Guest Blog: This blog post was written by Miss C a former graduate student of mine who spent a year working as a first grade teacher at a charter school in the South Bronx (NYC). Miss C completed a Masters of Professional Studies in Literacy, a graduate program that ironically privileged the arts and situated the study of "literacies" within a sociocultural framework. The charter world that Miss C describes represents a fundamentally different understanding of teaching, learning, children, and developmentally appropriate practices than what she knew and learned at college.
I warn you, I cried reading this narrative--not for Miss C, a talented artist and teacher now working in a public school, but for her 22 first graders still at the charter school.
Welcome to Boot Camp
“Miss C, when you were gone, I was so scared, I thought I was in boot camp!” -one of my first graders, after I returned from a meeting.
This piece serves as a glimpse inside a South Bronx charter school, told from the perspective of a classroom teacher. With the overblown acclaim of charter schools as a means of education “reform” in recent months, I jumped at the chance to tell my story. I realize that mine is just one story and there are infinite stories and viewpoints held for any given situation; someone else in my shoes might offer a completely different account. My hope is that my story will spark a conversation, offer new perspectives, and raise a few questions. Teacher's voices can be powerful when they are allowed to be heard.
Charter schools are public schools, and can be started by and run by anyone. It is not uncommon for them to be operated by people who have no background in education. They are funded by a mixture of government money, private donations, and grants, and are often situated in areas of high poverty, where applicants are chosen by lottery. Charter schools offer longer school days, smaller class sizes, and "rigorous, standards-based instruction". They also offer a militaristic and strangely corporate environment that emphasizes the importance of order, obedience, and product above all else. Everything has a set protocol and predetermined vision of result, usually dreamt up by administration. I spent ten months feeling like a chess piece, robot, crusader, warden, inmate, and performer, sometimes all at once. It was a very long year.
Lights, Camera, Action: Battling the Script
“It defies both logic and experience to believe that the learning of all will be enhanced by a curriculum that meets the individual needs of few, if any." --P. David Pearson
Curriculum, for me, was the single most difficult thing to contend with during my experience. Having worked in a school where instruction was more or less designed by the teachers, I had naively assumed I would be doing the same at my new school. Instead, I was horrified to discover that my entire day was scripted. Reading, writing, math, science, and social studies all had their own stacks of teaching manuals and supplies, dictating every utterance and activity for teachers and students. I distinctly remember a line from a four page script in one of the math lessons wherein the teacher was supposed to rap multiples of 10 to the students. “After each verse, say 'unh' two or three times in rhythm,” it directed. Three large plastic tubs held hundreds of worksheets and assessments to be distributed to the masses. The worst was the reading program, which aside from scripted manuals was also accompanied by sets of basal readers and phonics workbooks, forcing students to engage in choral readings of monosyllabic stories about Fat Cat and Zig Pig. The level of boredom and disinterest during instructional time was palpable. Teachers had to email weekly lesson plans to supervisors no later than 8pm on Sunday nights, filled out in complex electronic templates that detailed everything from what questions we planned to ask during a read aloud, to what page number of the manual we were on. I asked my supervisor why everything was scripted, and she informed me that this was a way to ensure teaching consistency across each grade level. In the past, she explained, some students had been getting quality instruction, while others were getting less quality instruction; scripts were a way to eradicate that inequality and make sure that everyone received the same thing. Mediocrity, evidently, was acceptable, as long as it was uniform.
The idea of uniform teaching baffled and infuriated me for a number of reasons. It reduced teaching to regurgitating lines off a page, and learning to nothing more than acquiring information and regurgitating it right back. Use of scripts insinuated that we were incapable of designing instruction on our own and that manuals created by faceless executives were appropriate for all of our students. I bitterly resisted, sneaking in differentiated instruction, supplementing whenever possible. It was an exhausting challenge. Teachers were required to have the same objectives, lessons, and activities as their grade level colleagues at all times, regardless of what our students might need, and discrepancies were always questioned by administrators. Furthermore, we were informed that we should not design any assignments or response sheets ourselves, since it was all provided and prepackaged for us in the curriculum. Anything we did design was supposed to be approved by our supervisor prior to using it.
In addition to consistency, scripts offered a degree of control and micromanagement for administrators which consumed every facet of life in the school. Teachers (and students) were exempt from making virtually any decision themselves. This included (but was not limited to) what to teach, when to teach it, how to teach it, how to line our students up, how to have them walk in hallway, when to take our classes to the bathroom, how much homework to give, what homework to give, how to handle classroom management, what to put on our bulletin boards, how to arrange our furniture, when to read a book to our students, how to distribute crayons and pencils, and a myriad of other things. I found it ironic, not to mention insulting, that the same administrators who preached about the virtues of teaching and our high level of "professionalism" seemed to regard us as bumbling idiots incapable of doing anything short of walking upright without a set of detailed instructions.
Kiss My ASSessments: Tales of Testing
“When we define what matters in education only by what we can measure, we are in serious trouble.”-Diane Ravitch
When a charter school is "born" so to speak, it is aligned to an actual charter stating that the school will meet certain goals (i.e., test scores) within a specific time period (usually five years). If the goals are not met within the five years, the charter could potentially be revoked and the school could be shut down. With such heavy pressure to obtain high test scores, "rigorous" curriculum takes on whole new meaning. In addition to hours of scripted instruction, most of which was test-based, the students were also subjected to relentless test prep delivered from thick, scripted manuals. Upper school (grades 3-5) designated Fridays as test prep days, since the kids left at 2pm rather than 4pm. On Fridays, they literally spent the entire day doing nothing but test prep. The younger grades were spared, at least until May, when my first graders were forced to endure test prep for the Terra Nova exam, a torturous experience for all of us. Even the kindergarteners took the Terra Nova, a test which required children to sit for an hour and a half session on two separate days and bubble in answers on a recording sheet. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the absurdity of it, although I did chuckle when one kindergarten teacher told me how her students blurted every answer out loud after she read them the questions. Test scores determined merit pay, and "testing season" was regarded as the most important time of the year.
Along with endless test prep for NYS exams, assessment and the quest for data were drilled into our curriculum and practices. Never in my life had I such a dizzying array of assessments, especially in the primary grades. Our math curriculum came with weekly tests that I had to grade using actual percentages scrawled on top, which felt bizarre and cruel to hand back to a six year old (not to mention a stark contrast to my usual star or smiley face). We were instructed to keep data on everything, and make sure anything we put in a portfolio, or hung up on a bulletin board was aligned to a rubric and graded. Our heavily scrutinized bulletin boards--which I secretly referred to as bulletin boreds--were depressing exhibitions of uniform student work that was graded and accompanied by lists of NYS standards and rubrics so observers could see what the “purpose” of the assignment was and how/why students received whatever grade they got. Giving grades was bad enough: putting them on display in the hallway was even worse. Low grades were not permitted to be displayed, so some students never had work shown. Bulletin boards were no place for whimsical artwork adorned with painted handprints, glitter, or anything fun. Nothing “counted” unless it had a grade and was approved by administration.
Data and grades played a more sinister role when it came to determining who was "PiD" (Promotion in Doubt). Children who were in danger of being retained had to be identified by early November--a mere two months into the school year—when PiD forms were handed into administration, then sent home to parents. Each year, out of roughly 66 children per grade level, between five and seven were held back, totaling about 36 kids on average K-5. In my own class, I had four students who were repeating first grade. Criteria for retention was based on failure to meet certain benchmarks, and often seen as a necessary step. Before an end of the year awards ceremony, my supervisor cautioned us to make sure we told our students that "just because they get an award of participation does NOT mean they are being promoted to the next grade."
Phases of the School Year: Another One Bites the Dust
“I used to work for a large telecommunications business. I wanted to teach because I was looking for something easier to do.” --a brand new fourth grade teacher at my school. He lasted nine days of work before submitting his resignation.
During our August orientation, staff members were given a “Phases of the School Year” graph that mapped out our predicted feelings and attitudes over the course of the upcoming school year. According to this graph, we would start off in “Anticipation” mode, but would quickly slip into “Survival” mode, struggling to "keep our heads above water". Survival was followed by the lowest point on the graph, “Disillusionment”, that was projected to hit us around the October/November mark. After this, it was a steady uphill climb toward “Rejuvenation” (Feb/March), “Reflection” (May) and then back to “Anticipation” once again (June, July). I remember thinking how odd it was to be told how miserable and desperate we were going to be feeling in a matter of months. Looking back, I am not entirely convinced over the accuracy of the graph’s information. Personally, I never felt Rejuvenated, and I witnessed more than one teacher who seemed permanently stuck in “Disillusionment”, on the brink of “Severe Mental Breakdown”. Staff morale was perpetually low.
When I worked in the suburbs, teaching jobs were scarce and highly coveted. Teachers got jobs in schools or districts and built life-long careers there. Unlike most public schools, charter schools do not offer contracts, tenure, or a union. Teachers sign “letters of intent”, stating that they intend to work in a position for the school year, that they can be fired at any time with or without cause, and that they are free to leave at any time. Staff changes are frequent. At my school, since teachers were more or less viewed as factory drones, replacing them was swift and emotionless--when people quit, it was often not even mentioned at the weekly faculty meeting. A face was absent, a new face was in place, and life continued. During that one year, seven teachers quit between September and May, one was fired, and five more (myself included) resigned in June. Quitting was often the result of utter exhaustion and depression; the demands and the micromanagement were often more than teachers could bear. I considered leaving every day up until June 25th, wavering back and forth on a near hourly basis and hanging on only by desperate determination to see the year through and a begrudging sense of obligation toward my students. Those who left earlier forfeited two months worth of salary they would have been paid if they’d given 30 days notice (we were paid over 12 months). Out of those seven teachers, only two had new jobs lined up. The other five opted for unemployment.
The record for fastest resignation went to a fifth grade teacher, who quit during orientation, a week before the kids were due to arrive. According to our graph, she never even made it to Survival mode. She was soon followed by a fourth grade teacher two weeks later; his class eventually would lose another teacher in February. On the other end of the spectrum was a third grade teacher who quit in May (Reflection month!), with six weeks of school left. At that point, her position was not replaced, but rather covered by a rotating shift of various learning specialists and office aides who performed like a succession of understudies, picking up where she'd left off in the script.
Kiss My Summative Assessment: Evaluation Tales
“A child sighs loudly on the rug. 2 minutes later it happens again. You do nothing to address this.” --excerpt from one of my 12 documented observations
Over the course of the year, all lessons plans, activities and practices were aligned to the school’s evaluation tool; a six page rubric that broke teaching into 23 areas. Each area had four distinct ratings; Unsatisfactory, Basic, Proficient, and Distinguished. Starting in April, teachers were required to hand in “Summative Assessments”; documents totaling anywhere from 20 to 40 pages that described our teaching performance in alignment to the rubric. Supervisors reviewed them and gave us our "grades". Throughout the previous months, we’d been forced to perform skits and act out examples of these ratings and components at faculty meetings, so it was abundantly clear how one might achieve the exalted title of “Distinguished” and avoid "Unsatisfactory". We were also given a total of 12 recorded observations by supervisors (in addition to about 40 unrecorded observations), where we received feedback such as letting us know that our students were breathing excessively. I was given an unsatisfactory in one category because my classroom cubbies were a mess. As a result, I lost a chunk of my bonus, as performance, along with test scores, were aligned to merit pay. I half expected to be forced to wear a scarlet letter U plastered to my shirt; thankfully it didn't quite come to that.
"Ugly stuff, /ugly, ugly stuff./I hate/ school./School is/ boring. I hate/school. boo!" --a poem written by one of my first graders
It is nearly impossible to concisely express what an exhausting, frustrating, and mind-boggling year it was. Much of what I saw and was encouraged (or forced) to do directly contradicted every principle or philosophy I believe in as a teacher. To be fair, there were positive things mixed in with the crazy. The school itself was clean, safe, and decently equipped, with large, sunlit classrooms and brightly painted walls. The children received regular art, music, and gym, as well as daily breakfast and lunch. Most of the teachers I met were genuinely warm, caring, funny individuals who were very invested in their students. Their level of dedication and energy was amazing. In addition to extreme demands at school, most of the staff battled commutes of an hour or more, long subway rides or miserable gridlocked traffic, but were nonetheless at school by 7:30am every day, ready to give it everything they had.
My story here hardly touches upon the 22 students I spent eight hours a day with. I think of them often, wondering if they are happy or miserable, if they are making progress, if they are behaving (hmm, that would be something new), how they are reading, what they are writing, if they miss first grade, if they miss ME. It would be an understatement to say we had a rocky year, but I am convinced it would have been less rocky if they had been allowed to be children rather than stuffed into little invisible straight-jackets all day long, from which outbursts and tantrums were frequent. My first graders in the public school I’m at now have play center time and lots of choice; our curriculum isn’t scripted, the children are allowed to talk, sing, breathe, and be themselves. It’s truly a different world, one that my former students will most likely never know.
I wonder about the high test scores my previous school boasts, and if they are an indication of real learning, or the result of endless hours of relentless test-prep that has taught students how to choose the correct answer at the expense of actually learning anything valuable. I wonder what a “Phases of the School Year” graph might look like for students at this school, and similar schools. Are they Disillusioned? Rejuvenated? Or stuck in Survival Mode, going through the motions and barely scraping through each day, while buried under mounds of tedious scripted assignments and looming PiD forms?
I wonder about the brand-new teachers who find themselves in schools like this, or the student teachers, without any previous experience to give them an alternate view of what education can look like. There were several student teachers at the charter school, and I shudder to think of the warped ideas they left with regarding teaching and learning.
It is thoroughly frightening and depressing to see what is occurring in education these days. The gaping chasm between the have and the have-nots seems to widen with each year, while the "remedies"--scripted instruction, charter schools, value-added assessment, and increased standardized testing, to name a few--manage to pointedly avoid dealing with the root of the issue while imposing the most miserable conditions upon innocent children and hard-working teachers. I hope that the pendulum will eventually swing and that the opportunity for individual thought, authentic instruction, creativity, play, and shared teaching and learning will eventually be available to everyone. I've seen schools like this; they do exist. As Kozol writes, “The schools where children and their teachers are still...given the opportunities to poke around in the satisfactions of uncertainly need to be defended...These are the schools I call the 'treasured places'. The remind us always of the possible."
Kozol, J. (2005). The shame of the nation: The restoration of apartheid schooling in America. New York: Crown Publishing Group
Pearson, P.D. (2007). An Endangered Species Act for Literacy Education. Journal of Literacy Research, 39, 145-162.
Ravitch, D. (2010) The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York: Basic Books.