Friday, April 23, 2010

Save Us!!

This may all be invalid, coming from a teacher and all, but I would like to take this opportunity to defend my profession, even if only to myself (since no one reads this blog.) More and more, our profession is under attack. Some of these attacks are valid: bad teachers are keeping their jobs because of the teachers' unions. Most of the attacks are invalid: the teachers are the reason kids are failing, teachers only work 9 months a year, why do they need to make so much, charter schools are the answer to our "horrible public school system," etc.

Yes, bad teachers exist everywhere. It's impossible to avoid a few bad apples in the whole bunch. Look at any job, there are those that do and those that don't. Even if the job is not unionized, the "bad apples" are everywhere and they are just as hard to fire in corporate America as they are in education. If one steps back and looks at any group of people, there will always be people who slide by under the radar and do the minimum to complete their job...or less than the minimum.

I wholeheartedly agree with the idea of teachers being held accountable for the success of their a degree. I think everyone who is a public servant should be accountable for the success of the public they serve, that's the name of the game. The real question that remains to be answered, is how do we measure success? The resounding answer from those in the know teachers is unclear. I personally believe that students should be evaluated on their complete body of work from the time they enter my classroom, to the time they leave. Usually this looks like some sort of portfolio where work is kept and reflected upon by the students throughout the year. This presents a problem when it comes time to evaluate however because the rubrics that would be used are developed by the teachers.

This is not the best option when it comes to explaining the process to the public. Evaluation of these portfolios would be costly, subjective, and time consuming to say the least. I don't foresee this happening, not in my state.

We also know that the current standardized "one size fits all" test is also not the answer. These tests put certain demographics at a disadvantage, they place too much weight in just one test, and, at least in my state, are given in April, which cuts short the amount of time teachers have to teach to the test prepare students for testing. Not to mention the overall environment of the school changes in the 6 or so weeks after the test. The kids don't see the point in finishing the year with their best effort since, according to the state, their knowledge of their grade level has already been tested.

These tests make much more sense to the public because they can assign a number to a student's performance and that number can then be compared to dissimilar students throughout the state (or nation, as it will soon be.) The problem with this then, is that students' understanding of a topic can occur on many levels and in many areas, and a single test question may not be is not the best way to gauge a student's understanding.

So where does that leave us? How can we successfully, accurately, and fairly evaluate student performance which takes into account all of the special needs and situations of every student? I don't know that their is an answer to that question. How do we then evaluate teacher performance? I have supplied a suggestion in a previous blog post. (There are only two before this one, you should be able to narrow it down.)

Perhaps the answer to our failing public schools is charter schools. Charter schools provide an environment where no unions exist and teachers are sometimes paid based on their students' performance. They can be micromanaged run privately and are held more accountable.

If you believe what you just read, go to 5 charter schools in your area. Sit in on some classes. Look at the facilities. Then go to 5 public schools in your area and do the same. I think the differences will astound you. I served as a substitute for a year, mostly in various charter schools around the Toledo area. I know for a fact that charter schools are not the answer, at least not entirely. That isn't to say that charter schools are ALL bad, because there are some that are very successful and are models for what education can look like. But for the most part, charter schools become dumping grounds for students who get expelled from public schools, or who's parents want to escape what they see as bad in the public schools.

I think we have enough to think about so I will stop here but there will be more to come.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Real life comparisons

As the father of an 8 month-old who just started crawling this week, I see the frustrations children face in their being denied information. A whole new world has just opened itself up to my son, and he is taking full advantage of exploring EVERYTHING within his reach. The only problem with this is that his mother and I have not made our house very "baby-proof" yet, so he very often finds himself exploring things that will harm him, or that are not meant for babies. A classic example is his love to pull things from the top of our coffee table. He hasn't learned yet that this habit could cause trouble for him if he were to pull something heavy down on himself.

Drawing a parallel to my students, they have not been given the chance yet to learn, for themselves, the perils of taking their education for granted. Perhaps that's a problem with our school system as we know it today: students are educated (or an attempt is made to educate them) without ever allowing them to get a glimpse of what is out there for them. They never get to learn that shirking off their educational opportunities could be life-changing in the long run. These life lessons, like the example of heavy objects falling on my son, are learned through the "school of hard knocks" instead of a safe, nurturing environment (what school should be) where they can make mistakes without the heavy object clunking them on the head.

The question then becomes, what does this environment look like? Where can my child be free to pull things from a table and safely learn the consequences? Where can students learn the value of their education before they don't have it?

I see the answer as two-fold: first, this environment CAN happen in schools, and it just may look similar to the classroom we inhabit right now. Second, I truly believe that this environment can be, and is created through the use of technology. Students can explore video, audio, read blogs, and visit websites that allow them to virtually experience anything they can think of. The benefit of using the internet and other types of technology, is that students can have all these experiences in a classroom where they can share and discuss their experience with peers, while balancing that with teacher oversight and guidance.

I think our schools DO have a future in our children's lives, we just have to see it before we have ruined it by pulling it from the coffee table.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Ed Ideas

I've been meaning to start a blog, just for my own reflections, for a few months now, so here it is. I think this will just handle my ideas, thoughts, rants, and other flotsam and jetsam on education. I hope that it helps someone else, but I am doing it mostly for me.

I just read an article from NPR about how the Washington D.C. teachers are going to vote on a contract of compromise. They are going to give up their right to tenure in exchange for the possibility for higher pay (as much as $20,000 per year more according to the story.) While I truly believe that the education system in this country is broken, and does need fixing, I do not believe that measuring student success and teacher/staff performance by test scores is the answer. I think most teachers would agree with me.

Those in the field know that students test scores are affected by so much more than the effectiveness of the teacher. We cannot follow the students home and be sure they get good, healthy meals, proper hygiene, loving parents (plural), attention, discipline, work ethic, morals, and so many more factors that ultimately impact standardized test scores.

We all also know that we have some colleagues who need to be removed from their jobs because they are ineffective. However, their ineffectiveness can be measured by much more reliable means than their students' scores. If we are truly to follow the "business model," why not give administrators and peers a little more power to remove ineffective teachers based on observation and peer review? I know, I know, the argument against this system is also flawed, and yes, some people will file grievances and complain that they are being singled out or targeted due to personality conflict. Others will get to keep their job because of personal friendships with administrators, but there is NO PERFECT SYSTEM. At least this system removes things that are out of a teacher's control.

And what about helping those teachers we call "ineffective" so that they can improve? In another blog post from Will Richardson, he talks about the severe lack of quality and quantity of professional development we give pre-service and current teachers in this country. In the article, entitled "The PD Problem," Richardson quotes a book by Linda Darling-Hammond called "The Flat World and Education." He reiterates Hammond's idea that we do not give many of our teachers a fighting chance in this country. Essentially he says that our PD is not robust, it does not help teachers do anything except sleep, and is a waste of time in many occasions.

I have to agree with these ideas. How many of us have sat in a classroom, auditorium, or school cafeteria and fought "the sleep monkey" while someone "brought in to help make us better" at our craft, or more effective speaks. Perhaps we should look at education more holistically and stop treating the symptoms and start treating the sickness.