Category Archives: Class Size

Grade Books and Younger vs. Older Teachers

Today was an exploration of the new grade book system we are using. I spent a couple hours identifying the basic functions, but the bulk of that time was used trying to figure out how to make it let me grade the way I want to enter scores.

I’ve decided that I am going to use GPA scoring on every assignment (4.0 for and A, 3.0 for a B, etc.) while still using my categories (i.e. tests, writings, final, etc.). This will make every assignment within each category weighted the same. Each unit test over the novels will have the same effect within its category as will each paper, each presentation, each speech, and so on. It won’t be a standards-based system, but I have not found the standards adopted to include all that they should. That’s my bias and the reason I do not have a full standards-based system. Regardless, I am going to have to manipulate the grade book percentages to allow for GPA scoring, and it took the better part of 90 minutes to determine how to make it work.

I also read a few articles on education issues today for about an hour. As any teacher knows, the measurements or assessments used have a drastic effect on student motivation and success just like the way schools are graded have a tremendous impact on funding and more, which is what this article notes on Alabama schools. Another interesting article noted that the Seattle School District wants to raise class sizes despite a Washington State Supreme Court ruling demanding smaller class sizes.

Today I received a call from a younger teacher, one who would be considered part of the online generation (an age group never really knowing a world without the internet). Truth be told, I straddle the line between the online and pre-online generations, but the teacher who called me is definitely an onliner. She wanted to know if we had a specific resource, and my first thought was “have you looked?” I would guess the answer to be “no,” but I have no real evidence to suggest this to be true except past experience.

What I’ve noticed is that the younger teachers don’t always tend to look first before asking others to come to their aid; whereas, the elder teachers look first and try to figure things out on their own before including others. This may not necessarily be a negative, but I have observed that the younger generation, including my students, want a immediate answer rather than putting in an extra minute or two discovering the answer on their own. They seem to think it’s ok for them to inconvenience others to speed up their activities. Maybe that ‘s a bit harsh, but I see it frequently.

Truly, providing the answer required less than a minute of my time, but in the time it took the teacher to call and chat with me, she could have located the resource on her own without interrupting me. I wasn’t even really bothered by the call and was happy to help (and very happy this teacher was starting her planning three before school starts), but the call did generate the thought about how the generations differ.

I know, I know. I sound like an old fuddy-duddy, including my use of that antiquated term, but the Google Generation does seem to want everything right now and don’t always have the patience of their elder peers. Is this simply a product of age or the effect of the online age? I’m not sure, but the trend seems to be increasingly true and today was a prime example.

Oh, sheesh. Maybe I’m becoming a curmudgeon. 🙂

Update: Maybe I should post my feelings about how the older teachers often fret over technology while the younger teachers rush to embrace it. And, when will I go from embracing the technology to fretting about it?

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A New Direction

My blogging has slowed, and I think part of the reason is that I need to do something a bit different. In the past I have written about topical items and teaching techniques, which I think can still be a part of this blog, but I plan to use this more of a journal-type series of posts. Keeping a running log about what I do as teacher on a daily basis might be a more realistic view of teaching as well as allow me to record my history as a teacher. Maybe, just maybe, I can quash some of the misconceptions about teachers as well, try to show the public–even one person if I am lucky enough to have a non-teacher or two read this blog–that a school year really is a year in length.

Today, for example, I read 5-6 articles on education, explored my class roster for the upcoming school year, and shared some files with a colleague.

The article I spent the most time reading (and checking out the comments) is a Seattle Times editorial advocating teachers and their union to “focus on new reforms” without actually including any advice that really goes beyond following what the law already says teachers must do (e.g. include student test scores in the evaluation process, which is current law and not even a choice). This type of empty rhetoric simply allows an editorial board to promote a privatizing agenda without really saying anything of substance but still pushes the buzzwords in education such as reform, union, contracts, etc. The Seattle Times, now without a competing major newspaper since The Seattle Post-Intelligencer became an online only reporting agency, has become increasingly strident and heavy-handed in its disdain for the state teachers union in addition to becoming a mouthpiece for privatizers of education. I spent about an hour total reading all of the articles.

It looks like my classes will average 29-30 students each.

I explored my class roster today and learned quite a bit about my students. Since our records are available online, I decided to see what my students’ GPAs look like, how they did in English last year, and what their households look like. Overall, the classes look pretty accomplished with a number of students challenging themselves with their first upper-level English courses. Some teachers don’t like this, but I love seeing students push themselves academically; I firmly believe that a B- in an advanced course means more than an A- in a non-accelerated course. I think the records review took about 90 minutes in total.

Lastly, I shared some vocabulary files I created for my classes. I probably help my colleagues teach vocabulary more than just about anything else during the year. I maintain a steady routine each week for the kids to follow, so they don’t have to guess what is due each day or be surprised by the week’s schedule; however, I do try mix up the reviews and practices with puzzles, games, synonyms, antonyms, shared word parts, connect the words to the literature, sentences, stories, and so on. The more we use the words, the better the students know them.

An Education Divide

How does a kindergarten class of 40 sound to you? Or a high school class of 60? Well, in Detroit that can happen now.

I’ve never met any teacher who said bigger classes will make my job easier or help students learn more. However, I have often heard from those in power that class size really matters (and then the unspoken “for my kids”). Public schools are allowed to have bloated class sizes and inadequate resources, but the social elite ensure this never happens to their kids.

And still, none of this really gets to solving the real problem: poverty. Students in poverty are disproportionately at risk over all other students.

Raising expectations with new standards or additional required credits does not solve Johnny’s problems at home where his father left and his mother isn’t home much as she works so much. Higher expectations and new learning targets don’t help Cindy get the breakfast she misses every morning or the hits she takes each night from her step-father.

America’s students in schools with less than 10% poverty are among the world’s best while schools with more than 75% struggle mightily:

Poverty rates make a huge difference in student achievement. Few people are aware, for example, that in 2009 U.S. schools with fewer than 10 percent of student in poverty ranked first among all nations on the Programme for International Achievement tests in reading, while those serving more than 75 percent of students in poverty scored alongside nations like Serbia, ranking about fiftieth.

I only wish America’s policies matched the research and allowed this nation to solve the truest indicator of future success or failure: poverty.

Responses to Attacks on Teachers

An interesting debate has popped up on a Seattle Times article, but most of the debate centers on the same old, rehashed, and repeated talking points which are decidedly anti-public education. Here are my quick responses to a couple topics.

Responding to someone who advocates performance over seniority during times of layoffs:

Everyone is pretty much in agreement that the current evaluation system is not working. Thus, trying to use a system (that we all basically agree is broken) on which to base layoffs is a ludicrous notion. The new evaluation system (if the administrators do what they are supposed to do) will force teachers to improve and will more accurately assess teachers.

If you create a system that ranks teachers, collaboration is gone. No longer would a teacher have an incentive to help other teachers, especially those new to teaching. In fact, watching a teacher struggle next door would be a benefit to me. This cynical view would become reality, and ultimately the kids would become the victims. Why would I aid someone when I am in competition with him?

Plus, every ranking system used in education has numerous flaws as study after study reveals. This would create lawsuits and more. As one example, Houston’s teachers were ranked using one such system. When the state test, SAT, and ACT exams were used to rank the teachers, the results varied greatly from one test to the other yet all three are teaching goals. Teachers at the top of one list were on the bottom of another. This end result has been repeatedly shown in Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and in other areas.

People also have a mistaken notion that seniority is the only factor during layoffs. This is inaccurate. In fact, what a teacher instructs has a large impact on RIFs. Some areas/positions cannot be cut, and a highly qualified teacher must be in those positions.

“Based on performance over seniority” is a great soundbite, but it is really nothing more than a bumper sticker slogan and worth about as much.

Responding to teachers not putting in enough hours to warrant their pay checks:

I teach English and I’m required to teach a number of thesis papers each year. Now, if each of my 150 students composes a paper and I take 15 minutes per paper, that’s 37.5 hours for one paper. This does not include any other assignments, prep time for lessons, parent contacts, etc. This occurs on top of everything else, and it’s only one paper. One of my classes requires 4-5 papers per semester.

I don’t say this to elicit sympathy but to illustrate the number of unseen hours that some teachers endure during the school year, unpaid time that teachers essentially volunteer to their students because they care about those children. These are volunteer hours, and the teachers could simply work their hours and go home, but they do not.

There are disciplines without these extra hours requirements; this, I recognize. However, most teachers put in many hours well beyond the contract details.

Responding to the mistaken notion that teachers can’t be fired:

Incompetent administrators do struggle to terminate those who need to leave the profession.

Tenure in this state does not mean a job for life as many like to believe, but it does require due process. This really means that the administration has to show (with evidence) that the teacher should be let go.

However, a teacher can be fired for any reason in the first three years of employment. Let me repeat that: any reason. This gives the administration three full years with no real obstruction to determine a teacher’s fitness in the classroom.

Just as I must provide evidence to justify a grade for a student (and whether or not the student passes a course) and provide the means for improvement, an administrator must justify with evidence a termination.

Still, some offenses result in immediate termination. I can’t comment on the Auburn teacher since I was not involved with the case (were you?). I have been involved in a couple cases where teachers were terminated; it just didn’t make the papers.

Responding to the oft-repeated idea that unions are only out for themselves:

I’m not so sure why people think the unions are such negatives in education (though I would agree that not all unions are the same).

In my district the union does a great job enforcing due process and advocating for me, but it also helps with things no one else is pushing for: keeping class sizes manageable, helping ensure I get the professional development I need, protecting me from poor administrators, making sure the curriculum doesn’t become a scripted and brainless series of exercises, and more. These things benefit kids as much as (or more than) the teachers.

The state union has actually collaborated with the state for a new evaluation system intended to force professional growth and improve student learning. This is a definite positive for education.

Responding to a critic who does not understand how a masters helps a teacher become better:

Depends on the masters and how it is applied. I earned mine while teaching, so everything I learned I put into practice immediately. My masters forced me to analyze data in different ways, to use it in my classroom with more specificity, and to alter the way I structured lessons and activities. For me, the masters made a huge difference.

Plus, teaching is not a static profession. New approaches, studies, material, and so one are developed all the time. Continuing education is a major component of being a teacher.

That’s about it for now.

For Your Consideration

A few stats from the WEA website to consider:

Framing the Educational Questions

I often discuss with my students the art of framing a question. I teach them how to fairly, justly, and ethically create a question based on neutrality and fact-finding.

And then I tell them how to do it effectively.

I like to illustrate framing an argument using one of the most controversial of topics–abortion. I ask them to consider the names of the two sides.

One side of the debate calls itself “Pro-Life.” After all, who could argue against life? Who is “for death”? No one. Of course not.

But then, we have the opposing side, the “Pro-Choice” side. I mean, let’s be real. Who’s against choice, the freedom to make one’s decisions? Who wants to lose free will?

This is a bit of a simplistic method, but it illustrates how simply framing a name or argument can skew the debate. It shifts the focus to what the questioner desires.

And we, as teachers, face this spin daily. The media’s coverage of American education is disgraceful to me, and I believe the fault lies not only in the laziness of the press but also in the framers of the questions.

The central problem in education, according to the ignorant or dishonest, is that lazy teachers exist. Really, who wants a lazy teacher in the local school? Which kid is fortunate enough to get that instructor? Bill Ayers discusses this in an article when he says the following:

Because what am I going to say? “My granddaughter deserves that lazy, incompetent teacher!” They’re getting the conclusion that they want by framing the question as a statement. So there’s only one answer; no one can take the other side of that proposition. But what if I got to the podium first and said, “Every kid in America deserves an intellectually grounded, morally committed, compassionate, caring, intelligent, thoughtful, well-rested and well-paid teacher in the classroom”? We’d agree with that, too! So, who gets to say what we’re talking about?

This type of (false) argument shifts the focus from the real problems in education—poverty, a lack of parent involvement, a loss of local control, businessmen and legislators making educational decisions, poor funding, and class size (to name but a few)—to a scapegoat: the teacher. Now, I’m not saying that teachers couldn’t improve or that there aren’t some seriously lazy teachers; I see them daily. But, teachers have not suddenly gotten worse in the last ten years to be targeted in such a fashion.

Ayers also mentions a problem I dispise when discussing unions: the contract. I refer to the teachers’ contract as “our” contract or “the agreement” between the district and association. The district was at the negotiating table and did sign off on it; the district is an equal partner. However, this is not how people like to think of the contract. Even my building’s administrators like to call it the “teachers’ contract” without any acknowledgement or acceptance of responsibility for it despite the fact that one of my building’s administrators is a negotiator (and is the worst culprit). As Ayers notes:

“Remember, the contract doesn’t only belong to the union, even though in The New Yorker and in the New York Times editorials, it’s as if the contract is all the union – the school board is also party to the contract; they negotiated it!”

Ayers also comments on a major problem others have noted as well: the New York City “rubber room” for teachers waiting for their hearings was featured in newspapers all over the country. Even The New Yorker included an article detailing the cases of 15 teachers…out of many thousands of good and great teachers! As he says, “Why is that what we’re focused on? It’s because a case is being built that somehow teachers and their unions are the whole cause of the misery.”

Some unions are better than others. I freely admit that. But, I’ll argue until I’m blue in the face that unions are not the primary issue to “solve” in education. Neither are the teachers.

The real elephant in the room is the search for the silver bullet to kill the problems in education and the search for the magic bean that will grow a new, perfect system. No solution will be simple. Or cheap. Or right for every school.

Still, the framing of educational stories continues, and we need to fight that every step of the way. It’ll be hard work, but I want to defeat the lazy teacher image anyway.

Falling Test Scores

My school’s state test scores dropped. No surprise there. We have larger class sizes because of staff decreases, less instructional time because of yearly schedule alterations, and a push to reduce the amount of work assigned in our classes.

However, the good news that will be celebrated is that our graduation rate is up. (My personal feeling is that this is the real goal, not student achievement.)

Now, I’m not one who believes state test scores are all-encompassing, and I don’t believe they are even the most important measures we use. Still, the drop in the last two straight years is starting to concern me, especially if it happens a third year in a row. It has to indicate some type of change.

The start of the drops coincides with the first time the school changed its schedule and its instructional time.

Maybe the canary is dying in the coal mine.