Subvert the Dominant Paradigm

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Don't Talk to Me about Education (Unless You're an Educator)

My husband, M., is a high school English teacher. It's a second career for him, after ten years of running his own stucco and plaster company. He'd wanted to be a teacher ever since his own school days, but, as often happens, lost track of his dream along the way. But after ten years of slinging mud, he found it again, went back to school, and got his degree in education and his teaching license.

We did see this move as a way to improve our lives. After struggling for years with inconsistent pay, bickering employees and temperamental property owners, going for a career with a steady paycheque, where M. didn't have to run every facet of the business, seemed a no-brainer. We thought there might even be some benefits attached. But mostly, M. went in the direction he did because he loves to teach. He loves and believes in the kids. He especially thinks it vital for an understanding adult to be a presence in the lives of teenagers making the difficult transition to being adults themselves.

When M. graduated from college, the local school districts were all laying off teachers because of lack of funding. He was lucky enough to land a job in a very small district 100 miles away. The commute is a bear, and he makes it every day; various considerations made it impractical for us to move closer to his work. There are definite advantages to his situation. There's only one school in the district, and it's very small: just over one hundred students in K - 12. Small classes make it possible for M. to give all his students the individual attention they might not get in a larger district. Also, M. has to deal with very little of the politicking that goes on in larger districts. He is the high school English department. Within certain bounds, he can set his own curriculum, and he doesn't have to cope with some of the more idiotic ideas that school boards in larger districts come up with; for example, insisting every teacher in a department teach the exact same lesson on the exact same day regardless of their students' needs. So the facts that we spend about $100 a week just to get M. to work, that he earns half what an eighteen-year-old with a GED can earn on an oil rig, and that the school district is too poor to provide anything like health insurance... Well. It's a trade-off, isn't it? M. loves his work, and that makes me happy, and that's what matters.

But. I am sick to death of government policies that make it impossible for him to do his job--that, in fact, purport to have been put in place to improve the United States educational system while at the same time focusing on things as far from true education as it is possible to get. And I am sick to death of people with no experience bleating about how "broken" the US educational system is and citing studies to "prove" that "all that money" we're pouring into education is completely wasted.

I am not trained in this area. I do not have the statistics at my fingertips. But I've picked up a lot from M. over the course of his getting his degree, and over the three years he's been in the profession. Plus, I know first-hand just what it's like to be a member of a teacher's family. Not just from M.; my mother was also an English teacher. And here's the first sad thing I know:

My husband makes less as an English teacher today than my mother did thirty years ago.

Please tell me again how teachers are overpaid, or how the "perks" of being a teacher somehow make up for the fact that professional adults in our society cannot afford to put food on the table without asking their parents for a handout. Please mention the warm fuzzies M. is supposed to get from knowing he's a role model and source of support for his students when we're trying to figure out how to pay this month's heat bill. Also, by all means tell us that the economy is rough for everyone, and that people with jobs that do not require an advanced degree and continued accrual of college credit simply to stay licensed--like the cashiers at your local supermarket--are also suffering. Maybe it will help you feel good about yourself the next time you vote against a mill levy that would raise your taxes by perhaps $10.00 A YEAR, but would increase your local school's operating budget by 25% or more. Maybe it will help you justify your complaints when your child doesn't score well on his or her latest set of standardized tests.

Let's talk about those standardized tests. Politicians love to cite standardized tests, and low test scores, to prove that the US educational system isn't working. "Our kids don't rank up there with other first world countries!" is a popular rallying cry.

Here's some stuff you need to know about standardized testing:

1. The United States tests every student using the same test and scores that test according to the same criteria. That means A students, B students, geeks, jocks, stoners, and the special ed students who can barely spell their own names, much less form a coherent sentence or tell you how much is two plus two. They all take the same test, and all their results get lumped together to come up with the school's score: the number on which the entire school will be judged as effective or not. In a small, rural school like M.'s, with maybe a 4-student class, that means if two students ace the standardized test and two students bomb it, the class rating will be 50% proficiency. This is not a reliable indicator of how well the students are doing.

Other countries do not test all their students. They only administer standardized tests to the top-performing 10%. Of course, their test scores are higher. They only test the smart people. (Someone once asked me, when I pointed this out: "Yeah, but how do they know who the top 10% are unless they administer standardized tests?" I'm sorry, but it you're asking that question you just are not smart enough to be reading this blog, much less making any decisions about the US educational system.)

2. Because of government policy, scores are given to students who do not take the test. If a student does not take the test, his or her score is ZERO. If your child is sick the day of the test, or if there's a family emergency, or any other reason s/he cannot take the test, the score is the same as if s/he took the test and bombed it--perhaps worse. There is no statistic for "did not participate," and no making up the test outside of test week.

Likewise, if the administrator of the test makes a mistake, all students in that class score ZERO. Other students may as well. Here's an example:

It's TCAP week here in Colorado. M. has the flu and should be home in bed, but that's too bad. He has to go in and administer the tests, because you have to be trained to administer the tests; a sub won't cut it. M. has a class with ONE student--a special needs student. Because he's sick, because he has to go to a friend's funeral later this week, because he was distracted, M. made a mistake. He administered the second part of the English test when he should have administered the first part of the math test.

A simple mistake, anyone could have made it. Here's what it means: The student who took the wrong test gets a ZERO for the test she took. She also gets a ZERO for the test she should have taken at the time. And her entire grade--the whole freshman class--can no longer take the second part of the English test. They ALL get ZEROES for that test. And all those zeroes go into the school's score.

It's likely M. will not lose his job over this. But we're worried.

You can justify this any way you like. Say, M. knew the rules. Say, the order of the tests was clearly posted. But anyone could have misread the list. Any one could have made the same mistake. So, for an error directly involving a single student, the whole school suffers. How does this give a clear picture of the effectiveness of the school's education? Answer: It Doesn't.

3. Standardized tests measure how well students take standardized tests. They do not measure anything else. We've known this for years. Whole businesses are built on this fact. How many people have taken an ACT class, or gone to Stanley Kaplan to learn how to ace the SAT? Students can do really well on the standardized tests, yet not be able to identify parts of speech or write a coherent sentence, much less engage in the kind of critical thinking that is the mark of a well-educated mind. Yet politicians keep harping on test scores, because it's a number they can use to make themselves look informed, and education is a cause they can seem to espouse while not knowing anything about it at all. They can submit policy about it when they've never set foot in a classroom since their own school days and have no clue about the way things work.

All of this makes it damn near impossible for teachers to get the job done.

To Be Continued...