Saturday, February 20, 2010

What Happened to Me?

I wrote what follows back in 2004, then added to it in 2005. Reading it now in 2010, I don't think much has changed (unfortunately). Insanity still prevails, and students and teachers still suffer at the hands of the decision-makers.

What Happened to Me? I Used To Be A Good Teacher!

I am a third grade teacher. Or at least I used to be.

I got off to a rocky start in teaching. I struggled with management. I had classes full of English learners and no strategies with which to teach them. I frantically tried to educate myself. I tried anything and everything to make learning meaningful and relevant for my students. The most important change occurred when I became trained in Project GLAD. I learned how to integrate curriculum, utilize the knowledge of the students as a starting point, and to build on their strengths. I learned about language acquisition and brain-based teaching. I learned that no matter what their background or socioeconomic status, students come with rich experiences and literacy skills.

By my third year of teaching, I was nominated Teacher of the Year for my school. I went on to be my district’s teacher of the year. From that point on, things started to happen for me. I coauthored an article. I became a mentor teacher for my district. I became a Project GLAD trainer. I received several awards. But the best part was the teaching itself, and the responses I received from my students and their families. They always thanked me for the job I did. I often received thanks from the mothers of little boys; they thanked me for getting their sons to like school again.

I loved my job. My kids loved to come to school. And the parents were happy with the education their children were receiving. My students’ days were filled with hands-on activities, meaningful literacy activities, student-centered instruction, and the walls were full of the language of learning - their language, their learning.

But in the late 90’s, things changed. AB 1086 passed in California. Suddenly politicians and policy makers were deciding how I should teach. I had to attend mandated trainings. These trainings pushed the teaching of select isolated skills out of context. There was a heavy emphasis on phonics and phonemic awareness, almost to the exclusion of all else. Everything I knew and had read about how children learn did not fit with this new “model.” I was worried.

By this point I had obtained my master’s degree. The program heavily emphasized critical pedagogy. I had learned the importance of being critical, asking questions, and always keeping in mind “for who and on whose behalf” I was working (Paulo Freire). So I was critical. I asked questions. I requested the data, and challenged it. No one was going to tell me to change what I knew worked best for kids without some darned good reasons.

As educators, we always encourage our students to be critical and ask questions. I learned early (the hard way) that this is not what administration wants from its teachers. My questions and requests for information were met with contempt and reprimands. One administrator actually waved her finger back and forth in my face the entire time she lectured me. I learned so much. I learned do not ask questions. Do not be critical. Do not model the behavior we expect from our students. Go along to get along. And I did. God help me, I did.

Luckily, I didn’t completely shut down. I decided to engage in critical dialogue in other circles away from my district. I joined a teacher research group. I wrote an article. I wrote a chapter in a book. I started teaching part time at the university level. But I did not share my writing or my coursework content with anyone in my district except for close friends. I still haven’t. I did not want a finger waved in my face again. I still don’t.

So here it is now, 2004. Things are a lot worse for kids and their teachers. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the National Reading Panel (NRP) Report are here. Things are worse than ever.

I am no longer permitted to utilize textbooks as resources. They are viewed as scripts to be followed. I am told when and how to use my materials. I am told when and how to assess my students. The needs of children are no longer at the forefront of the discussion. Standardized test scores and multiple measures are what’s important now.

My stomach hurts most mornings when I go to work. For most of the day, I do not enjoy teaching. And for most of the day, my kids do not enjoy learning. Well, I don’t know if you can really call it teaching and learning. It’s more like test preparation most of the day. As teachers, we can only make this kind of curriculum so exciting. There are limits to what you can do with such a narrow and limited instructional focus. I do have one little window of time each day that I can call my own, and I use the strategies I know work for kids. My kids love that part of the day, and learn so much. So do I. But it’s not enough. Not enough to make up for the rest of the day.

I no longer consider myself a good teacher. I rarely receive notes and letters like the ones in my early years of teaching. I now get complaints. I now have behavior problems. I now have lots of test results. I now go through a lot more tissue. I should buy stock in Kleenex. I cry a lot.

What I have come to realize is this: teachers will never be treated professionally unless we start becoming vocal. We cannot “go along to get along.” We know what works for our students, and we need to stand up and fight for what is right for our students.

I am angry with myself. I am deeply disappointed in myself. How did I let this happen? Why did I go along to get along? Why didn’t I stand up and say no? I suppose there is no point in mulling this over. What’s done is done. What matters now is what I do next. What matters for all of us is what we do next.

I feel I have gained a great deal of strength recently. I think this is due to several factors:

• Having “faithfully implemented” the mandated language arts program, I now feel I can speak to its weaknesses and alter my instruction without guilt. Knowing the enemy is powerful. And it is important. We must be very familiar with the enemy if we are to successfully fight it and triumph.

• The amount of reading and research available to teachers to assist us in doing what is best for kids is phenomenal. I have been engaged in a great deal of reading. I now have an arsenal of knowledge to defend what I do and prove why it is better for students than the mandated curriculum and strategies.

• I have gone through a great deal of pain. Obviously, it is difficult to look at yourself in the mirror and realize you have succumbed to the powers that be and sacrificed meaningful instruction for students as a result. The guilt is almost unbearable. But through that pain and guilt, I have become a stronger person and a stronger teacher. It is part of what has made me who I am, and what I will hopefully start to be again: a good teacher.

Will I become a good teacher again? I hope so. But the mandates are strong and those who are willing to speak up are few. If teachers continue to close their doors and stay silent things will never change. I have recently started to find my voice again and share my concerns. Even though every teacher I know feels the way I do, they do not say anything. So what does that make me? How do I look to the powers that be in my district? I am a squeaky wheel, a troublemaker, a problem to be dealt with quickly or ignored altogether. Those who do not follow the mandates and testing insanity without question are not treated as critical thinkers. They are not treated as student advocates. Their opinions are not valued and listened to with open minds and open hearts. These people are reprimanded, punished, and often find themselves unemployed. Just ask Steve Orel, James Hope, Joanne Yatvin, Teresa Glenn, or any of the other authors whose stories are told in the book Silent No More. These people have paid the price. Why? They all worked in isolation to improve conditions and promote fairness and equality for all students. Their stories are inspirational, yet so sad and depressing. How can we stand up without being beaten back down again? A voice of one is easy to subdue and squelch when you have entire institutions or administrations against you.

But what about a chorus of 10? 15? 100? What if we all got together and screamed “Stop this insanity!”? Would anyone listen? I bet they would. Could they attack all of us? Could they fire all of us? My guess is no. Or at least my hope is no.

All I know is, we have to take our profession back. Well, I often wonder if we ever really had it in the first place. Teaching is such an unusual profession. We are isolated from each other most of the day. We do not have time to work together and collaborate. We certainly do not have time to conduct our own research and write our own articles. And when we do, we are told what we have to offer is not “scientific,” and therefore cannot be a part of the knowledge base. We are marginalized in our own profession. Does this make sense? Does this sit right with you? It sure doesn’t with me.

Stop the Bandwagon, I Want to Get Off! (2005 Update)

Well, here it is, a year later since I wrote the above. What did I do? What happened?

Good news and bad news. The good news is I did take the adopted materials and began to use them more as resources rather than Bibles. The students are more responsive and seem more engaged this year. Is it anywhere near what I used to do? No. But it’s better than what it was last year.

I was filled with hope this year. Our school seemed to be embracing student-centered strategies that were truly grounded in legitimate research. There was a light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, that light was a train.

Data analysis. Curriculum calibration. Test coordinators in our faces. Focus walls. Reciprocal teaching. Numeracy. Mandated strategies. Now, as much as I love GLAD, I do not believe it should be mandated and piecemealed out. As a matter of fact, none of these strategies and programs are bad. But what on earth makes anyone think we can do ALL of them and still be effective? Something’s gotta give, people! One guess what it is. That’s right, a quality education for our students.

I think my favorite moment of the year came rather early on. The test coordinator came to talk to every grade level at the Title I schools. (Hmmm…..) When it was my grade level’s turn, I went in with an open mind. I had never met this person. Maybe he had something to say that would be helpful. Then again, maybe ….

One of his first questions was, “Your language arts test scores went down for your English learners. Why?” My reply was, “Yes, we expected that. The adopted materials do not effectively meet the needs of our EL population, but the district mandated faithful implementation of the materials.”

Guess what his reply was? “I don’t want to hear excuses.” Hey buddy – you asked the question. Sorry you don’t like the answer.

This pretty much sets the tone in my district, as I am sure it does in many all over the country. Mandates abound from the feds, the state, and the district. Guess how often our district administrators visit our school? Once a year. That’s right. Once a year. And based on these annual visits (which average about 60 seconds per room, and not even half of the rooms), decisions are made about what we should be doing in our classrooms.

My second favorite moment came later in the year. Several of the schools that didn’t make AYP in our district went through “curriculum calibration.” This is a rather costly exercise to determine whether or not teachers are teaching the grade level standards. Guess what? Our school teaches the grade level standards! Darn, I guess you can’t blame those low test scores on those worthless teachers at that Title I school who don’t know what they’re doing. Too bad – that’s such a popular place to lay the blame.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

And, of course........

The Blueberry Story: The teacher gives the businessman a lesson

“If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn’t be in business very long!”

I stood before an auditorium filled with outraged teachers who were becoming angrier by the minute. My speech had entirely consumed their precious 90 minutes of inservice. Their initial icy glares had turned to restless agitation. You could cut the hostility with a knife.

I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools. I was an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in the middle1980s when People Magazine chose our blueberry as the “Best Ice Cream in America.”

I was convinced of two things. First, public schools needed to change; they were archaic selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the industrial age and out of step with the needs of our emerging “knowledge society”. Second, educators were a major part of the problem: they resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly. They needed to look to business. We knew how to produce quality. Zero defects! TQM! Continuous improvement!

In retrospect, the speech was perfectly balanced - equal parts ignorance and arrogance.

As soon as I finished, a woman’s hand shot up. She appeared polite, pleasant – she was, in fact, a razor-edged, veteran, high school English teacher who had been waiting to unload.

She began quietly, “We are told, sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream.”

I smugly replied, “Best ice cream in America, Ma’am.”

“How nice,” she said. “Is it rich and smooth?”

“Sixteen percent butterfat,” I crowed.

“Premium ingredients?” she inquired.

“Super-premium! Nothing but triple A.” I was on a roll. I never saw the next line coming.

“Mr. Vollmer,” she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?”

In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap…. I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie.

“I send them back.”

“That’s right!” she barked, “and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s school!”

In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aides, custodians and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, “Yeah! Blueberries! Blueberries!”

And so began my long transformation.

Since then, I have visited hundreds of schools. I have learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night.

None of this negates the need for change. We must change what, when, and how we teach to give all children maximum opportunity to thrive in a post-industrial society. But educators cannot do this alone; these changes can occur only with the understanding, trust, permission and active support of the surrounding community. For the most important thing I have learned is that schools reflect the attitudes, beliefs and health of the communities they serve, and therefore, to improve public education means more than changing our schools, it means changing America.

by Jamie Robert Vollmer

Another good one:

If you don't understand why educators resent the
this may help.

If you do understand, you'll enjoy this analogy.
It's currently being sent around the email circuits; it was written by
a Superintendent of Schools from Pennsylvania

The Best Dentist---"Absolutely" the Best Dentist
My dentist is great! He sends me reminders so I don't forget checkups. He uses the latest techniques based on research. He never hurts me, and I've got all my teeth, so when I ran into him the other day, I was eager to see if he'd heard about the new state program. I knew he'd think it was great.
Did you hear about the new state program to measure effectiveness of dentists with their young patients?" I said.
No," he said. He didn't seem too thrilled. "How will they do that?"
It's quite simple," I said. "They will just count the number of cavities each patient has at age 10, 14, and 18 and average that to determine a dentist's rating. Dentists will be rated as Excellent, Good, Average, Below average, and Unsatisfactory. That way parents will know which are the best dentists. It will also encourage the less effective dentists to get better. Poor dentists who don't improve could lose their licenses to practice."
"That's terrible," he said.
"What? That's not a good attitude," I said. "Don't you think we should try to improve children's dental health in this state?" "Sure I do," he said, "but that's not a fair way to determine who is practicing good dentistry." "Why not?" I said. "It makes perfect sense to me." "Well, it's so obvious," he said. "Don't you see that dentists don't all work with the same clientele; so much depends on things we can't control. For example, I work in a rural area with a high percentage of patients from deprived homes, while some of my colleagues work in upper middle class neighborhoods. Many of the parents I work with don't bring their children to see me until there is some kind of problem; I don't get to do much preventive work."
"Also," he said, "many of the parents I serve let their kids eat way too much candy from an early age, unlike more educated parents who understand the relationship between sugar and decay. To top it all off," he added, "so many of my clients have well water which is untreated and has no fluoride in it. Do you have any idea how much difference early use of fluoride can make?"
"It sounds like you're making excuses," I said. I couldn't believe my dentist would be so defensive. He does a great job.
"I am not!" he said. "My best patients are as good as anyone's, my work is as good as anyone's, but my average cavity count is going to be higher than a lot of other dentists because I chose to work where I am needed most."
"Don't' get touchy," I said.
"Touchy?" he said. His face had turned red and from the way he was clenching and unclenching his jaws, I was afraid he was going to damage his teeth. "Try furious. In a system like this, I will end up being rated average, below average, or worse. My more educated patients who see these ratings may believe this so-called rating actually is a measure of my ability and proficiency as a dentist. They may leave me, and I'll be left with only the most needy patients. And my cavity average score will get even worse. On top of that, how will I attract good dental hygienists and other excellent dentists to my practice if it is labeled below average?"
"I think you are overreacting," I said. "'Complaining, excuse making and stonewalling won't improve dental health'...I am quoting from a leading member of the DOC," I noted.
"What's the DOC?" he asked.
"It's the Dental Oversight Committee," I said, "a group made up of mostly lay persons to make sure dentistry in this state gets improved."
"Spare me," he said, "I can't believe this. Reasonable people won't buy it," he said hopefully.
The program sounded reasonable to me, so I asked, "How else would you measure good dentistry?"
"Come watch me work," he said. "Observe my processes."
"That's too complicated and time consuming," I said. "Cavities are the bottom line, and you can't argue with the bottom line. It's an absolute measure."
"That's what I'm afraid my parents and prospective patients will think. This can't be happening," he said
"Now, now," I said, "don't despair. The state will help you some."
"How?" he said.
"If you're rated poorly, they'll send a dentist who is rated excellent to help straighten you out," I said
"You mean," he said, "they'll send a dentist with a wealthy clientele to show me how to work on severe juvenile dental problems with which I have probably had much more experience? Big help."
"There you go again," I said. "You aren't acting professionally at all."
"You don't get it," he said. "Doing this would be like grading schools and teachers on an average score on a test of children's progress without regard to influences outside the school, the home, the community served and stuff like that. Why would they do something so unfair to dentists? No one would ever think of doing that to schools."
I just shook my head sadly, but he had brightened. "I'm going to write my representatives and senator," he said. "I'll use the school analogy- surely they will see the point."

This is one my favorites. I will add some more today......


By Kenneth Remsen

As a principal facing the task of figuring out all the complexities of the No Child Left Behind legislation and its impact on education I have decided that there is a strong belief that testing students is the answer to bringing about improvements in student performance.

Since testing seems to be a cornerstone to improving performance I don’t understand why this principle isn’t applied to other businesses that are not performing up to expectations. I was thinking about the problem of falling milk prices and wondering why testing cows wouldn’t be effective in bringing up prices since testing students is going to bring up test scores.

The federal government should mandate testing all cows every year starting at age 2. Now I know that it will take time out of the farmers necessary work to do this testing every year and that it may be necessary to spend inordinate amounts of money on the testing equipment but that should not detract us from what must be done.

I’m sure there are plenty of statistics to show what good milk producing performance looks like and the characteristics of cows who achieve this level of performance. It should, therefore, be easy to figure out the characteristics necessary to meet this standard. We will begin our testing finding out which cows now meet the standard, which almost meet the standard, which meet the standard with honors and which show little evidence of achievement. Points will be assigned in each category and it will be necessary to achieve a certain average score. If this score is not achieved, the Department of Agriculture will send in experts to give advice for improvement. If improvements do not occur over a couple of years, the state will take over your farm or even force you to sell.

Now I’m sure farms have a mix of cows in the barn but it is important to remember that every cow can meet the standard. There should be no exceptions and no excuses. I don’t want to hear about the cows that just came to the barn from the farm down the road that didn’t provide the proper nutrition or a proper living environment. All cows need to meet the standard.

Another key factor will be the placement of a highly qualified farmer in each barn. I know many of you have been farming for many years but it will be necessary for all farmers to become certified. This will mean some more paperwork and testing on your knowledge of cows but in the end this will lead to the benefit of all.

It will also be necessary to allow barn choice for the cows. If cows are not meeting the standard in certain farms they will be allowed to go to the barn of their choice. Transportation may become an issue but it is critical that cows be allowed to leave their low performing barns. This will force low performing farms to meet the standard or else they will simply go out of business.

Some small farms will be probably go out of business as a result of this new legislation. Simply put, the cost per cow is too high. As taxpayers we can not be expected to foot the bill to subsidize farms with dairy compacts. Even though no one really knows what the ideal cost is to keep cows content the legislature will set a cost per cow. Expenditures too far above this cost will be penalized. Since everyone knows that there are economies of scale, small farms will probably be forced to close and those cows will merge into larger farms.

Some farmers may be upset that I proclaim to know what is best for these cows but I certainly consider myself capable of making these recommendations. I grew up next to a farm and I drink milk. I hope you will consider this advice in the spirit it is given and I hope you will agree that the NO COW LEFT BEHIND legislation may not be best for a small state like Vermont.

Kenneth Remsen is the author and is the principal at Underhill

I.D. School in Jericho, Vermont.