Thursday, July 7, 2011

Seattle teacher discusses the challenges teachers face

[Note from Laurie Rogers: This is a guest article by a teacher in Seattle Public Schools. It was drawn from two emails he wrote to me in response to reading my book. This teacher asked to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal for stating his views. For ease of reading, his comments are broken into sections.]

Written by an experienced elementary school teacher, Seattle

Dear Laurie Rogers:

Thanks for writing your book. One of the things that you discuss in your compelling discourse is the low standards that our colleges have had in the subject matter (as opposed to teaching theory, sociology, and psychology) for those who have a desire to become teachers in our public schools.

For the past twenty-two years, I have diligently taught 4th and 5th grade students. For the first eighteen years, I taught math according to the classical mode that you describe in your book. As the reforms took hold, and we were monitored ever more closely, I was forced into using Everyday Math according to a pacing guide set by the district. As you have rightly observed, it is a program that emphasizes coverage and not mastery.

For much of the year, I had 34 students. Of these 34 students, seven had Special Education IEPs and were to be served according to a pull-in model which never quite materialized. I did have a special ed. instructional assistant for 50 minutes a day until she was pulled to serve in a more "needy" classroom. One of my students was mentally retarded and never once scored about the first percentile on the MAP test. Another student started the year almost totally blind and had a personal assistant for two hours out of the day to teach her Braille. Two were removed from their homes by CPS and placed under foster care: one for neglect and the other for domestic violence. Three students were absent for more than 30 days each. I could go on, but I think that you get the picture.

At the beginning of August, I am expected to attend a five-day professional development on teaching math, followed by a five-day professional development on Readers Workshop. The regimen makes me feel like I am being sent to a reeducation camp to learn how to socialize America's youth.

The onslaught of the reform movement is causing teachers, like myself, who are in the twilight of our careers, to ask if it’s worth abandoning the principles that we were taught about good pedagogy, in order to qualify us to become another cog in the reformed collective, or if we should take an early retirement and supplement our meager income working at a much less stressful place.

As a classically trained musician, the concept of mastery is very important to me. There is, also, incidentally, no mastery effectively allowed in the mini-lesson format. In writing, for instance, we are to teach a lesson, and not require the students to put the skill taught to immediate use; they are to "put it in their tool box" for use when they feel that they need it. If I would dare to tell my administrator that is absurd, I would risk an evaluation that would put me on probation.

Your book has already helped me to see part of the bigger picture that I have been missing, and I look forward to reading the rest of it. Please keep up your good work. What we, as teachers can do to stem the tide of reform is very little. I struggle with my conscience over implementing such an inferior form of instruction. In my experience, direct instruction is the most fruitful. The other techniques can be useful when used in moderation by an experienced and skillful instructor, but unless they are closely monitored, easily become a playground for an exchange of ignorance, and in some extreme cases a forum for students to bully other students.

Seattle prides itself in being a data-driven district. The administrators here, however, seem to care about improving student performance by mandating, from on high, according to their pet theories than by listening to the people who should be able, if they are worth their salt, to tell them how and why those statistics were generated in the first place. They might just learn something if they really listened to their teachers.

Unhelpful Testing

The case of Celesta is a true horror story. My wife and our two home schooled children were dumbfounded that such a thing could possibly happen. I wonder what kind of tests formed the basis for Celesta's outstanding math grades. One of the most striking aspects of reform math is the huge amount of activity that occurs without much, if any, mastery of the subject taking place.

The ambiguity of the language in the WASL math test, one year prompted a fifth grade student, the son of Vietnamese immigrants, in his responses to question after question to write: "If you mean this, the answer is_____, but if you mean this, the answer is__________, or if you mean this, the answer is________. I marveled at his tenacity and thoroughness. He was, in the end awarded a very high score for his efforts.

These days the MSP is so highly secured that teachers have to sign a statement that they affirm, under penalty of perjury, that they have not violated the rules for administering the assessment, which violation, itself, is now, under law, a misdemeanor. Talk about adding insult to injury. Teachers in our state are forced to implement ineffective instruction, and then are evaluated on the results that are logically obtained from that instruction on the state tests. Finally, if they are caught deviating from the script of the MSP and its rules for administration, they are not only in danger of being run out of the profession, but facing criminal charges as well. I agree that teachers who intentionally cheat to obtain better scores for their students should be disciplined, but I want to know the real purpose for criminalizing them.

What good is all of this voluminous data if it cannot be used to find gaps in a student's math skills; gaps which would have easily been identified and dealt with in every age of human experience before our enlightened era of social promotion?

Parent Involvement

One of my favorite activities with parents is to discuss their child's work with them. Reform math, by its very nature (of discovery) generally leaves the most influential voices in a child's life sitting in the nosebleed seats, so far away from the action that it is often difficult to discern exactly what is going on.

Is it possible that Celesta really didn't know that she had missed out on key components in her math education? If she was schooled only in the alternate algorithms, she may never have heard the term, long division. Why were not her parents aware that she needed to know her basic facts much better?

I was raised by my parents to believe that my education was ultimately their responsibility. In any parent teacher conference their attitude would be, "What can I do to help my child learn his math, etc. better?" In my experience, many parents feel disrespected and trashed by personnel in their local school districts. It is not unusual for me, therefore, to put the test scores and the statistics to the side during a parent teacher conference and ask permission to speak with them parent to parent, instead, about things that we both want our children to know, and what each of us can do to make it so.

On your list of ways to help children like Celesta, isn't empowering their parents a strategy that works, even if they, themselves don't have the best education in the world, or work three jobs between the two of them to make ends meet? It doesn't take a village to raise a child, it takes a committed parent who isn't sabotaged by the village to raise a child.

The organs of government and government-run schools repeatedly intimidate parents with
  • confusing report cards
  • pages of standards that analyze the curriculum to death
  • reams of test data that are disassociated from concrete examples of their child's performance, and
  • fancy constructivist notions of how children learn that blatantly contradict millennia of human experience.
As a result, many parents flee the system for private schools, or a home-school option. Those who are left often feel helpless, confused, bitter and angry.

I am not sure that the general public quite comprehends that as teachers, we are pledged by our contracts, and by state law, to carry out the lawful directives of our employer. But, as citizens of the United States, we are entitled to speak out on matters of public policy (including education) without fear of retaliation. As citizens, we are even allowed to work to replace those who employ us and join with others to empower new leaders by virtue of our votes.

It is my sense that reform-oriented administrators are not oblivious to this threat, and will do all in their power to stamp it out by relieving us of our jobs.

So-called “Best Practices” and Mission Creep

Why are we continuously being told that certain best practices are research based when it seems that no primary research can be pointed to, that conclusively supports them? So far as I can tell, primary research about the efficacy of “word walls,” writing your “teaching point” on the board, the superiority of “mini-lessons,” “turn and talk,” and “cooperative learning” simply does not exist. A year ago, I asked our school's math coach if she could find the primary research that forms the basis for those so-called high-leverage teaching moves. Several months later she reported back to me that she could not find it.

I was quite enlightened by your discussion of the Delphi Technique and mission creep. I thank you for them. The Seattle Schools used this technique liberally throughout the past decade in its so-called courageous conversations about race. They repeatedly broke us up into discussion groups, and guided our meetings with a list of absurd norms, including "speak your truth." According to the way I was educated, truth is not the property of an individual; it's an absolute. In the end, it became quite obvious that their predetermined conclusion was that Caucasian people are guilty of perpetuating institutionalized racism, and it is our responsibility, as public school teachers, to be outspoken advocates for social justice. Talk about mission creep!

The opening paragraphs of your chapter on the learning environment are priceless. They mirror my beliefs exactly about public education. As a general rule, I believe that it is not my business to undo the values instilled in my students by their parents. I do, however, as a matter of course, listen carefully to parents when they expound on their values. The societal norms and expectations that you refer to that the school has a legitimate role in enforcing are quickly disintegrating before our very eyes. Together with reform math, investigative science, just-right books, and Writers Workshop, this disintegration is seriously jeopardizing our effectiveness in the classroom.

Culture and Implications of Reform Math

My fear is that a vastly inferior culture of teaching and learning is now supplanting a much superior culture of teaching and learning which preceded it. The proponents even call it a culture which indicates that they know precisely what they are doing. They are redefining our language and our values.

In some of our schools, cultural differences are a fact of life that we have to deal with, and here again, the reformers are failing us. Imagine implementing the mini-lesson format in a class where the mother tongues are Vietnamese, Chinese, Somali, Tagalog, Ilokano, Mexican, Lao and Ethiopian. In fifth grade, many of these students are proficient in neither English, nor in the language their parents speak at home. Turning them loose to solve problems such as finding the area of a triangle through discovery creates a veritable tower of Babel full of misconceptions and frustration.

Children from immigrant families are being sent to school by parents who are expecting them to receive direct instruction like they received in their homeland. Most immigrant parents can't understand why 5th-grade classrooms in this country are full of students who don't meet the standards that have been set as a prerequisite for their entry into that grade level. Most immigrant parents are dismayed that students who are disruptive to the learning process day in and day out receive ineffective consequences from the administration for their behavior.

Our leaders give a lot of lip service to the importance of being culturally literate, but many of them don't seem to know or care what true cultural literacy is outside of some box that contains a few external trappings of a given culture and some superficial generalizations about it. They shamelessly use these people to further their agenda of reform.

There are days I could swear that administrators think that we work in a factory turning out widgets. I have news for them. Human children are not machines. Students can be willful, lazy, and burdened with a multitude of personal problems. Many are nevertheless also highly appreciative of a teacher who stands by them in times of difficulty. Among my most treasured artifacts of the 2010-2011 school year is a handmade card. On the inside is written, “Thank you for believing in me when I didn't want to be successful.” I can't think of an administrator who can begin to understand just how profound those words are.

Please understand that this email represents but a tiny fraction of the torrent of frustrations, challenges, fears, and vexation that I and others like me experience every day as we attempt to fulfill the duties of our chosen profession and provide our families with their daily bread.

Sincerely yours,
(Seattle elementary school teacher)


Note from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at Please limit columns to not more than 1,000 words. Columns might be edited for length, content or grammar. You may remain anonymous to the public, however I must know who you are. All decisions on guest columns are the sole right and responsibility of Laurie Rogers.

No comments:

Post a Comment