I’m still on maternity leave, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped thinking about teaching and education and the problems facing our schools. I’ve read a few articles on the topic this fall and wanted to share them, along with some of my thoughts. This is part 1 of 2 posts. Today I’m presenting a few kind of random pieces and a personal rant, while tomorrow’s three arguments fit together more logically and really point to what I think is the root of the problem in education today.
These first two articles today are really kind of depressing. This first one is about how test scores are going to drop and why:
“What Big Drop in Test Scores Really Means” by Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post Answer Sheet Blog
As messed-up as that situation sounds, I believe it. I’ve heard all about how scores can be and are gamed by the people who set the benchmark. My fellow teachers and I have typically heard that one reason why it takes so long for us to get our test scores back is because the powers that be need to look at the distribution of scores and determine where to draw the cut-off line, not based on the amount of knowledge and skills needed to be “proficient,” but based on how many students are “supposed to” pass and fail in order to make certain people look good and other people not so good. What scares me the most is the idea of the Common Core Standards being unreasonable and unresearched.
The second depressing article is written as a letter from a retiring high school teacher to college professors, explaining why incoming college students are not really ready for college work:
“A Warning to College Profs from a High School Teacher” by Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post Answer Sheet Blog
The criticism of the AP Government test (which I never took) and the way it emphasizes recalling a wide breadth of content knowledge over presenting that information in an organized way, to the point of creating bad writing habits, is troubling indeed. However, I doubt many college instructors really blame high school teachers for the way their students are ill-informed and under-skilled; they typically understand how little control educators have over their professional lives. They are more likely to blame the very education policies denounced here, or poverty, or busy, troubled families, or the students’ own poor work ethic.
Enough doom and gloom. I always enjoy Malcolm Gladwell, and I like this article’s emphasis on selection effects as determining the outcome of education:
“Getting In: The Social Logic of Ivy League Admissions” by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker
We like to think that education is transformative, and at its best I do believe it is, but you can’t ignore the direction of causation Gladwell reveals here. He’s looking at Harvard, but the same thing is true of charter, magnet, and private schools. Kids from these schools do well because they were always the kinds of kids who were going to do well no matter what school they attended, largely because of the families they’re coming from. I also think it’s interesting how anti-Semitism shaped Harvard’s admissions policies and how they’re looking for future leaders, not just the smartest students, and the indicators they use to find them.
This next essay is about a school that did the unthinkable, especially in Texas: shut down the athletic program, and how it helped improve academics:
“The Case Against High School Sports” by Amanda Ripley in The Atlantic
Some of the numbers in this article were really sickening, like the school that spent four times as much money on cheerleading as on math instruction. I really like how Ripley discusses the ‘hidden costs’ of sports, the expenses you don’t think about but that add up, like bus travel and field upkeep. The effects on the school’s culture are probably even worse, though less quantifiable: the lowered morale of non-athletes, as well as the way games, travel, pep rallies, and practices eat into instructional time. I’ve seen all these things happen in the schools where I’ve taught and learned, and it sends a strong message to students about what the schools’ priorities are.
It’s so hard to come up with a nice way to say some of the things teachers need to communicate about their students without euphemizing the information into meaninglessness. This article discusses the results of this struggle on the level of language, which is always the first place where sense devolves into nonsense:
“You’re Not Stupid, You’re Slow” by Ben Orlin on Slate
I love Orlin’s rhetorical analysis of what teachers mean when they call kids words like slow, weak, low, struggling, and behind. It makes a great case for using language as a more precise tool to describe why students fail. Here’s a telling excerpt:
Calling all these kids low is like calling all the patients in a hospital sick—technically true, but not terribly insightful. They need individual diagnoses, individual treatment.
The problem here isn’t with our language. The problem is that teaching 100 or 150 kids each day doesn’t leave much time for heart-to-hearts with failing students. Unable to develop real insight into their academic ailments, a content-free word like low is sometimes the best that teachers can muster.
So huge class sizes and unmanageable workloads are what lead teachers to talk in this empty, ineffective way. Makes sense to me.
This essay on attention spans and the way they seem to be shrinking says a lot of things I’ve thought myself over the years.
“Attention Must Be Paid!” by Barry Schwartz on Slate
I’m willing to accept my share of the guilt for not pushing my students to learn to pay attention for longer periods of time and to longer texts. I’ve been discouraged from assigning homework and from assigning novels, and directed to stick to short stories, poems, and plays. But it’s true that without someone making students learn to focus for longer periods of time, they’ll never learn a skill that’s necessary for success in any job and in life. It’s also true that in order to teach this skill, impeccable classroom management needs to be in place, because students are sure to resist learning this lesson. Stretching the attention span hurts.
This next one is about how good teachers are quitting because they see themselves losing the freedom to do their job as they see fit. This seems especially true of older educators, who have memories of teaching with more autonomy, justifiably offended because those in power don’t trust their judgment and experience:
There is something I’d like to add about teacher attrition, something not addressed in this article, which mostly seems to address veteran teachers. This might be a tangent, and it might show my personal agenda, but I think it’s relevant, and it’s my blog, dammit. You hear a lot of statistics about how many teachers leave the profession in their first five years. Some of that is because of early burnout, sure. Some of them were probably not meant to be teachers. Some of them may be frustrated by the issues discussed in this article. But there is one thing people trying to explain why teachers quit don’t take into account to the extent they should: teaching is a female-dominated profession. The first five years of teaching usually coincide with the middle of a woman’s twenties, when she’s likely to start having babies. Teaching is not like medicine or law, where women say to themselves, “I want to finish my residency before having a child,” or “I need to make partner first.” It doesn’t have the prestige, earning potential, or career progression of those fields. Some women probably choose teaching because they are nurturing people who love children, so of course they want to have their own as soon as they can. And once they have their own kids, they may want to stay home with them if they can. It’s what my mom did; she taught 8th grade in the early 80’s before my birth. It’s what I’m sometimes tempted to do, and may still do someday, most likely when the childcare bill to salary ratio tips too far against me. That doesn’t mean that my mom or I have had any of the problems discussed in this article; it just means that we care a lot about our own kids, and that childcare is ridiculously expensive.
With this in mind, I’m convinced that the best way for a school district to keep its brightest young teachers, women and men, is to offer free, high-quality, on-site child care. Imagine how hard it would be for a teacher to leave a job that allowed her to walk down the hall to nurse her baby in person during a break, rather than hooking herself up to a machine like a cow at a factory farm. And I’m sure a young father would enjoy the chance to visit his son or daughter between classes as well. This is the best perk any district (or private school) could possibly offer, which would give them the most ‘bang for the buck’ as far as improving staff retention and quality. I’m convinced it’s only once child care is a standard benefit for all educators, or perhaps once the profession is 50/50 in terms of gender representation, that we’ll be able to really talk about problems in the profession that cause people to leave it. Until then, statistics on teacher attrition are clouded to the point of meaninglessness by women leaving the workplace to care for their families, a choice that is usually not really a choice, and one that says more about pressures on families than about the workplaces being abandoned.