5 Questions for . . .
Rachael Avery Barton, Middle School History Teacher in Leominster
Michael Capuano, U.S. Representative for Massachusetts’ 7th District
Kenneth Hawes, Senior Lecturer in Education, Wellesley College
Phillip James, History Department Coordinator, Lincoln-Sudbury R.H.S.
Véronique Latimer, High School Art Teacher
Arthur Unobskey, Assistant Superintendent, Gloucester Public Schools
Isa Zimmerman, Executive Director, Massachusetts ASCD (Association
for Supervision and Curriculum Development)
2. In recent years all those touched by public education have experienced a remarkable number of reform efforts – PARCC, DDMs, SEI-RETELL, RTTT**, Educator Evaluation, Common Core – presumably aimed at producing well-educated citizens. How has this reform armada changed, or how will it change the daily lives and educational practices of students and teachers in Massachusetts?
Rachael Avery Barton
Now this, this is something I could rant about for pages. Going back to the idea of “well-educated” and these aims of as you phrased it…”producing well-educated citizens”…well who is to say 100% what that even means? You could ask two hundred different people and get two hundred different answers about what it means to be well-educated. That is why creating a cookie cutter curriculum, standard of teaching, and test is so ridiculous. Whose version of well-educated is it measuring???? The answer is: Pearson’s version. Houghton-Mifflin’s version. Ack! Essentially you have giant corporations controlling what and how things are taught in schools, to every student, regardless of differences, strengths, weaknesses, or interest.
We as teachers are forced to rush through material. To move on further and further and further, faster and faster and faster. We have become rushers because everything must now be cookie-cutter. We all need to be doing the same things, at the same time, regardless of the students we have in front of us. All so we, as teachers, can be judged based on the success of our students pitted against other teachers who are in the same doomed spiral. We need to get EVERYTHING in before MARCH now just so they can take a damn test which essentially proves nothing except whether or not they have met Pearson’s standards.
We now have CFAs (common formative assessments) as part of the educator evaluation reforms. This means that no longer can we as teachers even create our own individual tests, projects or essays. We are handed them by administration. These assessments are used at our school to evaluate how well we as teachers are doing in the guise of how well our students are doing. But those who grade them do not know the students taking them! A poorly done essay in one person’s eyes, may be a masterpiece because the student who wrote it has extreme disabilities, or is just learning English. These CFAs further forces us, as teachers, to rush through material. The math teacher on my team must move on to the next chapter when she is told. It doesn’t matter if the kids in front of her don’t understand. She needs to give the next CFA on the same date as the other 8th grade math teachers in the school regardless. This sets her students up for failure, which most of them are! With math, how can you move on to more advanced forms of algebra when you don’t even understand how to divide fractions?!?
We are dooming our students! More and more as the years go by, as teachers of all grades keep rushing and rushing, I am finding students are less and less prepared each year as they enter the eighth grade. These standardized tests, these DDMs, the CFA’s are meant to measure vast amounts of content, so much content that it leaves little for students to really master anything. (Neurologically speaking brains just don’t work the way we have to teach nowadays.) Sure they can cram for the tests, but they forget it the next day. And what we have lost in the meantime is things like: novel study (WE DON’T DO A SINGLE NOVEL IN THE 8TH GRADE! Just nonfiction after nonfiction reading), poetry, teacher motivation, curiosity, interest, debate, and problem solving skills, grammar, organizational skills, and study skills. We have lost our students’ passion, their interest, their understanding. We as teachers also have lost this.
Students are not prepared at all to move forward, but we are forced to move on past the basics with no time to go back and help them. It is no wonder that so many students are losing basic math and writing skills. They were taught them once, then oh wait…it’s time to move on! Ultimately, who are blamed though, us the teachers. For not teaching them, when our hands are tied. It is not the teacher who is to blame; it is the system we have put in place that is failing students.
Almost all recent ed-reform has focused on teaching, learning and testing the knowledge of “stuff.” I have always thought that one of the primary teaching tools in group education is individual and group interaction and socialization. That takes time and is harder today due to technology (it offers too many distractions that encourage young people to shut themselves off from the world around them). Basically, society has placed as much pressure on young people as on adults, with little opportunity to learn how to unwind, to play, and to enjoy life. For my children, I emphasized the pursuit of happiness in life – I encouraged education as a means of achieving that goal. I also emphasized empathy with and understanding of others as worthy goals. Today, it seems that pure education and test success are the only shared goals in society. Maybe young people are “smarter” as measured by tests, but they also require much more medication, psychoanalysis, mindfulness, yoga and other stress-relief mechanisms than ever before. Is that truly the goal we all want for our children?
One thing we have seen is that the emphasis on student test scores for school evaluation has shifted to a degree to an emphasis on test scores for teacher evaluation. If teacher evaluation is not done well – especially if teachers don’t trust the evaluation system they are in – then that will have very serious consequences for who stays in teaching. It could be a school by school thing, I suppose, unless the state or federal regulations become so onerous that even good principals and teacher leaders can’t make them work well enough to build trust.
The reform efforts, though perhaps well intended, do not foster the atmosphere needed to help students become well-educated. These efforts seem to be more concerned with teacher accountability and measuring achievement. Success on a test does not necessarily indicate that a student is well-educated. Furthermore, since the tests are such “high stakes” endeavors, much time is given to students prepping for these tests. The skills gained may help a student “ace” the test, but that may be all such success means. Students and teachers alike are being robbed of the joy of learning and the opportunity to explore intellectually. The goal of teaching and learning cannot merely be to do well on a standardized test. Yet our schools have become more focused on this end. Too many days are devoted to the actual testing, and too many days are given over to getting students ready for these tests.
Well, as an art teacher I have seen a lot of this go on around me but not necessarily affect me too much. Sure, it is annoying when the school schedule is disrupted for testing, but thankfully my curriculum has not had to change to teach for a test. As for DDMs, Educator Evaluation and Common Core, it’s been funny to see how no one really knows what to do for us – we don’t quite fit in with other disciplines! When DDMs first came out we were told that no one really knew what art teachers were supposed to do – so we looked at Music DDMs from other districts, then we looked at the state of Connecticut DDMs for Art teachers which were in the process of being developed – so then we just decided to showcase projects that we were already doing anyway. This year with Common Core it seems to be the same thing, just another hoop to jump through, but we were told we needed to have hard data – it had to be “quantified.” So, I guessed a percentage that I thought my students’ self-portraits would improve by after doing them at the beginning of the semester and a few months into the semester after more instruction. It seems silly to me honestly, another hoop to jump through. Art is different – these reforms aren’t designed with art in mind! We work around it to keep doing what is important in our discipline – have kids solve problems creatively.
The standards movement has reduced the constant re-invention of “what” we teach so that teachers and administrators can focus on how we teach. With fewer discussions of content, teachers have focused more on meeting the needs of students with special needs and whose first language is not English. In particular, we have developed lessons that give easy access to students with different strengths and weaknesses, using visual, verbal and text to deliver information and more authentic assessments of that information through more on-demand writing assignments and verbal presentations. At times, technology has made students sloppy, allowing them to build pretty Powerpoints without enduring the rigor of crafting a multi-paragraph essay. As teachers all use these standards to determine the content and skills they teach, standardized testing becomes necessary to ensure that new pedagogical approaches challenge students effectively.
Standardized tests also provide a common language for determining whether administrators run good schools. While the growth scores that come from these state tests are still somewhat crude, and are not yet appropriate to use as a basis for determining a teacher’s overall effectiveness, they have provided clear incentives for administrators to hire, support and fire teachers through a rational process: no matter how difficult a teacher is to manage, no administrator wants to lose a teacher who produces excellent test scores. The new educator evaluation system in Massachusetts, and the accompanying online district websites that store those evaluations have ensured that teachers have clear evaluation processes and receive those evaluations in a timely manner. Perhaps all of these systems will ease the teacher unions’ need to portray evaluators as out-of-touch with good teaching, and at times, bullying evaluators.
While it has created an accountability system where none existed, the assessment of these standards has caused schools to allocate students’ time in concerning ways. When districts and states create a competitive grading system for their schools, and they use annual tests scores as more than 50% of a school’s score, they inevitably create a teach-to-the-test mentality. Schools get special accommodations for as many students as possible to help their scores, they train their students to use a certain format when they write that scores somewhat higher on the test but does not reflect high-level thinking, and they hold ridiculous pep rallies in which adults chant to the kids “they can do it” as if they were marching through hot coals. These are not the activities of the rigorous liberal arts training that I envisioned above.
While the annual tests are useful as one data point for individual students, they are not nearly as useful as the daily formative assessments that teachers collect in class when they take notes on students’ reading fluency, observe them discuss material, and give individualized feedback on written responses. Teachers learn more and have a greater impact on student improvement through these formative assessments.
Standardized, yearly testing that assesses the Common Core Standards is necessary and a useful data point in determining a student’s, teacher’s, school’s, and district’s progress. However, it is just one piece of data and superintendents that make finishing 8th rather than 12th in the state will create a competitive, not a collaborative, environment, where students spend too much time preparing for this test.
The alphabet soup is a challenge but one that should cause decision makers to be careful when making decisions. I believe that a child’s zip code should not determine his or her future. Rather, we are one nation and all our children should be offered the “same” opportunities and have the same “expectations.” I think the Common Core is the right idea and if followed correctly can produce well-educated citizens all working toward being personally successful and societally responsible.
**Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers; District-Determined Measures; Sheltered English Instruction/Rethinking Equity and Teaching for English Language Learners; Race to the Top