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Hearts and Minds

Posted: 2011-07-04

Reading Doug at Borderland is always an 'up'--even when he's discussing definitely downward things. This end-of-year reflection is from June 4, 2011. When teachers at at Doug's school-- on the edge of being targeted for turnaround status--were asked asked to say what they planned to do to improve students’ scores, this teacher's answer made me cheer.

Yes, I posted this last month. I think maybe I'll post it every month. When corporate politicos say "roll over," teachers must stop doing it.



In this end-of-year reflection, I’m tackling the “no excuses” dictum. Based on this year’s test scores, it appears we may at last have reached terminal status as a Level 5 (failing) school. Officially this means,



The district is required to prepare a plan to carry out one of the following alternative governance arrangements:



  • reopen the school as a public charter school,


  • replace all or most of the staff who are relevant to the school not demonstrating AYP,


  • enter into a contract with a private management company,


  • transfer operation of the school to the department, if agreed to by the department,


  • or any other major restructuring of the school’s governance arrangement.




  • It sounds bad. Yetâ€Â¦



  • Our principal was chosen by the Alaska Association of Elementary Schoool Principals as the National Distinguished Principal for 2011;


  • We have a strong school community, with a significant number of students coming from outside our attendance area boundary because they appreciate the work we do with their kids;


  • Parent input surveys were 99.9% supportive of our efforts this year;


  • Our average rate of proficient-level test scores for sixth grade consistently exceeds the district and statewide rates;

  • We passed our Title I audit and site inspection last year, with a complement from one of the monitors who said, “When I return to teaching, this is the type of school I want to become a part of.”




  • So, unofficially at this point, we may be nothing more than just another example of school policy roadkill, a perhaps-unintended casualty of what amounts to little more than a numbers game, and we’re left to wonder what will happen to us under our new special status – a status that nearly all schools will eventually attain as the demand for 100% passing rates by 2014 draws ever nearer. Hoping that none of those mandated “alternative governance” measures will kick in, we know that sentiment in Alaska runs from cool to openly hostile toward federal interventions in just about any area you look at. So we’ll wait and see.



    As for me, I am done caring about reformist nonsense. At a staff meeting earlier this year we were discussing our Aims. Web Data Boards put up around the room to show how many students in each grade level are below proficient, at risk, or proficient based on how well they handled an oral one-minute timed reading. To me, this was a disgusting display of a brain-dead method to evaluate reading. We were asked to say what we planned to do to improve our students’ scores. Since the data showed lots of kids scoring “below proficient” in first and second grade and very few in that category by the time they got to sixth, I observed that the trend was positive, and that at least as far as word-calling skills go, we seem to be doing all right. Teachers at each grade level announced what they planned to do, like focus on comprehension, vocabulary, decoding – the usual. When it was my turn, I said I’d be going with the happiness plan. What’s that? It’s getting the kids to enjoy reading so that they do it on their own. How does it work? Easy. Give them choices and time to read every day, and then celebrate their accomplishments. I got a round of applause. Kind of sad, really, when I think about what that might mean.



    People say that testing narrows the curriculum. Pressure to make the cut does worse than that; kids with the greatest needs tend to get trampled. Diane Ravitch points out that the one sure way to succeed in this environment is to stop enrolling poor kids, or kids with language limitations, homeless kids, or those with learning disabilities:



    Educators know that 100 percent proficiency is impossible, given the enormous variation among students and the impact of family income on academic performance. Nevertheless, some politicians believe that the right combination of incentives and punishments will produce dramatic improvement. Anyone who objects to this utopian mandate, they maintain, is just making an excuse for low expectations and bad teachers.



    To prove that poverty doesn’t matter, political leaders point to schools that have achieved stunning results in only a few years despite the poverty around them. But the accounts of miracle schools demand closer scrutiny. Usually, they are the result of statistical legerdemain.



    Being scapegoated for not being miracle workers, teachers and teacher unions should remind these critics that there is no excuse for child poverty, now running close to 21% in the U.S. If poor kids don’t do well in school, then let’s address the real problem and take care of them. Knowing that sick kids don’t do well in athletics do we blame coaches for not making them winners? People would ridicule the idea.



    Ignoring what we know about the effects of poverty on families and children creates the impression that schools are somehow the cause of a social condition rooted in economic policy. William Mathis, director of the National Education Policy Center, explains the harm done to kids and to all of us when reformers shine the light only on schools and leave the greater void in darkness:



    There is great harm in this myth, that schools can do it all. It provides the excuse for politicians, vested interests and advocates to wrongly declare schools “failures.” It gives a false justification for firing the principals and teachers who work with our neediest. It tells us a complex society does not need to invest in its skills or its children. It serves as a moral cloak for actions that are technically unjustified — as well as just plain wrong.



    I’ve seen enough “data”. Next year my classroom is going to be about creativity, projects, and having fun with ideas. The way I look at it now, every year may be my last, and I don’t want to go out playing a numbers game that was rigged against me and my students from the start. Rigidly applied standards will fail the kids; that’s not my job.

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