Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Testing, the Blob, and the Great Escape

It is a monster.  I've seen it terrorize thousands of children.  They can't run.  They can't hide.  It will catch them eventually.  I've seen it kill kids...or at least kill their love of school and learning.  Like the movie monster Frankenstein it is a freightening patchwork, but in this case not one of used body parts but of misdirected education policy of our own creation that sparks fear, misunderstanding and even panic among people.  But Frankenstein wasn't bad...just a little nervous.  When I was little what scared me was the blob.  Testing is worse than the blob. But the description from the 1958 movie poster of "Indescribable! Indestructable! Nothing Can Stop It!"  sure does fit.

By now you certainly know that large scale testing has had a dramatic effect on American Education.  It has literally change the way we learn and teach.  Depending on who you believe, or trust, that is either a really good thing, or a really bad thing.  The voice from educators who work directly with kids seems to express the consensus that it is not so good.  Surprise surprise. 

"Testing Season," as it is un-affectionately known, begins in May and basically normal school grind to an abrupt halt.  It puts parts of the school and large portions of our student body on lockdown for weeks on end.  We do testing in 3 or 4 main locations but during that span our gymnasiums(we have 2) are sealed up tight.  Student routines and teacher days are changed to feed the monster.  We all are forced to proctor.  I am always thinking there is a certain indignity involved when you have to escort a student to the restroom for both us, and them. I won't even begin to enumerate the actual number of tests kids take in our state...but were well into the thousands just at our school alone.  It makes everyone grumpy.

 Testing leads to a curious phenomenon...testing fatigue.   It overcomes a usually vibrant and energetic group of people.  It is a real monster. Upperclassmen "check out" both mentally and physically.  The courses I teach with underclassmen become ineffective as on any given day half of the students or more may be missing.  testing has forever altered the end of school.   I stated before how unfortunate it is that the days of engaging and interesting activities serving to tie everything together have been undermined by all the crap we have railed against on this blog.

Radiation ...reform...what's the diff?
Lange's + Bridges' best work :)
Testing arguably destroy schools and the people within them.  It the worst of all the most famous monsters.  Like Godzilla it is a beats of our own creation.  Like the blob it grows more powerful and entrenched the longer it is around.  Like Dracula it sucks the life out of victims.  It has the potential to yield great profit like King Kong and that is what causes the problems.  Like Kong it is hard to control but unlike Kong it is rather unsympathetic.  Like the Mummy it has the potential to be around for a very very long time.  It has tentacles that reach out and touch just about every aspect of education, like the Giant Squid from 20,00 leagues under the sea.  It seems to function as an agent of some greater diabolical purpose like the creatures from Alien.  have I made my point?

  Like I said it can be destructive.  This is not an assemblage like that of Disney Pixar's Monster's University.  Fortunately the standardized testing has not overtaken those campuses yet.  But in our
I put this image in for my kids
public schools this destruction is incremental and hard to perceive.  I have witnessed many times just as I did this year the reaction of students when they learn they didn't pass.  They are certainly disappointed, even upset, but that deflation is quickly replaced with a callous "I don't care."  Sometimes that is true.  but when it is not it is sad to see the efforts of student go unrewarded  there's more to learning that just being able to pass a test.

For a teacher it might mean that they literally no longer have a job or a school to work in. It is a very helpless feeling watching your students take a test.  In my state, as I suspect in many others, there is no real way to improve the students efforts.  Worse yet is once they have taken the test, there is no real way to target remediation.  I can't tell what they did well, I can't tell what they didn't.  If it is merely supposed to be one of many tools used by teachers...I hope we kept the receipt.  I would also offer we should stop buying things off late night infomercials. 

Proof it is a poor tool is evident in the Student Performance By Question(SPBQ) report.  It is even more non-descript that the blob.  It is arguably less useful.  This despite the "helpful link" on the VDOE website intended to make this report useful.  I can find out what questions a student got correct or incorrect, but I cannot find what that specifically that student did or did not know. Allow me to share a few other gems from my efforts to make such a report useful:

This one illustrates the non-specific language that all our testing efforts produce.
So a couple million buys you some "maybes"?
So once they take the take I should be wary of using it to figure out what they do and do not know.
So its OK for everyone else to overstress SOL results, just not teachers.
Well, I might teach differently if I knew where to start.

Fighting the Monster
There are literally thousands of examples of teachers crying out against the testing machine.  But it must be fed.  Raw Scores, Scaled Scores, Failing Scores, remediation, and Online Testing all took time to entrench themselves in our schools.  But maybe there is light ahead and we are entering a new era of education where parents and students, even districts like our own join teachers in saying enough is enough.  Is it likely that we can together defeat the monster?  I don;t know.  There is a lot of money tied up in all of this.

The testing monster will be tough to rid ourselves of.  It will take a collective effort and not be an easy task.  Even still it is likely to be a worthy foe.  Reliance on political leadership from statehouses and capital domes will likely mean we'll just confront sequels of the same terror, in scarier form.  testing has its place.  But massive, poorly done, standardized testing is nothing but a destructive and undesirable force that must be stopped.  Maybe if we had a champion like Steve McQueen was in the 1963 film, he could lead us in The Great Escape.   Lest we not forget in that one he didn't actually escape.  Maybe one day we will. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

To the Class of 2014

Each year we watch another class of students walk across the stage to graduate and every cohort differs from the year before. I've composed addresses to each of these classes based on their personalities and my experiences with them. (2013 , 2012 , 2011 ) Below is this years edition of our "graduation speech that wouldn't be".

To the Class of 2014:

I am hopeful about your future. But I’m afraid that some of the important lessons of life that you should have learned by now are going to happen before you’re able to go boldly into that future. I’ve taught some of the brightest and hardest working students of my career this year, but I’ve also watched many students struggle to cope with the changing demands of our current context.

This year I discovered that many of you have learned the unhealthy coping mechanism of avoidance. While my normal absence rate was around 6 or 7 percent, that number magically went up to over twenty percent on every test day. Somewhere along the line you’ve learned “why do it today if I can put it off until tomorrow.” And I’ve had to tolerate giving you the chance to make it up on your own schedule and timeframe.

Educators point out it’s about the learning and find it clever to point out SATs, MCATs, LSATs, etc., can be taken over and over until you pass. But if you don’t perform next year to the standards of your school, they won’t let you come back, at least for another year. Some decisions are final and all decisions have consequences. So I hope that you take advantage of second chances without assuming beforehand that you’ll always have them.

This year I discovered that many of you have adopted the unhealthy attitude of American adults that glorifies “21st century” excess. The excess of our century is busyness, activity, and work. You take eight classes, participate in a sport, maintain a social life, and leave town for a four day field trip with your band just a few weeks after Spring Break and just a few weeks before AP and End of Year testing and wonder why you’re so overburdened with work.

There’s nothing wrong with experiencing all that you can while you’re young, but time is not limitless. We reach a point where participation in something is going to affect our performance. An adult must work a little harder to plan for and then work a little harder to catch up from a weeks vacation from work. Along the way, you’ve learned that you should be able to do it all—the coach should give you playing time, the teacher should give you an A, you should have time to practice your part in the play, and your social life shouldn’t suffer.

You have a hard time handling life when it doesn’t work out this way. I’ve had to provide more weeks of material for your homebound instruction this year than at any point in the past. And the reasons for homebound instruction have not been physical recovery, they’ve all been psychological. We’re quick to treat your mental health, but slow to question whether your mental health is fine, perhaps the environment is toxic.

More likely than not, you’re going to be fine. Most of you were accountable for yourselves even when you didn’t have to be. Some of you will learn that after leaving this place, that only you are accountable for yourself. No other institution is going to take the blame for your bad behaviors, lack of preparation, or the fact that you just choose to not show up.

Of course every person is different, but based on my time with you collectively, if I had to offer one piece of advice to help you into the future it would be this:

“Simplify. Life can only progress one moment at a time. Learn what you can handle in those moments and make them count. There is only so much in life that you can be responsible for, but taking on more than that is no excuse for being irresponsible. Despite what you’ve heard, you can’t have it all, but you can have enough.”

Friday, May 9, 2014


Well Teacher Appreciation week came and went at my school...like elsewhere around the nation and world.  So with all the hubbub the real question to address is do I feel appreciated.  Yes and No. 

I will start with the bad. There is plenty of that.  In the recent past I am coming off another demoralizing budget season.  Sure money is tight, it always is.  But I have slowly come to grips with the fact I live in a community and a state that could do a better job supporting education, but chooses not to.  That's putting it gently.  Some outwardly decry taxes are too high and blame wasteful schools and dare I say...overpaid teachers.  Maybe so.  But more likely the levels of bureaucratic decision makers all take and redirect their share before it comes anywhere near me or my classroom.  I have what I need I suppose.  I know I have it way better than many around the nation.  So I learn not to complain or open my hand and whine too often.  But over the last few years most of the heavy lifting when it comes to balancing budgets, teaching more classes and more kids falls on guess who?  Mr. and Mrs. Appreciated.  But I don't like talking about money and few teachers start teaching in order to get rich.  If they did, they are dum(I like that one).

So there is one strike against appreciation.  But I get it elsewhere too.  Let's stick to the last week when a colleague who is a fellow coach couldn't get a sub for when he left early with the team he coached.  Maybe some of that was on him but this Spring has been crazy with cancellations so instead he had to struggle to find a colleague who could give up their unencumbered planning to cover his class.  A day before another teacher who wasn't feeling well heard the same thing.  That doesn't make me feel appreciated.   I was also informed of the Required Summer Professional Development where I was given no real choice.  Just choose among what and when I want to take it.  Next I dealt with the run up to next Fall when our overcrowded school will get another 100 or so 9th graders. 

During all that I kept focused in the hectic weeks before you guessed it, testing season.  ARGH! Already stressed and overworked with unrealistic and unsustainable expectations I had a young man in my class illustrate a point for me. I exist in a landscape  where  a 14 yr student chooses to put his head down, 3 minutes after I made a special effort to reach him about doing his best and what he is capable in the hopes I could get him through the 9th grade.  I felt more powerless than usual and that says something.   

I am in the not so sweet spot part of my career where I am devalued since I am not "new" and choose not to leave the classroom as a senior teacher in favor of some other role.  Most efforts on a national level seem to depreciate teachers.  From how they are evaluated to the ever tightening knot that limits how they practice their craft.  I did get the normal mass mailing letters of appreciation from the school board and division superintendent which I thought was nice.  But truth be told I am tired of being "told" I am appreciated.  But it wasn't all bad.

So how do I feel appreciated you ask?  There were some small gestures from students.  The applegrams, brief notes from students, yep... I received a handful.  I did get a small gift of appreciation from a family with a nice note.  I teach 135 kids so the odds were in my favor.  I did also get a few E-mail thanks which were nice gestures as well.  The most noticeable efforts were school wide in the form of some well timed and very tasty meals, snacks and treats from our parent teacher organization.  A thousand thanks to them!  So I do I suppose feel more appreciated than last week. 

Still what I appreciate has nothing to do with what week it is or what gets organized.  It is the psychological pay from countless seemingly meaningless interactions with the vibrant and infectious energy of youth.  It is seeing the world through their eyes and thinking of it as if they were my own children.  It is seeing the newness of learning brighten a day and the occasional light bulb go off.  Usually it goes off now on a cell phone first...  It is the unexpected thank you for something you did to help a student out.  It is the feeling of appreciation when students look to you for help, guidance and support.  The moments that are ever so briefly and arre, but also but also profound that make me feel appreciated as a teacher.  Thanks. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Senior Skip Day 21st Century Style

It's not a new phenomena, but senior skip day in the modern high school is exponentially more effective today than even five years ago. Thanks interwebs.

I remember my high school days, the tradition of senior skip day fell on the same day every year. I can't be sure, but I bet it was even partially engineered by teachers and administrators to give students a little sense of power or maybe just a little outlet for some harmless rebellion.

When I started teaching, students had taken the initiative to call the "senior skip day" at their pleasure. It was a tricky task because one could never be certain that the message would spread, or even heeded if so. The skip day had to coincide with expected good weather and some other motivating event like prom or a three day weekend. Calling the skip day came with risk, because if a critical mass didn't participate, students could miss too much at school that day.

I guess we can blame it on twitter. Senior skip days are now more effective and efficient than at any other time in history. A premature call on the skip day will quickly be shot down by others, and lack of participation comes with early warning and I've known of more than a few events that have been called off at the last minute.

Today was not one of those days. Out of sixty-five students who were supposed to be in class today, I had twenty show up. Ten of them were juniors. The AP test for my class is exactly three weeks from today. We've missed over a dozen days of class this year. We had a full week (plus one day) of Spring Break the week before last. Today seemed like a good day for a skip day.

Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?