Friday, October 8, 2010

Round Up the Usual Suspects

Teachers are the problem in education.  The press says so.  School districts say so.  State legislatures say so.  The federal government says so.  Political pundits say so.  The Department of Education says so.   And, yes, President Obama says so, loud and clear.  The sole holdouts are, interestingly enough, teachers, parents and students, the only groups that really matter.

If you, like the rest of the public, accept the argument that teachers are the problem in education, then everything else makes sense: standardized testing, punishing school for low scores, boxed and scripted curricula, narrowing of the curriculum, merit pay, elaborate and excessive accountability schemes, and so on.  If, instead, you reject this specious proposition and challenge it head-on, you will be able to see quite clearly how incredibly baseless it is.

The perception that teachers are the problem in education is an obscene exaggeration of one simple fact:  there are indeed some really bad teachers in our country.  President Obama said so recently when visiting my fair city:  "If some teachers are bad, they've got to go."  Even here the President of the United States suggests that there may be some bad teachers.   At the same time, however, he seems to imply that if they exist, they must be the sole reason for all that is bad in education.  After all, he made his statement in the context of how to fix what is broken in education.  Fix the teachers and you've fixed the problem.

What President Obama, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates and other teacher bashers are not saying, even though they know it's true, is that the number of really bad teachers—those who might actually have a detrimental effect on the education of their students—is such an incredibly small percentage of the nation's teaching corps that they couldn't possibly constitute a group large enough to cause all the perceived damage to our educational system.  If some teachers are bad, that means most teachers are not.  And if most teachers are not bad—and many are very good to excellent—then we really don't have an educational crisis on our hands.  A minority of bad teachers does not a bad school or district make.  

It seems absurd but true:  we begin with a statement that virtually everyone can agree with—there are some bad teachers and "they've got to go"—and conclude that most teachers are bad and have to go or be radically retrained.  But the fact of the matter is, most teachers are not bad. There are good and excellent schools across the country with one or two bad teachers on every staff, but those bad teachers don't make the whole school bad.  Most of the nation's public schools are good to excellent because they have good to excellent teachers and despite the presence of one or two bad teachers.  

Even if we agree that there is a small contingent of bad teachers in America, we still have another problem:  defining "bad teacher"?  Is a bad teacher someone in whose classroom parents hope their children are not placed?  Someone who received a negative evaluation from her principal last year?   Someone who hates her job?  Someone who dislikes children?  Someone who focuses her energy more on retirement than on education?  Someone who doesn't seem to know the established curriculum, content and standards?  Looking at it from a different angle, is she someone who received a positive evaluation from the principal due to her adherence to program fidelity?  Someone who refuses to teach the boxed and scripted curriculum and dares to create her own curriculum and teach creatively?  Is she a teacher who gives equal weight to all subjects instead of teaching only reading and math in order to raise test scores?

The definition of a bad teacher probably depends on where you think public education should be heading.  In the end it doesn't matter.  All definitions but one are irrelevant in the minds of the critics of public education:  a bad teacher is one whose students receive poor results on state sanctioned standardized reading and math tests.  Period.  That's right.  Tests that are designed for the sole purpose of pinpointing a student's academic progress are being used to judge teacher quality.  Never mind the fact these tests were never intended to be used to evaluate teachers (or schools either, for that matter).  Beginning with the NCLB testing frenzy in 2002, schools and increasingly teachers have been evaluated based on student test scores.  Obama will soon attempt to sharpen the teeth of the accountability section of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, aka No Child Left Behind and soon to be Blueprint for Success) when it comes up for renewal before the end of his term.

If these tests are not designed to evaluate teacher quality and effectiveness, then why do we use them for that purpose?  Perhaps it is because we have objectified students to the point where they are qualitatively no different than a widget on the assembly line.  It is understandable that a factory worker be held accountable for and evaluated on the quality of her widget.  After all, everything about the widget can be controlled and manipulated by the worker.  The widget is an inanimate object whose ultimate form and function is determined solely by its maker.  Therefore, if the widget is defective or otherwise fails, it must be the worker's fault because it couldn't possibly be the wiget's.

But students are not widgets and teachers are not assembly line workers.  This image was cooked up and promoted by business interests such as the Chamber of Commerce who cannot conceptualize public education in any way other than the factory assembly line.  The image is false, misleading and damaging to our public school system.  Unlike the widgets in the  business world, students are living, breathing, dynamic, individual, multi-faceted, idiosyncratic, creative, spontaneous, unpredictable, free-willed beings who, despite what we may "do" to them, will likely "produce" results wholly inconsistent with the "worker's" desired outcome.  And since students are not widgets—or products—an evaluation of their worth cannot be based on the "productivity" of their "maker."

If the wrong measure is used to determine the quality of the teacher, the wrong fixes—merit pay, firing, meaningless accountability—will be applied to the perceived problem.  And if we are spending time and resources fixing the wrong problems and even problems that don't exist, we'll have a real mess on our hands.   Educational "remedies" based on measuring teachers with student test scores are inherently ill-conceived and will inevitably fail. 

This brings us full circle:  if you believe that most teachers are bad; that their "badness" is proven by student test scores; and that teachers are the main cause of the wholesale failure of the public schools, then the various and sundry educational solutions proposed by the critics of public education will seem wholly logical to you.  You will whoop and holler for the teacher bashers when you hear of their schemes to marginalize the role of the teacher in order to gain direct access to students.  That is precisely the role of standardized tests, standardized curricula, box and scripted curricula, school wide punishments, accountability schemes, and merit pay:  they are all attempts to circumvent teachers and get direct access to students so that teacher bashers can apply their simple minded remedies to the problems teachers have failed to fix.

If you have no faith in teachers' ability to evaluate their students, you imposed standardized testing.  If you have no faith in teachers' ability to teach, you force them to implement boxed and scripted curricula. If you have no faith in teachers' ability to account for their work, you dream up schemes that hold teachers responsible for the boxed and scripted curricula (this is known as "program fidelity").  If you have no faith in teachers' intrinsic value as trained and experienced professionals, you implement merit pay (based, of course, on their students' standardized test results).  If you have no faith in teachers, you blame teachers for all that is wrong in education and proceed to offer the wrong solutions to all the wrong problems.  

President Obama has no faith in teachers; otherwise he would not call his educational plan a Blueprint for Success—a title that invokes private industry ("blueprint") and implies failure ("success")—and he would send his daughters to public school.  The press has no faith in teachers; otherwise they would investigate other, more important factors of school "failure," such as language, parenting, parental level of education, parental investment in the education of their children, and of course the two big ones, TEST VALIDITY and POVERTY (see last post).  Policy makers have no faith in teachers; every fix they come up with, usually in the form of mandatory professional development, addresses the perception the only thing teachers need in order to improve student achievement is more training, more motivation, and an improved work ethic (lazy teachers; if they would only work harder!).  

Perhaps the most unfortunate reality of the teacher bashing is that the solutions to the bad teacher problem proposed by the nation's non educators lead to the production of more bad teachers and, consequently, more bad instruction.  When we dumb down the curriculum in order to make it accessible to the worst of teachers, and force all teachers—good, bad and in-between—to the lower standard of boxed and scripted curricula and "program fidelity," we may succeed in raising the effectiveness of the worst 25% among us, but we will also lower the quality and effectiveness of the 75% good and excellent teachers as they are pulled inexorably towards the new, lower standard.  

The subsequent dilution of the nation's teaching corps will inevitably accelerate the narrowing of an already narrowed curriculum to the point where only basic math and reading skills will be taught and tested.  When we reach that point—and many schools in the country already have—we will no longer be able to claim that what we are engaged in is education.  Instead, we will be engaged in a clinical and impersonal system of mass production wherein our teachers, like factory workers around the globe, will produce human widgets who can look forward to a life as a cog in the machinery of the global marketplace.  The absurdity of public education in America will then be complete:  we will have converted students into objects, teachers into producers, and a flawed system of measurement into the sole "truth" about education, the "truth" that convinced us that teachers are the problem in the first place.

And if you believe that, then everything else makes sense.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

It's Poverty, Stupid!

     I have been writing this article for months in my head as well as on paper.  It has consumed hours of thought as I ride my bike to and from work, travel out of state, or lie awake in the morning before getting out of bed.  I've stayed up late at night fretting about wording, but especially about political repercussions, accusations of classism, and my own professional reputation.  I guess I have been waiting for someone else to say it first. 
     Recently two people who I would consider part of the mainstream of educational politics finally said it.  One of them was the superintendent of my school district.  In a front page article in our local paper he was quoted as saying that he is against dividing our large district into two smaller districts along a natural north-south axis because that would lead to one district having more poor kids than the other and therefore lower test scores. The other was a reporter for National Public Radio.  In a piece about why teachers receive most of the blame for all the perceived shortcomings of public education, he asked, "Do teachers and their unions deserve more of the blame than, let's say, shrinking education budgets, poverty or bad parenting?"
In both cases I waited for the backlash, but it didn't come. For the first time in my career I heard two people outside academia—one a highly placed public school official and the other a reputable national journalist—say publicly what most public school teachers have known for years: It's poverty stupid! With few exceptions, lower income public school students have poor test scores. As Stan Karp points out in his essay NCLB's Selective Vision of Equality: Some Gaps Count More than Others (2004): "Education research has established a strong link between student performance on standardized tests and family income. While income equality in a community is no excuse for school failure, certainly any serious federal plan to close academic achievement gaps needs to concern itself with trends in closely related areas, like the resources that families and schools have to work with."  Note that Karp emphasizes that poverty is not an excuse but an explanation of low test scores.  Those who would accuse Karp or anyone else of being a classist snob, or a "bigot of low expectations" (Bush, 2002), simply because he points out the link between poverty and low test scores, is simply not paying attention or is not yet prepared to accept the truth.
Like education researchers, teachers across the nation continue to encounter the same link between poverty and low test scores. The teachers at my school recently scrutinized results from standardized math and reading tests our students took this year. We disaggregated and analyzed the results from every possible angle, including gender, ethnicity, familial instability and mobility, and even language. And what did we find? Or, as the NCLB compliance cops would ask, "What did the data show?" The data showed that the ONLY consistent correlation one can make between children and their low test scores is poverty.
For example, we identified African American students with low, medium and high test results. But the African American students with the lowest scores were also the African American students from the families with the lowest incomes. The same was true for Native American, Asian, Hispanic and Anglo students; girls and boys; English and non English speakers. If we were asked to identify the kids in greatest need of test score improvement, all we had to do was apply a family income filter to the data, and the students with the low test scores would instantly be revealed. (The questionable validity of the tests, and the dubious ethical and political motivations for giving them, are addressed elsewhere by me and by dozens of other teachers, professors, authors and politicians.)
The original intent of NCLB was to prevent school districts from sweeping lower income and underperforming students under the rug in order to hide their low test scores, thereby preserving the school's reputation as well as the property values of adjacent homeowners. (This law could have been called NCLUR or No Child Left Under the Rug!) That was an admirable goal. Earlier in my career I witnessed first hand the wholesale disenfranchisement of entire groups of lower income kids (who Ronald Reagan referred to as "residuals") as they were asked by the school principal to stay home for a week while the other children were being tested.   I was disgusted by this practice even though I was and have always been a vocal opponent of standardized testing. In a strange and creepy way, this actually put me in agreement with one of the major tenets of NCLB:  if schools were going to test their students, then they should not cherry pick them based on who would give the school better test scores.  They should test them all.
As the saying goes, watch out for what you wish for because you just might get it.  Testing everyone—absolutely everyone—has not solved a thing. In fact, it has created a multitude of more serious problems, more than anyone could have anticipated. (Diane Ravitch details these problems and offers some solutions in her new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System.) 
     Now that we have lifted the proverbial rug and exposed the fraud, we as conscientious citizens need to take a hard look at who was under the rug and consider ALL the data they generate, not just their reading and math scores.  If we considered all the data generated by all students, we would find problematic demographic data that are undetectable by standardized tests and unfixable by schools alone.  These data would inevitably include extreme poverty and everything associated with it: low level of parents' formal education; home languages other than English; limited access to educational resources; lack of preschool enrollment; and a dearth of meaningful learning experiences that cost money, such as belonging to a sports team, joining Girl Scouts, taking piano lessons, flying to Washington D. C. for Spring Break, and so on. The advocates of NCLB have been trying to convince us that data doesn't lie.  Well, in this case, I couldn't agree more.
If we were to focus on student demographic data in addition to the data generated by reading and math scores, we would be forced to admit that poverty is the main cause of low academic achievement as measured by standardized tests.  After that important step we could then begin to initiate a national debate on the causes of poverty and its effects on academic achievement. From that debate we might be motivated to design concrete solutions that directly address student poverty instead of solutions that until now have only addressed the consequences of poverty manifested in schools.
If, on the other hand, we continue to deny the obvious link between poverty and academic achievement, as measured by test scores, and continue to believe that schools can singlehandedly eradicate the academic wounds inflicted by endemic poverty, then we will continue to be complicit in the perpetuation of the achievement gap between the haves and the have nots.
Through a national debate on poverty and its effects on public school students, we might be better able to understand that even though public schools have been touted as one of society's great equalizers—environments where the playing field is level and all students, regardless of family income and education, have access to the same material and intellectual resources—middle and upper income students come to school with material and intellectual head starts that lower income students could only dream about. The belief in the public school classroom as a level playing field is in truth a cruel illusion, one that seduces us into believing that what is equal is also fair, even though we know it's not.
For example, our more financially fortunate public school students usually come from homes where English is the home language. This gives them automatic membership into the dominant culture and access to that culture's greatest intellectual archives. These same students likely have parents who have not only graduated from high school, but who often have one or more diplomas from the university and therefore work as professionals in any number of fields that enjoy great social, political and cultural status in the dominant culture. This gives the students an enormous advantage when asking for help with homework, school projects at home, and finding extracurricular experiences that might enhance what they are learning at school. Middle to upper income students likely have traveled to far away places in airplanes or mini vans for pure enjoyment or for educational purposes, not just to visit extended family or to renew visits across the border. These travel experiences give what they learn in class automatic and concrete associations that enrich their learning immeasurably. Finally, their privileged financial status means they never have to worry about fees for Girl Scouts, piano lessons, soccer team, baseball team, dance lessons, art lessons, etc., all of which enrich a child's academic experiences, greatly increase her personal and academic confidence inside and outside of the classroom. By the time these students enter the classroom, the field they are playing on is already heavily groomed to their advantage.
Diane Ravtich writes, "Our schools cannot be improved by those who say that money doesn't matter . . . Our schools cannot be improved if we ignore the disadvantages associated with poverty that affect children's ability to learn.  Children who have grown up in poverty need extra resources, including preschool and medical care.  They need small classes, where they will get extra teacher time, and they need extra learning time.  Their families need additional supports, such as coordinated social services that help them to improve their education, to acquire necessary social skills and job skills, and to obtain jobs and housing. While the school itself cannot do these things, it should be a part of a web of public and private agencies that buttress families."  She goes on to say,  (from In Need of a Renaissance, American Educator, Summer 2010).
     Ravitch gives us a good start, but her plan does not go far enough and is not adequately specific.  If we were to sincerely address the causes of poverty in an effort to genuinely raise children's academic achievement levels (whether detectable by standardized tests or not) and level the playing field inside and outside the classroom, then we might seriously consider some or all of the following:
  • Require businesses to release employees with pay so they can attend ESL or GED classes or volunteer in their children's classrooms once a week.
  • Require businesses that receive tax breaks or incentives for locating in a particular community to adhere to a business model for Annual Yearly Progress that shows employee progress towards increased pay, benefits, training, education and working conditions (thanks to Stan Karp for this idea).  
  • Require businesses that distribute coupons, gift certificates and other consumer incentives to students, to contribute, in actual dollars, half the redeemable value of each incentive distributed to the PTA or proportionally to every classroom.
  • Require the state to exact a 1/8 ¢ profits tax on all out of state businesses to fund preschool programs in every public school.  (Pre school attendance, along with family income and education, is a key to academic success and is generally one thing middle and upper income students have that lower income students don't have when entering kindergarten.)
  • Require all organizations that offer extra curricular activities—such as music, art, dance, martial arts— to public school students to accept sliding fee scales for payment.
  • Require after school sports teams to offer scholarships to low income students that include fees, uniforms and transportation to and from practices and games.
  • Require the state or school district to either give, loan or subsidize computers, printers and internet access to families of public school students who qualify for free and perhaps reduced lunch.
  • Require school districts to subsidize or pay for at least four out-of-town field trips for students at Title I schools.
  • Require school districts to offer free after-school tutoring by volunteers or paid professionals for lower income students either at the school site or at the students' homes.
Is this socialism? Is this communism? Is this another way of creating a new welfare state in which lower income families feel they are entitled to what others work hard for? Probably not. There is nothing communistic or socialistic about demanding that poor students have an opportunity to avail themselves of what more financially fortunate students already have and will probably continue to have. We are not talking about a full scale redistribution of wealth. That would likely escalate interclass tension and animosity. Regardless of how critics might characterize solutions such as those listed above, our efforts to raise academic achievement and test scores solely within schools are falling woefully short of the mark primarily due to the fact that we are not addressing the inequalities in the world from which our students come. If schools are treating all students equally and the disparity in test scores still exists between upper and lower income students, then it is obvious that schools are not the main problem; we need to look outside the schools for causes and solutions to these problems. It is time to treat our students fairly, since treating them equally only maintains the status quo while seducing us into thinking we're playing on a level playing field.
It's poverty, stupid! But until poverty is addressed thoroughly and comprehensively by the public and private sectors of our society, our public school students will continue producing test scores that show not how much they know, but how much money their parents make.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Standardized Tests Don't Show Students' Successes

Tony Salm, a 5th grade dual language teacher in Oregon, recently wrote this opinion piece for his local newspaper. It is printed here with his permission.

It's a familiar routine: third-, fourth- and fifth-graders sitting glumly in front of computer screens or the seventh, eighth or ninth time, using their passwords to log in to the secure state testing system. The students' only assignment is to read from the screen and carefully use a computer mouse to correctly choose a response: A, B, C or D.
Welcome to the world of No Child Left Behind.
We now test children almost as soon as they're out of diapers. Does anyone ever stop to think about the damaging emotional effects that the pressures of constant testing and test preparation may have on the very young?
There will always be students who easily do well on these kinds of "assessments," but there will inevitably be others who, for reasons of culture, poverty, unfamiliarity with computers or just plain test anxiety — do not. A good number of these children possess very high academic potential, but don't fit into the test makers' narrow, precooked notions of precisely what it is that constitutes "achievement."
Standardized tests are shallow and demonstrably unreliable instruments. When every test question is reduced to four possible responses, many students become expert at deducing correct answers through simple elimination — also known as guessing. Nowhere on a standardized reading test is a child asked to summarize a passage or generate his or her own response to it. Consequently it is not uncommon that poor readers "pass," while some of the better readers (with test anxiety) do not. Far from improving our educational system, NCLB is dumbing it down.
What's more, we are doing actual damage to our children's imaginations. No longer is elementary school a place to imagine, to dream, to create or to question. As a predictable ramification of NCLB, instruction in non-tested subjects such as geography, art, poetry and music has often gone by the wayside, replaced by heavy drilling in test-taking.
We must reform this ill-conceived law in a manner that envisions our young people as unique and creative human beings. The artistic child, the child who thinks outside the box, the child who writes, the child who thinks critically and asks challenging questions is too often the one who goes unrecognized (or "left behind") in today's testing treadmill.
Holding students and teachers accountable is one thing; transforming our schools into uninspiring and stultifying factories is quite another. If "setting standards" means envisioning our youth as nothing more than products on an assembly line, it's about time we re-thought what it is we really want from our educational system.
When we jump unquestioningly aboard the "accountability" bandwagon as it is currently conceived, we place our expectations exceedingly low, prioritizing conformity over creativity, passivity over active questioning. Looking back at history, whenever great leaps of progress have been made in math, science, literature or the arts, it was precisely because of individuals whose answers to the questions generated by the conventional wisdom of their day was: "None of the above."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Adult Agendas = Students' Loss Part 1

I've heard it said over and over recently: This is a very bad time to be in education. The cumulative effects of No Child Left Behind, the economic crises, and Race to the Top are on their own enough to scare away thousands of potential teachers as well as thousands of veteran teachers. But if you're an educator without a class list—that is, one who does not teach children on a daily basis—the negative effects are likely not as pronounced. This is because in many real ways non teaching educators (that should be an oxymoron!) have successfully promoted dozens of adult agendas that make life in school easier for them while at the same time worse for students and their teachers.
Take for example the arbitrary age-based designation known as "grade level." Any real educator—one who teaches children—can tell you there is really no such thing as a grade level. It is a simplistic convention invented by adults in order to control the world of students and make their world more comprehensible to them—the adults, that is. Decades ago Jean Piaget demonstrated unequivocally that in any given grade level the range of academic and social ability is so great as to span two, three or even four different grade levels, as traditionally defined.
Despite this universal reality, policy makers, administrators and a host of other manipulators of the educational system insist on maintaining grade level groupings in schools. This is because it is easier to test kids, punish kids, punish schools, hold teachers accountable for their students' progress, and develop boxed and scripted curricula for teachers to implement robotically if the categories in which we place students are constructed for the convenience of adults. Piaget would surely be disappointed to learn that everything he taught us about individual cognitive development has been systematically ignored in order to make life easier for the non-teaching adults who wield power in education. Doing the right thing, such as taking into account individual cognitive development by advocating for and supporting multi-aged classrooms, or by ignoring grade level designations altogether, would be too much work and would overly complicate the lives of adults.
Most of America's public schools have by now completed the spring testing cycles: two to three weeks of grueling test-taking whose sole purpose under No Child Left Behind is to determine which schools to punish. (The only "reward" under this system consist of the absence of punishment.) Yet school districts persist in administering these tests in order to continue to receive federal money for education.
Never mind the fact that the tests include only reading and math skills.
Never mind the fact that more than 30 school days (yes, that's 6 weeks) of instructional time are lost due to the time spent on the spring testing and other mandated, standardized tests throughout the year.
And never mind the fact that the tests purport to assess children's academic skills based solely on arbitrary grade level designations. A 4th grader is a 4th grader, and if that 4th grader does not know X, Y and Z to an arbitrary level of proficiency, then she is considered undereducated and her teacher's competence is suspect. It doesn't matter that she may be 11 months younger than some of her classmates. And it doesn't matter if the student becomes proficient in X, Y and Z a month after the tests are given or even next fall. If the 4th grade student is not proficient in a given skill (or simply has a bad day!) by the date of the test in April, she is forever labeled non-proficient. No take-backs and no credit for learning the skill at a later date. In the cold, clinical and often cruel world of adult accountability, an adult agenda that includes arbitrary cut-off dates for arbitrarily defined levels of proficiency trumps the best interests of our children's education every time.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Adult Agendas = Students' Loss Part 2

There are other adult agendas that sabotage children's learning. In an admirable attempt to to convert our 60 year-old school building into a modern, energy efficient space, every classroom window is being replaced with double-paned storm windows, every light fixture is being upgraded with energy efficient bulbs, and insulation is being poured into the dead space between the ceiling and the roof. There is nothing wrong with this. Who would argue with a school's attempts to go green? But there has been serious fallout in terms of instruction.
No fewer than 12 school days per classroom were or will be completely lost or significantly sabotaged due to the fact that each class has to pack up every single object in the classroom that is not nailed to the walls, floor or ceiling and move out to a portable building for six to eight weeks so the greening of the classroom can be realized. Since I have just been through this process, which occurred during parent conferences and spring testing, I can attest to the astounding loss of instructional time and the undermining of the standards-based curriculum we teachers are required to follow.
Asked why the upgrades could not have occurred in the summer months when there are no classes, we were simply told the contractor could only upgrade four classrooms at a time. So?! Why not hire more contractors or have the current contractor sub-contract in order to get the job done in the summer? Other construction and remodeling projects with time constraints do this all the time. Once again, an adult agenda supersedes the children's agenda. The result is another loss for students.
Here is another example of good intentions gone wrong. Our district participates in a science
kit program whereby very well stocked science unit kits rotate between schools on a set schedule. Although
the materials are top rate and the curriculum challenging, the curriculum itself is scripted and disjointed.
It's obvious that the authors of the kits opted to prioritize coverage over depth and lifelong learning. But
many of us tolerate that because the kits are so materially rich. Because of this we do not have to spend our
weekends or prep time gathering science materials. There are two things, however, both driven by adult
agendas, that go a long way toward making the kits not worth receiving.
The first is the fact that teachers have no choice regarding which kit they will receive and
when they will receive it. The kits are not sent on a schedule that is convenient to students and teachers
or timely to the study, say, life science as opposed to physical science. They are instead sent on a schedule
that is convenient to the adults who stock and distribute the kits. In other words, my class, had no choice
but to study life science in the middle of the winter simply because that's when the life science kit was
delivered to my classroom. This is definitely NOT the time I would have preferred to teach life science.
Winter would have been a better time to teach physical science since many life forms are dormant and
unobservable in the winter months.
The second reason the kits may no longer be worth receiving is the fact that teachers must
return the kits when the return date arrives. This sets up situations where many teachers are half way through
a science unit but have to turn the kit back in simply because the arbitrary due date has arrived. This hard
and fast deadline reaches a level of absurdity in the spring when ALL science kits have to be returned to the
distribution center by April 28. Never mind the fact that school doesn't get out until May 28. And never
mind the fact that many class lost hours and hours of science instructional time due to the standardized
testing in April. That loss put our class at least a month behind. Add that to the fact that we are forced to
turn in the science kits one month before school gets out, and you have a net loss of TWO MONTHS OF
SCIENCE INSTRUCTION! And this is all because the school district wants to make life easier and more
convenient to adults.
These examples are just the tip of an iceberg of adult agendas that undermine student learning. There
are plenty more. But I think the point has been made. Until policy makers and non teaching educators
make the shift from focusing on their own agendas to focusing on those of our students, we will continue
to be our own worst enemy in our attempts to give our students a high quality and meaningful education.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Teachers of the world: Resist!

One of the essential roles of teachers in today's oppressive educational climate is to openly and courageously resist policies that are detrimental, denigrating or even irrelevant to teaching and learning. Otherwise, why celebrate the third Monday in January by canceling classes? If the life of Martin Luther King symbolizes nothing else, it is the peaceful resistance and ultimate triumph over unjust policies, laws and practices established by the dominant culture in the name of political expediency. As teachers we face these policies and practices every day in the form of sanctions and punishments meted out by the brutal mandates of No Child Left Behind. If we are to be true to the spirit of the holiday that honors Dr. King, we must walk the talk of what his life represents, even if that walk consists of only a few steps.