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

Angry Atheist or Justifiably Angry? by Christina Knowles

Religion  We’ve all heard of the stereotype of the “angry atheist,” and I’m really tired of it and all it implies. If you really want to know why this atheist is sometimes angry, I’ll tell you, but you aren’t going to like it. I’m tired of being told that I am angry at a god I don’t believe in. I’m not, but lately I have been angry at some of those who believe in this god.

In general, I am a happy and pretty serene person. I am easy to get along with, I don’t get mad very easily, and I can’t think of any wrong done to me that I don’t easily forgive very quickly. However, I am angry at religion, at least organized religion. I don’t really have a problem with vague beliefs of some abstract spirit world where are there are no holy documents dictating how everyone else is supposed to live, regardless of whether or not they also believe it.

The kind of religion that makes me angry is the kind that is preventing progress, inhibiting intellectual reasoning, brainwashing children and cultures, interfering with the rights of others, and destroying our world. That’s right, destroying it. And I’m not just talking about the terrorism of some Islamic groups, or the overt oppression of homosexuals and women, but, at least in the United States, I blame fundamentalist Christianity for the dumbing down of the world when it comes to science, the environment and climate change, over-population, and for popularizing the belief in the superiority of mankind and his “dominion” over animal life and nature, as well as attempting to morally justify the worship of capitalism and making it acceptable to vilify and oppress the poor. Religion is leading to a mass extinction on our planet.

Any species that takes more than it needs from its environment eventually becomes extinct. The only way out of this that I can conceive is education. Education in science, history, literature, social studies, math, in everything, including de-bunking religious superstition. As long as people are conditioned to check their brains at the door and believe a book written by bigoted men thousands of years ago, men who had no understanding of science and every reason to perpetuate thought which put them in control. This book causes good people to discriminate against other good people, this book causes women to accept or even welcome their own subjugation, and this book causes intelligent people to dismiss intellectual thought in lieu of “faith,” which leads to denying scientific fact and embracing fantasy notions of escaping this planet for an imaginary perfect place where none of the people they find offensive will be allowed to go.

And when you believe there will be a new earth, why take care of the old one? Why not have “19 kids and counting” if a god will take care of all of them or rapture them up and take them to heaven? We don’t need to worry about the exponentially growing population and the fact that we do not have enough resources to support them or enough jobs available for them as they become adults. And if animals do not have souls, and men do, obviously, men can do whatever they want to them. And prejudice and discrimination against those who do not agree that your god makes the rules is suddenly justified because you are just “trying to save them” and are worried about their eternal souls.

One of the most disturbing things about American Christianity is the apparent worship of capitalism and the disdain for the poor. While, in the past, Christians prided themselves on caring for the poor, this new generation of Christianity seems to prefer quoting aphorisms about God helping “those who help themselves,” “no working-no eating,” and “teach a man to fish,” etc., effectively blaming the poor as being lazy without looking at factors such as opportunity and oppression, instead, promoting corporate greed as God’s blessings for the entrepreneurial spirit. They seem to think that if they please God enough, enforcing his edicts on the world, they, too, will be blessed with riches.

But if you really want to know why I am angry, you first have to understand my perception of religion. While Christians may think I am lost, I think, as a former Christian, that I have awakened and narrowly escaped a cult. I believe that Christians are nice people, more often than not, who have been deceived and brainwashed into joining a damaging and intellectually debilitating cult. This cult lures people in by quoting the nice parts of the bible, and there are a few, very few. These people are drawn in by the idea of an all-powerful and benevolent being who personally created them and loves them. They aren’t immediately informed about this god’s past immoral and psychotic displays of rage on humanity. And when they do run into these passages, eventually, they are explained away with such illogical nonsense as “We can’t begin to understand God,” or “Because God is perfectly just, He has to destroy sin,” (even the innocent children, apparently, and despite the notion that He created it), or my personal anti-favorite, “You just have to have faith.” Why? Why would anyone think it a good thing to believe something for absolutely no good reason, contrary to the observable evidence, and with no supporting evidence of its own? Especially, blissfully ignoring the fact that this god seems strikingly similar to a very flawed, over-emotional, prideful, vindictive, and sexist early Middle Eastern man. This is exactly what I mean. This cult ensures its survival by making sure its members believe that looking too closely at its logic is a bad thing and blind faith is admirable.

I’m sure at this point, some people are thinking that I sound like I am mad at God. I’m not. I don’t believe he exists, but if the god of the bible were real, I certainly would not find him worthy to be worshipped or obeyed, not to mention that he seems to be a trickster engaged in the longest hide and seek game of all time. However, I am mad that this mythology is continuing to block progress and affects millions of people who do not share these beliefs. I am angry that persistent sexism exists because of religion. I am angry that discrimination of all kinds of people exists because of religion, that wars are started over religion, that disdain for the poor exists because of religion, that scientists are scoffed at because of religion, that we are killing ourselves, plant life, and animal life because of religion. I don’t mean to single out only Christianity for the blame; there are other factors, but, in my opinion, it is this dominant religion causing the most harm here in the United States. I am angry that in America, there are still some laws on the books that prevent an atheist from holding political office, which is completely unconstitutional. Personally, I would rather see a person who depends on reason in charge of public policy than someone who wants to determine what is right and wrong from an ancient book that should have long ago been relegated to the status of mythology, a category to which it most certainly belongs. However, we all know that even if there were no “religious test” for public office, the “moral majority” of America would never elect even the most ethical and upstanding atheist as president. An atheist would be forced to pretend to have the popular religion in order to have a chance for a political career in the United States.

Yet, Christians cry religious persecution all the time—whenever they are prevented from forcing their religious dogma on others. It is not enough anymore to spread the gospel, they must enforce their imaginary god’s laws on rational people who think they are delusional. I apologize if this is too blunt, and I want to make sure everyone understands that I do not think Christians are stupid. They aren’t. They are brainwashed, usually from birth, indoctrinated into a culture of Christianity and held there by fear of hell, fear of losing community and family, and being ostracized as godless heathens. When Christians do allow themselves to doubt and question, they are quickly reined in and corrected. And even when they no longer believe, they fear admitting it. I was once among them, and I feel for them, but I refuse to stand by silently while they destroy the world I, too, must live in. So, yeah, I am angry, and I do feel the need to say what I think is really going on, but I am not mad at an invisible dictator in the sky whom I do not believe exists.

I am not an angry person. I am a person who gets angry, especially when it really matters. I am a moral person, and I want to see us solve problems and move forward in a way that best protects our future. So you see, in this way, we aren’t really that different. We both think the other is ruining the world, we both think the other is deluded. However, I don’t think you are going to hell. I think you can be woken up. I think you can snap out of it and realize the wool has been pulled over your eyes. I’m sure you think I could come back to Christianity, but I won’t because I never want to believe something for no reason again. I want to see a new age of reason emerge, and the United States return to its former position as one of the world’s freethinking leaders of democracy and scientific thought, rather than being known as the largest free country still holding on to magical thinking and holding back progress. Reason, in the end, is the only savior out there, and I’m justifiably angry because we are encouraging ignorance and fantasies over rationality at the cost of our future.—Christina Knowles

Originally published in 2015

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

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This is the final installment of a three-part article on the causes of the deterioration of American education from a teacher’s point of view. Part I discussed how a cultural shift has taken place in American families, wherein the desires of the children and their happiness have become the primary goal of parents, resulting in a “pediarchal culture,” a society ruled by children and devoted to their contentment at the cost of doing what would actually benefit them in the long term. The inevitable backlash of this cultural change is that parents become angry with the schools when their child fails due to the the child’s learned lack of responsibility, blaming the teacher for the failure. Part II of this article begins the discussion of the school administration’s response as well as the government takeover of education in reaction to parental demands for student success. This has resulted in constant upheaval and numerous changes to methods and requirements for teachers to accommodate theses families, effectively removing all responsibility from the students and placing it unfairly on the shoulders of the teachers. It has resulted in a barrage of new legislation such as No Child Left Behind, individual state standards, Colorado’s Senate Bill 191, and the new Common Core standards adopted by 45 states so far. It is my contention that none of these things will do anything to improve education, but will, in fact, make things even worse because teachers and the way they teach were never the core problem. The core issue is parents refusing to hold their children accountable for what they do in school. This reactionary revamping of schools will drive more and more qualified and committed teachers from education, even though this constant fusillade of government interference is highly controversial.

Here is an excerpt from The Denver Post by Krista Kafar that illustrates this government over-reaching: “The federal government has taken an active role in promoting Common Core by awarding millions of dollars to states that have, among other things, adopted the national standards. Although the government is barred by law from exercising ‘direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum,’ its financial incentives (the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund was a pretty big carrot) and continuous bully pulpit have been quite persuasive” (Kafar, The Denver Post).

In theory, I have absolutely no problem with common standards, or even standardized testing, for that matter. What I do take exception to is the teacher being made to shoulder the sole responsiblity, while at the same time, removing all control of the classroom from said teacher, and demanding so much from the teacher that no human being, even working 24 hours per day could meet these requirements.

If you have not read Parts I and II, I suggest that you read those first before continuing.

Part I: https://disturbingtheuniverseblog.com/2014/02/15/pediarchal-culture-the-true-causes-of-the-downward-spiral-of-american-education-part-i-by-christina-knowles/

Part II: https://disturbingtheuniverseblog.com/2014/02/22/pediarchal-culture-the-true-causes-of-the-downward-spiral-of-american-education-part-ii-of-iii-by-christina-knowles/

Part III will continue examining the new teacher evaluation rubric for Colorado teachers based on the Common Core standards, which proves how teachers are unfairly held accountable for things out of their control.

The new teacher evaluation rubric idealistically grades the teacher on, not only the children’s behavior, but the behavior of the family. Take a look at these items for which teachers are now responsible for their students’ families:

FAMILIES AND SIGNIFICANT ADULTS WILL:

–Discuss student performance with the teacher.

–Participate in school-based activities (How can I possibly be responsible for this?)

–Partner with the teacher to support student strengths and address next steps for learning.

I cannot force families to do any of these things, yet my job depends on their cooperation.

 Now let’s look at some things for which the teacher could be responsible, if we lived in a world with 48 hour days. Unfortunately, we are held responsible for these things in an average 8 hour day:

 THE TEACHER:

–Monitors and evaluates personal behavioral changes to determine what works for individual students.

–Advocates for the inclusion of teachers and families in education and government decision-making processes.

–Collaborates with professional, governmental, and/or community agencies to advocate for curricular, school and instructional improvements. (Obviously this would have to be on the teacher’s personal time)

Advocates for students and the school to external agencies and groups.  

–Participates in school activities expected of all teachers.

–Supports school goals and initiatives. (whether or not they agree with them, often knowing that they will not work)

–Contributes to school committees and teams (on their own time).

–Collaborates with school-based teams to leverage the skills and knowledge of colleagues and families.

–Initiates and leads collaborative activities that partner with families to coordinate learning between home and school.

–Collaborates with professional, governmental, and/or community agencies to advocate for curricular, school, and instructional improvements (on their own time).

Yes, all of this is required to keep my $47,000 a year job in addition to my responsibilities of instructing in front of a class for 5 hours per day, planning lessons, creating tests and assignments, copying them, and attending meetings for 2 to 3 hours per day, grading papers for 3 to 4 hours per day (which is not nearly enough time to complete them), after-school tutoring for 1 hour, contacting parents and documenting evidence for 2 hours, inputting and calculating grades 2 to 3 hours, reading required books, continuing education to keep my license, and on and on. As you can see, my job REQUIRES a minimum of 15 hours per day to do only the essentials, but these other tasks have been added as if we had unlimited time to devote to our jobs, and even if we did, many of these things are impossible because their completion assumes the cooperation of third, fourth, and sometimes fifth parties. In addition, Colorado may well find itself in some legal hot water because I believe holding teachers to the contents of this evaluation rubric violates existing labor laws, and I am at a loss as to why union representatives have not sued to remove it altogether.

All of these things standards are ideal, but to believe that one teacher can control or would even have the time to attempt to control all of these things is unimaginable. But it is now state law that I am to be held accountable for all these things in my yearly evaluation, in addition to my students’ achieving good grades and state testing scores. Added on to that, it is my task alone to provide the hundreds of documents to prove I have met all of these impossible tasks, which in itself would be a full-time job. And all of this does not take into account behavior issues for which the teacher is solely responsible, managing with less and less support from administration every year. If a child is disruptive, disrespectful, or even violent, it is a strike against the teacher for failing to manage discipline, even though we do not hold the power to affect or enforce any consequences on the students, such as suspension, detention, or any other disciplinary measure. Often students return from the office after being referred by the teacher and brag how no consequences were given. Once a student returned to my class ten minutes after throwing a desk at me with no disciplinary consequences. The level of disciplinary support differs with every administration; however, to tie the hands of the teacher, and also expect him to control his classroom is irrational. It is even more ludicrous to expect learning to occur in a classroom where there is no disciplinary support for the teacher. This level of support changes from year to year as principals come and go.

Teachers are increasingly losing control over the curriculum and the grading method employed in their classrooms as well.  With the advent of Standards Based Grading in many schools across the country, teachers have to prove they are testing in the exact same manner as another teacher regardless of teaching style or level of students, even when there are several learning disabled students in the classroom. Standards Based Grading put an end to holding students responsible for homework or other formative activities. They are graded solely on meeting the standards on summative tests and projects, but the issue of motivating students to participate in formative activities with no grade attached is a persistent problem. Even though teachers can demonstrate to students that those who complete formatives and receive feedback achieve higher grades on summative assignments, this is little incentive to a hormonal teenager given the choice to do their homework or not. In addition, students are allowed to do nothing for weeks and then turn in assignments for full credit, essentially reducing motivation for keeping up with learning throughout the semester. Standards Based Grading is a nightmare of grading for the teacher as well because students are allowed to re-do everything, even tests, so most students do not even try the first time, knowing they can re-take it after they have had a chance to see it. This effectively doubles grading. If the teacher does not want the student to take the exact same test after the student has had a chance to memorize which answers are incorrect, then she has to write an alternate test, again, effectively doubling the teacher’s work. However, in my opinion, the worst problem with Standards Based Grading is that a student is only held accountable for what they know, not what they do. This is a dangerous lesson because nowhere else in life does anyone care if you are as smart as Einstein if you refuse to contribute anything to society with that knowledge. Standards Based Grading teaches students that behavior and responsibility do not matter; only knowledge matters, which creates an impossible learning environment. Without disciplined behavior and responsibility, knowledge is not acquired.

Supporters of Standards Based Grading like to quote statistics from obscure studies done in areas that do not represent the typical American school to say that students’ test scores went up, but these studies are not representative, as I said, of the general population, and they do not take into consideration real-life skills in the work place, such as meeting deadlines and studying for tests, nor do they prepare a child for the demands of college. Quite the opposite. Our students are in culture shock when they go to college, and when they have to take their own notes, pass the test the first time, and turn in their essays on time with no chance of re-doing them for full credit. These studies do not follow these students to college to see if this method has really benefited them in any meaningful way. However, the toll on the teacher is obvious every day. It is no wonder that more and more qualified teachers leave the profession every year.

It is popular to say that teachers don’t do it for the money; however, with so little respect, reward, or support, teachers are increasingly opting out for more lucrative positions where the workload is manageable, efforts are appreciated, and expectations are realistic. I recently got my W-2. I went up a “step” in pay for another year of experience, which used to be about $900 in a year. I was frozen in pay for four years, so I was happy to finally get a step raise. However, before the district gave us a step, they lowered the pay of all the steps. According to my tax return, I made $100 more for the entire year. Somehow I don’t think that’s kept up with inflation and cost of living or my insurance increases. Through all the years of being frozen for one reason or another, I am paid as a teacher with seven years experience, even though I have taught for fourteen years. Every year my classroom sizes get bigger, I am required to shoulder more responsibility for things out of my control, forced to implement methods of grading and teaching with which I may not agree, and it is literally impossible to complete my required tasks in a 10-12 hour day, even though I am paid for an 8 hour day. And if you might be thinking that at least teachers get all that paid time off, you are wrong. We have zero paid vacation. We are paid for the number of contracted days in a school year, and then it is disbursed in twelve equal payments. We are not paid for summer break, spring break, fall break, or Christmas break, although most teachers use their breaks to catch up on work that is impossible to finish at any other time. Despite all this, most teachers struggle to do the impossible because they care about kids and don’t want to punish them for a failing system.

Indeed the situation is grim, and I have very little hope in it turning around. It is highly unlikely that this pediarchal culture will reverse itself anytime soon, but it will inevitably run its course, and the pendulum will begin to move in the other direction, but probably not in my lifetime. However, I do believe there is an answer. The government needs to give control back to education professionals, and those education professionals, specifically school administrators, need to allow teachers to do what they were originally intended to do. They need to be able to use their time to plan, create, and implement engaging lessons, and give the necessary feedback to students. They need to empower the teachers, so that they have control over their classrooms, to support them in matters of discipline, grades, and accountability of students. If they want to judge our efficacy on standardized test scores, so be it, but if we are to be held accountable for test scores, let us teach in the way we know works, rather than experimenting with some logic-defying new method every year. I am perfectly willing to be judged on test scores if I have control over my curriculum, my methods, my discipline, and my grading. I know what works for my kids, and I don’t want my job constantly threatened by people who have no idea what they’re talking about, and I do not think it is fair to be held accountable for the success of something I knew would not work from the beginning.

Speaking of useless efforts, I heard on the news the other day that the government is considering spending a proposed $100 million dollars on teacher evaluation. You have heard me complain about a lot of things in our education system, but you have not heard me mention the lack of funding. That’s because although everyone wants to focus on money, all the money in the world will not fix our deteriorating educational system. Yes, our class sizes are a problem, technology is limited, schools are old and in need of renovation, new schools are needed, and teachers are underpaid, but that is not the source problem. We need to counter our pediarchal culture by standing up to parents to do what we know is right for students. Parents will either realize that their child has to live up to expectations or fail, or they will have to find alternative education. Let them. When the scores come up, and students begin achieving, they will be clamoring to get back in. As for money, cutting waste and reducing extraneous administrative staff (and schools are full of them) would solve the money problem. Every year, as we suffer through another year without a raise, our district adds another useless administrative position. If schools were responsible with their money, residents would pass more of their bond measures.

As for me, I am considering leaving education like most teachers I know. I doubt the pendulum swing will happen soon enough for me. Until then I will try and do my best for students and enjoy them for who they are, and attempt to set personal boundaries, leaving work at work whenever possible, regardless of the insane expectations.–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

Kafar, Krista.  “Kafer: We may be too hasty in instituting Common Core.” The Denver      Post http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_25201453/we-may-be-too-hasty-instituting-common-core#ixzz2ufsrwZRO  Posted: 2/22/14. Accessed: 2/28/14.

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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