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.

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