Friday, August 29, 2014

When Teachers Were Trusted to Teach

High School Students Documenting Happenings at Occupy Wall Street (M.A. Reilly, 2011)
I. Teaching and Time

As a middle and high school English teacher, the students I taught passed the state ELA assessments each year. I can recall none who did not.  But those were simpler days, as I was afforded the time to teach and the discretion to fully determine the content of what I taught.  I was able to build continuity across the year alongside my students as my teaching days were largely uninterrupted.  I can recall one time while teaching that an administrator took to the PA system for most of the day calling for classes to come to the auditorium for pictures. It was a litany of interruptions.  This was such an anomaly that towards the end of the day I sent a senior to the office carrying a white t-shirt with our signatures saying we had surrendered.  In those days, teaching was a respected act.

What people who do not teach don't readily understand is that time matters, not just in the number of days allotted to teaching, but also in the continuity of days. Contrary to many of the teaching evaluation rubrics that situate each lesson as a day, I rarely fit learning into a single class period. Rather our learning flowed more like a natural river, less contained. Learning crossed days adding up to what I could not have named at the beginning.  It was iterative. A learning target that matched those outcomes would have been difficult to state as learning was more about the knowledge the community composed, less about any one self.

A day's interruption cost more than a lesson.

II. Testing in Miami-Dade Public Schools

I was thinking about this a few days ago as my husband read the litany of tests that students from the Miami-Dade Public Schools will take this year.  (Here's a link to the testing calendar. You might want to sit down as the testing calendar runs across three pages.)

My students were assessed daily, but tested rarely. There's so much to be learned from students' work products and conversations that I found myself more often pouring over kids' work wondering what caused x to do y and so on--rather than making paper and pencil tests. Students took on assessment as well, establishing goals and measuring progress.  Leaving assessment matters in teachers'  and students' hands though is not the norm in the United States and it seems certainly not the case in Miami-Dade.

Students there will begin the year sitting for the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading Assessment (FAIR). FAIR is a progress monitoring assessment that measures reading comprehension, vocabulary knowledge, word recognition, and syntax knowledge for students in grades 3-10 (11 & 12 as needed) and a separate set of instruments for K-2 children. The 3-10 manual explaining the assessments is 40-pages. By sitting alongside a child and listening to him/her reading, conversing, studying written and art products--I learned about each child.  I can't help but wonder if the researchers who created the progress monitoring assessments for Florida realized how many other assessments the kids would also be taking, especially children performing at levels 1 or 2 on previous assessments.  For those kids the endless series of tests is daunting and disruptive.

Students in grades 3-11  take the FAIR assessment in the fall and they also take District ELA Writing Pre-Test during the same time period. At the close of these assessments it's time for the Interim Assessment Tests (fall) for these subjects:  English/Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, Algebra 1, Algebra 2, Geometry, Biology 1, United States History, and Civics. In the middle of this testing, third graders also take the Grade 3 Mid-Year Promotion assessment. This is part of the series of assessments that include portfolios, which are administered beginning in January. When my husband read this aloud to me I joked that the only thing the kids could put in their portfolio would be tests. Well the joke was more prophetic than funny. The portfolio looks to be nothing more than a collection of reading passage-based tests with the requisite number of narrative and informational texts accounted for a la CCSS and aligned to benchmark standards.  Here's a link to the 26-page portfolio handbook.

This is hardly a portfolio.

III. Making is Different from Taking

I'll stop here as I don't want to belabor the obvious and I want to make two points:
  1. the amount of testing disrupts learning in significant ways--ways that those who promulgate testing schedules like Miami-Dade fail to realize; and  
  2. what counts as curriculum is not emergent nor can it easily be negotiated as the testing schedule drives instruction. The actual real world is kept apart from school learning when the year is paced and tests are pre-established. A look at the third grade 'portfolio' shows that.
When I think about the students I taught and why they did well there are a number of reasons. 
  1. First, they were most often well-cared for children whose housing, medical and dietary needs were met consistently. I realize that since Bush II many of the ed-reform pundits dismiss the well fed child who has a home and whose medical (including dental) needs are met, but those of us who actually work with children know all too well that when such basic needs are consistently unmet, children most often struggle to learn prescribed lessons at school. They are too busy surviving in the richest of countries.
  2. A second reason students did well on these state measures is that they more often than not showed up at school able to read. The students who did not, did not do as well. What happens in K-1 most often shapes academic achievement.
  3. A third reason is that most students were taught by competent teachers for years before I received them as students and this learning mattered and could matter as the curriculum I taught was one the students and I co-determined. I capitalized on what the students had learned previously as they determined curriculum. One year I had an eighth grade class who decided to run the class as clubs.  Composing can be folded into lots of experiences. We did not need to keep the current world at bay.
  4. Students were fairly motivated to learn given that their agency was prized.  
  5. Add to that: Uninterrupted time to teach; freedom to compose curriculum as complicated conversations, freedom to collaborate and co-teach, freedom to represent student achievement and the timelines for achievement in idiosyncratic ways; and permission to err repeatedly, repeatedly.
The most important reason the kids did well is that teachers were trusted to teach without having to be perfect.  I learned the value of risk-taking. We were very much a community in which learning was exciting, expected, and desired. I worked with significant educators who mentored me during my early days of teaching. I can recall one observation a superintendent conducted in which I asked 70+ questions in 60 minutes. It was hardly a shining moment. I was a new teacher and at that time teaching was more about what I was doing and less about the learners.  In lieu of a written evaluation, the superintendent invited me to co-teach.  And so we revised the unit I had been teaching about economic scarcity and The Grapes of Wrath and co-taught for a week. He wanted me to learn and believed I was teachable. I learned something about the well-placed question and even more about observing learning.  This experience helped me to begin the important shift from focusing solely on my teaching to focusing on the interplay between teaching and learning.

And so, our value as teachers was not limited to a single state test measure. Value was not determined by student growth objectives. Value was not a number based on a series of evaluations. We were able to teach and learn alongside students and our peers as there was a belief that "people are competent, they have knowledge, and their life experiences have given them that knowledge" (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 2005, pp. ix-x). We worked as members of a settled household.

IV. The Matter of Trust & Complexity

It is the absence of trust that teachers can and will do good work that is most daunting, most damning for learners. This is what the ed-reformers simply do not understand or perhaps do not care to understand. In lieu of trusting teachers, learners will suffer.

Instead of trusting teachers to teach and assess, testing calendars and pacing charts like the one from Miami-Dade are imposed. Some years ago I was invited by a central office to confer with the curriculum and instruction staff about their ELA program. There was quite a crowd that afternoon and the assistant superintendent showed me pages of pacing schedules for their 200+ schools that listed what was to be taught, how it was to be taught, and when what was to be learned would be tested. The calendar ran for 40 weeks. Every minute was accounted for.  It was very neat, very orderly, and so very wrong.  I asked why they wanted to plot the year as they did and they talked about poor academic performance and the need to make sure teachers and principals did what was required. These educators posited teaching as a complicated endeavor, not a complex one. 

I suggested that such tight control would lead to less learning as a simple truth, although perhaps uncomfortable,  is that central office cannot create teaching competency through pacing and testing calendars, through purchased products, by retaining children in third and/or seventh grades as a matter of policy, or by mandating homework, home visits, particular lesson or unit plans, etc.

What rests in teachers' and principals' hands deserves our notice, understanding and respect. Anything less will harm children.

I was largely dismissed by the group. After visiting central office and after an opportunity to study with a new 2nd grade teacher, Ms. Sheridan (pseudonym), I would write about professional learning and how it is critically different than professional development. At that time, the school where Ms. Sheridan taught was made to use the Harper Trophies reading program and to follow the 40-week pacing and testing schedule, regardless of what the assessment data yielded.  The march to the end of the 40 weeks was uninterrupted by meaning making.  (Excerpt below)

from Dressing the Corpse (M.A. Reilly, 2009)

In thinking about the countless Ms. Sheridan's I've met, I want to say that we are more than technicians who act out some central office plan.  Ms. Sheridan would have benefitted to have worked in a place that was more like the settled household I was afforded as a beginning teacher and less like an hourly employee at a factory.  The irony is that she will be evaluated as a teacher and the professional environment which shapes her work as teacher will be situated as a neutral entity. This is such folly. (See excerpt below)

from Dressing the Corpse (M.A. Reilly, 2009)

V. A Final Thought

Teaching is a complex act that needs to be supported, not vilified. Investing in teacher work will benefit our children. 

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