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 his career, punishment by the law, his 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 until 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 public employee pension, 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 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.

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

601288_10151639540830639_216435886_nI have been an English teacher for 14 years. I was a middle school teacher for ten, and a high school teacher for four. When I started, I believed I had found my calling. I love my students, I am passionate about my subject, but I have become increasingly disenchanted with the system of education in this country. I have witnessed, first-hand, the deterioration of this system over the past several years, despite, in fact because of, the constant efforts of both educators and government agencies to revamp the system and “fix” this seemingly insurmountable problem. Why doesn’t anything we do work? Why are we in a constant state of change? And why are we driving experienced and qualified teachers out of education faster than we can graduate naïve young idealists to replace them? Well, there are a number of reasons, in my humble opinion, and that is just what this is, an opinion. I haven’t done double-blind studies or charted any statistical analyses. But I have observed trends over the course of 14 years of teaching that are undeniable to common sense. I will attempt to relate those observations and interpretations to you in the least offensive way I know how. Why would it be offensive, you may ask? Because there is going to be some blame, and as Americans, we all share in this catastrophic cultural shift in one way or another. The recent trend is to lay the blame at the foot of the teachers. This is clear by the implementation of recent laws such as Colorado’s Senate Bill 191, which basically holds the teacher accountable (and only the teacher) for the success or failure of each student, and is responsible for the requirement of a new, insane teacher evaluation rubric. If you don’t believe me, just wait, and I will show you exactly how ridiculous this rubric is. However, that will be covered in Part II and III of this blog because this topic is so large that, out of necessity, I have divided it into three parts. So for now let us focus on the main problem because the second is merely a grasping-at-straws-reaction to the first. The main problem is America’s transition from a patriarchal society to a “pediarchal” society, a society ruled by and existing for the pleasure of children.

I may not have conducted and documented my own studies, but I have done a little research into this subject and was not surprised to find evidence that confirmed my belief that a cultural shift in the way we treat and view children is at the source of the problem with education in this country. Here is how the Center for Excellent Living describes this shift in values:

“Traditionally most cultures have given authority to the elders, who through experience and  education have become wiser people and more discerning when making decisions. However, our western society has become both “pediarchal” and hedonistic. We’ve given family authority over to the children, and our desires are for their “happiness” at all costs.

The flaw in this is that our parents have become fearful of a child’s sorrow. Children are permitted to make decisions that counter the parent’s wisdom because it may infringe on the child’s happiness. This creates conflict and struggle; a home of tension and frustration” (Center for Excellent Living).

How this shift affects education should be obvious, but I will go into detail later. But first, more research.

According to an interview with Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, conducted by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, there was a significant shift in the culture of parenting beginning around the late 19th and early 20th century, that was necessary, but has gone so far in the opposite direction as to redefine parenting. Senior describes this historic transformation as beginning with the protesting of child labor laws. Historically, in many cultures, children were seen as a source of income. Of course, most parents loved their children, but they often purposefully planned to have them to help run the business, farm, or add to the financial stability of the family (Senior). No one denies that these reforms were good and necessary, or that children should not be servants brought into the world in order to prosper their parents, but this pendulum has swung back the other way so far that now parents have become indentured to the fulfillment of every whim and desire of their children. It is not uncommon, in fact it is normal, to hear parents complaining of working second jobs, extra hours, or foregoing their needs to buy the latest in designer clothing, the most popular gaming system, or to purchase a new car for their children. Parents often sacrifice their own retirement funds or go into debt to foot the bill for their child’s education. Somehow they think they owe it to their child because the child never asked to be brought into this world, and therefore, it is the parents’ responsibility to ensure the happiness and success of their children. Does this sound ludicrous to anyone but me? How about being grateful that you were brought into the world at all? That you were fed, clothed, and sheltered until adulthood?

According to Senior, who quoted Princeton sociologist Vivian Zelizer, after the legislation regarding child labor, “Children became ‘economically worthless and emotionally priceless,’ exalted creatures at the center of our lives,” which sentimentalized children in a way that has progressed through the years into the child worship we see today. Senior goes on to say that before this trend, parents would expect to provide food, shelter, and childhood education because there were no public schools.  Of course, the well-to-do might send their children to college, but this was rarely the case.  It was not until the 1940s that the majority of American children even began to graduate from high school in a public setting.

Gradually over time, parents began to see their roles as parents become more child-focused. We see popular trends today of parents “dating” their children, in an innocent effort to model how a girl should be treated by dating her father, but which strangely elevates the child to equality and indirectly puts her in competition with the mother. These parents are obviously not familiar with Oedipus. This modeling used to come from the child observing the father treating her mother with respect and kindness, not being “dated” by her father herself.  We also see this shift in the term “housewife” becoming “stay-at-home-mom,” and mothers in the home shifted their focus from creating a stable home environment, being in the background but available if her children needed her, providing time for creative play and allowing imagination to flourish, encouraging independence, allowing their children to struggle through their homework before offering assistance, to the other end of the spectrum, feeling as if she had to spend every waking moment catering to the children, playing with them, driving them constantly to practices and activities day and night, and sitting at the table “helping” with homework, that more often than not, is actually doing the child’s homework (Senior).

As a result children do not even expect to have to think anymore. They want information spoon-fed to them, and anything that does not come instantly is too hard. I see this daily in my classroom, perfectly intelligent 17 and 18 year-olds who want the stories read to them, interpreted for them, and when given the task to critically think or analyze a piece of literature, they simply sit and stare, ask me repeatedly for the answer, or turn to their neighbor for help before even trying. When I refuse to give in, guiding them in the direction of how to begin, asking them leading questions, trying to spur actual thought, they give up and say they will take it home and do it, which is not an option in my class. I have even had juniors and seniors, when receiving poor grades on a homework project, say indignantly, “Well, my mom made it,” without even seeming to realize that this is cheating. Then the parents demand special accommodations, modified testing, type-written notes handed to the child, and open-note tests, using the notes that the teacher provided. Special education used to be about helping the children learn, but now it is about ensuring that the student passes, so the children don’t feel bad and ruin their self-esteem. In my opinion, there is not one intervention of which I am forced to implement that does anything other than enable the student to do nothing and still pass. And now anyone and everyone can get accommodations just by having their parent complain about the work. I have so many students on accommodations and modifications that I cannot keep track of who they are. God forbid that their children have to struggle through figuring out how to solve a problem. And if all this doesn’t result in excellent standardized test scores, and why would it? then it must be an inadequate or lazy teacher’s fault.

But I digress. As time went on, this trend metamorphosed the duties of the parent. It became the parents’ job to nurture their children, then they became responsible for instilling self-esteem, and finally for making them happy, which is an impossible task as happiness is an elusive goal at best, and much more so for a spoiled child. But this began to be an expectation for parents. In fact, if you are not willing to sacrifice your happiness for your child’s today, you are considered a deficient person. Centuries ago, they would have found this notion absurd, and it seems to me that their children were probably happier, and most assuredly better educated, at least in life, if not calculus. Children now see themselves as entitled to happiness, and we as parents, are required to deliver. Sociologist William White coined the term “Philiarchy” to describe how children rule us through our love for them (Senior). The trend in this direction has continued to the point where we are seeing a significant backlash in our society; the consequences are a disrespectful, unhappy, and undisciplined generation, who don’t know how to make themselves happy and will not take responsibility for their own learning. The obvious result of a parenting style that demands that the child be protected from all negative experience, the self-esteem be protected at all costs, and states that the child’s happiness is the utmost good is that the teacher will bear all responsibility for any deficiency in a child’s performance at school. Holding the child accountable may damage their self-esteem.

Now, I realize that this is not true of every child or family; however, it affects every child because they are still influenced by the culture surrounding them. It is true that there a couple of uncharacteristically curious children in every class, who are motivated to learn or perform despite these influences, and there is, once in a while, a legitimately learning disabled child in a class who needs a different learning environment to succeed, but for the vast majority this isn’t the case. The few children who buckle down and put actual effort into school despite their average abilities invariably come from homes where parents put discipline and expectations above the child’s happiness, and ironically, these children seem happier than the others who have the freedom to fail and blame the teacher. These children will be prepared for life, they know how to work for success, to problem-solve, and accept their mistakes, so which parent actually is showing more love for their child?

Schools, at a loss to explain how they are keeping up with changing times and equipping themselves with new strategies to educate the modern student who supposedly learns differently (as if this were the challenge), frantically implement one completely absurd and logic-defying plan after another in a vain attempt to pacify the angry parents who demand that their children receive the education he/she is entitled to, even though they are not willing to put any effort into the obtainment of said education. This reactionary system of school administration will be the focus of Pediarchal Culture: The True Causes of the Downward Spiral of American Education, Part II.

Sources:

“Are We Having Fun Yet? New Book Explores The Paradox Of Parenting,” Fresh Air, Interview by Terry Gross with Jennifer Senior. Accessed: http://www.npr.org/2014/02/04/271416048/are-we-having-fun-yet-new-book-explores-the-paradox-of-parenting  Date Accessed: 2/14/14.

Center for Excellent Living. http://excellentliving.net/98days-2/parenting/. Accessed 2/14/14

Senior, Jennifer. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.  New York: HarperCollins, 2014. Book link: https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=xTgHAQAAQBAJ&source=productsearch&utm_source=HA_Desktop_US&utm_medium=SEM&utm_campaign=PLA&pcampaignid=MKTAD0930BO1

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