Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Accountability Case #2: Instructional Intrusions

Accountability for teachers–the biggest joke of all.
How do you quantify teacher competence in a way that works across all subjects and all grades?
This enormous topic has many facets, so I will hit it from several different angles.  But the essential principle in all of what follows is this: You cannot hold someone accountable for something without first giving them the power, the resources, and the time necessary to accomplish it. What follows will demonstrate how this applies to the public school system, in its current form.

Accountability Case #2: Instructional Intrusions
How many days in a school year?  180.  That’s the number, as mandated by state and federal governments.
The only problem with this number is it is pure fiction.  With all the pressure being placed on teachers for all that ails public education, with all the influence we are told we have over the academic development of our students, you would think the system would do all that it could to maximize our time with them.

Consider these facts, straight from the halls of my high school:

We were informed one day in October that we would be required (read: forced) to give some kind of health survey that asks the students 101 questions about all kinds of health-related issues they face.  It is a requirement forced upon schools by state and federal governments that want to use the data to do whatever it is they use data like this for.  I don’t mean to trivialize it; this data may in fact be useful for something.

But here’s the question: is that ‘something’ more important than my time with students?  I am told I must give this survey during 2nd period.  Putting aside all the logistical complications this causes (now 2nd period is ‘off’ from 3rd and 4th; I’m also giving a test this day, so how do I work around that? Multiply that by 30 other teachers with similar problems), what this means is that I lose one day of instruction for the sake of a survey.

Now, is this an exception?  By no means.  We get surveys thrown at us all the time.  The district forces our students to take a Student Climate survey.  There are also college planning surveys and student government surveys, as well as the voting day.

Our ninth graders (and now tenth–that’s half the school!) get forced–three times a year– to take the MAPS test.  This test takes some students an entire week to complete.  Students are pulled out of class for two days to take a computer-based test (that the district pays for; how’s that levy vote feeling now?) that assesses their skills in various areas.  They take the test multiple times per year to demonstrate how they have grown in relation to the objectives.

However, some students are absent the day of testing.  Also, some students need more than the allotted two days.  Those students get pulled out of class while the rest of the students move on with their regular course work.  Thus, these students are now falling farther behind in the very classes the MAPS test will test them on again in three months to show growth.  Something just doesn’t seem quite right about that...

In addition, the two days is from different subjects (science, language arts, history) each of the three times per year.  So this two days is actually six days, but just two per subject.  But that’s a minimum.  Sometimes they are pulled out of other classes, and miss one or more days of instruction there.  Other times, two days isn’t enough, and they miss even more days.

Also, the test has been expanded to sophomores this year, so their teachers must also now work this out and will lose two days per class, per subject, sometime during the year.

Perhaps you think the MAPS test seems like it’s a good idea.  In some ways, it is.  But again we must ask the question: Is the cost of lost instruction from these missed days worth whatever benefits the test gives?  Do any of the people making these million-dollar decisions even consider this?  Read on:

-More testing:
Our district also has begun mandating that every sophomore and junior will take the PSAT.  They think it helps the students realize what is expected of them from colleges and from the demands of life after high school.  Perhaps it does.

But this is a three hour test.  How do you administer a three hour test in a high school with six periods a day?  Here’s how we do it: Freshman and seniors don’t come to school until 11am.  After finishing with testing, we have 25-minute classes packed in to the remainder of the day.  This is better than last year, however, when the PSAT was done on what was already a half day.  In that case, there was literally no school that day–the entire day was devoted to a test that isn’t required by anyone, even colleges.  Then, students went home.  So, we lost another day. 

-Yet more testing:
The state test, formerly the WASL, now the HSPE, soon to be the...(next winning acronym), used to rob us of eight mornings.  Two days each were devoted to four subjects, and testing is not timed, so it went past 11am most days for a handful of students.  When you work out the times, this amounts to a net loss of four school days, per period.

With Randy Dorn being voted in as the new state superintendent, he fulfilled his campaign pledge (and what a refreshing one it was!), and reduced the number of days for the HSPE.  Each test was cut to one day, except writing which stayed at two.  This year, we’re saving yet another one, because the math test is being converted to end of course exams.  That leaves one day for reading and science, and two days for writing.  Thus, a net loss of two school days. 

-Field Trips:
At high school, unlike elementary school, when a class goes on a field trip, it is only that class–one out of six in the day–that goes.  Thus, the other five teachers say good morning to half empty classrooms and a mess of a planning situation.  Do I just keep moving forward, or do I make it a “study day,” which is educationese for a lost school day?  If I do keep moving forward, how do I handle the make up work for 45 students (assuming 15 per class with three classes of the same subject going on someone else’s field trip)? 

What if it’s a lab, which happened to me this year?  In that nightmare scenario, I had to hold two after school lab make up sessions, each of which took me over an hour to administer.  Thus, counting the three regular periods I did this lab, I had to supervise the same lab five times for three classes, and spent more than two hours outside of class just to make up a lab that was forced upon me by another class’s field trip. 

What if it’s on a test day?  Now I need 45 students to take a test either before or after the field trip.  So 24 show up first, then 12 the next day, and the stragglers take days afterward.  I don’t get all the students tested for over a week.  Or, I could just set a deadline, and the slackers who don’t meet it will get zeroes.  But that’s harsh, and there’s all that pesky research about how zeroes make it very hard for students to pass classes.  Especially when they had an “excused” absence.

This same year, a subsequent field trip took 25 out of 98 chemistry students from my three classes. On the first day of a two-day group activity I do that is a very effective unit opener in periodic trends. A full one fourth of my students are gone on the first day, and the second day depends upon the group work from the first. Hmm. Sounds like a problem.

Due to completely convoluted thinking and inept management systems (or something else?!), our athletes are often pulled from school as early as 1:15 to go play sports.  That’s during 5th period, and this happens sometimes twice in one week.  These students are leaving to play in our district (an urban district–nothing is more than 30 minutes away....).  Why do they have to leave so early, you ask?  The answer is shocking.  It’s not because the games start early.  That would be just dumb.  No, it’s even dumber.  It’s the hall of fame of ‘dumb.’  They leave early because that’s when the buses come to pick them up.

You read that right.  There is no other reason why students are pulled out of class early other than that it’s how the bus system works.  They have to get back in time to pick up the elementary kids.  When I heard this I fell out of my chair.  You mean to tell me a better system can’t be devised?  With all the supposed doctorates and masters degrees out there in our educational establishment, there’s no one who can figure out a better system to bus students to their games that would allow them to leave at, say, 2:45, so they don’t miss their 6th period classes 15 days per year (assuming they don’t play sports in all three seasons)?

-Class pullouts:
This one is the most infuriating.  In this case, the student is in school, but they are pulled out of class to go do...something.  The ‘something’ can be as variant as the number of college majors.  In a meeting with the nurse; in an important discussion about a dance; meeting about student government “issues”; having to meet with some nameless counselor not part of the school; going to meet a college rep; leaving early to plan for an assembly; going to work with a tutor–during class; on and on it goes.  This list literally could go on for pages.

And all of these happen without the consent, or even knowledge in some cases, of the teacher.  My student isn’t there, and I don’t know why.  The next day, I hear about the reason, and I just sit back and wonder about what these people are thinking.  I got a phone call during class one day telling me my student was in an important discussion about issues related to the homecoming dance.  During my class.  The dance wasn’t until the following night.  Does anyone have any sense of priority around here?  I told the caller (whom I still don’t know; it wasn’t the teacher who uses that room) that I didn’t approve of this and wouldn’t excuse the absence.  She acted shocked at my audacity.  What kind of teacher am I, wanting my students in class?  So old-fashioned.

These pullouts are random, unexpected, and common.  They have no regard for curriculum, unit planning, or where the student’s progress might be.  We are consistently told we have the “right” as teachers to decide if our students actually get to leave class, but whenever we try to exercise that right, we get a lot of flak for it, either from the student, the parent, the counselor, the tutor, or whoever it is who wants the student out of class.  I’ve had students walk out in total defiance after being told they couldn’t leave.  One such student left (multiple times) so she could go visit a tutor who would help her with another subject!  As you can imagine, that girl didn’t do so well in my class.

I once had a student miss an entire week (yes, a week!) just to plan an assembly about Martin Luther King Jr.  Once again, a good thing, right?  But is it worth a whole week of instruction?  A week???  Being January and near the semester’s end, that student’s grade dropped a whole letter as a result of the missed days.  Hope it was a good assembly...

So, this is all a lot of whining, isn’t it?  Why don’t I just mind my own business, teach my class, and stop getting all worked up about minor issues?  What about our math scores?  What about our test scores, our dropouts, our college admission rates?

Well, what about them?

What do you think causes students to come up short in all these areas?  Don’t you need to be in class in order to learn?  (And if anyone out there thinks online “schools” are equivalent substitutes, that seat time is old-fashioned, then you don’t understand the process of learning.  Some subjects can be learned using the internet, but most of them not nearly as well as in a classroom, where you can interact, process, discuss, reason, and come to conclusions using insights other than just your own).

Here’s the reality (opposing the fiction of the 180 days): If I have a student who plays one sport, is a sophomore in my 6th period class, goes on three field trips, gets pulled out for student government three times (this is a low number, by the way), has to take the MAPS, the PSAT, and the HSPE, gets sick twice during the year, has one appointment with a counselor during my class, and goes to the “guys group” twice a year, then that student will miss the equivalent of....drumroll.....29 days!

29 days.  That’s making a few assumptions, but some are generous in both ways.  So this student actually gets only 151 days of instruction.  They miss nearly one sixth of the class, almost 20%.

And if that student has taken challenging classes such as chemistry, pre-calculus, or AP U.S. History, you can pretty much kiss their chances of academic excellence goodbye.

Now, if you think I’m exaggerating about this, you probably also think teachers are to blame for our flailing education system.  Both thoughts are ludicrous.  If you don’t believe me, come look at attendance records at any high school.  Find out from a dozen teachers how many days they lose to things like this.  Now, granted, if the student isn’t in my 6th period and doesn’t therefore get pulled out for sports, the number of days lost reduces to closer to 20 (I assumed 15 days for this, probably a low estimate).

But 20 days!  If you read my article debunking charter schools, you’ll read about one such school that mandates its students can miss no more than 9 days per year.  Per YEAR!  And we have the possibility of students missing more than twice that, all for things forced upon them–not their own poor choices.  Remember, this assumes no skipping.  But truthfully, most students don’t skip.

Opposing Views?
Why can’t they just “make up” the work?  Fair question, but please forgive me, also a naive one.  “Make up” implies you can just do the work, and that being in class doesn’t matter.  “Make up” implies the grade on the assignment is the only thing that matters.  This is the same thinking as the online school fiascos out there.  My wife “attended” an online college, and we have been very unimpressed.  The quality of their education is exceedingly shallow, due in a large part to the nature of the medium.  Some learning just doesn't happen as well if students aren't present together.

For example, what if I’m doing a ‘jigsaw’(such as the one being wrecked by a field trip this week), or a similar type of in-class instructional method?  This is an activity where you split the class into groups, and then each group learns a specific topic that is part of a greater unit or lesson.  Then, those groups re-number and reorder so that the new groups have one person from each of the previous groups.  Then, each ‘expert’ teaches the other members about their topic.  It’s a great method on so many levels.  The best way to learn is to teach, and it gets every student teaching the others about a topic they spent time mastering first.

Oh, but, but, but, I needed to meet with the career counselor to talk about SAT prep classes.  I needed to take pictures for the yearbook.  I needed to go to a guys group meeting.  I needed to see a math tutor during your <insert subject here> class.

Great. You can’t make up the work, because it’s impossible, and you missed out on a tremendous learning exercise.  Now go read the book and take notes, and I hope you can get caught up.

See?  There is no way to “make up” an activity like that.  Activities such as this take place all the time in my class.  Some things can’t just be “made up.”  No, I’m not going to give some loony, infantile “extra credit” assignment to help compensate for the lab you missed but can’t make up because I can’t set the lab up again.

You just missed out, and there’s nothing I can do for you.  Sure, I can give a weak version of something that teaches the same concept, but you missed the most vibrant method I have to learn this concept.  You missed it, and that was the only chance.

Besides, a student missing one or two days every other week cannot possibly keep “making up” all that missed work and still be learning it well.  In a challenging class, it’s just not possible over the long run.

Further Evidence:
Still think a few days doesn’t make a difference?  Here’s a problem in logic for you:
Last year I greatly improved my chemistry curriculum by restructuring my first month and portions of units later in the year, based on some professional development we did over the summer.  I added several activities and modified others.  Yet, in spite of adding more activities, I still made it through all my curriculum, including my mini-units on organic and nuclear chemistry in June.

How could I have added new activities, and yet still made it through everything I wanted to teach?
I’ll give you a few minutes.  The answer can be found somewhere in this essay.

Okay time’s up.

Ready?  It’s because the WASL got cut down from 8 days to 5, effectively gaining two days for us (I know 8-5 is 3...the scheduling was more complicated than that..).  That allowed me to get through everything.  Those two days allowed me to greatly enhance my class, such that more students developed a greater understanding of chemistry than in previous years (yes, I have test scores to prove it for all you data droolers...).  Imagine that.  Just two little days.  Yet, without those days, I would lose my nuclear power mini-unit. 

Not a big deal?

First of all, who are you to decide if that’s a big deal?  It is a big deal.  It’s the difference between learning something about a new topic or not learning it.  Those small differences only compound when they happen year after year.

Second of all, that’s just two days.  Think of what else we could do if we re-gained all the other days that get stolen from us.  Think about it.

Accountability Counterpoint:
Then think about how little control I as the teacher have over any of this.  Except for the class pullouts which I will continue to fight over every time they come to me, I have zero control over it.  Zero.

And yet the public wants to hold me accountable for my students’ learning.  Tell me how I can be fairly expected to help my students learn when I have the equivalent of two to four weeks of instruction robbed from me to do all these other goofy things?

Do we value instruction in this country or don’t we?  What are our priorities?

In closing, if you encounter a teacher who complains about your student being pulled out of class all the time, stop and think for a second, and then be thankful: Your student has a teacher who wants his or her students to do well.

Help them do their job, and schedule that dentist appointment for after school.

And if you’re a policy wonk, and sit in your expensive board room conjuring up ideas for how to make schools better (that you’ve never visited), consider this: if any of your ideas require us to waste class time, then it’s a bad idea, and you need to rethink it.

Instruction matters.  Put it back where it belongs at the top of the list.  Then maybe, maybe, some of us might listen when you want to hold us accountable.

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