Friday, February 28, 2014

"If you want to know what is wrong with education these days, don't blame a teacher, ask a teacher."

Stone: School bells ring - anyone listening?

Roberta C. Stone

Seventeen years ago, when I returned to teaching in Weston after raising my family, I couldn't have been more excited to re-enter the classroom as a middle-school history teacher. The administrators I worked with then were open to letting me try the different and creative ideas I had for inspiring my students to love history -- and I went to town as if I had been re-born.

When I walked into work everyday, I was happy with my students, colleagues and superiors, who were there to offer advice and to support my ideas and style of teaching. I was trusted to plan my lessons and make my own decisions as to how to best execute them. I was able to express my opinion freely to all the people involved in the school and town community, including parents, without fear of retribution or unfair judgment. Furthermore, I felt autonomous and powerful in my classroom in the sense that the only limits I had were the ones I gave myself. And I was successful, judging from positive feedback from my superiors, parents, and most importantly, my students.

That is not the case now, and so reluctantly, last June, I retired from a noble calling I barely recognize anymore. There is so much wrong with the teaching profession these days that frankly, I don't know where to start.

I used to be confident in my ability to teach history, but that was before all the new rules came into play and I had to change from being creative to being compliant thanks to the "No Child Left Behind" law followed by the "Race to the Top" and the nationalization of education.

Educators today are caught in a death spiral dictated by laws, both federal and state, that now govern our public schools. Gone are the rights of individual towns to plan and implement their own curriculums, replaced instead by far away legislators in Washington and state capitals like Hartford who think they know better.

What bothers me most about losing my individuality is, due to the pressure for federal funding, my administrators became my bosses instead of my colleagues. They began to judge and scrutinize instead of collaborating, and these people, on whom I depended, became my enemies rather than my co-workers. Education changed from a community to a corporation. We all felt it -- the tension, the decline of morale, the fear of being watched and ultimately "released" if we didn't measure up to the new rules. In the last five years of my career, the tension was so palpable you could almost touch it. These new rules were driven by three things: data-driven standardized tests that had little to no relation to our curriculums, stringent and judgmental teacher evaluations and scripted learning.

First, the tests. As they stand today, they are mostly worthless indicators of student learning. How do I know? Because right before the tests are administered, teachers have to scramble to teach skills on the test because those skills are not in their curriculum. If the test were a fair reflection of what students were learning, a teacher would not have to "teach to the test." It would be a much better idea to administer tests like the New York State Regents, which were assessments of the yearly curriculum that was taught. Testing on random knowledge students are expected to know is a recipe for disaster and does not adequately reflect the skills of the teacher.

And who evaluates the meaning of the data spewed out from the several tests children take in a year? Everyone but the teachers. The only time teachers are involved is when they are given test results at a faculty meeting, where they are made to feel inadequate by negative results. This data can and will count against them when evaluation time comes around. By the way, who evaluates the evaluators?

Speaking of evaluations, the new ones required by Connecticut were created by people who have never or seldom stepped foot into today's classroom, yet they are the ones deciding what constitutes a "valuable" educator.

Connecticut's 12-page form is complicated, murky and subjective. Nowhere on the evaluation do I see teacher self reflection. Isn't that what teaching should be about -- the evaluation of the worth of a lesson or unit by the person who taught it and then the decision on how to make it better? Now the evaluation seems to be in the hands of the evaluator, test scores, students, parents and not the teacher. Does this make any sense?

Due to this trial by fire, a disturbing trend has emerged: gifted teachers are leaving the profession because it has become an albatross rather than the joy they anticipated.

The third, and probably most disturbing aspect of the "new rules" is the implementation of scripted learning. Before, teachers were masters of their own universe, planning and implementing lessons according to their expert practices; now they have lessons scripted by department heads or administrators. I know of cases where if a teacher took the initiative to change one word of a paper or to improvise, his superiors would send a letter of reprimand. Is this any way to treat a professional? We are entering dangerous territory here. Your child's teacher may have been a talented, free-thinking human being at one time, but now she is just following orders from above.

All this wrangling has nothing to do with students. They are the collateral damage in the brave new world of education, taking tests that have little to do with what they are learning, missing important skills not in their curriculum anymore, like grammar, spelling and vocabulary, reading fewer books but more social media, where they spend hours, rather than on their studies -- parents take note -- and struggling to express themselves in writing when they can barely write or read works by writers who can.

History facts? Unimportant. But be ready to analyze the facts you never learned and show some critical thinking -- a 21st-century skill, we are told. (Great thinkers of the past, how on earth did you create such important works without this skill?) Clearly, the writing is on the wall -- misspelled and poorly worded as it may be. Education, once a portal to a free-thinking, discerning mind, is dead. In its place is puppetry. Follow orders.

I think what I and my fellow teachers resent the most is the lack of trust and respect we suffer at the hands of superiors, parents and the government agencies who dictate policy. We are the ones at fault for not teaching skills on the test that are not in our curriculums. We are the ones who are blamed for poor reading and writing skills.

We are scared to color outside the lines for fear of losing our jobs. We are afraid to improvise, to specialize, to reflect, to suggest, to improve or correct, or to write a lesson plan that does not coincide with the "new standards." If you want to know what is wrong with education these days, don't blame a teacher, ask a teacher.

Roberta C. Stone is a retired history teacher.


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