This was a good week, though tiring. I need this three-day weekend. Mom and Dad are coming to take us to dinner tonight, which will be fun. On Monday, I will take Maxine to the lake, leaving Horyon at home to rest. She needs to get over her morning sickness soon, because Thursday she leaves for Korea for a whole month. It's a long enough plane ride when you're in good health and dragging Maxine with you, but with constant urges to revisit your previous meal it would be downright miserable.
At this point I can't say for sure that being a Jr. High teacher is what I want to do for the rest of my life, or even for this next chunk of my working life, but I am not ready to quit, either.
I have learned a few things talking to my fellow teachers and dealing with students, though. I know that many of you reading this are teachers, but for those of you who aren't, I may have to fill you in on President Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy: In a nutshell, students are tested regularly, a couple of times a year. Overall scores for the entire school are compared year to year, and each school is expected to make a certain amount of progress each year. If that progress is not made, federal funding for the school is cut. The basic idea behind this is that teachers who do well are rewarded for doing well, and teachers who don't do well can be canned.
There are some problems with this idea, but it is revolutionary in a couple of respects: First of all, teachers are actually being held responsible for all students that come through their classroom. Responsible in the sense that our jobs are on the line if our kids don't improve as they work their way from first grade through high school graduation. This is such a common sense thing that you may have assumed it was true all along, not taking into account the idea of having tenure. NCLB pretty much trashes the idea of tenure, though it may be a challenge to deal with older teachers who have been "grandfathered" in.
The other revolutionary aspect is found in one word I used in the previous aspect: ALL. As in ALL students are tested. This means that there is now a big disadvantage to sending a kid out of the classroom, whether to time out for a period or two, or ISS/OSS (In and Out of School Suspension). If our salaries are hinged on the grades of all of our students, then we have to keep the trouble-makers in our classrooms, otherwise their grades go down.
If you are my age, or even a little younger, you knew kids who got through school spending a huge amount of time out of the classroom, dealing with the principal. And what can I say? My first inclination is to let a kid fail if he (or she) wants to. That's how I did it when I taught college kids in Korea. But NCLB has made mandatory what many teachers did naturally: it requires us to give students motivation to do well when that motivation is not being supplied elsewhere.
Sound familiar? It should. That's very likely what your parents did. It was no surprise to me that there are parents who don't teach their kids that school is important, but it did surprise me how that manifests. Example: a kid was called to the office this past week. His mother was here to pick him up. He came back before class was finished. With a haircut. It was shocking enough to make me include it as a sentence fragment right here in the Roblog. This was Ashley's class, in which I am a para, so we got to "What the hell?" about it without having to tell the story.
My guess? Mother works evenings, kid has football practice, the weekends are too inconvenient. So pull him out of math class for a haircut. What message does the kid receive? Being in class is less important than getting a haircut.
So now on to the problems with NCLB. First of all, is cutting funding really the best way to get results? Remember, we're trying to steer an awfully large ship that has been heading in one direction for a very long time. There is not much flexibility built in. It seems to me that if teachers were to use this method on their students we would spend a lot of time holding their heads under water. And that is my minor gripe.
My next gripe is one of statistics: What are the chances that each class in a school (all 7th graders, or all 9th graders for example) is exactly the same in ability as the same class from the previous year? I hate to ask a question to which I don't know the answer, but the anecdotal answer seems to be "Not likely." I'm sure that if you have a large enough student population they start to become indistinguishable, one from the other. That would not be the situation at any Jr. High School I've ever been in. Some years you have a large handful of bright students that pull the average up, and some years you have a couple of classes made up of kids who have learning disabilities and/or serious behavioral problems. However much progress you make with problem classes, they just aren't going to look as good next to the clever classes, and it isn't anybody's fault. Unless you are NCLB, in which case you judge that the teachers are responsible because they haven't worked hard enough, so you threaten to take away funding the next year. If you are the school being threatened you have no choice but to hope and pray that the next year's class will balance out your round of bad luck.
Here's the real downside to this aspect of NCLB: If your school has a reputation for working well with problem kids, and getting results from them, more of them will go to your school! Naturally! Guess what that does to your chances of having a class with a higher percentage of at-risk and low-performing kids? Never mind the simple effects of geography. We don't like to admit that there are some neighborhoods that have more money than others, and that some neighborhoods are more likely to have parents who are not as supportive as others, but it is true. Think that doesn't have an effect on test scores? Think again. NCLB paints every school with the same brush, not taking into account the different populations by geography and time.
Here's my big gripe: NCLB puts pressure on one third of the parties responsible for the education of children, the teachers.
The first neglected group is the administration. Administration at the building level are pretty much in the loop. Their jobs are on the line because NCLB targets individual buildings, not entire districts. The superintendent of schools makes seven or eight times as much as a first-year teacher (in Lawrence, anyway). Guess what penalties are leveled against him and the school board by NCLB when schools fail? None. It is up to the cities to deal with these problems, which makes it a political matter. The ones who are better at passing the blame come out clean, and keep their jobs. Their higher-paying jobs. Their jobs that directly impact education without having to deal with the messiness of being in a classroom.
This manifests in some subtle, but telling ways. Our 7th grade math book is a lovely piece of work, with units focusing on practical application. It's an incredibly real-world approach that would be fun to teach, and might give kids a sense of how math is used in a variety of careers. The problem with it is that it flies boldly into the face of NCLB. And like a bird flying boldly into the face of a brick wall, it comes out bloody and unable to fly. Here on the ground, we teachers have to make up for it by redesigning the curriculum as we go, skipping around in the book, pulling resources from elsewhere, and spending TIME that could be spent focusing on students. I am fortunate that my coworker, Edith, does spend time on it. We also have a list of topics and chapter references from a group of math teachers in another building to draw upon. Nevertheless, anything that draws a teacher's attention away from their students is a waste of time. The purpose of administration is to minimize wastes of time. My understanding is that the administration for Lawrence Public Schools is better than many at this, but my point is that they are not held accountable by NCLB. Not here, nor anywhere else in the United States.
Teachers are the first in line to help students climb the ladder of success. (Sorry. If I think of something less cliche I'll throw it in later.) Administration need to be in there doing their part. The third column supporting our students is, of course, parents. Most students are in my classroom for about 50 minutes per day, five days a week, only when school is on (and they are not out getting a haircut). And this for one school year only. Compare to how much time they spend, and have spent, with their parents.
Unfortunately for some of our students, they spend more time with me than with either parent. I accept that reality. Still, most of our students spend time with their parents, and their parents pass on their attitudes about education, studying, and working. So why does NCLB ignore this reality?
I could go on and on about how most of President Bush's policies ignore reality, even to the extent of publicly claiming that they create their own reality, but my focus here is on NCLB and how to fix it.
What is the one surefire, guaranteed way to make parents take an interest in the education of their children? Before you go on to the next paragraph, try actually thinking of an answer, and let's see if we can agree on this. Go ahead. Think. What gets everyone's attention?
Yeah. I was thinking "money" too. Remember those tests that students have to take, and upon which school funding is based? What motivation do students have to do well on that test? They can be grouped like this:
The "good" students: Will always do their best on a test, even if it is not attached to the grade they get in class.
The "pleaser" students: Will do well on this test if their teacher asks it like a personal favor.
The "screw-you" students: Don't care. About their grade, what their teacher wants, what anyone wants. In fact, if the "screw-you" student discovers that scoring poorly on this test will have a real, negative impact on the school, they may intentionally score poorly. Hey! Power trip!
So how do I as a teacher motivate an s.y. student? I have to earn their trust. I have to catch them up on skills that they may have skipped over in previous years, because an s.y. student is not created in one year. I have to make them believe that they can do well. That's all. If you are imagining me sitting down and having a one-on-one with a scruffy kid, making a connection that is the beginning of trust, thank you for your faith; but don't forget to imagine the other 15 kids in the classroom going nuts, talking about boys, ignoring the assignment they've been given, and doing their best to listen in on my conversation, making the scruffy kid feel uncomfortably un-cool. So much for making a connection.
Right now the government gives people a tax credit for having dependents. All you have to do is have children. What if the amount of that tax credit were performance dependant? Imagine this: After test time, the parents get a notification of their child's test score, and with it a check. The amount the check is for depends on their child's score. Cap it at, say, $500, maybe an even grand, perhaps making that a sliding amount dependent on family income. After all, the kids from rich families will probably get this check passed on to them completely, while the poor families will need that money to pay bills. Let the percentage of that $500 be equal to the score the kid made on the test, adjusted for officially documented learning disabilities.
Do you think it would change parents' attitude towards their children's education? The beauty of it is that you could pull it right out of that tax credit for any children of school age. It would require some serious public education, but if this is a priority then it needs to be addressed.
So there's my first two full weeks of school. I know. Not much about the classes. I'm just now starting to feel like I know my students well enough to write about them. They'll be up here soon, as anonymous as ever. I'll have to keep track of the names I make up for them so I don't get confused. That will be the least of my organizational issues, I'm sure.
Horyon and Maxine head for Korea on Thursday. I will miss them, but it will be nice to sleep without interuption, come home and not have to feed, shower and put Maxine to bed. These are duties that Horyon and I usually share, but the morning sickness has severely limited what Horyon can do. She barely gets through a shower by herself without spitting up, and Maxine makes it more difficult. I have been putting Maxine in bed, praying with her, then leaving the room for the last couple of nights. I poke my head back in if she is hollering something, but mostly let her cry. I'm finding that she actually gets to sleep faster that way than when I lie down on the floor by her bed. Of course, when she gets back from Korea I'll have to go through it all again, but I'm already planning to speed up the program. Hopefully it will register with Maxine that staying at Grandpa and Grandma's house is just different, and there's no point in crying about it.
They're staying for a month. In September I plan to focus on my teaching and on the class that I will be taking. Nothing else. The first month will undoubtedly be the hardest, and by the time my girls come home, I will have a routine that works. I will adjust it to make time for them every day. It will be tough, because I can no longer work at night. Waking up at 6 a.m. for me requires going to bed by 10 p.m. on a fairly regular basis. Planning for my classes is going faster than it used to, but it still takes time. By October it should be even smoother.
Can you hear the panic in my voice yet? Wish me luck.