Monday, January 23, 2012
United Opt Out: Why I'm Leaving Public Education
I’ve had a radical change of heart recently. Those who worked with me in my previous position as an Instructional Coach (helping teachers to improve instruction and overcome difficulties with high-needs students) must be shocked by the links I am posting online. They might say that now that I’m back in the classroom, I don’t want to practice what I preached. They’d be at least partly right.
Wasn’t I the one reassuring other teachers that Colorado’s new teacher evaluations, based 50% on student test scores, was exactly what was needed to bring credibility and respect back into the teaching profession? Wasn’t I the one who said, “Merit pay? Bring it on! I’ll be makin’ the big bucks!” Yep, that was me. It was frustrating to work with some teachers who didn’t seem to care about their huge responsibility for educating our youth. Reforming tenure and paying teachers based on their efforts made sense to me, at least in theory.
I tried to reassure the teachers I worked with that they were great teachers who had nothing to worry about, and ignored the nagging voice in the back of my head that said it wasn’t so simple –like what about Special Education teachers? I’d worked with one who had a huge case-load of kids, including Jose, a boy with autism who struggled socially and academically but was a gifted artist. I had offered to help Jose’s teacher administer the CSAP (Colorado’s standardized test) because she had so many students that required special accommodations.
I was asked to read the questions aloud to Jose, and stop if he became agitated. The previous year, Jose had felt so bad about not knowing the answers that he had gouged his fingernails into his arm. This year, they felt he had made great academic progress, and his improved scores would make the school look good. After a few minutes, I could see that Jose was getting upset. I suggested we take a break. He vehemently shook his head, determined to “be good”. When his tears began to flow, I insisted that we stop. Why were we torturing this young man, when, as a student with an Individualized Education Plan, we knew exactly what his levels of proficiency were? Still, I reasoned that it was necessary to assess all students, because we wanted No Child Left Behind.
The following year, we relocated for my husband’s career and I was headed back to the classroom. I was a little nervous; more is expected of teachers now than ever: instruction must be data-driven, lessons tailored to specific “research-based” methods, assessment both formative and summative. Still, I was excited to have my own students again, and felt I still had a lot of “teach” left in me.
My trepidation started in the summer, when my new school district sent me to be trained on a new writing curriculum. “This curriculum will raise your CSAP scores!” the instructor boasted like a circus ringleader (pun intended). The curriculum was completely scripted, requiring students to write using a specific format consisting of at least one simple, one compound and one complex sentence, one instance of multiple modifiers separated by a comma, one simile or metaphor, etc. The idea is to make evaluating writing, a very subjective task, more objective (read: easy for under-trained, low-paid standardized test scorers to evaluate). Apparently it doesn’t matter if everyone’s paragraph reads exactly the same.
I tried to swallow back my disgust and focus on the way this curriculum made it easy for teachers to differentiate instruction. I was determined, as teachers almost always are, to remain positive, improve my instruction, to soldier on. I chatted with the teacher next to me, who said she worked in a district I had heard a lot about – one that piloted merit-pay. When I asked her about it, she shook her head in disdain. “It’s impossible to get the big pay raises unless you are in the principal’s inner circle,” she said. “I’m looking for work in another district.” I was shocked. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.
On our first day back, the superintendent gleefully announced that our district goal would be to attain the state designation of Accredited with Distinction. I thought: who doesn’t want to work in a school that’s not just accredited, but with distinction? I wasn’t sure exactly what this meant, but it sounded great! Imagine my crestfallen look when we were told that this designation was based solely on growth on the CSAP. I wondered how this would really improve the students’ learning.
School started, and so did the principal’s walk-through evaluations. At least once per week, the principal would sit in the back of the room, writing urgently and mysteriously. A checklist of Marzano’s elements of effective lessons would appear on my desk the same day, noting elements that were present and those that were not. Evaluations were often on Fridays before big home games, vacations, etc., and teachers began to grumble to each other that it felt as if the principal were trying to “catch” us not using every minute of instructional time efficiently.
After my formal evaluation, my principal noted that, while my pedagogy (he pronounced it “pegoggy”) was perfect, I had serious classroom management issues. Hadn’t I noticed that while the two students were debating in one group, the other group had already finished and were drawing a fish on the giant sticky note I’d provided for their brainstorming session? (Actually, I thought to myself, it was a dolphin, the subject of the short story they’d read.) “Chris would never do that in another class,” the principal told me. “He doesn’t respect you.”
“Wouldn’t do what?” I asked, “Draw a fish?” I was instructed, for the first time in more than a decade of teaching, to write a performance improvement plan, and observe another teacher. I resisted the urge to remind this man that I had taught successfully for four years in inner-city Pittsburgh while he was still in high school. Instead, I tried to see his point of view – shouldn’t all teachers strive for continual improvement? Still, I felt threatened. Teachers all over the country are being systematically intimidated by top-down, authoritarian rule designed to ensure compliance.
In spite of myself, I began to worry about my students’ test scores. I have always believed that teaching to the test is unnecessary; good instruction leads to good scores. I hadn’t done the greatest job of implementing the writing curriculum; not only did I not like it, but the students didn’t either. Plus, some students were threatening not to take the test seriously – they were fed-up with this annual rite of spring that had no relevance whatsoever to their lives. I could hardly blame them. In fact, one of my students opted not to take the test: Ann, a tough-as-nails ranch girl. Though Ann was no whiner, she ended up in my classroom, sobbing, telling me that the other teachers had berated her for not taking the test. I was flabbergasted. This was nothing short of emotional abuse – over one stupid test! Her mother later called to thank me for being the only teacher who supported her, and I shared with her my disdain for the test. Whoops.
The principal informed me I was not to disparage the test out loud – certainly not to parents. I vowed to behave better, though I didn’t really want to keep quiet. Being silenced has the curious effect of making one want to speak even louder.
This year, I did start speaking up. No one else wanted to confront the administration about our school’s focus on one test. Sure as the sun, I was called in to speak with the principal again, the week before Christmas break. He had a list of things I’d said at faculty meetings. “It sounds like you’re not happy here,” he said. I tried to explain that I was having a great year with my students (a project we’d done was featured on the front page of the paper a couple of months earlier), but I couldn’t help noticing the fall-out that was resulting from our school’s focus on test scores. I gave him some examples: Greg, who told me that another teacher asked him what he liked, so that she could use it to bribe him to do better on the test. He’d dropped out a week later. Carrie, who earns straight A’s and plays in orchestra and jazz band, came to me crying because the guidance counselor had tried to shame her for not taking an “optional” ACT-prep class in the morning before school.
I asked my principal what gains we would achieve by demoralizing students and making them feel like nothing but a test score. We debated. He suggested that perhaps, over the break, I needed to think about whether or not I really wanted to be there. Wow. Under the guise of wanting to make sure I was happy in my job, he had once again made it clear that I needed to shut up or leave.
I did think about it. I thought about the new teacher and principal evaluations, based on test scores, coming in 2014, along with a new Social Studies CSAP. I thought about my own daughter, an avid reader, being given a practice reading test every Friday, and wondered how long she would continue to love reading. I thought what would happen to me if I decided to opt her out of the test this year and whether I could truly advocate for my own children in my current position. And I decided it was time for me to go.
This week I let my principal know that I am looking for work outside public education. I am heartbroken and will miss my students dearly, but I realize that I can neither teach them properly nor fight for their education while trapped in silent submission.