Class Size Matters: Overcrowded and Under-Reached in the American Classroom by Christina Knowles

Snagged from eagnews.org
Snagged from eagnews.org

Unfortunately, we are at a point in history where teachers need to defend the importance of smaller classes on student achievement and future success, as if this were not common sense. This is a clear indication that lack of funding, or perhaps mismanagement of finances has become such an issue that those in charge of schools are trying to deny what we all intuitively know is true—one teacher cannot effectively teach 30 plus students in one class. The pressures of new teacher evaluations requiring personalized, individual instruction plans and nearly daily communication with parents creates an impossible situation for the teacher. Gone are the days when teachers merely brought home grading every night. Now teachers struggle to keep up with individual lesson plans, tracking individual students, documenting data, keeping up with parent contacts, and grading. Catching up and completing work is now impossible, no matter how many outside hours are put in, and the stress of these demands is driving experienced, quality teachers from the profession in a mass exodus, and they are quickly replaced by first year teachers who do not know what they are in for. On the middle school and high school level, teachers are required to personally know and teach five or more 30-plus-student classes of different students. The real injustice is to the student who is expected to focus in an overcrowded classroom with an overworked teacher who cannot possibly give them individual attention—that, and the fact that teachers continue to be held accountable for what students learn, despite the fact that class sizes and duties have become unmanageable for anyone, regardless of his or her skill, dedication, or experience.

As the last school year drew to a close at the high school where I teach, the faculty was called into the auditorium for a meeting with the district administration to discuss cuts in the budget that would result in letting some teachers go and letting vacated positions go unfilled. Before the cuts, my classes ranged from 28-38 students per class, which I have gotten used to, but according to research, are too large. I was grateful for these numbers because at one point the year before, most of my classes ranged from 45-52 students per class, which was completely unmanageable. We were reassured that class sizes would not go up much, but this did not prepare us for what came out of a high-level district leader’s mouth next. He spoke to an auditorium full of stressed-out teachers, who had just finished struggling to provide documentation of a vast array of new responsibilities for our yearly evaluations, many of which were not in our control at all, but also including one-on-one instruction, differentiation, and tracking of each individual student. He smiled and said in a completely casual but serious tone, “But we all know class size doesn’t matter if you’re a good enough teacher, right?” Audible gasps filled the auditorium. Shocked at the audacity of such a statement, I turned and gazed around the large room, taking in the stunned faces, the mouths dropped open in disbelief. The room became silent. It seemed everyone was speechless. Nervously, I raised my hand, cleared my throat, and uttered a barely audible, “Umm, I disagree with that statement.” The room burst into conversation, and soon others snapped out of their stunned silence and began disputing the remark uttered so casually and without regard for common sense.

Nevertheless, cuts were made, and I started the year with 42 students in my largest class and 33 in my smallest. Couple that with a rigorous new set of responsibilities, Common Core requirements, three preps, and a new online program with which we were to become proficient, and the familiar thought popped into my head: What else can I do with my English degree? But worse than the large classes was the realization that we were just not respected anymore. The idea that our own district leadership thought we would fall for a pathetic line of flattery or shame us into admitting we must not be “good enough teachers” was just too much.

One of our evaluation requirements is that we research “best practices,” so I did just that. Guess what I discovered? I discovered that it is not only common sense, but that actual documented research shows that the optimal class size is between 15-18 students for achievement and future success. I would be thrilled with 25! Studies also show that the overall load of the teacher should be lightened, particularly for English teachers and teachers with a heavy grading load. A high school teacher should ideally have no more than 80 students total. This year I have 170 students, more than double the optimum.

I’ll let you read the research for yourself, but let me just speak from experience for a moment. The year that I had 52 students in one class—no learning occurred. I shouted over the students, no one could hear anything. In a class of 52 students, I could not even see over the heads to the back of the room. If every student murmured, it was a low roar, blocking out my voice. I spent most of my time trying to keep them safe when boys began wrestling in the back where I couldn’t see or when an argument broke out over a snatched notebook. I couldn’t even make my way through the desks to the back of the room. I wrote dozens of detentions to try and gain control, but most of the students ignored them, and I had no power to enforce them. Nothing happened to them if they didn’t show up, and I was criticized for writing too many detentions. On the rare occasion when I got them working on something, and I stopped to help one student, the entire class erupted into noise and chaos. I spent my entire evening calling parents and did not have time to grade the little homework that actually came in. The students complained that they couldn’t hear the instruction and did not understand what was going on. In 14 years of teaching, I have never previously had issues with classroom management. My room was not even large enough to fit that many desks, so some students were sitting on the floor. This year is not that bad. I have a quiet and controlled class, and our current administration supports our discipline, but students are not able to get one-on-one instruction, and it took a couple of months just to learn their names. The idea that I am supposed to get to know each of these students, their learning styles, tailor instruction to their needs, monitor their growth, provide tutoring, and keep parents informed is ludicrous. But that is exactly what is expected of me because it wouldn’t be a problem if I were “good enough.”

But if common sense and experience are not enough to convince you, I have listed the research here, complete with links because the evidence is too astronomically large to synthesize in this blog, and this is only a fraction of what I found. For your convenience, I will list the source after each, rather than at the end.

I found this one particularly interesting because we are supposed to avoid lecture-style classes in favor of more hands-on, engaging lessons, but the research shows large class sizes increase lecture-style teaching out of necessity. “The empirical case against large class size: Adverse effects on the teaching, learning, and retention of first-year students. Journal of Faculty Development, 21(1), p5-21. ‘Good summary showing that “empirical evidence…suggests that there are eight deleterious outcomes associated with large-sized classes: (1) increased faculty reliance on the lecture method of instruction, (2) less active student involvement in the learning process, (3) reduced frequency of instructor interaction with and feedback to students, (4) reduced depth of student thinking inside the classroom, (5) reduced breadth and depth of course objectives, course assignments, and course-related learning strategies used by students outside the classroom, (6) lower levels of academic achievement (learning) and academic performance (grades), (7) reduced overall course satisfaction with the learning experience, and (8) lower student ratings (evaluations) of course instruction.’” http://www.classsizematters.org/research-and-links/#benefits%20for%20post-secondary%20education Cuseo, J. (2007).

     This one finds that keeping fewer teachers for budgetary reasons is not cost effective after all, particularly when funding is withheld for lower test scores. “This policy brief summarizes the academic literature on the impact of class size and finds that class size is an important determinant of a variety of student outcomes, ranging from test scores to broader life outcomes. Smaller classes are particularly effective at raising achievement levels of low-income and minority children.  Policymakers should carefully weigh the efficacy of class-size policy against other potential uses of funds. While lower class size has a demonstrable cost, it may prove the more cost-effective policy overall.” Schanzenbach, D. W. (2014). “Does Class Size Matter?” National Education Policy Center Policy Brief.

   “’Further research suggests that schools are organized more for purposes of maintaining control than for promoting learning’ (McNeil, 1988), and ‘Small class size is integral to this individualization: Teachers should be responsible for a smaller number of students so that they can get to know each student and his or her learning preferences. It takes time to get to know one’s students and to individualize the learning experience, and doing so requires concentration. In a classroom with a large number of students, such attention simply isn’t an option. Powell (1996) examined independent schools in the United States and learned that private preparatory schools value both small school and small class size as necessary conditions for student success. In 1998, the average private school class size was 16.6 at the elementary level and 11.6 at the high school level. By contrast, the average class size was 18.6 in public elementary schools and 14.2 in public high schools’ (National Center for Education Statistics, 1999)”(Wasley, from Small Classes, Small Schools: The Time Is Now). http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/feb02/vol59/num05/Small-Classes,-Small-Schools@-The-Time-Is-Now.aspx

   “Babcock, P., & Betts, J.R. (2009). Reduced Class Distinctions: Effort, Ability, and The Education Production Function. Journal of Urban Economics, Vol. 65, pp. 314–322. ‘Empirical findings indicate that class-size expansion may reduce gains for low-effort students more than for high-effort students, Results here…suggest …that larger gains for disadvantaged students may have occurred because small classes allow teachers to incentivize disengaged students more effectively, or because students are better able connect to the school setting in small classes.’” http://www.classsizematters.org/research-and-links/#opportunity

   King, J. (2008). Bridging the Achievement Gap: Learning from three charter schools (part 1), (part 2), (part 3), (part 4). Columbia University (Doctoral Dissertation).  “School size and class size are linked to the five key cultural values ….: a culture that teaches effort yields success; a culture of high expectations; a disciplined culture; a culture built on relationships; and a culture of excellence in teaching. Small classes and small overall student loads allow teachers to spend more time working with individual students to help them track their own progress and develop their skills – thus reinforcing the principle that effort yields success. High expectations are easier to maintain when teachers know their students well (because of small school and class size), can identify whether a student’s poor performance on an assessment reflects deficiencies in their effort or their understanding, and can respond accordingly.” http://www.classsizematters.org/research-and-links/#opportunity

     Tienken, C.H., & Achilles, C.M. (2006). Making Class Size Work in the Middle Grades. AASA Journal of Scholarship & Practice, 3.1, pp 26-36. “In a NJ middle school, reducing class size led to a reduction in the failure rate from 3-6% to only 1%, despite a concurrent increase in 40-60 students, and a 7% increase in poverty students, without any additional spending. Gains in test scores were statistically significant with .80 effect size.”

NCTE: National Council of Teachers of English. (1990). Statement on Class Size and Teacher Workload: Secondary. “The Secondary Section of the National Council of Teachers of English recommends that schools, districts, and states adopt plans and implement activities resulting in class sizes of not more than 20 and a workload of not more than 80 for English language arts teachers by the year 2000.”

     Bernstein, K. J. (2000). Class size does matter. Prince George’s and Montgomery Journal Newspapers “Excellent essay by a high school teacher, explaining why both smaller classes and a smaller teaching load is essential to improve student achievement.”

   MetLife, Inc.. (2012). The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Teachers, Parents and the Economy. A 2011 survey of teachers, parents and students. “Teacher job satisfaction has dropped 15 points since 2009, from 59% who were very satisfied to 44% who are very satisfied, the lowest level in over 20 years….Teachers with lower job satisfaction are more likely to report that in the last year they have seen increases in: average class size (70% vs. 53%)…One in seven (14%) students agrees that their classes are so big that their teachers don’t really know them….”

   I would like to point out that I did find a few, very few articles that stated they found no significant difference in achievement levels between large and small classes, but in these studies, a large class was defined as 25 students. I agree, 25 students is manageable. I do not have any classes as small as 25.

     Certainly, we all know schools are suffering with budgetary cuts and the money only goes so far, but cutting teachers is not the place to save money. Cut anything else first—anything. We are driving over-worked teachers out of education and under-reached students out of school. Although we would all love to create 21st century students with skills in the latest technology, the most important thing is learning critical thinking, critical reading, and effective communication. I can do that with a book, a pencil, and a piece of paper—and a reasonable number of students. But I don’t think we need to go that far. I want our students to have the latest technology and up-to-date text books.

I have a better plan. I think we should cut excess at the top first—before ever considering cutting the boots on the ground. We have someone in charge of everything, but not enough people to carry it out. School leaders should trust the professionals they hire to do the job without the micro-management of a highly paid director of this and director of that—people we never even actually see as teachers, but answer to indirectly. We spend money on publicity specialists hired to sell the fantasy that we offer the best education in our over-crowded classrooms (and I’m not attacking our district—we are one of the best, but I am criticizing the educational model in general). We buy expensive airtime on radio stations and on local television. Here’s a novel idea—let’s hire lots of good quality teachers, reduce class sizes so students get personal attention and help, and actually become the best district. Word of mouth boasting from parents and students who actually experience an excellent education will attract more students than an inflated and unsubstantiated claim of excellence on a TV advertisement ever will. And when they come, we do not let the classes become overgrown once again, but we hire more teachers. If we really mean to do what’s best for kids, smaller classes are essential.—Christina Knowles

Originally posted in 2014

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Helicopter Moms, Cowardly Superintendents, and Fed-Up Teachers by Christina Knowles

Helicopter-ParentingI’ve been complaining about government interference in education for years. But forget the government. There’s a new clueless interloper on the scene. She’s been around forever, but she’s just recently gained the power of a government agency. She is the overprotective, overinvolved mom. Let’s be clear. I believe parents have a say in their children’s education. I believe they should complain if a teacher is doing something wrong or treating their child unfairly. I am a parent, and I would not sit idly by if my child was receiving less than a quality education or was being mistreated. That’s not what I’m talking about. I am also not referring to the majority of parents who reasonably contact teachers and administrators with their concerns, discuss situations, and offer fair solutions or advice. I’m referring to parents who worship their children to the point that they unknowingly handicap them and effectively destroy any chance of them receiving useful skills or an education that will serve them their entire lives simply because they can’t bear to see their child struggle. We’ve all met them. They complain about every grade, write their children’s papers, excuse them when they want to stay home and play video games, demand testing as soon as their child says an assignment is too difficult, and blame the teacher when their child continues to fail all their subjects, or in some cases, merely don’t receive As. Unfortunately, some struggle is required for learning anything new. If a child never struggles in a class, they are not thinking, being challenged, or doing any of the work necessary to learn a new skill. They are merely doing what they already know how to do.

In the past teachers were trusted to institute their own guidelines, within reason, to suit their style, the children’s needs, and their subject matter. The same model does not work in every class. With the passing of new programs and laws such as No Child Left Behind and the new Common Core Standards, came a host of rules and regulations of how a teacher should teach and grade. Our classes are lumped into categories such as English, Science, Math, and History, among others, regardless of their specialty. Each of these categories has their own standards, which may or may not make sense in the specific class. All of these standards have the same weight, regardless of their real world importance, and a standard for turning things in on time or turning in things at all, does not exist, even though in the real world for which we are preparing students, no one cares what a person knows if they are unwilling to produce any action. However, in school, it no longer matters what a student does, only what they know, and it is the teacher’s sole responsibility to figure out what they do know if the student is unwilling to share that information.

Add to this the fact that teachers are the only ones held accountable for what the student learns, and we have some very overworked and frustrated teachers shaking their heads at the system. Obviously, there is no motivation for the student, and this also is seen as the fault of the teacher. Of course, scores drop and desperate administrators dealing with angry parents and threatening superintendents implement one experiment after another trying to stem the flood of apathy and poor test scores. No system sticks around long enough to get an accurate evaluation over a period of time because as soon as little Johnny complains that he doesn’t like it, our overprotective mom rushes to the superintendent to rescue him. For some reason beyond my comprehension, some superintendents and administrators cower in fear at the angry parent and immediately give in, ordering the teacher to make it easier on Johnny while threatening that the teacher had better not let Johnny’s test scores slip. If you aren’t one of these parents, maybe you’re thinking I’m exaggerating. I assure you, I am not.

Recently a situation like this happened on a grand scale affecting every teacher in my building. A couple of years ago, the teachers at the school where I work were forced to implement a modified form of Standards Based Grading. If you aren’t familiar with it, it is a system where no points are accumulated and formative homework is not counted. Students are given letter grades on summative assessments that fall into the Common Core Standards. They are allowed to re-do these assessments, erasing earlier grades that were not passing, re-take every test, ignore deadlines on assignments (because we only care about what they know), and any poor grades would be replaced by newer grades as they learn. This made things much easier for students and much harder for teachers. Teachers now have to spend hours at home creating new tests for re-takes and re-grading tests, papers, and projects while also grading the new work that comes in. Most teachers thought that this was unreasonable and too easy for the students, so we implemented a few rules to make it more challenging and to create some incentive to do the work. We made some restrictions. For example, if a student has an F in one standard, he would not be able to receive higher than a C in that category. Each category is calculated together to receive the overall class grade. If a student failed an entire standard, he could not receive higher than a C in the class. Also, we made a rule that if a student took a test over and did worse, then they would receive the most recent grade.

But Johnny didn’t like that. Now it would be risky to keep taking the same tests over again without studying. In addition, Johnny didn’t like it when he had two Bs and two As and ended up with a B in the class even though the two As were in categories that hardly mattered, and the Bs were in important categories. Johnny thought he deserved an A because—well, just because. Johnny ran home and complained to his mom, and she was furious. She’d take care of that mean teacher trying to educate her son by actually holding him accountable for his work. So Johnny’s mom got a few parents together and went to the school board and superintendent. They demanded records from the overworked administrators and harassed the teachers. They circulated petitions and filed complaints. By the way, Johnny was already receiving free tutoring from the teacher after the teacher was supposed to be home with her family. The teacher was also providing notes for Johnny because Johnny has a hard time copying words off the board when he is playing games on his phone. Johnny also got to use the teacher’s notes on his tests because he has trouble remembering stuff for his modified tests. He only has to read half of his novel because he can’t concentrate on reading when he is almost to the next level of his video game. But anyway, I digress. Johnny’s mom chewed out the superintendent about the mean teachers at his school, and the superintendent asked her what she would like to happen. Johnny’s mom said she wanted all the grades to be rounded up, no restrictions about Fs hurting grades, and she wanted only Johnny’s highest grades to count on his test re-takes. She also demanded that her new rules should be retroactive, and the teachers should have to go back and change all the grades from the previous semester to fit the new rules if the student asked (the grades that were done exactly as the administration dictated before). The superintendent said, “Of course,” and ordered all the teachers to comply. He also made sure the teachers knew that their test scores had better not drop, or they would receive a poor evaluation. It’s too bad Johnny’s mom doesn’t demand a smaller class size, but she never mentions the fact that there are 45 students in his class because she voted against the measure that would have reduced it. She doesn’t want that school to get any more of her money than they already do. Besides, the superintendent says that class size doesn’t matter “if you’re a good enough teacher.”

True story. Johnny is not one boy but represents many. Johnny’s mom is not one parent but a vocal minority. I don’t blame the students. They are good kids, and I love them. It’s human nature for them to take advantage of the system they are caught in, and I applaud the ones who resist the urge, who do their best and work hard despite it—and they do exist, but even they often admit that they have lost motivation and a great deal of their work ethic in this system. This is why I hear from college professors more and more that the biggest problem with incoming college students in our area is no longer what they don’t know, but their expectation of being coddled. They expect to turn things in late for full credit, they expect to miss class with no repercussions on their grades, and expect to re-do assignments and tests. In short they are not prepared for college in ways beyond academic knowledge. Unfortunately for Johnny, his mom holds no sway with the college professor.

As the system continues to spiral out of control, quality, experienced teachers are being driven out of education faster than new ones can graduate. I fear that by the time my students have children in school, school will have become nothing more than a daycare center catering to their every whim and staffed by paraprofessionals making minimum wage. Quality teachers with advanced degrees will not linger forever in a field that devalues them, holds them to ridiculous evaluation standards that are wholly out of their control, and subjects them to taking orders and abuse from overprotective parents who know absolutely nothing about educating their children.

Something has to be done about this mentality of scapegoating the teacher, blaming her for the actions of everyone around her and ignoring the enormous sacrifice she daily makes to educate other people’s children. States and districts pile more and more meaningless busywork on the already stretched teacher while, at the same time, removing all responsibilities from the students. We ignore the fact that most teachers work between 60 and 70 hours per week while being paid for 40. We demand that they provide individual instruction in a class of 45 students, which by the way, is impossible, yet part of her yearly evaluation. We hold her responsible for someone else’s motivation level, while removing most methods of creating this motivation. We make her accountable for things completely out of her control like whether or not the student communicates with his parent about grades or the student taking the initiative to seek out learning opportunities on his own. Why are we so eager to take away all responsibility from our children and place it on the teacher? Does anyone really think that is good for kids? If so, I hope they are prepared to support their children well into their thirties. As for the rest of us, we need to give back to teachers their autonomy and control over that for which they are held accountable. It is not fair to demand results, and then tie their hands in achieving those results. The crisis in our education system has reached critical mass, and we, as teachers, will no longer passively accept the blame.—Christina Knowles

Originally posted in 2013

Photo from teenlife.com

The War on Teachers by Christina Knowles

hands_bars_prison_jailBy now I’m sure everyone has heard that eleven Atlanta teachers have been convicted and sentenced on racketeering and other charges associated with conspiring to cheat on state standardized tests. This scandal shocked the nation and teachers, for different reasons. While the nation shook their heads in disgust at the dishonest actions of those entrusted with the education of their children, teachers nodded in understanding—I don’t mean to say that they condone their behavior in any way, but we certainly understand it.

If you haven’t heard, eleven teachers apparently changed the answers on student standardized tests and passed them off as student work. The failing school where they worked reveled in the jump in student achievement, and when they were caught, all the major news outlets attributed their motivation to bonuses and incentives—but immediately, I was skeptical. There is no way any teacher would risk losing her career, punishment by the law, her ethics, and waste years of education for accolades and a bonus.

It didn’t take long for the truth to emerge. According to Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post, this was not likely the motivation. In her April 1, 2015 Answer Sheet blog, she attributed their actions to “pressure to meet certain score goals at the risk of sanction if they failed” (Strauss PG 1). This might sound ridiculous to anyone who is not a public school teacher, but every year incredible pressure to outscore the year before is placed on teachers who are threatened with losing their jobs or having their schools shut down based on these scores.

I know what you’re thinking—Why don’t they just focus on doing a better job teaching? For an American school teacher in today’s society, meeting the impossible and ever-growing demands of this thankless job is not even remotely possible. Meeting the minimum requirements of a public school teacher demands a 14-16 hour day, and in reality, teachers could work round the clock and never catch up with what “needs” to be done.

Most of a teacher’s day involves actually teaching in the classroom, then meeting one-on-one with students, contacting parents, attending meetings, and copying the material they stayed up till midnight the night before researching and writing. Every night and weekend consists of grading hundreds of papers, lesson-planning, reading and researching for future lessons, and contacting any parents that they ran out of time to contact during the day. Maybe, if there is any time left over (yeah, right), they will analyze data and make plans on how to reach individual students who are struggling. An American high school teacher today has between 150 to more than 200 students to reach individually.

Today’s students are not the students of yesteryear, further complicating the job of the teacher. Today’s students have had it drilled into them that everything is the teacher’s responsibility. If they are not learning, then the teacher needs to adjust the way he teaches. If it is hard, then the teacher needs to make it easier. If he is failing, then Mom and Dad need to set up a meeting with the administration and give the teacher more responsibilities, such as typing up notes, modifying tests, and creating lots of alternate assignments to make sure the child succeeds, even though these accommodations don’t result in anything except a meaningless diploma—and lower test scores. Today’s students are allowed to be disrespectful in class and disrupt the learning of those who are trying with very little, if any, consequences for their actions. The teacher has no power to enforce detentions or any other punishment, and with the implementation of Standards Based Grading, students receive no negative consequences for ignoring homework. Sure, they will fail the test for lack of practicing their skills, but they can just take an easier, modified version of it after they Google the answers. If a teacher won’t allow this, Mom will set up a meeting. Maybe she will even get that teacher fired. And this does not even take into account attempting to mitigate the damaging effects of poverty, violence, and apathy with which some students deal on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, with every new requirement, with every new impossible expectation, worn out, stressed teachers continue to try and meet every demand for two reasons: They actually care about the kids, and they spent years preparing and doing this job and don’t want to throw it all away and start a new career. If only I can make it to retirement and collect my meager PERA wages, they think, I can just substitute teach, because even though they love the kids and the content, they only have so much to give.

Combine this with a struggling economy, student loan debt, and medical care for their acquired stress-related illnesses, and demoralized, unappreciated, and harangued teachers just may be beaten down enough to compromise their ethics and cheat when threatened by demanding administrators and superintendents to deliver the scores or be fired.

According to Strauss, this was likely the case when Atlanta public school superintendent, Beverly Hall, who died shortly before the trial of the eleven teachers under her supervision, refused “to accept anything other than satisfying targets [that]created an environment where achieving the desired end result was more important than the students’ education” (PG 2). Hall and her top administrators did not threaten job loss just once before the crime was committed. This atmosphere of fear and oppression continually built over a period of several years to the point that when the cheating began, it was encouraged through fear and reward. Teachers who blew the whistle were quickly fired, while teachers who cooperated were awarded with praise and bonuses, in effect, creating a hostile environment of coercive practices by those in charge (PG 2).

One of these eleven teachers avoided jail time by making a plea deal and giving up the right to appeal, another managed to receive weekends in jail, and the rest received up to seven years in prison (Calamur PG 1). It is unbelievable to me that they would receive any jail time! College students who cheat on tests don’t even fail a class anymore, but we are going to throw the book at a few emotionally broken-down teachers trying to keep their jobs?

Of course, Hall is not here to take the responsibility, although surely she bears more of the guilt than any of the teachers, but in my estimation, the true responsibility for this disaster of public education lies with the government. Every year there are new rules and responsibilities to contend with, new threats of losing funding, new batteries of endless tests, all which serve only to further corrupt and destroy the system of education for our children. Why are they not on trial? Why are they not held responsible for declining scores because they are the true cause. They started this wrecking ball rolling in the path of every public school in America, and teachers and students had better get out of the way because it doesn’t appear to have any intention of stopping. Why should it, when teachers make such a convenient scapegoat?

So, yes, I understand why they did it. I get it. And I don’t think they deserve to spend one day in jail. In fact, I think they should sue their district and the government for creating such a hostile work environment and coercing them to cheat (I won’t even call it a crime because that is so ridiculous). These are not criminals. These are the used and abused teachers who loved our kids, who year after year, gave everything they had and more to help them succeed, and we said it wasn’t enough.

Although I work in an honest district where the strictest protocols for testing are followed, and no one even hints at altering tests, we still feel the ever-growing pressure from the state, and so do our students. The more tests we have to give, the more, understandably, the students rebel. During our last testing session, half of my students drew pictures instead of answering the questions or just held one letter of the keyboard down and filled the page with gibberish. They don’t care anymore. They want to be more than a test score. They want to do more than take tests. They want to get excited about something that inspires them to learn.

Luckily, I teach in a district with a wonderful principal who is supportive and understanding, yet even as this is the case, we, as teachers, feel the pressure. So, would I ever be tempted to change answers? Cheat on a standardized test? Fortunately, I am not even tempted. Not because it is such a detestable crime, not because there is no one telling me to, but because I just don’t care anymore. That’s what this system has done to me. Much like the students, I don’t care if they pass or fail a stupid state test. I do, however, care about them. I care that they learn to think and to communicate. I care that they find a passion and pursue it, something that will inspire them to passionately investigate.

So, that’s what I teach them, and if my kids fail the tests, then they can call me a bad teacher and fire me. So what? I am a teacher. A public school teacher is highly employable because they are skilled and intelligent and capable of working long hours in the worst conditions. We put up with abuse, disrespect, and blame while never letting it change our love for the students or how we interact with them. Anyone would be smart to hire a former teacher because we are highly educated, critical thinkers, creative, good communicators, great at thinking on our feet, and excellent multi-taskers. Go ahead and fire me for low test scores and bad evaluations based on impossible tasks. You’d be doing me a favor. The only thing that worries me is who will replace us? Who will they get to teach our precious children when they have driven the last of the good teachers out of the profession?

We can say these eleven teachers were bad, and we are lucky to be rid of them, but our system made them in to what they became, and then turned them into yet another knife to stab at the profession. But I won’t make them the scapegoat. It’s time to stop blaming teachers, or we won’t have any teachers to blame. –Christina Knowles

Originally posted in 2015

Sources

Calamur, Krishnadev. “Jail Terms Handed To Most Atlanta Teachers Convicted In Cheating Scandal.” The two-way: BREAKING NEWS FROM NPR. NPR.org. 14 Apr. 2015. Web. 23 Apr. 2015

imgbuddy.com. Photo of jail hands. web. 24 Apr. 2015.

Strauss, Valerie. “How and why convicted Atlanta teachers cheated on standardized tests.” Answer Sheet. The Washington Post. Washingtonpost.com. 1 Apr. 2015. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

Why I Still Do It by Christina Knowles

IMG_3551 With all the changes in the public education system, with all the increased time demand and responsibilities, with all the blame and disrespect aimed at educators today, some people ask me why I still teach, especially because I actively speak out about problems in the educational system. The truth is I continue to teach for a lot of reasons, but the simple answer is that it’s who I am. When I am in the classroom, I love it. I think I even need to do it. Even if I won the lottery, I would continue to teach at least one class. I don’t speak out because I hate teaching, I speak out because I love it, and I hate what people outside the classroom are trying to turn it in to. I speak out because somebody has to stop the damage before it is too late, too late for current students, and too late to stop good teachers who love teaching from leaving the profession. But this article isn’t about that. It’s about why I do it anyway. What is it about teaching that keeps me coming back for more, no matter what unreasonable working demands are placed on me by the state? I can’t speak for other teachers, but I suspect we have some of these things in common.

Surprisingly, I never intended to be a teacher. I went to college and majored in English Literature because I loved to critically read—everything, the classics, contemporary fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, political commentary, philosophy, everything . . . and I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t feel confident in my skills, so I thought I needed an education. In addition, I believe a well-rounded liberal arts education is good in general. A liberal arts education helps a person look at the world with new eyes, not only critical and informed eyes, but with appreciative eyes. I went on to earn my Master’s degree in Creative Writing with the intention of being a novelist and screenwriter.

IMG_3330  However, along the way, I sort of fell into teaching, looking for more “time” to write while still earning a living. That’s quite funny to me now. I’ve never worked so many hours in any other career. But anyway, I entered the classroom at a private school that did not require a state teaching license with zero experience teaching and not even one class in education under my belt. Nervously, I faced my students that first day with an idea in mind of what I wanted them to learn, and then I just started talking, talking about my favorite subject, English. I loved it! All of it—the literature, the grammar, the writing, the reading, the speeches, the debates, and the critical discussion. And I adored my students. I loved getting to know them, listening to their ideas, hearing their dreams, their problems, and inspiring them to learn. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to share what I was most passionate about all day, every day. I even enjoyed grading papers. I loved reading, encouraging, and advising students about how to make their work creative, interesting, organized, and purposeful. To this day, I have to force myself to limit my comments on work to realistically grade it all because, left to my own devices, I would write an essay on each essay.IMG_3320

Teaching seemed to come naturally to me. I think I am good at it. Like many good teachers I know, I frequently get comments from students that they understood something for the first time in in my class, or saw something in a completely new way. I keep in touch with a lot of former students, and I am always touched by comments from those who say I was a major influence in their lives, students who are now doctors, lawyers, grad students, writers and aspiring writers, and future politicians. This is the most rewarding thing about teaching.

So after a couple of years, I went back to school and majored in Education: Curriculum and Instruction, obtained my state licensure, and began teaching public school, which has been even more rewarding from the standpoint of reaching a more diverse population of students. I’ve been teaching for 15 years and don’t realistically see myself ever completely leaving the classroom, although I do wish I had more time to write—that will always be my first love. But this love of writing, I believe, makes me a better teacher as well.

American Lit  One thing that motivates me to continue to teach is that I am a serious academic at heart. I think about everything in excruciating detail. I analyze, deconstruct, reassemble, interpret, compare, contrast, and relate to my life and the world everything I read, hear, or see. I just can’t stop. I frequently get the question, “Can’t you just enjoy it [movies, books, art] without thinking about it so much?” The answer is that I do enjoy that; it’s why I enjoy watching movies, reading, and art, and because I’m married to a musician, I’m starting to do this with music as well. I hope that my enthusiasm for my subject helps my students to connect to literature on a deeper, more critical level, which in turn, will make them more critically thinking individuals in every aspect of their lives.IMG_3162

Teaching English is good me for another reason as well. I am somewhat introverted with people out in the “real” world, but teaching gives me the much needed intellectual conversation that I am often unable to attain in social situations. I know it sounds like a contradiction that someone who talks all day is actually an introvert, but it is quite common. Introverts spend a lot of time thinking and have trouble engaging with what they see as unimportant or trivial “small talk.” It takes a lot of energy to talk about nothing. However, talking about something deep and intellectual is energizing. The problem is that people don’t typically jump into these types of conversations, and by the time I’ve awkwardly engaged in several minutes of small talk, either I’m exhausted from the effort, or they are. Although I know they are just trying to be polite, I actually dread attending events where I know I will be asked the usual teacher questions: “How’s school going? Are you ready for break? How are the kids this year?” I don’t think they really want to know, and I certainly don’t want to talk about it. I don’t think they realize how many times a day I have to answer these same questions.Prom

Conversely, intellectual conversation fuels my thought-life. Discussing literature and writing organizes and clarifies my own thoughts as well as sparking new ideas. I learn things and get new ideas from my students all the time. I get to have important conversations that many people don’t seem to want to engage in outside of the classroom. I get to have interesting conversations with people from all kinds of backgrounds and interests, from different races, cultures, and life-experiences. This excites me.

It’s true, I have numerous friends and family, including my husband and my book club friends, who are always up for some meaningful and intellectual conversation, but as a teacher, I get to engage in this all day long! I love this so much that teaching alone is not enough. I am involved in several discussion groups with adults from book clubs to philosophical discussion groups, the Diversity Forum to cultured interest groups. My new favorite thing is teaching at the community college, where we take diversity of experience and worldview to a new level. After teaching high school all day long, I teach night classes at the community college—two in a row, and it actually gives me more energy. If my entire job consisted of nothing but time in the classroom, no one would ever hear me complain.

So when you hear a teacher complaining once again about how difficult his job is, or how he must deal with increasing pressures from every direction when all he really wants to focus on are his students and their needs, don’t assume he hates teaching or think he’s a bad teacher.Rachel and Sierra

And if you run into me, please, don’t ask me how school is going, or you may get one of two responses: the stock “fine,” or a tirade on the evils of Common Core testing twice in two months. Instead, ask me what I’m reading, what I think of Nietzschian philosophy, or my thoughts on whether or not The Patriot Act should be renewed, but only if you really want to hear the answer. But most of all, please don’t tell me that “dealing with all those teenagers must be horrible” because that is the best part of teaching. And if I deteriorate into complaints about the Department of Education, lack of funding, or having 500 papers to grade by Monday, don’t assume I take it out on my students. I wouldn’t dream of it. They make all the bad stuff go away, one fabulous paper, one sincere thank you, one inspired dream, and one great discussion at a time.—Christina Knowles

Pediarchal Culture: The True Causes of the Downward Spiral of American Education (Part II of III) by Christina Knowles

601288_10151639540830639_216435886_n In Part I of this blog, I put forth the theory of pediarchal culture as the root cause of the deterioration of America’s educational system. Pediarchal culture is a culture wherein children rule society. Children rule their parents, usually through love and guilt, and parents cater to the happiness, desires, and whims of their children to their own detriment, especially where education is concerned. Discipline, patience, and respect are sacrificed for instant gratification and excuses replace life-lessons and wisdom. If you missed Part I, I suggest reading it before you continue. This blog, Part II, concerns the reactionary response of school administrative bodies and the excessive and clueless interference by governmental agencies, grasping-at-straws in order to fix a system that wasn’t initially broken (but now is) and to pacify a growing and increasingly angry and controlling population of parents.

But before we get into all that the schools are doing wrong, I’d like to point out a fact that is not commonly taken into consideration regarding the ranking of American schools compared to the rest of the world. Statistics that compare the skill level and test scores of American students with students from high-scoring countries are apples-to-oranges comparisons. The United States is the only country in most of these comparisons to test all students and to consider every student on an academic track bound for college. In many other countries including Norway, Denmark, and Korea, students are split at the high school level into academic tracks and vocational tracks with the best scoring children going into college prep classes and the others not included in the testing. So when we see rankings compared to other countries, it is equivalent to testing all of our students (including students with no interest in college, with disabilities, or with behavior problems affecting learning) with only the honor students of other countries. Now it is true that cultural differences also affect the value of education perceived by students, which in turn affects their level of learning. Certain cultures put a higher societal emphasis on education, grades, and discipline of children. However, it is unfair to judge our school system based on these unequal comparisons.

With that said, our educational system is most certainly in trouble. So whose fault is it? As I said, it is my assertion that a pediarchal cultural shift is the root cause, but because no one is willing to admit this, or take responsibility for changing it, the obvious choice for a scapegoat is the teacher. Parents, more than ever before, are quick to side with their children and blame teachers for failing grades and even behavior problems. Because we now live in a pediarchal culture, parents feel the need to guarantee the success of their child and ensure the child’s happiness at all costs, and if they cannot, which of course they cannot, because it is out of their control, they demand results from the teacher, who in the eyes of the parents, is the only thing standing in the way of their child’s success. To take any responsibility for the failure of their child, would be catastrophic to the image they have built for themselves as “good” parents. To lay the responsibility on the child may hurt their self-esteem, and if they have raised them “right,” the child would never have difficulty with material or behavior problems unless some outside source was causing it. The class must be boring, too difficult, they have a learning disability, ADD, the teacher doesn’t like them, the teacher is not qualified, she is not giving the child individual attention, the teacher is lazy, and on and on it goes.

At first, the administrators and teachers of schools looked inward. Maybe these students were different from students in previous generations. Their lives were more complicated, busy, and full of technology, so maybe they needed to be taught differently. So year after year, one method after another was implemented to reach these students. Administrators demanded teachers learn and teach to every individual student’s “learning style.” Teachers were made to go to training after training to learn how to reach the new generation of students. We were forced to let students with ADD listen to headphones while we taught, or wander about the room because they could not sit still. I’ll never forget the first time a parent told me that their child with ADD had no trouble focusing on things that interested him, but had trouble with things he didn’t care for. Wow! Me too! I think that is called being normal, not having ADD. The difference is that I have self-discipline, so I can force myself to endure what I don’t like, which is how I made it through the remainder of that meeting.

The next trend teachers were forced to implement was the elimination of “tracking,” which has been a disaster. We combined all levels of kids in one classroom to avoid labeling students as low, regular, and high. Teachers were required to plan, implement, and provide feedback on three different types of curriculum in one class. That didn’t work, so now teachers are forced to teach differently and accommodate each individual student. Needless to say, this is utterly impossible, even for an elementary school teacher with 25 students, and beyond the realm of imagination in the reality of a high school teacher who may have anywhere from 170 to 250 students for which they are responsible. And it does not even solve the problem of labeling students. Don’t you think it is obvious who is receiving special treatment when a few students are using notes on a test when no one else can, or has half the questions as everyone else? Everyone knows who is receiving accommodations anyway. If I had all the low kids in one class, I could tailor the lesson to their needs without sacrificing the education of the higher students.

Speaking of higher students, we are forced to write an Alternative Learning Plan for gifted students. This has also been a disaster. These students are usually identified as gifted around 3rd grade. After years of being told that they are gifted, these students often fall behind regular students because they assume they already know everything. We are told that they do not achieve because they find our classes too easy and too boring. It is my job to create something exciting, high-level, and interesting for them to do instead of the boring work at which they are failing. Last year my American Literature classes were exploring how the idea of the American Dream has evolved since the beginning of our country. My regular students were reading The Great Gatsby and writing essays on the subject of the evolving American Dream and whether or not is was achievable. I had one failing but “gifted” student who had to have a special plan. I created an assignment for him to make a “video diary” or “digital storytelling,” a short movie discussing the American Dream today versus times past. He didn’t want to do it alone, so I allowed three other very high-achieving “regular” students to join him in the library to work independently for several weeks. Finally, when it was due, the regular students said the gifted boy refused to work on it at all. After talking to him, he admitted that it was too boring for him, and he would rather write the papers the other students were writing. He threw one together really quickly, turned it in, and failed it. The regular students in the group created a decent project, but on the whole, did not understand as much about the topic as the ones who just stayed in the class and did our “boring” work.

In my opinion, every new trend moves us further in the wrong direction. Maybe students need a break from video games, cell phones, and activities that stimulate them constantly. When I traveled to Barbados, I was surprised that they had a very good school system. I guess I assumed that things would be rather laid back on an island, but that was not the case. In one school, everything was very traditional. Students wore uniforms and sat at a desk while the teacher lectured, they took notes, wrote papers, read books, had recess, repeat. If a student got caught with a cell phone, the administration confiscated it and kept it the rest of the year. Caught twice and the phone was never given back. Education is taken seriously, and parents don’t care if their kids don’t like it because it is good for them. These kids are just as modern and in to technology as ours, but they strangely don’t have a problem with ADD or disrespect.

Not only are teachers constantly forced to learn and implement methods they don’t necessarily believe in, but their workloads have become astronomically time-consuming and time-wasting.  In addition to being responsible for stacks of Individual Education Plans, Response to Intervention plans, Individual Literacy Plans, 504s, and other legal documents requiring teachers to do the impossible, teachers are expected to update grades immediately, post them on the internet, update class web sites, send out progress reports, and because it is too much to expect a parent to go online and check on their own child’s progress after a teacher went to all the trouble of posting it, the teacher is then required to personally contact each parent of any student receiving a D or F grade, and to report any behavior problems that may occur. Keeping up with parent contacts alone would easily consume 5 or 6 hours a week of the teacher’s time.

Yet school administrators and the Department of Education continue to put ridiculous requirements on teachers, a workload that is clearly impossible to keep up with, while simultaneously removing all responsibility from students and parents. Government interventions such as the No Child Left Behind Act and the recent onslaught of teacher evaluation bills such as Colorado’s Senate Bill 191 continue to shift the responsibility from student to teacher. However, it is my opinion that these government interventions do nothing to resolve the situation. They are focused on “fixing” the teacher, and the teacher was never the problem. I don’t mean to claim that there are not teachers who lack abilities, knowledge, or motivation to properly teach, but in my opinion, these teachers are the rare exception. By focusing on the teacher, and ignoring the root problem, they are making it worse by robbing good teachers of the time spent in creating good lesson plans and giving effective feedback to students in addition to driving excellently qualified teachers from the profession altogether.

Every year teachers face new expectations, new required methods of teaching, new evaluations, sometimes new state standards, and numerous new requirements in regards to producing evidence to prove they are doing their jobs. Not only does this take valuable time away from already stretched-to-the-breaking-point teachers who are underpaid to the point that many have to find other work to supplement their incomes in order to provide for their families, but it places all of the accountability on the teachers and removes it from both parents and students. By only holding the teacher accountable for student success, it ensures its failure. How many self-motivated teenagers do you know that would take responsibility for their own learning if there were no consequences for refusing to take it? If they knew they were guaranteed to pass anyway, and that someone else would be taking the blame for their refusal to cooperate in their own education? I know there are some, but they are few and far between. Even with the best teachers who have the ability to motivate and inspire students beyond the average, high school students are often un-inspirable. They are too caught up in work, relationships, or even sleeping to care. Many times they are not thinking about the future, and are too immature to realize they are only hurting themselves. They are a product of our culture. Our children have often been given too much too easily, and expect that to continue into their adult lives. Again, there are exceptions, but this is the rule. Recently I gave my juniors a practice ACT test to prepare for upcoming ACTs in April. When many of them failed to receive scores even close to college expectations, their responses were typical. A few of them were concerned and asked what we could do to improve before actual ACTs. Several said they didn’t care because they weren’t planning on attending college anyway, and the rest said it was no problem because they would just attend a junior college that would take anyone. So how is one teacher supposed to motivate 220 students when their own parents cannot? Even in my most popular classes where we engage in meaningful discussion and the topics are easily applicable to their real lives, there will be some students completely uninterested in participating.

Because of this relatively new tendency to place the responsibility solely on the shoulders of teachers, educators are required to jump through ridiculous hoops to prove their effectiveness in the classroom, while at the same time, their hands are tied when it comes to affecting any real change in the system. Teachers no longer have the support of administration in dealing with parents. If a particularly angry parent complains of a grade, it is the teacher who must prove he/she has done everything short of coming home with the student and doing their work for them to ensure their success. When a student is failing, a teacher must put in personal time away from his or her family to tutor the student, type up notes for the student, re-write tests, verbally test, re-test, re-grade, call the parents, meet with the parents, administrators, and special educators to alter the curriculum, and fill out mounds of paperwork to prove that they have exhausted all avenues to help the student succeed. All on top of the regular lesson planning, grading, meetings, committees, activities, and staff development that each teacher is required to attend. If the teacher still gives the student a failing grade, this affects the teacher’s evaluation because “failure is not an option.” Well, unfortunately students know that failure is not an option in most cases because it is not worth the teacher’s time or employment to go through all that and sacrifice the education of the rest just for the students who refuse to take part in their own education. Why wouldn’t the teacher just pass the student? Many do; however, there are also many teachers who are too ethical to do this, so the teacher continues to suffer.

If you believe that the accountability is not primarily on the teacher for results that are out of their control, take a look at Colorado’s teacher evaluation rubric related to the new Common Core Standards. Here are just a few of the ridiculous expectations for which the classroom teacher is responsible even though they have absolutely no control of these outcomes, nor should they have any responsibility for such things.

 STUDENTS will routinely:

–Choose challenging tasks and instructional materials.

–Encourage fellow students to participate and challenge themselves.

Apply coping skills to classroom situations.

–Share coping strategies with fellow students.

–Help fellow classmates by offering support.

–Accept responsibility for their behavior and use of time.

–Help other students stay on task.

–Assume ownership for monitoring their progress, setting learning goals, and

applying teacher feedback to improve performance and accelerate their learning.

 STUDENTS Demonstrate:

–Honesty
–Respect for others.

–Monitor their level of engagement.

–Stay on task during class periods.

–Work without interruption.

–Abide by school and class rules.

–Communicate freely and openly with teachers.

–Respect the uniqueness of fellow students.

–Respect their classmates and teacher(s).

Is it just me, or do these things seem like they should be on a STUDENT evaluation rubric? Unfortunately, I am responsible for these things, not my students, even though it is their behavior.

I realize now that this topic is too in-depth for two parts, and I will post Part III separately. Part III will begin by further examining the teacher evaluation rubric for Colorado, including a list of things that the students’ families will do, except I am the one who is judged on whether or not they do them. Until next time–Christina Knowles

Sources

COLORADO STATE MODEL EVALUATION SYSTEM FOR TEACHERS . Colorado Department of Education. http://www.cde.state.co.us/sites/default/files/TeacherRubric.pdf Accessed: 2/14/14

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