Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Teacher Accountability -- 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.  This ongoing series will demonstrate how this applies to the public school system, in its current form.

Accountability Case #1: Absenteeism - "Arne Rhee"

This student, who we'll call "Arne," was in my class for a semester.  He was on the basketball team, and our coach at this time worked hard to motivate students to keep their grades up, so I was hopeful he would do well.  This being a semester class, if a student gets to a good start for the first two months (which is when basketball season would end), that student is likely to feel good about their progress and finish out the semester well.

Arne  had a solid B when basketball season ended.  He had missed a couple assignments and a test that he never made up, so things weren’t as good as he was capable of making them.  But he was learning the material, was mastering it pretty well, and was on his way to a good semester.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he missed two weeks straight.  And this was followed with multiple absences littered over the next two months.  In one six week stretch, he had 14 absences.  This is more than two per week, which is an unsustainable number for any student who hopes to do well in school.  Not surprisingly then, but tragically, his grade dropped to an E over this two-month period.

By the end of the semester, he has a slim chance of pulling the grade back up to a D.  But even if he does this, a D is a terrible grade for a student who was easily capable of earning a B, and could have earned an A with a little extra effort.  So what happened?

Accountability Villain #1: Attendance
Was it illness?  Unforeseen family problems?  The arch-villain of apathy?  My terrible teaching?  I don’t know for sure about the family issue part, but the primary culprit in all this appears to be sports.  Not district sports, which as I said, ended in March.  But Arne joined an organization called AAU, which runs sporting events all over the country.  From what I have gathered, it is some kind of youth-involvement organization that provides extra-curricular opportunities to play a variety of sports.

Now, I love sports.  I follow all the major ones.  Even hockey.  I can rattle off the stats from the 1988 Dodgers World Series champion team with the best of them.  But what cost do sports require of a student’s education?  Arne has already finished the district season.  This group has tournaments that run over whole weekends.  Some start on Fridays.  Some start on Thursdays.  And the participants have to travel to get there.  The students are therefore missing multiple days of school to play a game.  Is this worth it?  What is the benefit?

Twenty years from now, what is going to have a greater impact on his life?  Having played in a sports league that got him...a bench spot on a college team that lasts four years, or earning a substandard GPA, mid-level and patchy academic skills and knowledge, and the kind of transcript that will get passed over by most colleges and majors.  Now, he could still make it to college, and with the ability I saw for his first two months, he has a chance to do well.

But anyone who makes a major decision to miss 40% of his school to play a game is probably not a great candidate to make quality decisions while in college, where there is much less supervision, oversight, or direct parental urging.  In college, it is up to the student to do the work.  They don’t bend over for you in college like they do in high school, and give you multiple chances, and have “excused absences,” and all those enabling programs.  They want results.  You either know it or you don’t.  You either do the work or not.

To Be There or Not To Be There
So, what does this have to do with accountability of teachers?  Well, let’s take a look at Arne’s grades, and where I as the teacher have some level of control.  When he was in my class, he learned.  He participated.  He helped other students learn. He was enthusiastic about it, and was fun to interact with.   Once his attendance dropped, so did all these other behaviors.  He never acted the same once he fell behind from the two weeks.  Now, he could have overcome that two week absence if he had not missed any days after that.  But because he followed that up with the AAU program and the two absences per week fiasco, this didn’t happen.

His grade dropped.  His learning suffered.  His participation and enthusiasm waned.  And now, when he is in class, he struggles to keep up, sometimes causes behavior problems (though not too often), and misses as many assignments as he turns in.  Rather than helping other students, they are “helping” him.  I say “helping” because a lot of students mistake help with letting them see your work.  The rest of us call this copying.  I don’t know for sure if Arne has copied.  I doubt it, because deep down I think he still wants to learn.  But that he shifted from helping others to needing the help from them is a pretty clear indicator of what has changed because of his attendance.

No Control
And I have zero control over any of this.  I have no influence on the AAU.  I can’t make him be in class.  And if he’s gone, I can’t make him work extra hard to keep up, which is what a student who is going to miss this much class for extra-curricular stuff must do in order to succeed.  He never comes after school to get caught up.  He never gets the work before these unannounced trips.  He never asks for it when he gets back.  In short, he doesn’t have the responsibility that a program such as this should require of its participants.
And I have zero control over any of this.  That’s zero, with a Z.

When this student was in my class, he learned.  If you tested him on stuff I had covered while he was coming regularly, he would have done well.  And all the teacher-accountability fanatics would hail me as a great teacher.

But now, if you tested him on the things we’ve covered the last two months, he would bomb it.  And all the teacher-accountability fanatics would start scratching their chins and questioning my abilities, strategies, and competence as a teacher.

What changed?

Nothing in my class changed.  Not one thing.  Same high expectations.  Same level of instruction.  Same attendance (on my part that is...I’ve missed two or fewer days every one of my years of teaching except for one... What impact do frequent subs have on student learning?  There’s another good question no one talks about....).  Nothing I’m doing has changed.  And if Arne had maintained his good attendance, there is no doubt he would still have a B or an A.

Is this an isolated incident?  Am I making the exception seem like the norm?  The reasons may vary, the causes multiply, but bad attendance is bad attendance.  Your brain doesn’t work better if the absence is “excused.”  You still missed the instruction and have to play catch-up.  It’s still that much harder, excused or not.

The Other Student Perspective
You can always tell how important daily attendance is when the top students are absent.

When those students miss a day, sometimes they come back and I hear them get a little frustrated.  Over one day!  They observe the difference.  The teacher is talking about something I don’t understand, because they spent 30 minutes yesterday working through it in a great activity, and today we’re using that knowledge to do something else.  And I don’t get it.  That’s a rare experience for the top students, but when it happens, they learn quickly how to address it.  And, they learn to prioritize their life such that these situations are minimized in the future.

Well then, you say, we need to help the students who don’t already do this to develop these habits.  Sure we do.  We also need to help the students who don’t already do this to not miss as many days.  And while we’re at it, we need to help students who swear at their teachers to stop swearing so much.  And we need to help the ones who are addicted to their cell phones to try real hard to understand why using cell phones all the time is actually rotting their educational potential from within their bones.  Oh, and we need to help students who think studying is optional to, like, try and study some more and stuff.  When you figure out how to do all that, let the rest of us know.

The Inescapable Truth
At some point, everyone comes to the same conclusion.  No one likes to hear it, and few will admit it when they do realize it.  The simple fact is, your education is up to you.  You will learn however much you want to learn.  No more, and no less.  Some people come to this conclusion during school.  This is what we call the “ideal student.”  And it has nothing to do with their grades, or AP, or IB, or “honors” (whatever that is), or tutoring, or yes, even teacher quality.  As someone wise once said, a bad student will not learn even from a good teacher, but a good student will learn even from a bad teacher.

Now, no one wants bad teachers.  Not in the least.  And there are some.  But how many students have poor attendance?  Arne’s situation is not an exception.  It happens all the time.  Why do suburb schools almost always outperform urban, inner-city, and rural schools?  Having taught, attended, or observed in all of these, I’ll tell you the number one reason: they show up.  Now we can argue about why they show up more often (parents?), but the fact is, they just do.  So that’s one less variable the teacher cannot control that doesn’t interfere with their instruction.

Suburb kids aren’t smarter than urban ones.  They just aren’t.  I’ve seen brilliant students come through my class.  They build and apply deep understanding as well as anyone else.  Even without the privileged background that most suburb kids have.  The one thing they have in common?  They show up, and they want to learn.  That’s it.

Excused Absences -- Irrelevant
But, if they’re absent, why can’t they just be allowed to “make up” the work?  No one said they can’t.  And who has the primary responsibility for a student to successfully “make up” their work?  Now you’re getting it.  That’s right, the student.  Just as we saw with Arne, he never tells me when he’s going to be gone, never tells me how long or asks for the work, and never tells me where he was when he gets back.  He never does work outside of class, and makes no effort to catch up for his missed days.  I could give him fifty copies of all the assignments, and it would make no difference, because he doesn’t possess the internal motivation or responsibility necessary to successfully “make up” work.

That’s harsh, you say?  No it isn’t.  It’s life.  The goal of work is not just to get it done.  All those missing assignments.  He just needs to get them done, right?  Won’t his grade go up?  Maybe.  Except that the goal of school work is not just to finish it.  If that is the goal, then you have a poor teacher.  That’s called “busywork.”  I don’t give busywork in my class.  Ever.  Every assignment has a purpose.  Every assignment is tied to my curriculum goals, and will either be assessed later, that very day, or both.  Formative and summative assessment.  Teaching 101.

And what is the purpose?  The work we do builds understanding.  Whether it’s concept development, or skills practice, or best of all, both, each day you work on these things helps solidify your understanding and mastery of them.  And each day of this you miss is one less “cog in the wheel,” so to speak.  Your stack of bricks just ain’t going to be as high as the other guy’s.

A Good Analogy
Let’s say I go to a seminar explaining how life insurance works.  Or stock investments.  Or real estate.  Say it’s a three part seminar, and I only go to one part.  I tell the instructor, “Give me all the information and the notes.”  She gives them to me, and I take them home.

Have I learned?
Have I now completed the seminar because I “have the notes?”
For all I know, the instructor could have given it to me in Amharic.

How will I benefit from all these notes?  There’s only one way.  I have to open them and try to learn it for myself.  If I don’t, I’ll never know as much as the people who went through all three days.  Unless I have a friend who’s really needy for attention and who also happens to be an expert on real estate and wants to spend two hours discussing it with me and answering all my questions.  My questions will be just as legitimate as anyone’s.  But I would have asked them in the seminar had I been there, and I wouldn’t have to be wasting my tutor’s–I mean friend’s– valuable time.

The Real Perspective
It’s exactly the same thing with school.  You want to learn, and you will.  You miss the days, it is on you to “make them up.”  And now that we understand what “making up” the work actually entails, we see why it is only the most responsible, motivated, and mature students who should be allowed to bulk out their schedules–in school or out–with tons of extra-curricular work.  A student who can’t handle the independent learning that must take place under these circumstances is guaranteed to fall behind.

And if this kind of thing happens too often in the elementary years, you can kiss that student’s future goodbye.  Kids who enter high school with fifth grade reading levels and struggle to divide 56 by 8 and can’t write a coherent sentence are pretty much doomed, as far as college-level employment is concerned.
Unless they get really motivated.   Really motivated.

But even a motivated student who misses twenty days a year will not get nearly as far as they expect or desire.  And none of that is in my power.  Zero.  So don’t hold me accountable for student attendance, or all the aftershocks that result from it.  And that includes the ability to pass a stupid state test.

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