Now That All Else Has Failed, Ask Your Teacher
Now That All Else Has Failed, Ask Your Teacher
I have been personally subjected to and persecuted by a rather large number of educational revolutions devised by experts to provide solutions to problems the experts themselves discovered or even created. The very first was in elementary school in the early 60’s when we were subjected to “New Math” because if we didn’t improve our national test scores the Russians would establish world dominance through Sputnik and the race to space that would end The American Way as we knew it. It was quickly obvious to us that our teacher was rather confused about the entire process but dutifully tried her best to implement those processes and teaching methodologies to the extent she understood them, and she managed to struggle through the year without actually crying in front of us. We eventually overcame our fear and loathing of math through years of intensive remedial efforts by junior high and high school teachers, and learned to trust traditional mathematical processes that allowed us to venture into Algebra and Algebra II without fear of regression into the dark shadows of New Math. We achieved, for the most part, just enough proficiency in math to keep from hurting ourselves.
The 1970’s met us with the belief that “schools don’t really matter” until debunked by later studies that concluded “schools do matter,” and not only what they taught but how they taught it mattered indeed, not just to us but to the entire country. “A Nation At Risk” in 1980 predicted national calamity from the “rising tide of mediocrity” not just of our schools but the students they produced through their less-than-rigorous processes, and (again) that the American expectations of growth, world leadership, progress and moral superiority would suffer serious and catastrophic consequences unless the problems in education were addressed. Immediately.
No Child Left Behind was passed into law by Congress in 2001, and decreed that schools MUST make progress toward the 100% success rate in reading and math for all students or suffer the consequences. Educational experts convinced the President and Congress that teachers weren’t teaching hard enough and that low expectations from those teachers were the reason so many kids were dropping out before graduation, and that if only schools were expected to make sure every kid passed and every kid graduated then everything would be wonderful. If not, there would be consequences for the schools that failed. The consequences ranged from designation as “low performing” to firing administrators to replacing teachers to state takeover. While the “all children must succeed” to “all children must succeed at high levels” to “every child must graduate from high school” to “every child must go to college” may seem like small steps incrementally heading toward educational utopia, each of these grandiose goals ignores - and that ignorance was happily perpetuated by politicians and school leaders and administrators and parent groups that should have known better - basic statistics, human nature and the natural phenomena of the bell curve. An even crazier notion was how educational proficiency would be determined with standardized tests. Nevermind that the tests were never aligned with any given curriculum so that preparation for the tests was never aligned with the tests themselves, experts - in the form of unelected bureaucrats in the USDOE - once again assured us that the tests were guaranteed to have both validity and reliability - both important values when discussing testing - when in fact they had neither. Ever. At all. Not even close. Add that to their insistence that 100% proficiency was an attainable goal if teachers worked hard enough, that every child in every school in every town in every district across America would fit into the mold and be ready, able and willing to take the tests seriously from the 3rd grade on up and that, golly gee willikers we can get every child to pass those tests if they only try hard enough and if we all wish upon a star and just believe and let it go and follow the USDOE instructions and mandates and directives and orders. I mean, would the experts have us spend all those billions of dollars of our money on testing and a misguided, wasteful, pie in the sky effort? So we did.
Guess what happened? Those worthless teachers let us all down. They didn’t try hard enough and test scores didn’t improve so we had to get tough and impose more mandates and more threats and make sure that every child was given an individualized education by requiring teachers to use the same methods, the same scripted lesson plans, the same testing pep rallies and the same emphasis on testing. So to whip those lazy teachers into shape the experts decided to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores. After all, if students weren’t passing the tests it couldn’t be that the tests were bad, could it? We have to hold teachers accountable, don't we? It’s only fair that teachers be judged by the scores their students receive on tests they didn’t create, right? Wait a minute. Teachers had no input on the tests? No they didn’t. They weren’t allowed to even look at the questions. Or the answers. And were prohibited from discussing the tests or the questions or the answers. But they were held accountable for the results. That’s a lot like giving bakers a list of ingredients they are required to use and allowing no deviation but not paying for the cakes when they turn out poorly.
So rather than address the real problem, districts decided what they needed were tests to prepare the students for more testing and provide data points where teachers were falling short so they could work harder and improve those test scores that would prepare kids for the testing that would help improve the testing before the real testing began. So what we had was test prep to prepare for the local tests that were to help prepare for the district tests to prepare for the state tests to prepare for the national rankings. We had 8 year old kids missing PE, music, art and life to participate in mandatory remedial test prep. Testing companies designed, graded and implemented testing procedures. Test security was so restrictive that teachers have been fired because they lost student test booklets. Not the answer sheets, the booklets with the questions in them. Teachers were given extensive training on how to account for student test booklets that had been rendered unusable when students threw up on them. Apparently teachers were not the only ones stressed by the testing.
After a few years of more failures, the experts decided the problem was that we had no national curriculum, so a guy named Dave was hired to write one and came up with Common Core. You would think that there would be a pilot program or a trial run or maybe a little small scale implementation, but the experts said “No, that’s not necessary. This stuff is great and will positively impact education because when kids move from one city to another they will encounter the same material wherever they go.” State Governors believed them and accepted large sums of money from the USDOE to implement Common Core in their respective states but found that the thing it really did was frustrate teachers because there was little or no attention paid to exactly how teachers were supposed to teach the new curriculum and it frustrated kids and parents by introducing concepts and ideas that their teachers were ill prepared to teach (along many concepts that were not age appropriate or effective) so the politicians fell back on what they knew and blamed the falling test scores once again on those darn lazy teachers. Textbook companies did make a lot of money with their new redesigned and improved textbooks, but student scores didn’t get better. Teachers discovered quickly that stuff like Common Core was the reason national curricula became illegal in the 1965 ESEA.
Now that Common Core is dying a much deserved slow death in many districts, test scores are even lower and kids are still not passing the tests the experts have decided that maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to test everyone for the last 20 years or so, but the test scores have come in really handy at showing us the socio-economic levels the students come from, and pointing out once again that teachers must be the real problem because they have to be held accountable. Teachers, many of whom got really frustrated and tired of being blamed for what they saw as the insanity of standardized testing and the failure of scripted teaching and Common Core, the lack of administrative support, no-fail policies and deteriorating classroom discipline began leaving the profession at ever increasing rates. The experts were a little surprised but thought “let them go. They will be replaced by youthful, dedicated teachers that will save education.” But they weren’t. Not only were experienced teachers leaving, prospective teachers were avoiding the profession because of the low salary, poor working conditions and - believe it or not - the lack of societal appreciation for what teachers are expected to do. Where teachers were once respected members of the professional community, now their standing had sunk to something just below that of a part- time roadie for an accordion jazz quartet. Add that to unrealistic administrative expectations and increased number of students in classes and rising in-class disciplinary issues and no-fail policies and the insistence by some parents that teachers were the problem and not their child and stagnant salaries and it soon became difficult to find teachers at all, much less qualified ones.
The litany of educational failures from the minds of experts should tell us all several things. The first is that the US Department of Education is a waste of time and money. Sending money to Washington DC so 28 year old bureaucrats can send some of it back to states with directions on how to spend it is a self-perpetuating Rube Goldberg machination that serves no educational purpose whatsoever. The second is that standardized testing serves political purposes and not educational ones, and enriches testing companies and politicians. Period. Watching a teacher reading standardized test questions to a non-verbal special education student and attempting to mark their non-verbal answers because they are required to do so is the beginning of understanding the insanity of standardized testing, and the pretense of accountability has been nothing more than a gigantic, expensive exercise in educational malpractice.
Research says the best indicator of student success in college is not any standardized test score or the SAT or ACT but the grades the student earns from high school teachers. The purpose of real testing is to allow teachers to assess what each student knows and immediately apply methods to improve that knowledge. The reason teacher grades and teacher made tests accurately predict student success in college is that the tests are designed, implemented, graded and recorded by the person that knows those students’ strengths and weaknesses, the testing is done over time, over a variety of topics in a variety of methods and used to immediately adjust teaching methods to address deficiencies in student knowledge. Lastly, we should pay teachers what they are worth and not what we can get them for. Don’t let legislative study committees explore this problem; find a team of retired teachers and let them find a solution and present it to the legislature because it’s no longer about what we can afford but has become a matter of what we cannot afford to perpetuate.
Don’t tell me we can’t afford to pay teachers more, we just have to learn to use money more effectively. Congress not sending 79 Billion dollars yearly to the USDOE would be a great start for states to fund teacher salaries with dollars and not the pennies we are used to seeing. I’m not talking about revising the salary scale, but about throwing it out and starting over with salaries for new teachers starting at least double current rates and rising commensurate with experience.
Perhaps the time has also come to allow teachers to be the arbiters of what students have learned. Perhaps teachers should replace the experts in determining what works in education and how it can best be implemented. Considering the financial and educational costs of the disasters of the past 20 years we really can’t afford to allow people that know nothing about education and students and schools to make decisions about education again. After all, teachers have been blamed for the failure of all the experts’ ideas...maybe they have known the answers all along and we just haven’t been smart enough to ask them. Or pay them. Yet.