I subscribe to the indefatigable blogger Diane Ravitch, author of the best-seller Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. One of the comments she made recently was that in Finland, teachers “want their students to be happy, healthy, and enthusiastic learners. They did not care about test scores.” That quote resulted in this article.
I would like my students to be “happy, healthy, and enthusiastic learners.” Unfortunately, I must battle against so many things to achieve that in my state. Having no children of my own, I figure somebody has to defend the students.
I pondered what did I want for my learners? I have taught both mathematics and social studies—with twelve years of yearbook/journalism thrown in for good measure—for over twenty years. My first sixteen years were in the private school system in Louisiana, so I never contemplated the hoops teachers jumped through as each new educational fad or fix found its way through the state. When I switched to the public school system, I found the situation murkier but still found hope in teaching my subject to the students.
In the switch to public school teaching, I found myself faced with a situation I have greeted with increasing dread as the years have passed: the parish designs well-meaning curriculum guides that fly in the face of common sense. The order of the material was disjointed, jumping from chapter to chapter, paying little attention to the design of the textbook. (Those books are usually designed by highly-qualified experts with a combined experience of more than a century, and most math textbooks have a similar outline in material.) Questions from chapter 6 (quadratics) require that I teach the material from chapter 5, but sometimes we jumped headlong into chapter 6 and then return later to chapter 5. Try telling students that there is an orderly, step-by-step approach to math while we’re jumping from topic to topic like whack-a-mole gamers. National Math Teacher-of-the-Year Dr. Donald Voorhies trained me, and his steady, methodical approach made the material accessible, built student confidence, and allowed students to regularly sweep math tournaments and rally competitions. My parish’s approach was haphazard at best, and I have not seen an Algebra II curriculum guide in seven years that has matched what I used to do in the private school system.
Then one year I taught Algebra I. The curriculum map was particularly horrid—all factoring had disappeared—and I found that I had no choice but to give Edusoft tests. The parish created these one-size-fits-all tests that were given to gifted, honors, and regular students to see whether they had mastered the material At first I found this rather self-defeating: at the end of each unit—there were eight—I was supposed to sacrifice a day of valuable teaching to give a test, but at the same time, I saw some value in the tests. At the end of the year, all Algebra I students would have to take an End of Course (EOC) test to determine whether they passed or failed the subject, and the questions on these smaller tests would mirror the final test. The program also had the added bonus of identifying the percentage of students who got the question correct. So if 80% of the students missed a particular question, then I needed to revisit that topic with them. This is called data-driven or data-directed learning.
My positive outlook on the tests quickly vanished as the tests rolled out. Of the eight unit tests, I gave six and the scores varied widely. Sometimes 87% of my students scored in the highest three bars—the program divided students into five categories, with some weird numerical divisions—and sometimes the number only hit in the 50s. I normally was not worried because I was teaching two sections of honors students, but I wondered what regular students made of these complex questions. The biggest concern I had was that the questions were phrased in ways that I rarely used, were excessively wordy, and seemed designed to confuse the students. I have no problem rephrasing my questions, but it would have been nice to have a heads-up on the way these test questions are written. Naturally the teachers were never given access to the test beforehand because that usually results in the wretched phenomenon called “Teaching to the Test.” Even more alarming to me were the questions that had no correct answers, which showed up more frequently than I care to admit. In the end, I surmised that the six lost teaching days, the 300 lost minutes of classroom material was not worth the tests that were being given, and I could have done so much more with the students with that time.
Common Core is the hurricane-du-jour striking Louisiana and in preparation for the harder PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) test, my parish designed a test for the end of each module. Once again, I am required to sacrifice valuable teaching time to give these tests to see if the students learned the material. Let me say that I was underwhelmed by the first test and did not hesitate to share my supreme disappointment with the test designers. There were three skills that were overly-tested, as in giving three to five questions that tested the same skill when one would have sufficed, and there were eight skills that we were instructed to teach that never showed up on the test at all. Even worse, there were seven questions that tested material we were NOT instructed to teach; I had little choice but to tell the students to guess as we had not gotten to those skills yet. Those topics were actually in the next module and I included the page numbers as proof. Understandably I have not endeared myself to central office personnel and often joke to colleagues—with an alarming element of truth involved—that I might find myself looking for a new job next year.
So what do I want? I would like my students to be “happy, healthy, and enthusiastic learners.” Unfortunately, I must battle against Common Core, Engage New York, Governor Bobby Jindal, Education Superintendent John White, the Louisiana BESE Board, and sometimes people closer to home to achieve that result. Having no children of my own, I figure somebody has to defend the students.