March 15, 2008

What He Said: Who Teaches Anymore?

Three of my colleagues directed me to read an essay, "Education is Out" by local teacher Roger Phillips, which can be found in the most current issue of Las Vegas Weekly. I'm not sure who reads Las Vegas Weekly or if its readership even cares about education, but I do appreciate any efforts that teachers can make to inform the public.

Mr. Phillips hates to inform the public that he doesn't have time to actually teach anymore...and you know testing is the biggest reason.

This school year my students will take no fewer than 12 mandatory tests, which will erode a minimum of 26 instructional days from their classroom learning. Some of these tests, in fact, will be duplications of the same test information. Due to time constraints and teachers not having access to the tests or answer keys, mandatory tests, therefore, often go ungraded as class work, and many students either lack motivation to take the tests or couldn’t care less about them. Some, in fact, refuse to take the tests seriously or at all, so what does that measure?

What is the schedule? Three CCSD Interim Tests (two days each, or six days), the Nevada State Writing Proficiency Test (two days), four quarterly building-level unit tests based on CCSD Benchmarks (two days each, or eight days), the Iowa Basic Test (two days), the Criterion Reference Test (CRT) examination—the big test which measures a school’s federal NCLB Average Yearly Progress (AYP) standards—(six days) and two semester finals (two days).

In addition to the test dates, I will need to forfeit at least another 22-30 days of class instruction for pre-test preparations, test analysis and post-test follow-ups in order to assure test concepts are understood and scores become the highest possible. With the time remaining, I’ll try to connect substantial information within my lesson plans so that the educational maze and merry-go-round of test information might make sense or otherwise be of some value.

Boy am I feeling that pain! This quarter started off with two days of CCSD Interim Testing, directly followed three days of prepping for the Nevada State Writing Proficiency Exam, which of course, led to two days of the actual exam. I had about a week to of normalcy before I had to spend part of every class period for a week psyching my students out for the CRT. The CRT ruined a full four days of class. Although we did have classes each day after testing, it was such a limited amount of time that it took us those four days to accomplish what I would have done in one class period. The other 8th grade English teachers and I are suppose to give a common quarter assessment, but I pleaded with my administrator to just let us teach instead of test. I have benchmarks to reach, after all!

Mr. Phillips also has a few things to say about the district benchmarks, which he calls, "unconnected—if not disjointed—impracticable standards" for which our students are tested each quarter. I've struggled with the curriculum since I moved to CCSD, but I thought perhaps it was a personal problem. How hard can it be? It's English! I've been teaching to this state's standards for years. I understand the content quite well, and I have a decent toolbox full of approaches for teaching the content, but I do have difficulty getting it to flow. My issues are compounded as I try to balance the benchmarks with the ideals of the magnet program for which I teach, and sometimes it seems like I'm working on a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzles where there are pieces I just can't find, yet I KNOW they should be there. Maybe it's not just me.

A few of my colleagues and I were discussing this article over lunch, and while none of them teach in testable subjects, they feel the impact that all this testing has on the students. Plus, they've heard me rant enough that they understand Mr. Phillips speaks the truth. A young substitute in our school who was eating with us was appalled by what she read and asked if the parents knew what was going on. What would the average parent have to say about this over-testing? They have to know about the testing. What does it make me look like to complain to the parents that we have too many tests? Does it make me look unprofessional? Are the parents secretly relieved that there is some proof that their children are learning?

"What are we teachers doing about it?" asked the bright-eyed substitute. I dunno; waiting for the pendulum to swing back?

I remember the day I heard about NCLB. You know how people when they heard about JFK's assassination or the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers? It's like that. It was one of the last weekend workshops I was to attend that year as a member of the professional development team in my district. I'd been on the team for four years, through a program in northern Nevada that trained and paid teachers to provide professional development for their own districts. Apparently changes were being made and monies for the program were being diverted elsewhere. Professional development was going in a new direction. No Child Left Behind. School Improvement Plans.

I was sitting in the cafeteria of the new high school in Silver Springs, Nevada, which is little more than a crossroad town (the WRPD made it a point to hold trainings in every county at some point, no matter how small), watching a state testing director deliver a PowerPoint outlining the new direction education was going to take with NCLB. I remember thinking, "This teaching gig is really going to suck now. I wish I were in her shoes right now. She just gets to go around telling all of us how to implement this thing. We're the ones that have to do it. It's an impossible idea." At that time I was teaching in a school where 30% of the students had IEPs. Yeah, just because the government says that all of these students will be proficient doesn't mean anything. Did they think a mandate would make it so? Especially with no funds to back it? Whatever.

And I've felt quite powerless ever since.

So what do we teachers do about it? Complain. (And I might add, our administrators at every level sympathize with us, but they are powerless, too.)

And then we pick ourselves up and do the best we can to teach under the rules we are given.

It's part of the job.

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