Friday, December 04, 2009

Weighing the Hogs

Teaching Reforms Should be Based on Research and Experience. (

This article may have been written in response to a California legislative move, but it's applicable to schools and school laws across the country. Marty Hittelman, president of the California Federation of Teachers, has his head on straight. He says, in a nutshell, that putting emphasis on testing isn't going to improve our schools.

"Anyone who has spent much time in the classroom will tell you that one day’s performance in not a valid indicator of a student’s mastery of his or her school year curriculum and growth."

I could have told you this. My first student teaching experience in my Junior year drove the point home with one amazing boy. He had some learning difficulties, which had not been diagnosed nor even caught (I suspect now that it was ADD) - he was in my mainstreamed classroom and they had -just- started talk of sending him for a few minutes of Title I reading instruction every day. He had also adopted the attitude that he didn't need school at the ripe old age of 9, and insisted that he was going to be a bricklayer like his dad (who worked 60-hour weeks and never seemed helpful with academics, yet would somehow have time to teach his son the trade). So he was a difficult case, and as a first-time student teacher I was frustrated by his lack of attention and disorganization - as was the classroom teacher. Still, when I wasn't presenting lessons I would hover in the back of the room where he sat - keeping an eye out for signs of distraction, prompting and prodding and pulling him along with the rest of the class. He got through a few math lessons that way and actually made good progress... but I was only there for a few months.

I didn't expect anyone to grow attached. I wasn't a great teacher; the lessons were messy and the kids were sometimes bored. Still, on the last day I went home with an armload of notes and cards - most of them hand-made by the kids during study time in between shushing and fits of giggles. I still have all of them but one in particular stands out. It was written by that boy who had already been labeled "trouble".

This is the note (click for an image):

"I had a fun time wall you were hear. you tout me math skille and ss, sin I learnde alot. eavn thou I fallad alot of your tests it was fun you were a verry verry verry nice teacher. Bye!"

Three sentences, from a child who had trouble writing one complete sentence when I started my placement. Even this child, one the system was struggling with, proved that he could learn (and enjoyed it!). And he did so not in one day or on one test but over a couple of months. On a standardized test, he would have been one more failure for the school to be embarrassed about, and there would be no evidence of his growth that year. Tests are great - when properly applied as continuous assessment of single topics. As a general picture of education, they suck.

I also found this to be both funny and sadly true:

"Any effort to close the achievement gap in our schools that does not address the conditions that children grow up in is doomed to failure. Schools can only do so much in the time that they work with students. Until this country closes the gaps in job opportunities with a livable wage, health care, and affordable housing, efforts for improvements in the schools will have limited success.

In addition, you can develop all the best tests in the world but if you don’t improve the conditions in the schools in which students and teachers operate in, the test scores will not improve either. As the famous farmer said, “Weighing my hog accurately doesn’t help it to grow heavier.”"

That 5th grade class lived in a low-income area in which most jobs were blue-collar or agricultural work. The housing in the area was mostly old farmhouses or the cheaply-built homes of the 40's and 50's. None of it was in great condition, a sign of both the area's poverty and the homeowners' lack of ability (or funds) to keep up with the maintenance. The school breakfast program was packed every morning. The computer lab ran old, donated computers that sometimes locked up, and the library was in need of new books. If kids were sick, parents missed work to take care of them... so kids came to school and spent the day in the nurse's office. In conditions like these, can we really expect students to increase their test performance based solely on curriculum changes (which at many schools probably wouldn't be supplemented with new materials)?

Oh, and speaking of low-income education - Race to the Top (link: PDF of the law) horrifies me. Some people are shouting for "underachieving" schools to be shut down, the entire staff fired and new people hired "to show that the district is working to improve the school" and be competitive for federal funding. HAH.

1. The "underachieving schools are often in low-income areas, serving minorities who may also be ELLs (english language learners), and are already understaffed, underfunded and overcrowded. You're going to fire everyone on the staff regardless of the fact that those are the people who can afford to work at the school, who love the school, and who know the school's problems inside and out, and replace them with the people who couldn't get hired at any of the other districts and have no idea what they're in for?

2. Last time I checked there wasn't exactly a waiting list to be hired for inner-city Chicago schools and the burnout rate among new teachers in stressful situations is really high. Do they honestly expect a couple of fresh-faced graduates are going to make a difference before they quit in two years?

3. What will these kids do while their school is shut down for a year because the district can't find a math teacher? Better yet, what will they do when the district hires a math teacher on an interim teaching certificate because they can't find someone "certified" and need the school open anyway? Some of the best teachers I know aren't qualified to teach (officially, anyway) but that doesn't mean that you should be shoving unprepared individuals into classrooms where the message is "Raise the scores, or find the door." That's just cruel, to both the teachers and the kids.

I'd rather They sat down with the current staff, discussed what they're seeing as problems (10:1 odds the teachers cite a rough neighborhood and a need for community resources as part of it!) and then work to fix the cause, not the symptom. Unfortunately, They don't do sense.