Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Stop the Insanity!

Tonight little hearts are breaking across the state of Louisiana.... Why? Because these 10 year-olds learned that they did not "pass" the (subjective) high stakes test. Three of my 23 students did not pass and my heart breaks for them; at the same time, I fear for my reputation as a teacher.

I am disgusted at the state of education in our country. I find it extremely disturbing that we punish children for not passing an invalid test! True, these children may struggle academically. Is the solution really to fail them and/or make them attend summer school? These children probably hate school anyway and this test-and-punish system is going to make sure that they associate learning with pain.

As a teacher, I struggle year-round about how to teach my students. I know the tests are insane and measure very little. The questions are usually lower level thinking questions and many are very subjective. In my heart, I know that the LEAP is just another educational fad created by politicians so I don't really care how my students score.

However, I also know that if I don't adequately prepare them, they will suffer in the short term. So, all year I question if I am preparing my students too little or too much. In other words, real learning has nothing to do with LEAP preparation. Real learning occurs when we read great novels and have authentic discussions.... real learning takes place when I take my kids out to the garden and we get our hands dirty.... real learning is many times spontaneous, unplanned, and not assessed on the LEAP.

So, when we are discussing character motivation or writing a class book, I know my kids are learning and having fun (so am I!). I love teaching like this and I know my kids love learning when I teach in such a manner.... But the LEAP always creeps back into my mind and I worry about "covering" everything and making sure that we look over previously released test items. I stop our real lessons and begin to "Buckle Down" and get ready for the test. The excitement is sucked out of my classroom for awhile, but at least we are preparing for the test.

After so much skill-and-drill (or drill-and-kill), I falter again. I am bored, the kids are bored, and I can't keep up the facade that learning is occurring. So, back to real teaching and learning we go. I continue in this cycle year round, wondering how long I can keep this up.

Today, I felt   feel  like a crappy teacher. Some teachers had no "failures" while I had three. I feel like I let my kids and parents down and that I now have a black mark on my name.

I just wish everyone could see how one of my students came to me as a struggling reader (who hated reading) now likes reading! Success in my opinion!! I wish everyone could see how my struggling learners (with low self-esteem) now understand that they are smart.... they might be people smart, music smart, or picture smart, but they are smart. And, they understand that they aren't "bad" at math, they just need concepts to be explained (and shown) in a different way. I wish everyone could see how my kids (on their own) raised money for kids in the class who don't have much money, so that every student can participate in everything. None of that is on the test...

Tonight I can go to bed knowing that I did my best to spark curiosity and higher order thinking in my students. I tried to show them  how to view things from a different perspective and back up their answers (to everything) with reasons and facts. But I also will go to bed worrying about the students who failed the LEAP and what it has done to their psyche. I will think about how I teach and wonder if I need to change things . I will also pray to God that someday this insanity will come to an end and we can get back to real learning.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ok, I lied...

Apparently I do have some fight left in me. After many encouraging words, a great quote, and a great book, I realized that I chose to fight this battle and I don't want to stop.

I highly recommend reading In Defense of Our Children: When Politics, Profit, and Education Collide by Elaine Garan. The book is very accessible and easy to read, yet is packed with facts and questions we need to know.

"Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
~ Robert F. Kennedy

Friday, February 25, 2011

I Don't Have Any Fight Left in Me

Today was the first time in 4 years of teaching that I am looking for the light at the end of the tunnel... of my teaching career. I love my kids, I love learning with them, I LOVE making a positive difference in their lives. But, today I realized that I cannot work for a system that is so broken and dysfunctional, yet nobody will hear me about what I think can be changed.

Today I attended a meeting about a controversial program that has been implemented schoolwide for the past two years. This program is extremely expensive (I have heard $75,000 a year just to have a site license), yet nobody will tell us the actual cost. This program also has not been proven to be effective in any independent studies that I can find. (I have looked!) Bascially, we are paying a ton of money and losing an hour of instructional time everyday to a program that has not been proven to be effective.

So, back to the meeting. I had my ducks in a row and brought my questions and concerns. My concerns are:

  1. This has not yet been proven to be effective!
  2. This is an extremely expensive program! We could funnel that money instead to solutions that have been proven to be effective (in improving academic achievement), such as reducing class size.
  3. We are losing precious instructional time, meaning most teachers at the school barely teach Science and Social Studies.
My questions:
  1. What statistical analyses have we (as a parish) ran on the data? (The decision makers keep telling me it is effective. "We DO see gains!")
  2. If there have been gains, in what areas? What was the effect size?
  3. Has anyone run a cost-benefit analysis on the program?
So, I attempt for over an hour and a half to express my concerns and ask my questions. When I say that I was shot down everytime I opened my mouth, I am not exaggerating. I had school board personnel roll their eyes at me, despite the fact that I had to explain the phrase "independent research" to them. When I asked about the statistical tests that were ran (because you can't claim something is effective by just looking at raw data), I was either met with blank stares or told that they don't know about statistics. I was told at one point that they "don't care if you (Jodi) believe the data is valid, because it shows gains." Really?!!!

Never in my life have I ever felt so demoralized concerning education. How can I walk into a meeting asking relevant questions and expressing valid concerns and be completely and absolutely told my knowledge does not matter?

When explaining it to my husband, I was having a hard time telling him about their reactions to me. So, this is what I told him:

You walk into a meeting where the topic is a discussion about the best vegetable for our kids. You have done your research in this area and you happen to be a doctoral student studying vegetables! Yay, you! So, the meeting starts and the big question is "Is beef the best vegetable for our kids?" You begin to tell them over and over in many ways that beef isn't a vegetable at all. They tell you that it IS a vegetable, and a great one at that! You keep speaking up, papers in hand to show that it really, truly isn't a vegetable. They are getting frustrated now and begin rolling their eyes at you when you speak. You keep trying, but they obviously do not care about what you have to say. After all, they have put a lot of money into this great vegetable called beef.

Conversation continues and some people say that maybe turkey is the best vegetable. You perk up and ask what tests have shown that beef or turkey are vegetables? You don't really get an answer and at one point have to explian what you mean by "test". Once they understand what a test is, they tell you that tests aren't practical at all. And then someone tells you that they don't care what you think a test is, because their bar chart shows that beef is in fact a great vegetable.

You bring up many other points, but nobody can understand the fact that beef isn't a vegetable. They don't care that you study vegetables and don't like the fact that you tried to tell everyone in the room that it wasn't a vegetable. And, the beef won't be a good vegetable in the long run because they can feel your negative reaction to this beef. So, if we do find out that beef isn't the best vegetable, it is your fault for not believing in the beef in the first place.

You try a different approach. You mention a great vegetable that has been proven by tests to be a really, truly great vegetable. And, this vegetable called a carrot is even cheaper than beef!!! But, the meeting continues at the same pace. More eye rolls, more arguing.... beef is a great vegetable, dammit!

The meeting finally ends and you only make it to the front office before you have a breakdown because nobody really cares about what is at stake here.... children. They will go back to discussing how great the vegetable beef is, because it is just easier that way.

Obviously the story is dumbed down and doesn't exactly capture some of the arguments I was trying to make. But, essentially this is what happened. Not one person asked me to elaborate on what I had found, despite the fact that I am a doctoral student who is very interested in what works and has a knowledge base.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Few Thoughts...

I am a teacher, yet I am losing hope in public education. Not because of the teachers or even administrators. It is the policy makers that are ruining education. Maybe that isn't even correct.... ruining implies we started out with a good educational system. Maybe the correct term is destroying...

There are a few things that really get me going concerning education. One of them is high-stakes testing; I could go on and on about the negative consequences of this policy, but have yet to find any positives. Another thing is how money is spent in education. We know that class size and teacher quality have the most impact in the classroom, so why do we throw money at these various programs that have minimal (if any) positive effects? Instead, we could lower class sizes, ensure that teachers receive (and continue to receive) a good education themselves, and we could even save some money. Finally, I have a big problem with politicians making critical decisions about education, when they are not educators themselves. (Really, when I think about it, I think all of the problems with education stem from this one idea). Anyway, here a just a few thoughts on the LEAP, considering it will start in just a few weeks.

I detest the thought of high-stakes testing, especially with 10-year-olds! How is it okay that we are punishing kids for something beyond their control?! Furthermore, has any policymaker looked at the research regarding students held back? It is not pretty... students who are held back are more likely to drop out later in school (I will post links to research later).

Furthermore, I am constantly at a cross-roads as a 4th grade teacher. I know how to teach and what to teach, but I also know that I must prepare my students for the LEAP. So, many times, I ignore the angel on my shoulder and listen to the devil instead.... and we take out our LEAP preparation materials. I can't tell you how boring it is to prepare a bunch of 4th graders for a high-stakes test. In my school, this consists of actual lessons in workbooks (ELA and Math) and a computer program to go with it. Yes, I use these materials because I am expected to. Yes, I assign some pages as homework. But, I hate that precious instructional time is spent on "teaching to the test". I would much rather learn about poetry by really studying poetry, but this is one of the concepts I don't really teach, because I am instead preparing for the LEAP.

One more thought before bed... I have an AMAZING group of kids this year. Like, amazing enough that I am scared about what I will get next year and amazing enough that I want to ask to loop with them. Anyway, these kids have the biggest hearts you can imagine. When one child lost his grandfather, the kids made cards on their own because they "hated seeing him sad". Knowing that some kids don't have a lot of money, many kids in my class gave money to buy class t-shirts for their classmates. My kids rush to help one another out; not for treats or prizes, but because they love helping. They have "adopted" a severe/profound class of 3 students and beg to give them extra treats for birthdays or holidays because they love to see these children smile and laugh. I could go on and on... Anyway, what standardized test measures this? Does anybody care that my kids are growing up to be selfless, caring individuals? And, yes, I get that this is public education that  we are talking about, but I wish that somebody would realize that we are teaching kids, not robots. I cannot take the humanness out of them every day, nor would I want to. I think we need to remember that the whole child comes to school every day and we need to celebrate all of the great things that whole child does, not just "mastering basic skills" on a test-and-punish test.

Recommended Reading

I will start by recommending some books that have somehow had an effect on me. Some were very eye-opening, while others were insteresting just because I could relate. Enjoy!

High Stakes: Poverty, Testing, and Failure in American Schools

I am currently reading High Stakes and can hardly put it down. It takes place in Louisiana and is a true account of what really happens in our schools preparing for the test. Love it!

So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools

Dr. Payne is my new hero. I read this over the summer (2010) and really enjoyed it.

Savage Inequalities should be required reading for anyone working in politics or education.
Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us

Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition

Left Back: A Century of Battles over School  Reform
In Defense of Our Children: When Politics, Profit, and Education Collide