Monday, May 26, 2008

A Parent's Big Questions about Education, Part 2

This week concludes my response to a concerned parent, Nanci, who emailed me some questions she has about her children’s schools. Nanci wrote that she wanted to hear what teachers thought of her concerns, so please don’t be shy about contributing thoughts and comments.

In a situation where an administration receives feedback from numerous parents that a new teacher is proceeding with poor teaching, frequently changing deadlines and rubrics, and harmful grading policies, WHY does the administration not assign a supervisor to micro-manage and closely remediate the teacher for the balance of the year?

The school may have assigned a mentor, but in my experience, no one is available to take on another teacher’s work load to the level of micromanagement and remediation. (If a teacher gets fired, that would free up some money to pay someone else to do the job.) Let’s say another English teacher got assigned to me. That English teacher already has a full class load of her own. How is she supposed to really improve my teaching while handling her own course load? Schools don’t usually have teachers with little to do. If that teacher tries to help me, she’s going to do it in half hour bursts after school or during lunch. The problems you describe, like changing deadlines and grading policies, have to do with organization and experience. It is very difficult to really help someone with a month long unit plan while teaching and grading five class sections of your own. Schools have not made the financial commitment to pay for that kind of support for new teachers. I currently teach and live in Central Florida, where the arts keep getting cut and class sizes continue to increase. These administrators’ budget constraints do not allow for a teaching position without a class load to support new teachers. The system in place is old, and it does not respond adequately to the time it takes teachers to learn to meet the needs of 21st century teaching.

Why do schools NOT have a standardized grading policy? Wouldn't it make sense to universally say that tests are 40% of a high-schooler's grade and that 40% must contain at least 5 tests?

As an English teacher, I give very few tests, so I would rail against such a policy myself. I think school systems are often too big to make such sweeping policies. In my experience, the county system restricted how much of a percentage homework could be and wrote a specific curriculum for each course. In English, the curriculum determined how many major essays needed to be completed each semester. In our department, we standardized how much of the grade each of those essays should be. After the essay grades and the homework grades had been determined, the rest of the average was left to the teachers’ discretion. So for example, a new teacher would be told, “This semester you need to do Essay A and Essay B, and they each should be 20% of the grade. Homework can’t be more than 10%.” The other 50% could be divided up as the teacher saw fit. I’ve actually never had a “test” category at all. I have “Quizzes,” and they usually make up about 10%. I guess if a school told me to have 40% tests, I’d have to call an essay a test. I don’t know for the life of me how I’d come up with five in a semester…

Here’s the thing: I know I’m a good teacher, and that’s not who parents are worried about with grade questions. However, education cannot make rules for the lowest common denominator, or it will lose people like me. Discretion to customize my teaching is very important to me. I’m comfortable with parameters, like curriculum requirements or a grade cap on homework, but if teaching comes in a can, I may not want to do it. I now love the part new teachers struggle with—the planning, the customization, the organizing. Somewhere there are adult people who had me my first year of teaching, and I wish I could go back and teach them again with what I know now. The medical profession has a very long training and residency program; education does not. It doesn’t expect that much training, and it certainly doesn’t pay enough to support it, so sadly for our first students, many of us teachers learn on the job. Learning how to manage a fair and effective class average can be part of that learning curve, and if new teachers had more support, system-wide grade standardizations wouldn’t be necessary. Nanci, your questions go to the heart of the matter. In today’s more challenging classroom climate, are Americans willing to pay for more prepared, more qualified teachers or not?

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

1 comment:

vicki whitaker said...

I, too, wish I could go back and do right by the kids I had my first year teaching 17 years ago. Becoming a competent teacher takes years, lots of collegiality, many trials and errors, resilience, and devotion to both kids and curriculum.

That said, what has come to gall me is the resolute jailhouse gang rape, tag team assault by the consultants who pose with false humility as guides to professional development. They rob the coffers of school districts with their duplicity and promises of improved test scores. I have come to loathe their very presence on my campus. Our precious little alternative high school has become little more than a test prep factory. Woe! Woe is me!

Add to this the insanity of tying teachers' pay to student test scores and I find myself dispirited beyond words. My kids, 15-20 years old from every stripe of poverty and mayhem, have laughed out loud when I've told them they needed to do well on the standardized tests so our school and its teachers would look good. My kids have assured me that NO teacher could ever determine whether or not they performed well on any test. They think it is ridiculous (crazy) that NCLB holds a teacher responsible for kids' performance on any standardized test. They believe that kids should be held responsible for their performance on a test.

I've described merit pay to my kids. They think paying teachers for kids' standardized test scores is totally off base. They point out that by the time they are in high school, they have developed skills and knowledge that cannot be directly tied to a specific teacher's class. To compensate a specific teacher (or team of teachers) for kids' test scores may not be compensating the people responsible for the teaching/learning that is being tested.

Beyond that, I have little influence on what my students do in their time away from school. My alternative kids are deeply enmeshed in things that compromise their ability to attend school (let alone perform well on standardized tests). Many come to school still hung over from a night of drinking and debauchery. They smoke weed on their way to school (or at lunch). They are sexually active by coercion or choice. They have parents or significant adults in their lives in jail or prison. They come to school at their convenience. The list of diversions goes on and on.

It is beyond ken that merit pay is even being considered as a means to compensate teachers when it is obvious that high school teachers are, for the most part, not directly responsible for students' test scores.

Why are we not holding parents or the students themselves responsible for test scores?

My doctor is not held responsible for the choices a patient makes out of the office; my doctor is not compensated based on a contrived health score of patients. It is pure lunacy to assign responsibility for student test scores to specific teachers. Good gawd! Who thinks up this crap? With impunity no less!

Am I the only teacher who feels totally undermined by NCLB's nefarious foundation and application?