Saturday, January 3, 2009

Confessions of an ex-teacher

Originally posted at DailyKos

A little over a year ago, I left the K-12 classroom. Even though I am still an educator, an education advocate for over 800 children, and an education doctoral student, I cannot be in the classroom until things change. I now work outside the public school system and with school districts to change things within the system. But I miss it terribly.

The conventional reasons for leaving the classroom (low pay, lack of resources, undisciplined students) have been over-reported and overcome by a new impetus. Teachers leave now because of the high-stakes testing environment. It's the working conditions, (stupid).

The California State University Center for Teacher Quality completed a comprehensive study of teacher retention in California's public schools in 2007. When following up with teachers who had left the profession the most frequently cited factor for leaving was "bureaucratic impediments, which

reflects a host of difficulties that are symptomatic of increasingly centralized, top-down authority structures and a heightened, and burdensome, call for accountability. Among those citing bureaurcratic impediments as a reason for leaving (57%), several common themes emerged including the problems of excessive paperwork, an abundance of unnecessary meetings, frequent classroom interuptions, and the sense that standardized testing had become counter-productive. ... the narratives from leavers point to other ways in which school bureaucracies negatively affect their work. The issue was not just the activities that interrupted their teaching, though they were distracting; the central issue was the very constraints on what they taught and how they taught it. Nearly 1 in 4 dissatisfied leavers said an overly scripted and narrow curriculum contributed to their decision to leave. The lack of local decision-making authority, an apparent consequence of increased bureaucracy and a factor we discuss in more detail below, was cited by many dissatisfied leavers. After teaching for 14 years, one teacher said this about her career and the prospects of returning to it: "I left teaching because of the testing and mandated curriculum. As long as there are straightjackets imposed by state and federal programs, I'm not going back."

Jonathan Kozol - author, educator, and activist - uses more colorful and urgent language in "Letters to a Young Teacher":

the systematic crushing of their [teachers']creativity and intellect, the threatened desiccation of their personalities, and the degradation of their sense of self-respect under the weight of heavy-handed, business-modeled systems of Skinnerian instruction, the cultural denuding of curriculum required by the test-prep mania they face, and the sense of being trapped within ‘a state of siege,’ as one teacher puts it, all of which is now exacerbated by that mighty angst machine known as No Child Left Behind.

Jack Gerson blogs on the Oakland Education Association website

There’s a lot of truth to what Kozol says. And it applies to veteran teachers, too—and even to teachers whose students score high on high stakes tests. Here’s an excerpt from an email posted recently to a national list:

"I returned to urban public school teaching last school year, after having left public schools before NCLB was authorized. The school environment and teacher satisfaction pre- and post- NCLB is like day and night. I speak not as a teacher who struggled with standardized test scores last year, but as one whose class reached 100% proficiency in reading and almost 100% proficiency in math (the one child who was not "proficient" came to third grade with a preschool level understanding of math - it’s a miracle that he scored as well as he did on a third grade math test). When the results came out my principal called me at home with the "good news". She asked me my "secret", how did I do it? Unfortunately, I wasn’t honest with her in my response, but I’ll be honest with you. I sold my soul to obtain those test results. For one hundred forty days I acted in complete opposition to my personal educational philosophy because I am a driven individual who wants to be at the top of my profession and right now NCLB defines what a "good" teacher is. It is imperative that educators take back control of our profession, redefine the goals and mission of our schools, and understand and support the means by which truly good teachers and school leaders develop."

This teacher is right. Educators don’t run public education. There’s been a hostile takeover of most of our country’s major urban school systems by the proponents of the "business model" for education—run everything by the numbers, "bottom-line" oriented. Treat school districts like corporations. Run schools as though they were "profit centers". Consider kids to be "revenue sources".

Well, I am the teacher that wrote about my experience on a list serve for Fair Test. I wrapped up the school year in May and it took me until September to climb out of the morass and be able to string a coherent sentence about the work environment at my school.

Gerson doesn't quote the rest of my listserve post, but I went on to describe the conditions at my former school (which is not and has never been a "failing" school under NCLB): an atmosphere of constant stress and fear of not making AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress)on the state standardized test. It was requested that we not spend time teaching science and social studies, since it wasn't counted toward AYP. The school district had in place "formal assessments" which would "prepare" our students for the state standardized test at the end of the year. Every six weeks we had to give long standardized tests to elementary school students. The classrooms' results from the formal assessments were posted side by side in the only place we had to relax - the teachers' lounge. There were 160 standards for English for the grade I taught; 101 for math. That's about one standard (wide, sweeping goal-oriented processes) a day to introduce, reinforce, and assess.

Fair Test has a troll on their listserve (I don't know why they won't ban him)and his response to my post was this: if you were a better teacher, you'd be able to have success on the test AND teach in creative ways. That's baloney, but it is a common misperception of those who are not educators, so it is one that must be addressed. High test scores do not mean better educated children. Studies have shown that income level and the education level of the student's mother are the best predictors of test scores. In addition to those two factors, how much time the teacher spends teaching to the test is the best predictor of the results.

As I said back then and I'll say again and again: it is imperative for educators to take reclaim our schools so that our students can be students and not just a test score.

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