Category Archives: Administration

Common Core is Here

Well, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are here, and my district (and a few department members) see it as the panacea for this generation of students. While I don’t have anywhere near that sort of faith in the new standards, I do like the professional development that could stem from the implementation of the standards.

However, I do see three problems looming: too much commonality, too much reliance on hope, and not enough joint accountability.

Firstly, I see my department being pushed to use exactly the same assignments in every class on the same day, almost as if a scripted curriculum could be imposed. Of course, we’re told “not to worry” because the new standards will help us all become better teachers. But, then the same veteran teachers (me, for one) who were successful using the old standards are then teaching my department members how to use the new standards. While I think teaching people what the new standards mean, how to reach the standards, and why scaffolding is needed are all excellent ideas to learn, nothing really new is happening. We’re taking what we have and adapting that to new skill expectations. Fortunately, the CCSS differ little from my state’s old standards. Still, I’ve never believed lock-step assignments and daily lessons take into account student and class individuality and needs, a teacher’s strengths, or student interest.

Secondly, the notion that people think these standards will be the magic pill to cure all of our students’ ills bothers me. Standards don’t help students pass a test or learn a skill or achieve. Teachers do. Teachers of excellence with the abilities to engage students, to adapt to student needs, and to scaffold lessons for students will be successful no matter what standards are adopted. Teachers who were successful with the old standards will be successful with the new standards. Teachers who struggled previously will continue to struggle without strong, reliable mentors and skillful evaluators.

Lastly, as an English teacher, I continue to hear the maxim that “all teachers are responsible for reading,” but only the English Department is held accountable for reading scores. When my school’s state reading test results came in, literary reading (fiction) far surpassed non-fiction reading scores. Instead of asking the other disciplines–which teach non-fiction almost exclusively–to improve non-fiction teaching approaches and to become more skilled reading instructors, the English Department is again being asked to add something to its already crowded curriculum.

And, the new CCSS backs this up. An expert speaking to my department about the new standards suggested that 70% of a student’s reading load be non-fiction. I responded that this is splendid since only 1/6 of a student’s day is spent in a literature-based class (reading fiction), which means that students currently read non-fiction 83% of the day (80% if we exclude P.E.). I was told “no, this means the English Department should teach much, much more non-fiction.”

Now, I’m not against teaching non-fiction texts. I do this with every unit I teach, generally using non-fiction texts to help set the context for the fictional readings with which students are engaged. Then, my students must integrate the contextual information into their fiction-text responses and writing.

In short, I’d like to see school-wide reading trainings to begin and to hold all disciplines accountable for raising students’ reading levels. The CCSS could help here since all included subject areas have reading standards now, but administrators at the building and district levels must get on-board and help support this philosophy with action and not just talk.

P.S. People want to compare schools, districts, and states across the nation with the new tests, but I think we missed the boat here by not using the SAT or ACT. How helpful would it have been to pay for kids’ tests already required (or expected) by colleges and universities? Plus, we could have already looked at comparisons. Granted, all curricula are not set up with the SAT or ACT as the endgame in mind, but when have we ever done this? And, the kids still take those exams.

P.P.S. The text book companies have strong lobbyists.

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CollegeBored?

My school district has told the high school English Department to create an assessment system like CollegeBoard’s SpringBoard program or else it gets the SpringBoard program.

My department’s resistance to the SpringBoard program is, in part, as follows:

  • expectations for kids will be lowered,
  • vocabulary and grammar are not emphasized,
  • it could negatively affect our AP numbers and scores,
  • our honors program will be eliminated,
  • poetry is not a primary component,
  • it’s scripted,
  • the classics are almost non-existent,
  • it’s based on excerpts rather than full texts (and students struggle with stamina), and
  • the kids tells us how little enjoyment there was with it at the middle school level.

This morning I searched for other people’s takes on the SpringBoard program, and I definitely saw a mixed bag of responses but I read much of what we saw too.

“The meat’s not there,” according to one teacher.”There is no grammar. There is no vocabulary.” Out goes Beowulf and the poetry of Shelley and Yeats. In come TV and film clips and excerpts from other literature.

Another teacher called the program “Orwellian.” This teacher says, “a program whose chief product is culturally illiterate students actually calls itself a literacy program? It’s not that the College Board people don’t try to help students become more sophisticated readers; it’s just that they have them read so very little.”

On another site a teacher notes that “some of the stories and poems use to be in the middle-grade classrooms. Guess what? I teach 9th grade honors. I don’t believe that placing lower level literature in the honors classroom is one of the best practices…Most teachers believe it should be a tool for the classroom, not obligatory to the extent that it is. It is sad that the only people in the classroom everyday are the very people that are not listened to and are afraid to speak up. It speaks volumes about the climate of this county.”

Another teacher used an analogy: “I once felt like a gourmet chef serving up 5 course, 5 star meals to my hungry students. I put my heart and soul into each and every one of customized recipes, and always took special requests when necessary. Now, with Springboard, I feel like a cashier at a fast food drive thru, dishing out pre-cooked, re-heated meals that are quick, easy, and ready to serve, but not all that filling or healthy in the end.”

What I fear behind all of this is what another teacher mentioned: “SpringBoard has essentially broken my spirit and my love of teaching.” Teacher voices in my district seem to be getting quieter too as more and more of the programs eliminate the originality and personalization of the instructor. Pre-packaged lessons in a can are replacing the lesson designs based on the diversity and needs of the students before the teacher, and those farthest away from the classroom appear to be making more and more of the classroom decisions.

Does a teacher really need to build a relationship with a student and learn his interests when the lessons are already pre-determined?

Does a teacher need to research anything or look at modern or immediate supplemental materials when the lesson is pre-generated?

How does a teacher succeed in a classroom where she feels she is giving the students less than what she could and that the child’s future may be negatively affected?

Ultimately, when the creativity, autonomy, and passion of the teacher is exchanged for teaching sameness, what happens to the “art” of teaching?

Two Good Articles

One article in the L.A. Times compares the “blame the teacher” movement currently popular in the U.S. with the “blame the worker” movement that failed in the 70s and 80s.

A great section has this:

Recall the reaction of domestic manufacturers in the 1970s as Japanese competitors began to take market share: Many managers and an army of experts blamed American workers. They denounced workers’ “blue-collar blues,” lackadaisical attitudes and union job protections as the chief impediments to higher quality, productivity and competitiveness.

It took nearly two decades for manufacturers to realize that this diagnosis was deeply flawed and that the recommendations that flowed from it were leading U.S. industry further into decline. Recall the success of Japanese-run auto transplants operating in this country during the 1980s: They reached world-class quality levels with a U.S. workforce, in some cases a unionized workforce, while domestic auto companies continued to blame American workers and saw their quality levels stagnate.

Another key line is: “…schools are collaborative, not individual, enterprises, so teaching quality and school performance depend above all on whether the institutional systems support teachers’ efforts.”

Another good article is in the NY Times and centers on student success needing character and individual failure. An interesting line from a headmaster is this one:

People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

Basically, the premise of this headmaster is that students need to develop character in order to overcome obstacles in life. It’s a lengthy but interesting read and worth the effort.

Argumentation and the School

I may have created a monster…well, maybe 95 of them. I gave my students the assignment of choosing a school issue and then use the rhetorical triangle to organize their ideas. They loved it!

Now they want to flood the administration with their proposals, and I am proud to admit that some of them are quite good. Woe to the administrators when they get these kids flooding their mail boxes and offices.

What a great few days!

Extortion from Duncan and Obama?

Recently, Secretary of Education Duncan continued his push for the Obama Administration’s education policies as he provided an escape from the faulty and unrealistic mandates of the No Child Left Behind law. However, instead of simply admitting that NCLB does not work, needs an overhaul, and is being repealed, a press release was presented which says that states can be excused from NCLB if they sign onto other requirements. Here is part of that press release:

The administration’s proposal for fixing NCLB calls for college- and career-ready standards, more great teachers and principals, robust use of data, and a more flexible and targeted accountability system based on measuring annual student growth. Barnes and Duncan will note that the final details on the ESEA flexibility package will reflect similar goals. The specifics of the package will be made public in September.

Sounds like value-added scores or evaluations based on standardized test scores and Common Core standards being adopted, the same ideas in Race to the Trough Top.

Is this just a choice of the lesser of two evils? Escape from a bad law by agreeing to bad legislation? Essentially, Duncan seems to be telling the states that NCLB doesn’t work and the states can be excused from it if they agree to potentially worse (and unproven) legislation.

The federal level is not the place to solve local education decisions. Duncan even admits that the best decisions for schools comes from the local level:

There is no magic bullet for fixing education and the best ideas will always come from the local level—from the hardworking men and women in our schools doing the hard work every day to educate our children.

This offer from Duncan’s office and the Obama Administration appears at best to be an administration trying to push its education agenda onto states and at worst to be an open extortion of suffering states.

Reject this offer. Force the government to fix NCLB. Make the administration do what it promised.