When teachers are their own worst enemies
Valerie Strauss Comment:
First is a post by Mark Pennington, an educational author of teaching resources to differentiate instruction in the fields of reading and English-language arts: "Teaching Grammar and Mechanics," "Teaching Essay Strategies," "Teaching Reading Strategies," and "Teaching Spelling and Vocabulary." Here he writes about how teachers unwittingly helped create the accountability movement that is now choking them. This appeared on his Pennington Publishing Blog.
Then follows a response by Maja Wilson, who taught high school English, adult basic education, ESL, and alternative middle and high school in MichiganÃ¢€™s public schools for 10 years and is currently a teacher educator at the University of Maine. She wrote on this blog recently about teachers, and responds to Pennington in the context of that post, called "First blame the teachers, then the parents."
By Mark Pennington
A recent discussion on my favorite site, the English Companion Ning, made me take a critical look at just what has engendered the recent demands for increased accountability in our public schools. Both Democrats and Republicans are playing the blame game and teachers are the easiest targets. As a public school teacher, my initial response has been defensive; however, upon a bit of reflection I'm thinking that teachers may well largely be to blame--not for the "sorry state of public education" as our critics claim, but for the very accountability movement that is being used to attack us. We teachers are often our own worst enemies.
A bit of history helps put things in perspective. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s teachers felt that our norm-referenced testing, such as the ITBS, SAT, CTBS, MAT, provided data that did not measure what we are teaching. We used sophisticated psychometric criticisms such as sampling and measurement error and socio-political criticisms such as bias to largely rid ourselves from the nuisances of these exams. We teachers went wild. Authentic assessments, multiple-measure assessments, and no assessments ruled the educational landscape. I once taught a sophomore world history class for an entire year without giving any traditional tests.
However, with teacher-created assessments, testing manufacturers lost money ... so, the test manufacturers changed tactics. They asked for and gave teachers what teachers said they wantedÃ¢€“tests that purport to test what we teach. In other words, criterion-referenced standards tests. And the standards-based movement was born.
Teachers were even asked develop their own subject area standards. A seemingly bottom-up initiative. How inclusive! Each state department of education, county office of education, and most school districts funded the creation of these subject area content standards documents. I joined other colleagues in spending countless hours developing the English-language Arts Standards for my own school district.
Now the test-makers were happy. They had the basis of a new revenue stream. And, now because the tests ostensibly test what teachers teach, administrators, politicians, and even billionaire do-gooders can hold us accountable and measure teacher/school/district/state performance. The zenith? Our Common Core National Standards.
Teachers helped create this mess. We enabled the accountability movement that is choking teacher creativity, teacher autonomy, and teacher initiative. And our students are the ones who are paying the greatest price. In replacing normed-reference testing with criterion-reference testing, we replaced something bad with something worse. "Meet the new boss." Not the same as the old boss. Apologies to Pete Townshend.
And now the standards-based movement is so endemic that any challenges to teaching to the test or resisting accountability standards are viewed with wonderment by many in our profession. The standards-based movement with its frame of accountability is fully entrenched. Newer teachers have known nothing else.
A personal example will bring this home. I teach middle school ELA [English language arts] with a bright group of twenty-something colleagues. I am constantly perceived as being the ornery one because I challenge their logical applications of the standards-based accountability status quo.
For example, just recently I've questioned their proposals to change our allocation of instructional minutes to reflect the percentage of questions on the California Standards Test.
Why shouldn't we teach structural analysis for six-percent of our instructional minutes, if six-percent of the test consists of structural analysis test questions? they ask. I've already lost the battle to save our intervention classes for reading and writing instruction. Now, they are standards-based classes with curriculum designed to remediate instruction in such critical elements as "author's purpose." Instruction is limited to the "power standards" found on the California Department of Education website.
I did throw a fit last week when one of my colleagues complained that it took her most of an hour to teach the eighth grade ELA theme standard to an English language newcomer who spoke, maybe 100 words of English.
Response from Maja Wilson, author of Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment (Heinemann, 2006) and the recent article, First blame the teachers then the parents on The Answer Sheet.
This is why I argue that trying to get and maintain a "seat at the table" is ultimately counterproductive. The meal served at the table of power is unhealthy, the conversation is stilted (actually, there isn't much conversation--lots of orders given and followed) and those who partake leave with indigestion. That's what happened when teachers created standards--following orders at the table--that were then used against them as the basis first for high-stakes standardized tests, and then as a springboard for national standards created by a corporation created by governors and business interests (Achieve Inc).
Instead, we should create, set, and decorate another table, then serve a tasty and healthy meal there. We could invite as many people to join as possible, and then enjoy a rich conversation and lots of laughter together as we dine.
Michael (another poster to Maya's initial post) may be right that the problem is that we can't agree on what to serve at that table. But hey, even a potluck would be tastier, healthier, and more socially edifying than the cardboard and nails currently on the Department of Education's menu.
Mark Pennington & Maja Wilson
Washington Post Answer Sheet