit pay will be based on improved scores, not on overall scores. So, you could be working at a low performing school, but as long as your students continually test better, you will be in line for merit pay right there with the teachers working in wealthy communities, where test scores are always higher.

This response is full of flaws, but pointing them out seems a waste of time because from the student's perspective, who gets merit pay and who doesn't hardly matters. What matters is that schools, desperate for high test scores, will continue to provide students with the type of learning that works better than Ambien. So, while we argue about quality-blind layoffs, and merit pay, and step and column pay scales, our children are being force fed meaningless content at such an extravagant rate that we are more at risk of becoming imagination deprived automatons than ever before.

There are no easy answers to how to make all kids learn, and how to ensure all schools are safe and productive places of learning. How to layoff teachers fairly, how to swallow huge budget cuts without impacting students, and how to remedy an unfair pay schedule are monumental challenges with many answers, few of them perfect. However, solving every problem by assigning a standardized test, designed to make testing companies billions and provide students with nothing, is not the answer.

STAR testing begins in a couple of weeks. Because I love my school, I have to encourage my students to do well. What I would like to tell them is, revolt! All of you! Organize and revolt! This test is optional, it means nothing to you, but it has the potential to destroy your school. In fact, if Meg Whitman becomes governor of California and gets her way, your school will be given an "F" or a "D" if we're lucky, because you guys don't score well enough on the STAR. Everyone, right now, stand up and walk out. If every student in California refused to test, then the government would be unable to judge you, and your schools in this way.

But I'm a new teacher. I'm not tenured yet. I'm at the bottom of the pay scale. I can't afford to incite a revolution. So, next week, I'll probably go over some literary terms, I'll beg my students to test well, and we'll bribe them with snacks and a BBQ if only they will try. Then my students, who I love and respect, will be given a test that is so hard, they will be lucky if they know half of the answers. If they do try, most of them will leave the experience feeling the way they always do in school. Stupid. Next year, they will get a paper in the mail confirming their suspicions. Thanks standardized test companies, and inane legislation. Thanks for nothing.

You can keep your stupid merit pay. Just leave my students alone.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Effigy

The hanging of an effigy of President Obama in a classroom at Central Falls, (the school that is garnering national attention due to the decision to fire all of its teachers), is making news. While few would object that there are more classroom friendly methods for discussing the issue at hand -- the effigy has succeeded in bringing the issue of "holding teachers accountable" back into the public eye, and I am reminded once again that education and equity are not synonymous in this country, as much as we would like to pretend otherwise.

The fact that our "failing" schools are consistently in areas with a high rate of poverty, should come as no surprise. Why student income level, native language, and the overall safety of the communities in which they live are also not figured into the equation when evaluating teacher performance has been made clear by Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education. He seems to believe that when teachers are faced with a caseload of students who live in dangerous neighborhoods, who are poor, who are neglected, who are underfed, who are non-English speaking, they should be able to overcome these obstacles in the classroom and continue preparing students for college readiness. No problem.

As usual, I feel powerless when faced with nonsensical policy making, and so I have decided to investigate the issue of good teachers from the ground up, beginning where it really counts -- with the students themselves. What makes an effective teacher? What defines a "good" teacher from a "bad"? I know what those passing down the orders think -- a successful teachers follow directions, buys into the directives handed down from up-high, and produces students who test well. But what do the students themselves believe?

So far I have interviewed two students, both boys, one in 8th grade, and one in 10th. I asked each of them to tell me what made a teacher a "good" teacher. Honestly, I thought they would struggle a little bit with this. That maybe they just accepted teachers as they come, and wouldn't know, exactly, what made one good and another not so good. I was wrong. They both gave the matter some deep thought, and then provided me with their top three qualifications.

The 8th grade interviewee listed, in order of importance, the following three criteria: funny and entertaining, knows their subject, likes what they do. I questioned him on his second qualification. He elaborated, explaining that in his experience, some teachers don't seem to know much about their subject matter. These teachers, he said, always teach exclusively from the text book, and never seem to know the answers to your questions.

The 10th grade interviewee had very similar responses. He too was able to come up with three essential qualifications: creative, interesting and engaging, funny. So, both boys felt being funny was paramount. Of course, not everyone is funny, but I can't help but think how frequently I rely on laughter to get my students through a lesson successfully.

I asked the 10th grader if he ever felt as though a teacher was teaching him successfully, even though they did not display the above characteristics, and he adamantly shook his head. According to him, without creativity, engagement, and humor they were not good teachers, period.

I wonder if we could do away with our complex means for teacher assessment and replace it with a simple check list. Do you love what you teach? Do you know how to make your subject matter interesting? Can you teach and think creatively? Do you have a sense of humor? Access to teacher credential programs could be based on this simple criteria.

I plan to interview many more students on their top qualifications for what makes a teacher "good", and will continue to report on my findings. I think that the superintendent of Central Falls High, and President Obama too (why not), would do well to question the students at Central Falls in the same way. All too often, the students themselves are not given a voice. Those kids know who can teach and who can't. Has anyone bothered asking them?

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Matter of Integrity

"Standards are important." I can't tell you how many times a week I hear these words. We have to have Standards, otherwise what will anyone be learning? How can we guarantee that all children learn, if all teachers are not teaching the same thing, at the same time, all across the country? This seems to be the general consensus, one re-emphasized by Obama's ratification of a new set of National Standards.

I have a son who is fortunate enough to attend a college prep private school. He is taking an African Studies class. His teacher has them read a wide variety of books, both fiction and non, and tells them stories so memorable, that the students remember them for years afterward. He does not have a text book for either his African Studies class or his integrated Humanities class. African Studies is not part of the State Standards, and yet, what my son is learning about this fascinating country is far more important than anything I see listed on the State Standards. He is learning to be interested in the world around him. Can that be a State Standard? Foster interest in the world?

No. It can not. State Standards look more like this:
All 11th grade students must be able to enhance meaning by employing rhetorical devices, including the extended use of parallelism, repetition, and analogy; the incorporation of visual aids (e.g., graphs, tables, pictures); and the issuance of a call for action.

What? What does that even mean? Why does it even matter? I'll tell you why. Because on the STAR test, there are questions like this:
The frank tone and objective viewpoint of this passage make it especially characteristic of which American literary period?
A the Revolutionary period
B the Realistic period
C the Naturalistic period
D the Contemporary period

And like this:
Paragraph 3 of the passage could best be classified as an
A epitaph.
B elegy.
C anecdote.
D allegory.

And like this:
Which statement best describes how the author uses rhetorical technique in this sentence?
A Understatement is used to introduce the topic with a sarcastic tone.
B Figurative language is used to intensify the impact of the statement.
C Word repetition is used to emphasize the importance of the subject of the document.
D Allusion is used to address the topic of the document on a historical level.

Teachers are fairly divided on the Standards front. There are those who have never even looked at them before, who believe that as long as they are true to the essence of their subject matter, their students will learn what they need to learn, and there won't be a problem. And then there are those who follow the Standards religiously, driving their curriculum forward with the force of a bulldozer in their attempt to cover everything that has been mandated by the State as critical information for their 2nd graders, or 8th graders, or 12th graders to know.

I have found that those who believe in the Standards movement are quick to bandy about terms that echo their support, and those who do not believe in the Standards movement, pretty much keep their mouths shut on the matter. You can only spot them because of the way in which they gaze longingly at the door while their colleagues and administrators wax poetic on the Holy Grail of the Standards driven curriculum.

Now that teacher performance is at risk of being intricately tied to test results, however, one has to wonder if this divide will exist for much longer. When faced with the chance of a lesser pay check, will I too buckle under the pressure to teach information that I believe to be superfluous? Not a chance. That's because I have my own set of standards. I'll give you an example:
Standard 1.1

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Take to the Streets

Before becoming a school teacher, I was not a fan of the public school K-12 system. I did not enjoy this system as a child, and my disillusionment only worsened as I grew older, culminating with my leaving the 10th grade and attending junior college full time instead. I adored junior college, loved my classes, tried my hardest, got good grades, and completed an Associates degree by 18. As far as I could tell, high school was just some terrible lie that adults told adolescents in order to make them suffer unnecessarily. I felt I missed nothing by opting out of high school, and the classes I would have been forced to take throughout my high school career, appeared to be unnecessary to my success in college.

With the curious passion of youth, I became convinced that most of what I had learned in school, prior to junior college, had been meaningless, and in fact, I felt as though what I had learned had been specifically designed to harm my innate, creative intelligence. In my early twenties, I would argue with my school teacher friend about the importance of sending your kids to public school. I refused to send my own children, and believed that he was sacrificing his to the greater good by sending them to a public school simply because he felt it was his duty to do so. Many public school enthusiasts believe that people who homeschool, or send their children to private or charter schools, are partially responsible for the slow death of our public schools. Not only because often these children would be a benefit, intellectually, to the schools, but because each child represents a dollar amount that will now be funneled away from the local public school system. Falling enrollment means tougher times for the schools.

Now that I teach in the system, however, I understand where my friend was coming from. Imagine if all of the people who send their children to private and charter schools -- spending upwards of thirty-thousand dollars per year, or at the very least taking money out of the system -- were to send their child to public school instead, and donate that same sum of money to the public school? Imagine if every family donated some amount of money -- whatever they could afford -- to fill back in the yawning gaps in funding? Imagine if all of that money were used directly to fund the schools -- improving the campus, providing supplies, adding sections, and building up the currently emaciated and/or nonexistent enrichment programs.

In Cupertino, CA, one group of parents is pushing for exactly this. Finally, the cuts to our public schools have grown severe enough that the parents are starting to take action. These parents are attempting to raise 3 million dollars, in order to retain 115 of their teachers who will otherwise be laid off. By their calculations, if every one of the 10,000 families in the Cupertino School District were to donate $375, they could save their schools for at least one year -- thereby buying time for the district to figure out a plan B.

According to Sam Dillon in The New York Times, Diane Ravitch -- education scholar and major intellectual muscle behind No Child Left Behind, and our transition into a standards based, test driven educational system -- has changed her mind. She now sees that these policies were misguided and that we would have been better off following the examples of other nations where students study an array of subjects and disciplines and the curriculum is not, I imagine, driven by the questions on a multiple choice test.

How unfortunate that she seems to have come to this conclusion just as the last bit of meat has been shaved from the bone. It seems we have come to a precipice in education, and that we have been driven to this point by a combination of lack of funding and poor policy making decisions. Until President Obama starts sending his own children to a public school, perhaps it would be prudent not follow so blindly the next set of directives that are already beginning to trickle down the system of command.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Act of Giving Human Traits to Non-Living Objects

I'm still mulling over this issue of how the government can evaluate teacher performance from afar because, like it or not, this is the direction we are moving. My student assessments are based on a panacea of techniques that I am constantly developing and improvising depending on my students and the varying levels of their needs. Sometimes my assessment is based on an particular academic task: i.e. one of my students just turned in a paper that uses all complete sentences, when previously she had been unable to do so. Sometimes my assessment will be based on something much simpler, i.e. I was able to get a non-writer, non-responder, to write three sentences in his notebook, and smile twice.

Just as I never stop assessing my students I also never stop assessing my own techniques -- content, delivery, successes versus failures. Self-assessment is part of my job, and believe me, I wish there was some simple formula to make this process easier, and not so convoluted. However, I do not feel that the government has, as of yet, devised an effective method for evaluating student learning, and it concerns me that this same ineffective method may, very soon, be used to evaluate teacher performance as well.

Lets take a dramatic, and hypothetical, case in point -- one certain to make English teachers everywhere cringe in dread. Let's say the entire year goes by and I'm so busy packing in the important stuff, that I forget to teach the students in my English class the literary terms that will undoubtedly be on their standardized exams. At test time, assuming they are even bothering to try, they will quite possibly miss certain questions because of this. Based on their test scores, it may appear as though I am not teaching my students successfully. Both my students and I will be graded as "Basic", or even worse, the dreaded, "Below Basic."

This is one of the things that keeps me up at night. What is more important? That my students learn to question, to be curious human beings? Or that they temporarily memorize the meaning of the word: Personification.

The school howls with grief while the children inside, stare longingly out the windows. The windows whisper, "Don't know what personification means? Look it up."