Thursday, May 7, 2015

Why I'm No Longer a Teacher (and why you should care)

The short answer, if I’m asked why I’m no longer teaching, is that after a successful, decade-long foray into the teaching field, I failed a multiple choice test about how to behave in a school and was banned from the Fulton County Schools Teacher Applicant Pool.

The long answer is a bit more complex and echoes the frustrations and fears of teachers all over the nation as our public schools move deeper into the realm of high-stakes testing and dubious oversight and application of those same tests. 

I know that for most people, the level of interest in the topic of testing in schools is directly related to the current involvement your family has.  If you have a kid taking a week’s worth of tests, you care a lot that week.  If not, it is yet another thing among a long list of depressing news topics that feels too large to tackle while also paying bills and feeding kids and basically living a life. It's about school...ugh. It's about tests at school..ugh. And it's about statistical interpretation and application of tests at school..ugh once again.

But I care so much about the state of our public school system, and I so badly want people to have a better understanding of what the Common Core/testing/opt-out debates are about that I am willing to share the most humiliating moment of my adult life in an effort to explain it all in a tangible way and to, hopefully, spur some of you to action.

There are really two items currently at the forefront of educational reform discussions. The first is the implementation of the Common Core Curriculum that has been adopted by the bulk of the nation in recent years. The second is the series of tests that are being implemented with increasingly higher stakes attached to the results of these assessments.

National Standards

The Common Core, while frustrating to many parents attempting to help their children with newly popular methods of solving math problems, is not actually the devil. Standards are not a new concept and have been used by school systems across the country for decades. Before the Common Core, Georgia had the Quality Core Curriculum (QCC) with the Georgia Performance Standards (GPS) as a kind of bridge between the QCCs and the Common Core GPS.  As teachers, we were taught that the standards were the “maximum tested” not the “maximum taught.”

The idea, of course, was that standards create a base level that every student should learn in a given grade or subject and that the teacher could then expand upon topics based on the interests or abilities of the students. Unfortunately, the Common Core was developed as No Child Left Behind and, later, Race to the Top were implemented. These highly publicized political programs required school systems to give assessments and report test scores in order to maintain their federal funding. If the tests were going to become such a large part of determining success, the standards needed to be incredibly detailed and more rigorous.

The result is that, in an effort to create rigor, some Common Core standards may not be developmentally appropriate, and almost all of them eliminate the option of any expansion or fluidity in the classroom. Any “extra” moments of time are now used to prep for the ever-looming tests.

So, if it’s not the Common Core that is sucking the joy out of teachers and students alike, what is it?

It is the use of statistical data as the one best indicator of student and teacher success that really has me frightened.

Numbers—Are they lying to you? How would you even know? Can you even trust them?

My undergraduate degree is in Economics and my Master’s degree is in Social Studies Education. The one thing I learned over and over in my Econ classes were that statistics can be used to say whatever you want them to. The numbers don’t lie, but the person telling you what the numbers mean might very well be lying and you’d never know it.

When the list of SAT scores by state comes out it always makes the news. I remember one year when the state with the highest SAT scores had fewer total students take the test than there were seniors in the one Atlanta-area high school in which I was teaching. In Georgia, the PSAT is given to every Junior and college tuition is free to any student with a B average who can get into a public university. Students who may not really be contemplating college are aware of the test and encouraged to try it if there’s a chance they could continue their education.  Comparing 400 college-bound students in one state to thousands of students who may or may not be interested in a 4-year degree in another is pointless even if it makes great political speaking points.

When Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) was implemented the incredibly wealthy school at which I taught was in danger of failing our AYP and having our name printed in the newspaper as a failing school. Why? Because one assessment category included the percentage of classes failed by students on free-and-reduced lunch. Our school had fewer than five students on assisted lunch which meant that if any of them failed more than one class, we were in trouble. 

That same school had a visit from the Governor of Georgia for the next two years in a row as a reward for “most improved SAT scores.” I should note that as a new school, juniors and seniors were not required to transfer from their old school to ours so our scores improved simply because we added full junior and senior classes over the next two years.

My point is that, while these scores reveal some useful information, they don’t necessarily mean anything earth-shakingly significant.  In fact, they generally reflect the relative success of the community in which the school resides rather than anything the teachers or students are specifically doing. We might as well just make giant signs that say “This is an upper-middle class neighborhood with well-educated adults and you want to buy a house here.”

Testing, Testing, 123

Much like school rankings and Newsweek lists (traditionally another random stat based on number of AP tests given divided by number of seniors at a given school) individual test results only share part of the story.

Tests in and of themselves are not bad. I have written, given, and graded thousands of them. Tests are a tool. And like any tool, they have their limitations. Politicians and real estate agents like test scores because they are easy to understand and they make people want to live in those districts. Teachers use them because they offer feedback and a way for the teacher to assess his or her techniques for that unit. They also reveal some, but by no means all, of the material a student understands and the areas in which that student still needs to work.

However, no test, no matter how well thought out, can be perfect. A committee I was on once analyzed a test question where the correct answer identified a Native American group as being “violent.” Although the 8th-grade students knew that the tribe was a war-based group, they equated “violent” with “bad” and “Native Americans” with “good” and so they did not choose that answer. Their black-and-white thinking (which is fairly normal at that age) hindered their ability to answer correctly.

One year I had a student called out of an Advanced Placement (AP) exam to take a call from her mother even though the mom knew the student was in testing. I found the student crying in the hallway in between sections of the exam. She wouldn’t tell me what was wrong and she went back in to finish her test, but she did not do as well as I projected that she would.

A test score can reveal what a child has learned. But it can also reveal that a child is hungry, or tired, or confused, or worried. I’ve taught children who’ve lost a parent and come back to school the next day. I’ve struggled through lessons with entire classes in tears on September 11, 2001 and in multiple other years because classmates had died that week. These are human children and their test scores are not who they are or even what they necessarily know about the subject over which they are being tested.

So what does any of this have to do with my failing a test and the current plight of teachers? Two things: the culture of testing is eliminating common sense from our schools and our children’s test scores are being used to judge their teachers.

We’ll Let the Test Decide

In my case, I failed because I did not understand the purpose of the assessment. In July, 2013 I was considering returning to teaching after a few years at home with my young children. Part of the online application was a section of 25 or so multiple-choice questions about school scenarios. In a moment of naïve optimism I thought that these questions would be used as interview talking points or perhaps as a teaching-style assessment similar to a personality test. As such, I consistently chose the answers that allowed me to gather more information about each scenario since a large part of working with the adorable messes that are teenagers is being able to be sensitive to their thoughts and point of view.

Unfortunately for me, it was actually a test with a mandatory minimum score that determined whether or not I was even eligible for an interview. I didn’t know any of that until nine months later when a former supervisor wanted to hire me to teach in her department.  She couldn’t find my application in the system and eventually, after about a month of back and forth nonsense, I got an answer.

It took me googling news articles about the new application process to find a name. It took me guessing at an email address based on email naming conventions in the school district to find a contact. It took several emails wherein I basically demanded to know how I, a fully licensed teacher with an exemplary record for this same district, could be considered unfit for an interview. I finally received a phone call (which made me feel good until a less naïve friend pointed out that the district didn’t want it in writing). The woman on the other end told me I failed the test I didn’t know I was taking and that I had therefore been blacklisted from the applicant pool for a period of one year.

When I again protested and asked that she call my references at any of a half-dozen local schools she said, “it’s an automated process and there’s nothing I can do.”

That sentence it why I am writing this.  The school district was not attempting to be cruel and, to be fair, after my increased complaints to the superintendent and a school board member whose kid I taught, the process has been changed.  In fact, when I again had access to the questionnaire a year later the example question I used to explain my complaints used my suggestions almost verbatim—I wonder if I can claim a contractor fee?

The problem is that, intentional or not, there are very real human consequences to educational testing being used as a decision-maker instead of as an informational tool.

When a child has the possibility of being retained a grade due to their score on one test, without the input or recommendation of his or her teacher, we have a problem. Georgia is implementing the new Milestones tests and, right now, the tests are not being used as “gateway” tests to the next grade. The possibility exists, however, and teachers and students are feeling the strain of “taking the test seriously” on a regular basis.

They also create unintentional wastes of time (if you’ve already taken the test that determines your success, what do you do for the last three weeks of school?) and force teachers to make sure students practice test-taking skills in class (instead of, you know, actually reading a book or conducting an experiment or something educational).

A child’s educational future should be determined by the child’s parents, teacher, and school working in partnership. Test scores should be part of the data that informs those decisions rather than the ultimate word on any student.

Your Survival Depends upon Your Child

At this moment, teachers nationwide are struggling with the idea that their students’ test scores could be used as part of their own assessment as educators. Good teachers don’t mind reviewing their processes and reflecting on what they could have done better. These are the things educators think of in the shower and in traffic and when they zone out in church. Teachers want to get their scores back and take pride in how well their students did and look to see if they guessed right for each individual student.  The scores are a piece of information that can be useful, but again, they don’t necessarily mean something significant.

Every parent knows that learning is not linear. When your children learned to walk, they’d take fifteen steps forward and then suddenly fall on their backside. Occasionally, they choke and land on their faces. What if your success as a parent were determined by how often your kid fell down based on a projected number of falls gleaned from last week’s fall count? Did the kid get new shoes? Did she have a growth spurt? Is he carrying his baby brother by the neck?

You see my point. Students are children, even the teenage ones. What they know or understand or can accomplish under the best of circumstances is not likely to be what you see on a random Tuesday in May. It might be. But to decide that a teacher’s ability to teach is reflected in that number is not good science.

Like doctors, teachers have specialties. An oncologist specializing in rare forms of cancer is far more likely to have patient deaths than a general pediatrician. If we compare patient mortality rates, the oncologist is going to look like a much worse physician even if he’s the one developing revolutionary treatment options.

A teacher might specialize in students with reading problems or teach English language learners.  High achieving students are not likely to improve much on a standardized test from year to year because their scores are already incredibly high. And although most schools do not actively “track” students into groups of like-ability classes, it inadvertently happens all the time. Scheduling realities can box teachers in and influence the resulting test scores.  For instance, if all the really bright kids are taking advanced English 1st period and advanced chemistry 3rd period and the year-long electives like yearbook or newspaper are in the afternoon, whoever teaches 2nd period history just got all the gifted kids in a “regular” history class.  The teacher teaching history 6th period won’t have any gifted kids or any students taking band. 

These are somewhat silly examples, but the reality is that teachers are not doing the same job even when they are teaching the same subject in the same school. There are too many variables to compare teachers to one another or to assume that their test scores are primarily a reflection of the teacher’s efforts. In addition, not all grades and subjects are tested and that creates an even stranger component.  Is art irrelevant? What about World History? Or first grade? Georgia is currently testing grades 3 through 8 and some, but not all, high school subjects.  What sense does that make?

Teacher Teachers—It’s all their fault

Somehow in this mess of testing craziness, the idea has come up that in order to achieve greater student success, teachers need to be held accountable and our schools need better teachers. And somehow THAT has translated into judging teacher preparatory programs based on the student test scores of the teachers they trained. I can’t even begin to explain how silly this is, so I’m going to give you a real-life example (with fake names because I did not ask for their permission beforehand).

Emily, Mike, and I all graduated with Bachelor’s degrees from the University of Georgia and all taught public high school. Emily received her educator training at UGA and Mike and I received ours from Georgia State University. I primarily taught in suburban Atlanta in very affluent schools. Mike teaches in inner-city Atlanta and his school has been known to have a riot or two. Emily taught in a Yupik Eskimo fishing village on an island in the Bering Sea before teaching illiterate teenagers in Baltimore. I am just going to point out now that Emily and Mike are better teachers than I am if for no other reason than that they are still fighting the good fight and I have tapped out. But also because they are clearly doing a harder job than I ever did.

There is no way that comparing our students’ improvement on test scores could remotely reflect accurately on our teacher preparatory programs.

What I Want You to Do

I could go on forever about this topic. The company who makes the PARCC test, the Common Core test being given to students in multiple states, is the same company that sells textbooks, practice test materials, and teacher training to the schools districts in which their test is given.  The teacher assessment tools and models (like the assessment I failed) are created by software companies who also develop substitute teacher management systems for the districts in which their products are used. It is convoluted and frustrating and we got to this point in the same way you can boil a frog. The water has been slowly heating up for over a decade and dedicated educators have continued to keep their heads down and hope for the best.

Politicians decided that our schools as a whole were “failing” and that the cure was increased academic rigor and teacher accountability. I’d argue that our schools were not failing—our society is.

The root cause of schools that fail is poverty, not standards or teacher accountability.

No one wants to talk about those issues, however, so we’re creating a system that will continue to marginalize the poor while conducting a rather elaborate and probably irrelevant experiment on the rest of the population.

Meanwhile, teachers are sad and just want to be given some small measure of the freedom and joy that got them into this job in the first place.  Teaching is a calling. It is beautiful and meaningful and interacting with students can make even the worst day worth getting up for. If we allow the proposed ideas about the use of testing scores to continue we are going to lose every passionate teacher who felt this call and wind up with a generation of educators who stay for 3-5 years and then get out before they lose too much of their earning potential to a job that requires a degree, but does not treat its employees as professionals.

This week is teacher appreciation week. If you really want to show the educators in your life some appreciation you will contact your national and state representatives and ask that state and federal laws should reflect the following:

  1.  Test scores should not be used with “mandatory minimums” required to promote students to the next grade, at least until high school. If a student fails a grade it should not be just because of one test score.
  2. Test scores or improvement on test scores should not be used to assess teachers. Data from student tests should be used to improve instruction, but pressuring teachers over their students’ test results means too much classroom time is focused on testing rather than actual learning.
  3. Teacher preparatory programs should not be judged based on the test scores of their graduates’ students. There are far too many variables for that to be relevant information.

Feel free to copy and paste my words into your email if you’d like to. Share this with anyone you’d like to encourage to take action. Our public schools belong to us and to our children and to every child who comes after.  To make sharing your opinion easier, I’ve included links to the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate so that you can find your representatives’ contact information. Many high ranking politicians, like Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, are also on twitter and can be contacted that way. I added direct links to relevant Georgia politicians for my district. You can also contact your local or state school board or superintendents. Your actual local school (and in many cases the entire school district) has no control over any of these decisions. 

One final note—I truly have so many more things to say on this topic so if you had a question or comment that I didn’t address feel free to comment, email, or tweet it at me. I’d be happy to respond.

Contact Links Specific to Georgia:

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