Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Why Teachers Should Support the Opt Out Movement

When a student “opts out” of a standardized test, the student actually participates in it.  He’s not breaking the law, he’s following the statute that mandates participation in the statewide assessment program.  She’s not skipping it, she’s simply refusing to offer data.  It’s an act of civil disobedience that makes a statement saying education policy is broken.  What we are doing to students, teachers, and schools is wrong.  I am more than a test score.

The Opt Out movement is causing a bit of a ruckus, and I love it.  I believe all teachers should love it.  I have made previous claims of a teacher’s authority to assess student knowledge (here, here, here, and here), and I believe it is our professional duty to refine and redefine how we do it.  Current education policies strip away our authority to assess student knowledge and we have yielded that authority without issue.  We need to have an issue.  A serious issue.  The Opt Out movement helps.

When a student “opts out” of standardized assessment, the student is giving the teacher the assessment authority.  The student is saying “you don’t need this test to see what I know”, “my teacher knows what I know”, “my class performance will tell you what I know”, and “you should trust my teacher, because I do.”

Those who disagree with the movement say the most insulting things about us, and we need to begin to see it this way.  A member of our district’s school board was quoted in a local newspiece saying "As a parent you want to know your child is learning while they are in school."  We hear the same question over and over:  “How will we know how our child is doing?”  “How will we know how our child compares?”  As teachers, we should feel highly insulted by these questions.  This is a slap to our face and we don’t even know it.  This is our job!  This is our profession!  This is our livelihood.  We are the ones who can tell you how your child is doing.  We are the ones who can tell you how your child “compares” (not sure why that is important anyway, see the above video clip).  We are the ones who can tell you what your child knows, what your child struggles with, what your child needs, and where your child excels.  Our job is to know these things about students.  If my colleagues need standardized tests and data to tell them these things, they are not good at their job.  If one of my colleagues is relying mostly on data spreadsheets and numbers to tell him about his students, he is not suited to be in the classroom and he should find a new job.  He’s making me look bad.  I take pride in my work, and so should my colleagues.

I understand why a teacher would not support the Opt Out movement.  Some of my colleagues simply do what they are told.  Some of my colleagues are non-confrontational.  Some of my colleagues are used to the way things are.  Some of my colleagues are concerned about employment contracts and pay.  We have a test-based accountability system.  We have VAM scores that impact our evaluation.  We spend almost every “Professional Development” workshop on high stakes testing administration and management.  Most of our faculty meetings concern tests, test data, or testing schedules.  Our professional environment is centered on test scores.  Some of us even judge ourselves based on our student test scores (I used to...USED TO).  I understand why a teacher would have difficulty detaching herself from this environment to focus on our professional authority.  I understand why a teacher would view his students the way the school views them: by a score.  I do not fault my colleagues (as long as they are professionals). 

I do, however, implore them to take a step back.  I want my colleagues to ask themselves if this is currently the profession they dreamed of, or if the trajectory of the profession is in line with their aspirations of being a teacher.  Are we doing right by students?  Are the education policies we are forced to implement the best for our students’ futures?  I ask my colleagues if they are pleased with high stakes testing and test-based accountability.  I ask my colleagues if they would like to see a change.  I ask my colleagues if they have courage.  I ask my colleagues if they are willing to do what is right for the future.  I ask my colleagues if they are willing to fight for a worthy cause: to return education to a process of learning and discovery. 

I tell my colleagues:  we have an opportunity to change the policies.  We have an opportunity to restore authority to our profession.  We must support and encourage students and families to participate in the Opt Out movement.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Advice To New (and old) Teachers

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Recently, I was visited by a former student who is graduating from UCF with a degree in Elementary Education.  I’m extremely proud of her and I’m excited for her future.  I wanted to give her some advice for the career, and I’m not one of those “Don’t Do It” people.  I sincerely believe we need more people to choose teaching as their primary career.  But they need to know something before making that decision, and this is what I told my student:

You. Don’t. Matter.

As long as you understand that you do not matter to your employer, you have a chance at making it.  Upward mobility, effective mentorship, relevant training to perfect your craft, and investment in your long-term service as a teacher simply do not exist.  You are entering an industry that does not care about you, an industry that continues to de-value you, an industry that blames you for what is labeled as its failure. 

The interview process may not feel this way.  You may be questioned by smiling faces with great personalities that seem to show a dedication to students, but understand that the administrators making your hiring decision will not be at your school very long.  The principal that hired me over the summer was at a different school to start the year.  The administrative team that hired me was completely turned over by my 3rd year: the principal, four assistant principals, and three administrative deans.   In my 9 years at the same school I have never seen the same team for three years.  Every freshman that started at my school has graduated with a completely different administration.  This will be true for every freshman.  The decision-makers at the school that hires you, as nice as they may be and excited as they are to have you, simply will not be there long. 

Once you are hired, you will notice you are required or expected to perform many tasks that generate reports.  You will go through training that is called “Professional Development” but it will have nothing to do with developing your profession.  You will learn software, data entry, report generating, and effective ways to reduce yourself and your students to the most convenient data points possible.  You will be trained to produce data.  You will be trained to turn yourself into data.  This is all the school needs of you.

The district that hires you only needs a warm body in the classroom with the students.  As long as the district can show that you have credentials, have attended certain training, and completed certain certificates, that’s all that matters.  The school can then show the parents that the students are in “good hands”. If you leave, you can be conveniently replaced by worksheets until another warm body completes the checkbox process.  You are a replaceable part.  This is how you are viewed because you don’t matter.  We have a teacher shortage, we have a recruitment and retention problem, but there’s no alarm, there is no panic. 

To the school, district, and state you are a very significant financial liability.  You take up much needed budget space that can be better used (in their eyes) for technology, facilities, or other resources.  To them, you are a facilitator.  You are not the instructional resource your training led you to believe.  You don’t need deep content knowledge, your curriculum could be written for you.  You don’t need to map your delivery timeline, that is provided for you (even though you have to re-write it yourself in a template and call it “Lesson Plans”).  You don’t need to know how to assess students, there are tests written to give you that information.  You. Don’t.  Matter.

To the United States, you are the reason hungry and tired students don’t perform well on tests.  You are the reason the U.S. consistently ranks in the mid to high 20’s on international education rankings.  You are the biggest problem in education.    To the country, you are whiny and needy and lazy.   You should never complain about being a teacher because you get “summers off”. 

So then, why teach?  I know I don’t matter to my school, my district, my state, or my country.  I understand that completely.  I teach because I want to matter to my students.  If I can matter to my students, I will be able to live a fulfilling life.  I want to matter to the students that hate school.  I want to matter to the students that don’t think they can do anything.  I want to matter to the students who are hungry to make an impact on the world, or those who are just hungry.  I want to matter to the students who aren’t “good at math”.  I want to show them a glimpse of their infinite possibilities and perhaps inspire a few to continue their search for their own potential after I meet them.

It would be great to feel like I matter to my employer, but it’s no comparison to knowing that I matter to my students.  So my advice for new teachers (and old): understand how you are viewed, embrace the fact you don’t matter, and try every day to matter to students.  You may stick around a bit longer.