I sent it to about a half-dozen other educators to see their take, because I really wrestled with the message.
On one hand, I really relate to the message that 17-year-old Suli Breaks passionately delivers, refusing to be reduced to a number on a test. I’ve written in both prose and poetic forms that students are “more than a score”. The insanity over standardized testing was even featured on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. (You should really watch if you didn’t catch it, and if you’re not offended by some salty language.)
Anyway, back to Mr. Suli Breaks. I found much of what he said to be powerful, relatable, and certainly fair.
There seemed to be a hint of devaluing academics in general; a playing down of the importance of one’s education, which made me uncomfortable. Several of the teachers I sent it to felt the same.
I posed this question: How does he show he values education, if he understandably does not value the testing, and that’s all he’s known education to be? How do we expect him to separate the two?
The conversation that ensued had me thinking deeper about this and how it relates to educators. I think it is similar to the crux of the problem those of us opposing the current state of standardized testing face:
How do we demonstrate our willingness for accountability when it has become synonymous with standardized testing?
It was just after Thanksgiving in 1985. My family had just relocated from Newton, New Hampshire to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. I was in fourth grade, my younger sister in first.
Our first week there, my mother received phone calls from some horrified very concerned teachers. Where were our gloves? Scarves? Boots? Winter coats? I mean it was almost December! Of course, temperatures would have been in the 60s, which would have been May weather for us. Coats? You’re lucky we’re not here in shorts.
Here in NC we have only attended school on both Mondays the past two weeks. During these eight snow days, I have seen lots of commentary on social media about the “Southern Snow Day” phenomenon. The Atlantic did a piece last year with a Map: “How Much Snow It Takes to Cancel School in the US”. They made sure to make the point that it’s more about infrastructure than fortitude of citizens.
Still, comments like, “We’d love that forecast up here in Maine!” or “We have six inches more than you and we’re still going to school here in Massachusetts.” were lobbed at those of us holed up in our homes by mere whispers of winter weather. “We just have a different mindset up here,” one friend of a friend posted.
No. False. It’s much more than your “mindset”. It’s a result of societal, environmental, and biological differences.
A society decides on what to spend its collective revenues. It’s not worth investing in salt trucks and sand trucks and arsenals of snow plows to maintain the roads full-time when your state doesn’t get snow for three weeks, let alone three months. Boston and Nashville are of similar size in population, but it would not make sense for their budgets to allocate similar funds to snow management.
The environment here surrounding a snow event is also different. It gets warm enough here during the day to remelt the snow. Then snowmelt refreezes at night, making a treacherous black ice glaze. It’s not that “southerners can’t drive on snow” because it quickly becomes sheets of ice. Northerners aren’t going to drive on that either, even with your fancy snow tires. And of course all our school districts need is one bus to slide on our ill-prepared roads to be open to litigation.
Finally, there’s the biological differences I experienced first hand at nine years old. I wore shorts that first winter, but wouldn’t now. Our blood thins/thickens due to where we live. People adapt to their environment. There are more heat stroke stories from the north than the south in the summer. They just aren’t as adapted when temps spike. It doesn’t mean southerners should take to social media to call them “wimps” for it.
A month into that first school year on Hilton Head Island in 1985, it “snowed” with the lightest dusting. School completely stopped and everyone went outside. The fourth and fifth grades were in mobiles, and I remember so clearly how teachers and students were running around, laughing, delighted….
I had just moved from New Hampshire. One could literally see the ground right though this “snow”. I didn’t get it.
It had not snowed on the island in over a decade. My classmates, unless they had moved like I, had never seen this stuff fall from the sky in their entire lifetime and might not again until their twenties.
I read Karl Fisch’s great post over at The Fischbowl about the word “accountability” and how too many in education erroneously equate it with using standardized testing to justify educational actions and decisions.
It got me to thinking how this current phenomenon often has educators, sometimes myself included, pinned in the corner of “all standardized testing is bad.” This is an understandable reaction to the ridiculous, high-stakes, over-emphasized testing of today. When one feels they are under attack, they take a defensive stance. Testing gives a snapshot of a narrow facet of skills, and while it shouldn’t be the focus nor the be-all-end-all… it isn’t completely useless.
After writing recently about my frustrations of the frequent pre-screening before the pretesting before the big test, it must sound like I’m completely backtracking. However, it’s the way the data is used that is important to examine.
Testing should be small, incremental, low-stakes, and personalized. If I have a student who is struggling, as a language arts teacher I should be able to request testing to indicate issues of fluency vs. comprehension to know how best to help him/her. It should be targeted and prescriptive, but this would require trusting educational decisions of professional educations, which is not what’s happening in the political scope of education right now.
Even the larger tests that level students in achievement ranges could be helpful if it were early in the year so teachers could use it to help inform their instruction for the year. However, it’s used at the end of the as a summary of what the student and teacher have “done right”. This, again, is a misuse of the data. It’s an autopsy when only a biopsy can help a teacher help a student. Also, inferences are being drawn from the data which does not measure what it’s being assumed to measure. (ie: “teacher effectiveness.”)
Therefore, high-stakes testing becomes the “goal”. Schools can’t test to see what they need to teach, they are too busy scrambling to teach what’s on the test that contains what someone else decided was important and another said it would carry serious consequences for the student, teacher, and school if some bubbles aren’t colored as well as last year. And consider what that these tests could never measure for just a moment…
Your doctor does not decide your heath on a BMI score or triglyceride reading alone. However, that small piece of data can inform a medical professional if its part of a larger picture. The problem is when non-educators in charge of education (which is a problem in and of itself) decide to measure the doctor’s competence by his/her patients’ BMI average (teacher’s test scores). This is a misuse of the data, and a ridiculous way to measure the doctor.
But besides this fact, every piece of data I’ve read confirms an unintended shooting of a loved one is statistically more likely than actually protecting your home. It would stand to reason that accidents are more likely than successful warding off of would-be school shooters in schools as well. Certainly, the teachers that accidentally shot themselves while at school in Utah and in Idaho earlier this school year do not bode well for the success of this”arm the teachers” plan.
Simultaneously amuse and horrify yourself fellow teachers: At your next faculty meeting, when someone is saying something so unbelievably, stupefyingly short-sighted, ill-advised, and/or unintelligent (and you and I both know that s/he will) ponder working up the hall from them… whist they are armed.
And if you can get past your horror, realize the whole plan is more than a little insulting, given our current circumstances. They can’t pay us a professional wage or give any paid professional development. (I’m paying for conferences out-of-pocket, anyway…you?) But they’ll suggest finding money to arm us? Nice.
Plus, teachers are already so over worked, so overburdened… I mean seriously. During a fire drill I am just lucky to get the little green card in the window. There are days I can’t find the stack of 120 copies I just made and you want me to be responsible for a 9mm Smith and Wesson? No thanks.
Anyway, whilst surfing the various social interwebs this holiday, I came across the following video. I can understand if some people find celebrity “campaigns” normally annoying, but I think this one is worth the 1:23.
I apologize for the absence of fresh posts lately. Any teacher knows how the time second quarter can just get away from you, so I won’t try to explain.
As the quarter closes this week and I enter numbers that turn into the less-specific feedback of letters representing a range of numbers on the report card, I think about what report cards really represent to students and parents.
The last days have been met with so many of the usual questions that teachers get at the end of the quarter:
“Can I have a packet for extra credit?”
No. Nor may you eat junk food for months and then eat a salad right before the doctor’s appointment and get the same results as the person eating healthily the entire time.
“What can I do to get an ‘A’?”
Um . . . know more and do more to show that you know it?
“If I do XYZ (turn in this missing assignment, retake the low test grade, etc.) is it possible to get an average of blah-blah?”
Look, even if you had all the exact numbers in your mythical scenario to give me, I am afraid I could not plug it in with your grades – which I don’t know of the top of my head – and compute the weighted average to give you an answer. So…stop.
What’s frustrating is that the focus in all these questions is how to get the (usually lowest number in the arbitrary range of the) letter grade. Not the learning. Nor the work that should have gone into mastery. Nor the opportunities already missed.
If it’s not on the report card, it does not have meaning or value for parents or students.
Teachers know that work behaviors and effort are very important, probably even more important to a child’s future success than if s/he can diagram a sentence, or solve for x, or find the capital of Belize on a map. Therefore, teachers usually have typically included them in a grade to give them meaning and value. Those behaviors might count for 25% of a class’s grade, or 10%, or “folded in” to each assignment and result in some unknown number.
I’ve done the same. Valuing effort is important.
The problem? A grade as a method of communication to students, parents, universities, and other stake holders in that information is compromised: What does that “B-” mean? A hard worker who doesn’t fully get math – or – a lazy but brilliant math student? It could be either – and it often is.
Here’s my proposed solution: We need to report both content mastery and work behaviors. Equally.
Each class each reporting term should have a content mastery grade AND a work behaviors grade. A student earning an “A/D” knows the material set forth in the standards, but does little in the way of these important behaviors, which he will also need in life. (ie: the lazy AIG child, who does almost nothing but gets an “A” in mastery anyway) However a “C/A” student may struggle with the content, but she works REALLY hard to get that “C” in mastery.
Parents would know an “F/F” on the report card means there’s a reason the child isn’t learning any of the material. An “F/B” however represents a student mostly trying and still failing to grasp concepts. That’s a very different problem. We already know the difference as teachers: parents should know this about their children too. It should be reported to them. It should be reflected on the report card. It should matter.
Work behaviors need a separate grade on a report card so that they are deemed important but the content mastery is still clear.
Not enough copies
Not enough books
Teachers spending their own thin dime
It’s a crime.
Not enough time
Not enough technology
There is simply not enough me…
to go around
to these 42 students in this one class
Because class size limits…are gone.
Education is a pawn
in their reelection game.
But the more they talk of change,
the more things stay the same.
Instead of the blame, they should find the funding instead.
But their friends get deep tax cuts so it puts our schools in the red.
They vilify those that they should empower.
But those making the choices refuse to hear the experienced voices.
Before I begin this week’s post, my sincerest gratitude to you. Yes, you reading this right now. “Teaching Speaks Volumes” has made Teach.com‘s ranking of education blogs. This is because of you, the reader. (And some other additional factors in their mysterious formula.) Anyway, thanks so much for reading!
So…tomorrow is the first day of school. After twelve years, I am teaching a new grade level (6th grade) at a school across town. I am very eager for the new experiences and perspectives that accompany change.
I left my new classroom today ready to greet my new students at 7 am tomorrow morning. I have been out of school for six weeks now – an almost unheard of rarity in the year-round school schedule created by my switch from track 1 to track 4. I’m not accustomed to being off on break for more than three or maybe four weeks, and for me that’s plenty. I’ve written before about my love of year round schools, and I did not consider a move to a school with a “traditional calendar”.
With all the time off and the impending huge changes, the setting up of my new classroom became a huge focal point. I recently read “What You See in Today’s Public School Classroom Is A Mirage” by Carla Friesen a few weeks ago, and it really resonated with me. In her article, she shows the “before” and “after” of public school classrooms: what is given to the teacher vs. what teachers added to create the final learning spaces.
Using the Time Shutter App, I captured the transformation of my new classroom. I took the first picture of the room as it was – the teacher’s before me moving out before I moved in – but in the second frame you can see my mountain of materials that appear. The rest of the gif is it slowly finding its new homes…
How do you perform and transform your classroom into the “mirage”?
I have always tried to operate under this theory: The harder a child is on you as the teacher, the more s/he needs you to be good at your job.
Like little Julie*? Who you could throw the textbook into the room and leave, and 180 days later, she’d have completed all the work? Yeah. She doesn’t need you. I mean, you love her in spite of this fact. After all, she’s wonderful! And hopefully, she will learn more with your guidance that she would have without it. But, still… You are not a crucial adult in the journey to success in her life.
That one (ten? thirty?) who drives you crazy? Who doesn’t know social cues? Who doesn’t appropriately respond to authority figures? Who won’t pick up a pencil, let alone complete assignments, without your constant prodding?
He needs you. In fact, he has little chance without you.
And there lies an interesting paradox: The harder they make your job, the more important your job is for them. The more crucial you are as the teacher.
The harder a child is to teach, the more he or she needs you.
I sometimes chant this little mantra when I am so frustrated with those most difficult students.
What core beliefs to you remind yourself of as you teach that help you?
*Julie is used here as the name of that sweet little (usually female) student whom teaching is an effortless joy. This is not based on any specific, actual Julie.
To both commemorate the new year and celebrate fifty posts on Teaching Speaks Volumes, I have updated the layout and look of the blog. The header features artwork from a very talented colleague, Lynda Boltz. Her talents can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I love using word clouds (via Tagxedo or Wordle) with students. I have created them for short stories we will study or using students’ own writing. A word cloud sizes words to highlight their frequencies of occurrence within the writing.
The following word cloud is of the first fifty Volumes of TSV. It provides a snapshot of this blog’s discussion over the past 20 months:
Does something stand out to you in this word cloud? Please let me know in the comments…