Once upon a time, I worked at a school that took teaching seriously, where we put time into creating thoughtful, authentic curriculum that engaged the human beings sitting in front of us and working with us. We cared about test scores as one of many validations that we were doing something right, but we didn’t let them drive all decisions about what might be best for the kids or for a unit or lesson. And our scores were good, and our kids thrived (despite occasionally claiming to hate our school for being incredibly strict), and we felt a lot of freedom as teachers. We created enrichment and remediation programs during and after school, never enough of either, but the best we could do.
Sometime when I was away, we bit the poisonous apple. I don’t know who brought the apple to the door, whether it was new city or statewide policy, or new people in new positions within the school, or old people in old positions within the school. Probably a little of each. Also, some of the clearest voices for remembering the whole child left; now we give lip service to the idea but I don’t see it in practice.
In many ways, we still work at the same school, but there’s something new in the air, I guess a greater urge towards compliance for its own sake. We are being asked to collect tons of data, to document damn near everything, to have professional binders with fourteen different sections (I exaggerate, but only slightly), any of which can lead to professional growth when handled correctly – I don’t want to sound defensive or set in my ways, because not doing these things can often be just an excuse for one’s own unwillingness to change – but… somehow it feels like doing it just to make it look done, not out of a spirit of embracing the possibilities for honest-to-goodness growth.
Recently, almost 20 of our lowest-performing kids lost their chance to choose an enrichment class because they are getting one more hour of math remediation with our “inquiry team;” never mind that these kids come in early, leave late, and already spend something like nine hours per week in math class. One hour a week when they get to do something based around their own interests and choices. One hour a week when most of them drop their behavior problems because they care. One hour a week when teachers see students differently and students see teachers differently. Is it worth giving this up for a frustrating hour of marginally useful math instruction?
Our quality review is coming up and lots of preparation is taking place. Back in September, I was asked, as department chair, to revise the science section of the CEP (comprehensive education plan). I didn’t make many changes to what we’d written in the past, wasn’t provided any information about new formatting or new expectations for the types of goals we should set, submitted our departmental revisions and they were accepted. Now, a few months later, we’re being asked to revise those goals again, by the same people who accepted them in the fall. I’m sure that they have new information that they didn’t have then – but if that’s the case, why couldn’t we just leave the CEP alone, an authentic representation of where we’re at, and then, in next year’s revision process, do some careful work about the new expectations and how they can best be expressed by each department according to its needs? How does it help us as teachers or the school as a whole to make more revisions under time pressure without much thoughtful discussion? Because the moment you begin to delve into the question of big goals for the year in a subject area, you hit sticky questions of what to measure (obviously, the performance standards, but there’s more to it than that when you sit down to make an assessment), how often, and what constitutes a reasonable standard to set as a meaningful but realistic goal.
For example: our kids are not doing fabulously on unit exams. It’s a real problem; the class averages float around 60-75%. The exams are standards-based but harder (I’m pretty sure) than the types of questions asked on the 8th grade ILS exam, which our students have done well on, sometimes very well. I personally believe it is through this level of day-to-day rigor that we over-prepare the kids and therefore don’t have to sweat the small stuff when it comes to test-anxiety, because most of our kids will get 3s and 4s, and the rest 2s, and none or nearly none 1s. So, in the past, our objectives were: (1) every kid meets or exceeds the standards on the ILS exam (lofty, but given that our first year we got 95%, not ridiculous) and (2) every kid completes a yearly science expo project that meets the standards for exit projects. Everything else we do is a step on the way towards meeting these goals.
But now, we need to add other objectives and benchmarks, I’m told. In light of all the above, we need to add some yearly checkpoints. This is not unreasonable, but does it belong in the CEP? I mean, we’re all giving yearly diagnostics and final exams, and we put that in there in another section, but besides that, don’t those unit exams count as benchmarks? Yes, but we have to set an objective. Okay, what’s a reasonable goal? The number of students achieving 80% or higher on unit exams will increase by 10%? What does that even mean? A teacher objects that this is a really pathetic goal, and it’s true. Not only is it a bit unclear how our unit exams align with the final test – and we don’t think that’s a major problem because we are being more rigorous than strictly necessary – but 10% improvement sounds sad. Plus, I’m not sure we have the knowledge within the building of how to get that 10% improvement. If I had it, my kids would be performing that much better already. No one comes to see what we do and make suggestions. The PD provided for the FOSS kits was just to introduce them, not to fine-tune and push for greater success. And the lines we’ve put in the CEP about professional memberships, publications, and PD are certainly not happening. Where’s the accountability around that? But, whatever, that’s not the conversation we’re having today, back to the objectives. What about, 80% of students will achieve 80% or higher on lab reports? At least we can tie this to our scaffolding of lab report skills across the grade levels. We agree to it for the moment. What we really need is to sit down with people who can talk about these issues with us in a meaningful way, maybe look at the assessments we’re giving and help us make sense of how it all fits in with the city and state stuff, help us think through the shoulds of this situation… what is right if we really want to help kids? Not just what looks good or lets us check off another box on some bureaucrat’s list.
I can only express hope that this is the growing pains of a comparatively new process, that over the years it will stabilize into something where the expectations of schools are clear and reasonable, so that schools can build this sort of thinking into their longterm planning and development. But somehow, I’m not confident in this.
For the record, a consultant who works with our school and sees more of the administrative behind-the-scenes stuff DOES think that real growth is coming out of the process. So, that’s another thing kicking around in my brain as I try to resolve it all. I am never, never against pushing harder towards student achievement or asking people to change – but you’ve gotta make me believe in it first.