Sunday, December 28, 2008

We Have Met the Enemy, And He Is Us

On the day before Christmas vacation, euphemistically referred to in our district as "Winter Break," my colleagues and I received in our mailboxes multiple copies of letters apparently written by our superintendent and addressed to the parents of our students. Although the superintendent's name was included in the closing, the letter was not signed and was not written on district letterhead.  Furthermore, the letter included no instructions or explanation as to its content or the motivation for distributing it other than a couple of cryptic and arcane references to something called No Child Left Behind:  Title I, Part A, Section 1111, Parent Right to Know/House Bill 212: 22-10A-16 (!!!).  
The body of the letter in its entirety reads:

Dear Parent:  
On January 8, 2002, President Bush signed the new federal education act, titled No Child Left Behind.  This new law includes many new programs and changes for all public schools in the United States.
The new laws permit you, as a parent or guardian, the right to request information about the licensure and other qualifications, teaching assignment, and training of your child's teacher and any paraprofessional (instructional assistants) who may work with your child.
If you are interested in requesting this information, please contact:  [school name and phone number].  
The Superintendent [unsigned]

Excuse me?  The federal government, using our district's superintendent and possibly our school's principal as conduits, expects me to pass on a letter to the parents of my students calling into question my teaching credentials as well as those of my assistant and the rest of my colleagues!?  
What could possibly be the motivation for sending such a letter?  Does the federal government suspect the district failed in its duty to adequately verify the credentials of its teachers and assistants upon employment?  Did dozens of unqualified, unlicensed, or untrained teachers or assistants accidentally slip through the cracks, requiring the district to deputize a  vigilante corps of parents to help root out the rogue educators in order to prevent further damage to their children's education?  
It is worth noting that the letter conveniently fails to call into question the credentials of school administrators, such as the superintendent and the principal, whose job descriptions include—or should include—verifying the credentials of the people they hire.  If the government suspects there are unqualified educators among us, shouldn't the letter first call into question the credentials of the administrators who hired them?  
It is also worth noting that the words "Title I" are included in the heading's citation.   This implies that parents are receiving the letter because their children are attending a school whose free and reduced lunch population is high enough that the school qualifies for supplemental federal dollars not allocated to wealthier schools. Does this mean that the government is only questioning the credentials of teachers in "poorer" schools?
Beyond these and other questions, to which we will likely never get answers, the ulterior intent of the letter remains:  It amounts to yet another attempt by the federal government to lay the blame of all that is perceived lacking in public education entirely at the feet of educators.  Yes, unqualified, untrained teachers are the cause of what is bad in public education. This goes hand in hand with a myriad of other moves by the Bush administration, too numerous to list here, to dismantle public education altogether in order to promote private schools and their attendant vouchers.   (If all this sounds eerily familiar, remember we went to war in Iraq because the Bush administration had no faith in the credentials and the training of career weapons inspectors who, as we now know, were correct in their conclusion that Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction.)
But what hurts as much as the letter's contents is the timing of the letter.  While teachers and other school staff were scurrying around during their short potty breaks, leaving holiday wishes in each others' boxes, cooking and baking for the staff holiday potluck, writing out thank you cards to the students who gave them a modest gift, or stealing precious minutes from the scripted math, reading and science curricula in order to help their students make holiday gifts for their families, the federal government, by means of its local surrogates, sent letters to the parents of kids in poorer schools implying that the reason their children may not be doing so well in school is not because family income, nutrition, level of education or access to books and computers is inadequate, but because their child's teacher may be unqualified.  
And a very Merry Christmas to you, too!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Education of the Absurd

It is quite telling of the times we live in that I wasn’t surprised by the contents of an e-mail I received the other day from an accomplished children’s author and illustrator. In the e-mail she informed me that it is strictly taboo for illustrators of children’s books to include udders when drawing cows. Illustrators are also prohibited from drawing nipples on humans, even on Greek gods. And, of course, drawings of breast feeding babies are out of the question. The illustrators are asked to draw babies with bottles instead.

I’ve become inured to these cultural and educational absurdities because, as a teacher, I’ve been living them for many years now. Since the signing of NCLB in 2002, however, they have become more numerous and more absurd.

Take, for instance, the idea that teachers today are told in no uncertain terms to teach with fidelity a boxed and scripted curriculum while simultaneously differentiating the curriculum to accommodate a range of learners and learning styles. It doesn’t take a doctorate in education to understand that these two concepts are mutually exclusive. Since the enforcers of NCLB put much more emphasis on program fidelity than on differentiation, we plow through the script full tilt, making few accommodations for advanced or needy learners, leaving more children behind than before the law was signed in 2002.

It gets even more absurd. I recently cancelled an entire month of guided reading lessons in order to assess my students’ English and Spanish reading levels. That way I could have fresh, “red meat” data to throw to the school’s and the district’s data sharks. Never mind the fact that, by reading frequently with my students, I could predict quite precisely the results of each child’s assessment. The sad fact of the matter is that while I was spending hours and hours assessing my students’ reading levels, I was NOT spending time teaching them how to read. We have finally arrived at the absurd reality where assessment actually impedes academic progress; where teachers are attempting to assess what they haven’t yet taught because the time spent assessing them has used up too much of their instructional time.

And here’s an absurdity that is “key” to quality teaching and learning: teachers’ inability to access the workplace. Fifteen of the 30 teachers in our school do not have a key to the building in which their classrooms are located. This is supposedly due to the recent theft of computer hardware. As the reasoning goes, the fewer keys, the less likely hardware will walk. The problem with this line of reasoning, however, is that as far as I know none of the 15 teachers without keys is a suspect in the thefts. Having access to the workplace is a basic criterion of professionalism. One teacher even pointed out that, while she couldn’t access her classroom outside the duty day, her own teen aged daughter has the key to the fast food restaurant where she works part time! We are asked to do our jobs. As conscientious professionals, we try to comply. In the post NCLB world this often means working more hours outside the duty day than in the past. Without access to the workplace, however, compliance is not always possible.

As with the data frenzy and teaching with fidelity, the lack of access to the workplace illustrates how teachers are asked time and again by administrators and compliance cops of all stripes to go from A to C, only to find those same administrators standing at B preventing us from ever reaching C. If this isn’t absurd, then we need to redefine the term.

But before we spend too much energy redefining our terms, our creative energies might be better spent returning udders to cows so our students know where milk comes before they take the next assessment.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Finally: 2 + 2 = 3!

I had the pleasure recently of reading a weekly electronic newsletter written by our district’s superintendent and sent to all the district’s employees.  

In that letter he explained to us that, although our 2% raise might not be discernible in our paychecks, we could rest assured that our medical benefits would be more comprehensive.  

In an apparent attempt to explain both the indicernible raise and the new comprehensive coverage, the superintendent wrote that on December 1, 2008, all employees will experience a 7% medical premium increase, a 7% dental premium increase, and 33% increases in both doctor visit and surgery and emergency room co-payments.  It seemed as though he was trying to say that our 2% raise would be put to good use improving our medical coverage.  This despite the fact that we were never asked on what we wanted to spend our raise.

Here’s what the newsletter did not say.  This year, for the first time in the lives and careers of hundreds of public school teachers, we will not receive an automatic cost of living step increase.  Coupled with the reality of the increase in medical premiums and a raise that doesn’t even keep up with inflation, and you have what amounts to a pay cut for the current year.  Or at least it seems that way.

At first I didn’t believe I had actually received a pay cut.  I didn’t believe that my take home pay would be less than last year. Never in my career have I received less money one year than I did the year before.  I thought maybe the fifth grade math skills I teach to children had failed me.  Maybe I used the wrong algorithm.  Perhaps I didn’t read the  math teacher’s edition as thoroughly as I should have.  

So I decided to attack this problem a different way.  I scrounged up my paycheck from exactly one year ago and compared it to this week’s paycheck.  Keeping in mind that  there is nothing new in my contract for this year, I compared the two paychecks.  I realized immediately that I had been wrong. My take home pay did increase this year.  Yes, it amounts to $3 per paycheck or $78 for the year. Whew!  What a relief!

After a few minutes of euphoria, however, the rational, mathematical part of my brain kicked in again.  If I am experiencing an extra $3 per paycheck now, will I still have it once the 7% medical premium increases kick in in December?  My guess is that the increases in the premiums will pretty much wipe out my hard earned $3.  And if they don’t, then the medical co-payments for my family of four, which will increase from $15 to $20 to see the doctor and $75 to $100 for surgery and emergency room visits, will wipe it out for sure.

No matter what creative math strategies or fancy algorithms I use to solve this story problem, I always arrive at pretty much the same answer.  My family and I are getting screwed.  I never thought I’d see the day when 2 + 2 = 3, but the day finally arrived.  It was August 6, 2008, the day I received the news from the superintendent of my enhanced medical benefits.  

With $3 more per paycheck I may have graded one more paper, assessed one more set of test results, attended one more meeting.  But since, compared to last year, I will be paid less, I think I’ll just work less.  Working less might also help me avoid the doctor and the increased co-payments.  The cost of this strategy:  priceless.  For everything else, there’s always 679 hours of sick leave.  

Monday, September 15, 2008

Compliance Is Not Always a Virtue

When teachers do not speak out at gatherings such as staff meetings, that does not always connote compliance with what is being said. No Child Left Behind can require the federal and state governments and school districts to send any number of mandates our way but that doesn't mean we will comply.
We will not comply when we feel in our professional judgment that the mandate is ill conceived, irresponsible, bad policy, bad pedagogy, unethical, bad practice, teacher harassment, etc. What makes most of the mandates even more distasteful is that they are frequently handed down by people who are not teachers: mainly, mid-level administrators who don't know what we know and can't do what we do. They rarely hand down mandates because they actually believe the mandates will amount to improvements in education. More often than not they hand them down so they can keep their cushy jobs, justify their salaries, enhance their dissertations, obtain their administration credentials, or climb an invisible ladder to some vague but higher administrative position. Instead of being filters for bad educational policy, they often become the very conduits of bad policy, virtually devoid of any professional critical thinking skills.
At some schools it is especially discouraging to witness an increase in the implementation of unreasonable, untested or unwanted initiatives before they are even mandated, simply because we believe they will be required of us in the future. If for some reason you are led to believe your house will soon burn down, do you jump up and set it on fire? Or do you take steps to prevent it from burning down?
The negative effect lock-step compliance has on teacher morale, expertise and creativity is bad enough. The effect this blind compliance has on students is even more disturbing. Only in the last five years have my colleagues and I heard growing numbers of students state that they hate school. We might hate it, too, if we were students today. The reason they hate it is because their teachers are increasingly not allowed to be the good teachers they once were. The rigid and ill-informed mandates of NCLB have greatly reduced their professional independence, creativity, flexibility and thus their effectiveness as teachers.
Two years after the implementation of NCLB Alfie Kohn, one of the best and most outspoken minds in education, stated: "Ultimately, we must decide whether we will obediently play our assigned role in helping to punish children and teachers. Every inservice session, every article, every memo from the central office that offers what amounts to an instruction manual for capitulation slides us further in the wrong direction until finally we become a nation at risk of abandoning publish education altogether. Rather than scrambling to comply with its provisions, our obligation is to figure out how best to resist."
It is time to resist, not time to comply. Many veteran teachers prefer to work at schools where the staff doesn't lie down and take it but, as Kohn suggests, stands up and opposes the nefarious forces at work, forces that are absolutely ruining public education. Our school used to be one of those schools. Many of us have faith it can be that kind of school again.
With apologies to Edmund Burke: "All that is necessary for the triumph of bad education policy is for good teachers to do nothing." Let us not do nothing.