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.

Atheists on High Live-Streaming Event

atheists-on-highJoin me on October 12, 2016 at 7 pm (Mountain Time) as I guest co-host Atheists on High. According to host, Skeptic Bret, “Atheists on High is a four man wrecking crew, assembled to dig into the hard conversations that everyone has in their head when nobody is listening.”

This is sure to be a lot of fun, and hopefully enlightening, as we delve in to topics such as separation of church and state in our education system and any other topics that happen to inspire us at the moment.

This is a rowdy crew and tends to be explicit, so parental guidance is suggested.

Follow Atheists on High on Facebook to get notifications for the live-streaming podcast.

See you there!

Originally published in 2016

“Teacher” by Christina Knowles

“Teacher”

pail

There’s nothing quite like the light in the eyes of a student

Understanding dawning unexpectedly

A signpost revealed on a destined journey

Previously lost, the way revealed

Better still, enthusiasm kindled

The desire to know just for the sake of knowing

I can see it when our eyes meet

Suddenly and unanticipated

A kindred spirit

I see the spark glimmer

Sharing the love a favorite poem

An incredible novel, words that move and stir

Words that burn and change them

The philosophical depth of Thoreau

The insight of Dickens

The straightforward profundity of Steinbeck

And then . . .

The birth of something new

The product of a student’s pen

The baring of a soul, the beginning of knowing

Who they are and what they have to say

To a world listening, eager for a relationship

Between writer and reader, poet and philosopher

There’s nothing better

A new writer, excitedly asking you to read his work

The pride in his eyes as you express your awe

In the phrases he creates

A new Whitman is born

And I contributed a verse

To the inspiration of a new generation

The state can’t document this on a form

But I know what I’ve done

Evaluate away

I’ll be right here, creating the Emersons of the future

My job is to find the spark in a student’s eye

And start the fire.

—Christina Knowles

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

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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