There’s another version of “Rumplestiltskin” going on these days……teachers are increasingly being asked to spin “straw” (in this case, new generations of students who come up through the grades, each year less prepared than the previous), into “gold” (standardized test-passers, prepared for college) with increasingly “fewer amounts of straw” (schools, classrooms, textbooks, computers, money, materials, as well as support from students, parents, administrators, communities, and the state legislature), in ever increasing amounts (wanting higher testing results, greater outcomes for more students with fewer resources/dollars spent on education). Everything that goes wrong with schools, students, grades, or outcomes is blamed on teachers – never on students, parents, administrators, communities, or state legislatures, or the testing climate, the wrong goals, lack of vision, lack of rules, lack of educational materials.
Parents: This is not a “dis” on your child. This is a “dis” on our educational system. Let me explain:
I’m a baby-boomer. I grew up in American public schools in the 1960’s and 70’s. I was fortunate enough to attend a local public suburban high school that regularly had 20-50 merit scholars per school year. (One of the few ways we have of comparing “apples” to “apples” across the many various schools in this greatly varied nation of ours.) We didn’t have standardized tests back then to track our skills (or those of our teachers), and yet: Reading levels were higher. Kids who were not in “honors” or AP courses, even teenage boys, regularly read complex novels such as Fahrenheit 451, Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, or Catch-22 , often for pleasure, and understood them. More students were able to competently solve complex math equations at higher levels than students are today, even when fewer years of math courses were required to graduate. More subject material was taught in each math course. SAT scores were higher, and no one took prep or cram classes. And yet, we were not a wealthy school district. We were middle and low-middle class. Why did learning excel here? A huge fraction of students from my high school, including myself and my friends, not only went to college, but to superior “Top Ten” sort of private, Ivy League and equivalent, colleges.
Don’t think I am a teacher who complains because I, personally, can’t make the grade; that my own test scores and results are low. They are not. I not only make the grade and then some, my campus regularly fill my classes with re-testers ( kids who did not pass the first round), because they know I can get them up to passing . My own student scores surpass campus, district, and state levels by 11-75% every single year, even the re-testers. You know why? I don’t use the so-called “test-prep materials” provided for me by the state. I teach the basics. The same stuff I have been teaching for nearly 30 years. The same stuff I learned in school : writing, grammar, reading, vocabulary.
How many of you, if you could afford it, would send your kid to private or parochial school? Everyone knows what a great job they do educating our children, instilling discipline, self-respect, knowledge. I have taught in some of the most exclusive private and parochial schools around, and I know what they do, and how they do it, that produces such wonderful outcomes. I also know that there is little “magic” to their formula: they teach the basics. Kids are disciplined appropriately for their behaviors; the environment is peaceful and pleasant and feels safe. How can we replicate that in our public schools?
If we could do anything we wished to improve education, if money were no object, we would have students in smaller, more personalized schools. Just like a small private school. Students, parents, teachers, administrators, and the community would be held accountable for their behaviors. Professionalism would be the expectation for employees; respect from the students. Whether you chose uniforms or a dress code, rules would be enforced. Kids would be fed nutritious well-like meals and have enriching extra-curricular activities. Their souls and minds would be nurtured. Doesn’t it all sound lovely?
I’m not saying that the school where I teach, or others around the country, don’t provide this. But I do know that the school districts in Texas have filed a class action lawsuit against the state legislature for not providing adequate funding for schools, which means staffing, textbooks, buildings, desks- everything you can think of that costs money -while simultaneously increasing demands. How do you feel at your job, when the boss says to make more widgets in half the amount of time, with fewer widget-makers? To raise sales results with fewer clients/customers? To raise safety standards with fewer employees, rules that are not enforced, old, broken or missing equipment? I do know that I teach 38 kids in a classroom with only enough room for 25 desks, and I have to hold class in the hall frequently because we can’t all fit into the room. Kids regularly sit at my desk when there aren’t enough seats. Students share textbooks every day because we don’t have enough. We have two computer labs and one cafeteria to serve the needs of 2500 students. (My own high school, while growing up, had two cafeterias for this number of kids; and longer lunch periods. The twenty minutes our kids het is not enough time to get down there, stand in the long lines, and eat.) Like every teacher in America, I buy supplies for kids who don’t have any; I feed kids a snack at lunch who don’t have one; I drive kids home who are still at school at 7 pm when I sometimes stay late to grade papers or write lesson plans. I do know that teachers are often hired, regardless of their certification or experience, because of who they know or are married to. I do know that there is no supervision of new teachers beyond one 45 minute observation, once a year.
Most teachers at my school have given up on collecting cell phones – because parents call and complain and demand that kids get their phones back – often all within 10 or 15 minutes of the teacher picking it up. Most teachers at my school have given up on handing our detentions for rude behaviors, foul language, bullying, vandalism, dress code violations, tardies, gum, or any number of things, because if administration tries to impose consequences such as detentions, parents complain and fight them – loudly, and on the internet. The administrators at my school spend their days braking up fights and walking around checking lockers with the drug-sniffing dog. I know that when a student says I have” lost his paper” (and it is never the “A” student who attends class every day, is responsible, and turns his work in on time who claims this, it is always the barely passing student who is frequently absent and who never turns his work in on time who says that this has happened), parents and administration believe the student, first, and I who have been teaching nearly 30 years and have a sign-in system for tracking every single paper and have somehow managed to do this all these years, I am the one who has to justify and explain and “prove” myself.
When I first started teaching, years ago, my fellow teachers and I each taught 4 periods out of a 6 period day. Because we had an extra load of grading (all those essays), English teachers got an extra conference period to grade papers. Teachers of other subjects taught 5 periods a day, with one conference block to grade. (Now those extra blocks are given to coaches.) Teachers each had two “preps” (different subjects we taught). Now I teach 8 periods out of a 10 period “day”, and next year it is going to 9/10. In recent years, I have taught 4 different “preps” (short for the number of different subjects one must prepare lesson plans for on a daily basis). Some of the blocks I teach are 90 minutes long, some are 50 minutes long, some meet daily, some meet only twice a week - which makes it a challenge to keep classes together and up to date, cover everything uniformly, and fully. “That’s how they do it in college”, you say. Keep in mind, a full teaching load for professors is one or two classes per semester. (I know, bc my husband is a college prof.) A full teaching load for teachers at my school is 8. Soon to be 9.
When I first started teaching, my classes had 15-25 students in each. Nowadays, my middle-class suburban high school has 25-35+ per class, and we are told that next year we will have more.
Did you know that in Texas, we spend 1/3 of the school year in testing mode? That means some group or other is taking a standardized test, and since all teachers are called in to proctor these exams, regular classes are suspended/ moved/ not held. Often kids are rounded up, sent to the gym to watch a movie, supervised by a coach. This starts in March and goes most days till the end of the school year. This means as teachers, we have 2/3 of a school year to teach your child and show a year’s worth of improvement. It means your child is wasting 1/3 of his educational years either taking a standardized test, or sitting around waiting for those who are, while doing something worthless, and not learning.
Our school board thinks this is all great, because it saves costs. But at what human cost? Ignore the fact that this is creating stress on teachers, which increases the use of sick days, which costs districts more money and lowers outcomes. As a parent, you may not realize that when teachers are pushed to these limits, it is the children who suffer. Can I give your child the individual attention she or he needs? I wish I could, but I am sorry to say I cannot. I do know that a huge cohort of baby-boomer teachers are retiring this year. Soon, I will join them. Sure, every generation thinks they are the preserver of knowledge and skill, even as they give way to the next. But I am old enough, and fortunate enough, to have had a great education, myself. And I have finally, after all these years, learned how to teach and what to teach. I still care about the kids – just not the system.