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When a Teacher Speaks Out

Publication Date: 2006-02-04

A concerned and savvy parent worries about that there is absolutely no room for the teacher's perspective or opinion in matters of curriculum and other school policy. And worse, teachers are being asked to sacrifice their own ethics in front of students whose respect they also sacrifice.

I happened to see this teacher's blog entry on Susan Ohanian's website and I am so impressed by the clarity of Ms. Denney's thoughts.

Historically, teachers speaking out in our county are awarded a nightmare. Just two years ago in our district, a Social Studies teacher who wrote to the local paper about harrassment she received after expressing her opinion on school policy and questioning her freedom of speech rights, had to walk the plank out of her job. The superintendent at that time didn't see the value of free speech, even in a Social Sudies classroom.

Other teachers who questioned school policy have quietly endured more local harrassment from their school administrators. A teacher in an over-sized classroom full of middle school students accelerated by county demands into Algebra a year earlier regardless of their individual aptitudes or abilities, which "functioned" in free-form chaos and disruption, preventing the teacher from reaching even the most ambitious and capable students in her class, was shackled to similar protocol, courtesy of the principal. Rather than assisting her in any way to manage the nightmare, she was told to cope...silently! Any questions about whether or not she surrendered her teaching position at the end of the school year? Oh, and by the way, her area of expertise was Science, but, she was "recruited" to teach Math.

The message is clearly sobering: that there is absolutely no room for the teacher's perspective or opinion. For example, our county-supplied Science curriculum, comes packaged with Pacing Guides (to ensure a specific order is followed and a standard schedule of testing and course work is dispensed)and a Script. Actually, this is the standard for almost all of the classes now-- the pacing guides and scripts are delivered in neatly packaged boxes at the beginning of the year.

In Science, the guides and scripts are so universally flawed that the teachers have repeatedly complained to the Curriculum Office, which responds that revision is underway. But in the meantime the teachers are told to plow ahead with the flaws, even if the guides ignore a rational order for teaching and learning, and even though the tests are flawed.

The same goes for Math. Teachers are unable to make sense of tests that they are asked to dispense. What is their choice but to provide the students with "correct" answers, even if they are nonsense, when the student outcome on the flawed tests will provide results that will become part of a teacher's performance evaluation and represent the overall "progress" of the school.

In Foriegn Language, as in Science, if the teacher is unable to make supersonic progress through the pacing guide, and material is left uncovered by the time a "benchmark" test is demanded, the teacher is, likewise, "forced" to cover those weeks of material in the few days prior to the test. This is handled, not surprisingly, by supplying the students with the questions and answers from that portion of the test yet un-covered. Surely there is no clearer example of "teaching to the test."

What does this do to the teachers? It embarrases them, certainly. They are living a nightmare of personal and professional dishonesty and unethical behavior, which is not invisable to their students, and they are being asked to sacrifice their own ethics in front of students whose respect they also sacrifice.

What does it do to the students? They, at best, learn the answers to questions and supply statist ical measurments of "progress" or "proficiency" BUT, don't believe for a moment that the process doesn't effect them. First, they lose the educational benefit of learning the material. And, second, they learn the moral and ethical lesson of the charade; the lesson of dishonesty.

AP classes endure the very same indignities of Ms. Denney's special ed. classes. The current mania for so-called high standards, revved up by NCLB, dictates that even students who have no foundation, nor aptitude, nor interest or ability to take a given AP class, should enroll because of (poorly supported causal) "statistical" evidence of their future performance in college. The AP classes, taught by teachers of varied interest and preparation, to students of diverse potential and ability, promotes the same corrupted results.

AP Courses once developed to challange the advanced student are staged to provide a diversity of students with a successful test outcome. And if the outcome does not deliver results that meet the demands of the federal marketing campaign of "progress," reporters who make their living selling books and writing papers that support this ridiculous theory of "opportunity" or "quality" education for all students, inherit another royalty check for re-writing the premise. The marketing directors, in turn, make a minor change and low and behold, it is NOT the TEST that counts, in this case, it is simply the EXPERIENCE of having taken this test-outcome-based class.

The students who take these classes see right through to the fact that they are being used. And the teachers are, once again, mortified.

As I read Ms Denny's words, I am struck by the obvious, ridiculous, destructive policies of a school who demands this:

I gave the test to my English 9 special education students, the same test the honors classes took.

and this:

I?m afraid I can?t ?teach to the test? well enough for them to earn a high school diploma.

And I am rattled by the destructive forces of our federal "educational" policy which produces this:

"I passed the Social Studies content Praxis test before I entered the classroom. But I still didn?t know much specific information about World Civilization or US History ? I learned the content along with the students as I began to teach it. I know teachers who have been in the classroom for several years, who are considered among the best in our school, who know the material, but have not yet passed their Praxis exams so are in danger of losing their jobs. Am I a better teacher because I am a better test taker?"

I am encouraged by this teacher's voice and her honesty.

I am afraid that if we wait for the parents to find the time to understand what is happening in our schools, if we wait for something, somehow, a miracle, a voice, a light, a new administration to step in, we will have waited in vain. We could wait a long, long time and still the momentum of NCLB and its fallout will grow. We might wait and wait for Godot while our students and teachers are systematically sacrificed by a growing policy of destruction.

I applaud your energy and your integrity, Ms. Denney.

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