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Posted at 1:52 PM ET, 12/ 5/2010

When teachers are their own worst enemies

By Valerie Strauss

First is a post by Mark Pennington, an educational author of teaching resources to differentiate instruction in the fields of reading and English-language arts: "Teaching Grammar and Mechanics," "Teaching Essay Strategies," "Teaching Reading Strategies," and "Teaching Spelling and Vocabulary." Here he writes about how teachers unwittingly helped create the accountability movement that is now choking them. This appeared on his Pennington Publishing Blog.

Then follows a response by Maja Wilson, who taught high school English, adult basic education, ESL, and alternative middle and high school in Michigan’s public schools for 10 years and is currently a teacher educator at the University of Maine. She wrote on this blog recently about teachers, and responds to Pennington in the context of that post, called "First blame the teachers, then the parents."


By Mark Pennington
A recent discussion on my favorite site, the English Companion Ning, made me take a critical look at just what has engendered the recent demands for increased accountability in our public schools. Both Democrats and Republicans are playing the blame game and teachers are the easiest targets. As a public school teacher, my initial response has been defensive; however, upon a bit of reflection I’m thinking that teachers may well largely be to blame–not for the “sorry state of public education” as our critics claim, but for the very accountability movement that is being used to attack us. We teachers are often our own worst enemies.

A bit of history helps put things in perspective. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s teachers felt that our norm-referenced testing, such as the ITBS, SAT, CTBS, MAT, provided data that did not measure what we are teaching. We used sophisticated psychometric criticisms such as sampling and measurement error and socio-political criticisms such as bias to largely rid ourselves from the nuisances of these exams. We teachers went wild. Authentic assessments, multiple-measure assessments, and no assessments ruled the educational landscape. I once taught a sophomore world history class for an entire year without giving any traditional tests.

However, with teacher-created assessments, testing manufacturers lost money ... so, the test manufacturers changed tactics. They asked for and gave teachers what teachers said they wanted–tests that purport to test what we teach. In other words, criterion-referenced standards tests. And the standards-based movement was born.

Teachers were even asked develop their own subject area standards. A seemingly bottom-up initiative. How inclusive! Each state department of education, county office of education, and most school districts funded the creation of these subject area content standards documents. I joined other colleagues in spending countless hours developing the English-language Arts Standards for my own school district.

Now the test-makers were happy. They had the basis of a new revenue stream. And, now because the tests ostensibly test what teachers teach, administrators, politicians, and even billionaire do-gooders can hold us accountable and measure teacher/school/district/state performance. The zenith? Our Common Core National Standards.

Teachers helped create this mess. We enabled the accountability movement that is choking teacher creativity, teacher autonomy, and teacher initiative. And our students are the ones who are paying the greatest price. In replacing normed-reference testing with criterion-reference testing, we replaced something bad with something worse. “Meet the new boss.” Not the same as the old boss. Apologies to Pete Townshend.

And now the standards-based movement is so endemic that any challenges to teaching to the test or resisting accountability standards are viewed with wonderment by many in our profession. The standards-based movement with its frame of accountability is fully entrenched. Newer teachers have known nothing else.

A personal example will bring this home. I teach middle school ELA [English language arts] with a bright group of twenty-something colleagues. I am constantly perceived as being the ornery one because I challenge their logical applications of the standards-based accountability status quo.

For example, just recently I’ve questioned their proposals to change our allocation of instructional minutes to reflect the percentage of questions on the California Standards Test.

Why shouldn’t we teach structural analysis for six-percent of our instructional minutes, if six-percent of the test consists of structural analysis test questions? they ask. I’ve already lost the battle to save our intervention classes for reading and writing instruction. Now, they are standards-based classes with curriculum designed to remediate instruction in such critical elements as “author’s purpose.” Instruction is limited to the “power standards” found on the California Department of Education website.

I did throw a fit last week when one of my colleagues complained that it took her most of an hour to teach the eighth grade ELA theme standard to an English language newcomer who spoke, maybe 100 words of English.

Sigh.

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Response from Maja Wilson, author of Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment (Heinemann, 2006) and the recent article, “First blame the teachers then the parents” on The Answer Sheet.

Mark,

This is why I argue that trying to get and maintain a “seat at the table” is ultimately counterproductive. The meal served at the table of power is unhealthy, the conversation is stilted (actually, there isn’t much conversation–lots of orders given and followed) and those who partake leave with indigestion. That’s what happened when teachers created standards–following orders at the table–that were then used against them as the basis first for high-stakes standardized tests, and then as a springboard for national standards created by a corporation created by governors and business interests (Achieve Inc).

Instead, we should create, set, and decorate another table, then serve a tasty and healthy meal there. We could invite as many people to join as possible, and then enjoy a rich conversation and lots of laughter together as we dine.

Michael (another poster to Maya’s initial post) may be right that the problem is that we can’t agree on what to serve at that table. But hey, even a potluck would be tastier, healthier, and more socially edifying than the cardboard and nails currently on the Department of Education’s menu.

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By Valerie Strauss  | December 5, 2010; 1:52 PM ET
Categories:  Accountability, Guest Bloggers, Teachers  | Tags:  accountability movement, california standards test, common core standards, common standards, criterion-based tests, public schools, school reform, standardized test, standards movement, teachers  
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Comments

The business of schools and the art of teaching are miles apart.

Posted by: ananna | December 5, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Let's abolish the department of education.

Posted by: jlp19 | December 5, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

Mark and Maja, everything you say about the old tests and the new tests is true. But we won't be going backwards, either to the old tests or to no tests. There is no way to avoid some level of accountability. The problem is that public education has not in the past had the ability to create its own standards nor to hold its practitioners accountable for outcomes at any level. IF teacher organizations and academic institutions that train teachers could get together to create such a system, then we'd be getting somewhere.

Posted by: jane100000 | December 5, 2010 5:57 PM | Report abuse

Only in public education could someone assert that defining the outcomes of accountability is a bad thing and get printed in a major newspaper as a credible argument. The United States' method for educating students in the 50s, 60,s and 70s is antiquated. We could at that time afford to teach anything we wanted because those who failed to go to college could take up jobs in manufacturing. In the age of technology, we can no longer pretend that students who can't read can still succeed.

The world has changed and countries such as China and Finland are changing with it and tailoring their education system to it. This is why they are out-educating us and eventually will outperform us in the economy.

Teachers who lack the talent of motivating and engaging their students to perform always make the argument that standards and assessments take away from the uniqueness of teaching. This is a weak argument intended to dissuade people from recognizing 2 irrefutable truths:
1. There are far too many incompetent teachers in the business who can't do the job and produce student learning results that must be moved out.
2. We must eliminate teacher unions and bureaucratic processes that prevent schools and administrators from making the necessary, innovative changes to recruiting and hiring, professional development and accountability in order to bring our education system in line with the rest of the world.

Change is hard. But, it's time to accept it. The US continues to fall behind.

Posted by: teacher6402 | December 5, 2010 8:10 PM | Report abuse

teacher6402,

Yes, China and Finland are out-educating us.

Now let's take a real look at what we are in the process of doing and they are not: They do not think new teachers out-perform older, more experienced teachers. They do not think teachers are reductive, metonymic models of what their students have learned. They do not test all their students in every grade and use that data to make teachers accountable (in fact, in both countries this process is seen as insulting in so many ways). They do not have mostly heterogeneous classrooms. They do not dictate what each teacher needs to do every minute of the day.

I agree that we should try to keep up with Finland, and to some degree China. However, the road that YOU and your ignorant kind are going down, is a level of hell where all hope is abandoned and where teachers and children wade in a sea of policational filth and psuedo-accountability.

Did you notice that I just refuted #2 of your irrefutable truths? Wasn't very hard for someone who reads a little. I suggest that you keep up with what they are actually doing and what we are actually doing. If you do, then you can offer some "true," substantial irrefutable truths.

By the way, you kinda figured out that this is a blog, huh? Took you some time, but you are mastering the material. I feel a little proud for helping you figure it out.

Posted by: DHume1 | December 5, 2010 9:38 PM | Report abuse

DHume1

You're an idiot. You have no idea what Finland or China are doing and I have no interest in educating you. You are most likely a teacher who has been fired due to IMPACT.

However, just to give you one fact: The US chooses from the bottom 1/3 of graduates from college to teach. Finland chooses from the top 1/3. They don't need to worry about aligned assessments because they aren't hiring idiots like you who hide behind unions to protect them from their own incompetence.

Posted by: teacher6402 | December 5, 2010 9:52 PM | Report abuse

@ DHUME1 and others who are aligned with his/her thinking:

Perhaps, you haven't noticed: The District of Columbia was the worst performing school district in the nation before Rhee and IMPACT and though it was showing signs of improvement before Rhee (no doubt that efavorite will copy and paste her NAEP results in response) there was nowhere for them to go over the last 2 decades when DHUME1 and his friends were teaching whatever they wanted with no accountability and a job for life while back at the ranch DC kids were spiraling into complete horror.

The days of a job teaching for life regardless of results are at an end. Even the democratic President has left your camp. You're way of thinking is on the way out- over, done! Get some training in something else- maybe writing blogs is what you should do...you're very good at citing nothing of significance and defending it to the hill!

Posted by: teacher6402 | December 5, 2010 9:58 PM | Report abuse

teacher 6402 wrote: However, just to give you one fact: The US chooses from the bottom 1/3 of graduates from college to teach. Finland chooses from the top 1/3.
__________________________________
It hasn't always been this way. years ago teaching was one of the few professional jobs available to women and many top graduates chose to teach. Now women have more choices. Why would someone choose to teach --particularly given the level of disrespect afforded teachers today--when they could work in another profession where they are treated like a professional and given some autonomy to perform their duties without micromanagement? When I started teaching years ago, there was a teacher glut. Local school districts were able to pick the best of the best because there were a lot of applicants for each position. Now, some positions go unfilled and in some areas teachers are imported from other countries to fill some of these spots (PG County and Baltimore City have imported teachers from the Philipines.) Perhaps if teaching were viewed as a true profession and teachers were treated as true professionals, things would be different. The US hasn't "chosen" to hire people from the bottom 1/3 of their class, it's just turned out that way due to working conditions that aren't attractive to those who have other choices.

Posted by: musiclady | December 5, 2010 11:25 PM | Report abuse

teacher6402,

Hope you feel better. You unloaded a lot. I will admit I deliberately left out some information. I agree with your "picking from the bottom 1/3 point." That's why I didn't mention it, though. But I do not necessarily think that is so wrong "all" the time. You can certainly be a good teacher and not be an Einstein or Newton. By the way, were they good teachers? Look it up.

However, the rest of my points are quite valid. I suggest that YOU look them up or speak to someone from those areas.

But somehow I doubt you will. My bet is that you will continue to live in the warm and comforting vacuum of your feeblemindedness. Ah, the comforts of being ignorant and creating absolutist positions.

I look forward to you countering any of MY STATED CLAIMS about Finland or China. Maybe this will provoke you into really learning about their educational system and not just picking and choosing what happens to fit into the absolutist hole that you are looking to fill. You might find one with China. But let's see.

By the way, I'm not much of a citing machine. You can look to others for that. I'm your friendly neighborhood critic who likes to see through the fecal matter. And trust me, there's a bonanza of feculent material surrounding your arguments.

Posted by: DHume1 | December 5, 2010 11:58 PM | Report abuse

In Finland 95% teachers from preK through the university are unionized and attain tenure. http://www.oaj.fi/portal/page?_pageid=515,452376&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL

Not only is Finland tiny and homogeneous, it is a social democracy which has high taxes and has had cradle to grave health-care, extensive social services and free college education for generations. Comparing the US to Finland is fine as long as you don't cherry pick what you compare. In many ways it's apples to oranges... those Finish oranges seem pretty good, but they aren't a reality that is very feasible here in the US.

China still has massive inequality and many young people get little or no education in rural areas. On the macroeconomic level, China also provides free health-care and social services and getting a decent education could actually lead to getting a decent job there. China today is the US of the 50s... there is opportunity there. The same can't be said for the US. Well paying jobs with benefits are scarce here... since so many of them are being shipped to China, Mexico, India and the Philippines.

Tenure and unions are not the problem in and of themselves. Middle class (mostly white) kids in the US get a fine education for the most part. It's kids where I teach who live with generational economic insecurity that struggle the most. I have some great teachers at my school who would be getting kids into the Ivy League if they were working in the suburbs. How much progress would you make toward a standard if you had to move 4 times during the school year... if your only meal was the lunch you get at school... if your mom was in the penitentiary or your dad was off his psych med? We have kids who miss 20 days of school because of untreated asthma... they end up in the ER for hours when some basic GP care would get their disease under control. Teachers in middle class schools don't have a high percentage of students dealing with problems like that... neither do teachers in Finland.

Problems with education in the US are far bigger than unions or charters or tenure. They are bigger than schools themselves. As a person who works on the front line of this issue I'm sick of the distorted magical thinking that "Superman" is spreading.

Posted by: mrcantor | December 6, 2010 12:00 AM | Report abuse

I find it amazing how much teachers complain about tests. Well, they sure complain a lot about tests written by others. They want freedom to decide what to teach and what not to teach. I don't think that's their decision to make.

I, for one, was so glad to have tests. What bugged me most about the tests was that they were seldom used, seldom given ahead of time to prevent my time from being wasted being lectured at by teachers telling me what I already knew, or could figure out on my own much more quickly. I was clearly well above my grade level in school in all subjects, but just sat there with other kids bored out of my skull for years on end. I finally got into a math program where I could take pretests to skip topics and started progressing at 3 years per year, until I got to the next school and was forced to repeat stuff I'd done two years prior.

I was the victim of constant subjective grading throughout my schooling. I would frequently get the highest grade on the test, but not do well in the class. My AP Chemistry teacher in high school told me I shouldn't even bother taking the exam because I was never paying attention to her. She banned me from having the textbook in class as I would rather work through problems than listen to her awful lectures. I got a 5 on the exam and she ended up giving me a B in the course, despite getting a D and F in subsequent quarters. Maybe this applies?
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/28/weekinreview/28tyre.html

Look, one real problem is people blaming teachers for the poor quality of students we have. Students who don't value education are not going to put in the effort required. I don't blame the teachers for that at all. Surely, I had some very, very bad teachers and about three really great ones. I didn't want to play the games of the myriad arts and crafts projects that were required in every subject, even math, yet that seemed to be so many teachers' idea of fun.

However, the bigger problem is that we don't use testing effectively. If you pre-test your classes at the beginning of the year, you know what each of them knows and doesn't know. Standing up in front of a roomful of kids that have a three or four grade range level of abilities and trying to teach them all the same thing is completely foolish. Letting kids move on to the next math topic without mastering the previous one is foolish. I'd prefer a school with nothing but A grades. You don't move forward on a topic until you can pass the test at 90% or above. At the end of the year, you don't get a grade, you get a report of what you know and of what you know how to do.

Perhaps this is silly, but teachers shouldn't fear tests. They should start using to them to shape individualized learning programs for kids. It's been done this way in some schools for 100 years. Sadly, I only got to go to one for a couple of years.

Teachers, stop standing up in front of the class and pretending all kids are the same. Give kids their own work.

Posted by: staticvars | December 6, 2010 12:50 AM | Report abuse


Just found that "123 Get Samples" is promoting a wide variety of major brands by providing free samples. You’ll have to fill in your zip code to see if you can qualify to receive them. You can get all samples from one place. I think it is available for most of the zip codes and it worked for me.

Posted by: lisasiller | December 6, 2010 4:39 AM | Report abuse

Two things worth noting about Finland. The income disparity is much less severe there. Lawyers and CEOs make more than teachers, but not THAT much more. If we want better teachers, we are going to have to figure out how to make it an attractive option for top college grads since talented women now have options other than secretary, nurse, librarian, or teacher.

Second,top college grads, regardless of salary, do not want to go into a profession where they have no discretion and cannot use their creative talents. In Finland, great candidates are hired (it's hard to get into a teaching program) they are given excellent education and training (at government expense) and then allowed to act as entrepreneurs in the classroom. They are not told what to do every minute of every day. They are treated as true professionals.

I'm not sure the latter approach will work here as long as we continue to recruit from the bottom third of graduates. But for our kids sake, for our country's sake, we need to find a way to get there.

Posted by: trace1 | December 6, 2010 7:02 AM | Report abuse

Adding to mrcantor's post:

Almost 25% of children in the United States are impoverished.

In Finland, the number is around 4%.

And the gap continues to grow, as the far right in this country uses propaganda to convince the middle and lower classes to support government policies that protect the extreme wealth of 2% of the population.

Posted by: trace1 | December 6, 2010 7:08 AM | Report abuse

It won't matter if a teacher was first in his or her class, as long as their education stresses theory over academic subjects. A few years ago, I think, a study revealed that one third of the high school teachers in Ohio were teaching out of their subject field and many had never even taken a college course in the subject they were supposed to teach.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | December 6, 2010 8:44 AM | Report abuse

No, Dhume1, re t6402, you aren't "seeing through the fecal matter," but rather propagating and ingesting it. Agree w t6402 that you are probably a failed teacher, but still hard at work at your craft, naturally.

Posted by: axolotl | December 6, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Sarah, Unfortunately Someone's Local Pet Amphibian,

Yes, I am a failed teacher. Anyone who has failed to teach anything to anyone is a failed teacher. And I have failed with teacher6402. I just like to antagonise you, though. I did so love the "Do you agree with the status quo?" satire that I posted for your benefit.

And I kinda have to propagate and ingest offal when I wade and trudge through you and teacher6402 posts. It unfortunately makes me smell and sticks to my feet.

Posted by: DHume1 | December 6, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Trace1 is right about income disparity.

If you get rid of all of these sub-standard teachers, who is going to teach all these already crowded classes?

You cannot hold teachers accountable for much until you are actually able to replace them with something better, and that means making the teaching profession more respectable, including paying teachers more.

And guess what? If you paid teachers more you would probably find that you didn't need any standards testing at all. Competition and a competent principal would be all that's needed to produce well educated kids.

Posted by: 1teacher1 | December 6, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

There are sufficient mechanisms already in place for management to get rid of bad teachers. The management side of the equation is often quite lacking in discussions around education improvement. The union contracts are also a management / worker transaction and so there's plenty of room for management to get something done there as well. I'm currently thinking that the 3 M's could be a start to getting back to the 3 R's. Math - Music - Management. These are things we could focus on and get something done which the reorg of the reorg of the reorg and standardized tests are not getting done.

Posted by: KateMartin | December 6, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

DHume1--so you're the first unpaid volunteer over 45 at Rhee's new org?

Posted by: axolotl | December 6, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Sarah,

No, I'll stick with reading abstracts and filing the new stuff that comes in. But you're welcome to join Rhee in her business bathtub. I'm sure Rhee is looking for another slimy partner to to cozy up with and sing the corporate hosannahs to. You guys actually have a lot in common and personally, I think you would be perfect for the job. Think about it.

Posted by: DHume1 | December 6, 2010 2:06 PM | Report abuse

Just found that "123 Get Samples" is promoting a wide variety of major brands by providing free samples. You’ll have to fill in your zip code to see if you can qualify to receive them. You can get all samples from one place. I think it is available for most of the zip codes and it worked for me.

Posted by: dorisguy | December 7, 2010 5:48 AM | Report abuse

The sad thing is that coming up with different ways of testing pupils has had no impact on improving their educational attainment. It has put teachers under more pressure without doing any good. This has been the same in all Anglo-phone countries.

The reason why efforts to improve educational attainment in English-speaking countries keep doing little good or making no difference whatsoever is because they all ignore the main cause of their educational underachievement: the inconsistencies of English spelling which make learning to read and write much harder than in most languages, perhaps harder than in all others.

While in Finland, for example, learning to read takes just a few weeks and learning to write competently is managed by most children in a couple of years, even just learning to read English generally takes several years. Learning to write English is excrutiatingly slow and difficult, with 1 in 2 students failing to become proficient writers in their 10 or more years of schooling.

This won't change change until learning to read and write English is made easier - until there is a reduction in the numbers of different spellings for identical sounds, such as ‘sleeve – leave, believe, eve; too – to, you, true, shoe, flew, through’, and identical spellings for different sounds (and – any, April; on – only, once, other).

English spelling is simply not suited to 21st century literacy and educational needs.

Posted by: mashabell | December 7, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

The sad thing is that coming up with different ways of testing pupils has had no impact on improving their educational attainment. It has put teachers under more pressure without doing any good. This has been the same in all Anglo-phone countries.

The reason why efforts to improve educational attainment in English-speaking countries keep doing little good or making no difference whatsoever is because they all ignore the main cause of their educational underachievement: the inconsistencies of English spelling which make learning to read and write much harder than in most languages, perhaps harder than in all others.

While in Finland, for example, learning to read takes just a few weeks and learning to write competently is managed by most children in a couple of years, even just learning to read English generally takes several years and 1 in 2 students fail to become proficient writers in 10 or more years of schooling.

Nothing much can change until learning to read and write English is made easier, until there is a reduction in the numbers of different spellings for identical sounds , such as ‘sleeve – leave, believe, eve; too – to, you, true, shoe, flew, through’ and identical spellings for different sounds (and – any, April; on – only, once, other). English spelling is simply not suited to 21st century literacy and educational needs.

If u want to know more about this, google Masha Bell and look at some of the stuff I have written about this problem.

Posted by: mashabell | December 7, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

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