Not Unintended

I often wake up with opinion pieces on my mind.  I suspect I dream rhetoric and filter and remix in my head, and if the waking up is done correctly–and coffee is waiting–I don’t forget everything.  This happened the other day after a snowday, and I posted the following on facebook.  I decided that I’d crosspost here, not least of which it’s searchable (and I post far more on facebook than any one person should ever be allowed to).

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For those of you not in education right now, I’d like to try to explain something to you about new standards (any new standards, not just all the talk of Common Core):

When new standards come along–and in my 12 years’ teaching this is my *third* set–we must change how we teach, what we teach. That stands to reason. Whether or not the standards are valid or not, grounded in pedagogy or not (and despite CCSS’s pitfalls, which are numerous, I still maintain they rock over the previous set of Minnesota standards, but that’s a discussion for another time).

Here’s what happens on the ground, however.

On my own time, unpaid, I redesign my units to cover the new standards. Fine. Whatever.

I then do my best to implement them all in a school year (always impossible, no matter what anyone says, but again, not my main point here) and do my best with my raw material: kids of vastly different backgrounds and support systems all with different learning styles and abilities.

That would be difficult enough, obviously, without the *new* trend toward punishment. I mean to say, if standards were simply *goals* as you might think, fine. Lofty goals are good things to have.

But that’s not what’s happening.

Beginning with Bush’s NCLB and continuing (even worse) with Obama’s RttT, here’s what happens, especially under the new set of standards which, like Minnesota’s previous set, is cumulative and grade-leveled:

I teach 9th grade. Meaning, new standards tell me what I need to teach in 9th grade, but that’s assuming that the kids got the previous standards met in K-8 under the new set. That’s obviously not the case (we had to implement the new standards last year), so we’re then playing catch up. NONE OF THE KIDS I TEACH FOR THE NEXT SEVERAL YEARS WILL HAVE HAD THE GRADE-LEVELED STANDARDS GROWING UP, no matter what. That’s just fact.

But–and check this out, folks–these kids are TESTED ON THE NEW STANDARDS THEY’VE NOT HAD.

And, when they fail–as has happened across the country last spring, as you’ve read–it means schools lose funding, teachers and administrators are fired, and kids are branded as “failures.”

For not being completely successful at something they never had.

For my 9th graders to even have a chance at being successful, mind you, I’d have to not only teach all the 9th grade standards completely, but catch up on everything they hadn’t been taught to the new standards in the previous eight years.

I cannot do that. No one can do that.

And those making the tests and calling for the tests to mean so much, from the Right and Left, KNOW THIS.

They. Know. This.

This is NOT a surprise, nor is this failure an UNintended effect.

So, the next time you read an article in a newspaper about failing teachers and failing schools, and you’re wanting to go post on facebook or carp around a water cooler about those “lousy overpaid teachers” and “crappy American schools,” don’t be a pawn. Know that you’re being recruited into continuing a ruse, a horrible, planned piece of public theatre, that is hurting kids.

Testing is big business. School “reform” is big business. People are getting rich over privatization.

Your kids, OUR kids, are the ones who lose.

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Assessment Balancing Act

I mentioned the other day that one of the books I’ve been reading is Jane E. Pollock’s Improving Student Learning One Teacher at a Time. This comes at the behest of my new principal at my new school, and even as I may disagree with a couple of the premises (pending further research), I found myself devouring this book and seeing how it could, indeed, completely change how I view and accomplish assessment and feedback, two of my least strong areas of my teaching. This is revolutionary, if it can be implemented.

The thesis of the book is that by addressing the Big Four (curriculum, instruction, assessment, and feedback) differently from the way it’s done in most schools, teachers can have an immense impact on student learning. Instead of improving the teacher, the idea is to make master learners.  Sounds great, and I accept that, even if I don’t go so far as to believe that a teacher is the number one variable all the time or that this approach will eliminate, as Pollock writes, the “hope” that something will work and replace it with “certainty.”  I believe there are precious few absolutes in education, and I find stating such a thing rather…arrogant. That said, as I’m thinking through her points, I find I’m more than willing to implement the changes, even if I do so with hope rather than guarantee the aforementioned certainty.

I’ll skip over the first two of the Big Four–discussions for another time–except to say that she was also co-author with and colleague of Robert Marzano, and I’ve found his ideas on instruction extremely sound and helpful in the past. Also, I’ll simply mention that Pollock uses the word “robust” entirely too often, to the point where I wanted to make a drinking game of it (think “Picard maneuver”). The major eye-opener of this book, for me, was Pollock’s ideas on assessment, and, as a result, feedback.

Instead of cursorily aligning one’s instruction and activities to the standards and then grading each assessment opportunity on various expectations that may or may not have a nodding acquaintance with standards, Pollock proposes we grade to the standards directly. “Score the benchmarks,” she states, and it’s something that seems so obvious, yet I don’t know anyone who does this, and I’ve certainly not. If the benchmark is to distinguish between “who” and “whom,” for example, that’s what should be in the gradebook. Teachers should keep track of the students’ progress toward the benchmarks rather than isolated grades on activities that may or may not even address them specifically.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be news to elementary teachers; it certainly is to a high school English teacher. I imagine sitting down at conferences with this page rather than my old gradebook, and being able to address specifically where the student needs to apply more work and what the student has already accomplished.  Rather revolutionary for someone who, like many, starts planning with the topics, which leads to activities, which, eventually, leads to grades on the activities. Instead, each unit could begin with the benchmarks, sublist the activities to address them and test them, and grade to these.

Of course, one would have to agree with the standards to begin with, which may be a problem.  And, as Pollock addresses, each district would have to take a serious look at standards and add their own to the bare bones list many get from the State in order to have a fully-rounded curriculum–something I will be doing with my new colleagues this summer at my new school, and I’m looking forward to it (yes, I mean that seriously…I like this sort of thing). Minnesota has adopted the Common Core standards, which, on first blush, I like somewhat more than the 2003 set (which was our last). We have some more time to implement the new ones, but there’s no time like the present to get going!

I already believe in grading with rubrics, and Pollock explains there’s still room for grading effort and study skills alongside the benchmarks, so I believe I’m going to try this.  Additionally, she spends explaining how students’ self-assessment is also a part of this; taking responsibility for their own learning.  I have my doubts regarding the reported eagerness teenagers have in tracking their own learning in this regard, but I’m trying to keep an open mind.

As grading is my philosophical and pragmatic low point (I do not believe in entering grades for the sake of entering grades, which is what modern parent portals and obsession with little letters has become; if I hear one more student talk about grades more than what one learned in a course, I’ll scream), it’s possible this may solve several of my problems at once.  At the same time, it will create other difficulties, I predict: paperwork, for one. The “teacher voices” included in each chapter of Pollock’s book address this latter, too; it seems to be a work in progress, as is anything else in teaching.  Finding an efficient, useful, meaningful way to implement learning without letting it take over one’s entire life is always a teacher’s balancing act.