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Posted at 5:30 AM ET, 06/20/2010

Teacher: 'Worst year in the classroom' in decades

By Valerie Strauss

This is just one of the many desperate emails and letters from teachers that education historian Diane Ravitch receives each day as she travels the country talking about the folly of the Obama administration’s $4 billion Race to the Top and overall education vision. It was written by Gary A. Groth, a National Board Certified Teacher and Middle Childhood Generalist at Mariposa Elementary School in Port St. Lucie, Florida, who gave me permission to publish it:

From Gary Groth:
"As a classroom teacher with 30+ years experience, I just completed the absolute worst year in the classroom I have ever endured (and it was NOT the fault of my students--they were great).

"This year I was told what to teach, when to teach, how to teach, how long to teach, who to teach, who not to teach, and how often to test. My students were assessed with easily more than 120 tests of one shape or another within the first 6 months of the school year.

"My ability to make decisions about what is best for my students was taken away by an overzealous attempt to impose 'consistency' within my grade group. My school hired an outside consultant who threatened us with our jobs, demanded that everyone comply, and required us to submit data on test results on a weekly basis. If your class didn’t do well, you were certainly going to be in trouble.

"In addition, my class was visited at least twice a month by the consultant, two superintendents, principal, assistant principal, reading coach, math coach, and sometimes even more people. If I was not teaching exactly what they wanted to see, I was in trouble.

"My ability to have any academic freedom was completely taken away and my students were denied the best education I could provide for them. Please understand, my credentials are impeccable. I am board certified, have a masters degree in educational leadership, have been documented with the highest scores on my team, and absolutely love what I do. I want to be a teacher, but just can not continue within this toxic educational environment.

"This year I have tried to speak out against these many disgusting practices of testing, teaching to the test, or as you called it 'institutionalized cheating.' I have felt like a voice in the wilderness. The response has been, 'Get used to it. It is what is coming down the pike.'

"We are in desperate need of voices like yours to bring sanity back to education. Please, please, please continue to speak out about this debacle and help us restore the focus of education back to the child and NOT the test score. I will enthusiastically share your article with fellow educators in an effort to save the future of public school education. I just wish I could do more.

"If you have any other positive suggestions as to what I can do to help, please let me know. Thank you for speaking out. Let’s hope it is not too late."

Respectfully submitted,
Gary A. Groth
National Board Certified Teacher, Middle Childhood Generalist
Mariposa Elementary School
Port St. Lucie, FL

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | June 20, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Race to the Top, Teachers  | Tags:  board certified teacher, diane ravitch, race to the top, teachers  
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Comments

The irony in all this is that districts want "highly qualified" teachers, then they take away any autonomy that teacher may have. Why bother with qualified teachers if they won't be allowed to use their expertise? It is indeed discouraging--particularly when you are asked to teach material that is developmentally inappropriate using methods that have been proven to be unsuccessful. It's almost as if teachers are intentionally being set up for failure. Could this ultimately be the goal? Make public schools fail so that they can be privatized? Is this really a case of the free market gone too far?

Posted by: musiclady | June 18, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Groth:

My sympathies are with you. I experienced some of the situations you have described during my last two years of teaching. I totally agree that the worst part was the interference with my teaching. Because of all the disruptions, I could no longer be the best teacher I was capable of being. I am so grateful that I taught mostly during a time when teachers were empowered to do the best job possible.

I believe that the present situation is actually about the recession. Money is very tight and school districts realize they could save millions by forcing out older teachers. Of course it is illegal to say "Let's just get rid of our older teachers" so districts have settled instead on the fiction of the "effective" (younger) versus the "ineffective" (older)teacher.

Actually you have courageously done the best thing possible: you have made your situation public. Let as many people as possible, especially parents, know what is going on.

How long will this insanity last? I believe it is entirely tied to the economy. If the recession continues, teachers will continue to suffer along with other workers. However, when it lifts, the baby boomers will be retired and there will be few people to take their places. At that time talented people will have their choice of districts and places like DC will go begging once again. I hope I live to see it.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | June 18, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

My situation was similar to this teacher's situation. The idea of "consistency" meant that everyone had to the same thing and it seemed to mean that we all did less. The other teachers didn't want to give out homework packets (more work for them) so I couldn't do that either.

I also felt it was toxic. I'm sorry this happened to this teacher, but am glad I'm not the only one. It wasn't until I read Diane Ravitch's piece here that I understood the big picture of what is going on. I agree with Linda that the recession has a lot to do with this. I do believe that districts have settled on the fiction of older teachers being less effective to save money.

The sad thing is, teachers are being encouraged to do the minimum and are being discouraged from doing anything really "engaging". If it isn't on the test it simply doesn't count.

This teacher mentions filling out data sheets each week on tests given to his students weekly. Someone not in the classroom might not understand that this is extremely time consuming and the time spent on this "making it look good on paper" paperwork comes out of already limited time for planning.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 18, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

I don't think what the author describes is about older teachers. This started with NCLB. It was a misguided attempt at accountability on the part of school districts. They couldn't be held accountable for a lot of individuals doing their own thing in the classroom so they invested in scripted curricula that was to be taught across the district according to a specific time frame. This was to make sure everyone was comparable. However, this certainly cannot be used to judge teacher performance when the teacher has no input into what, when and how they will teach.

I agree with celestun100 that this does amount to a lowering of standards for teachers. Those teachers we have always observed as being excellent tend to do things that cannot be quantified in a scripted curriculum.

Posted by: musiclady | June 18, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Diane Ravitch twittered yesterday that teacher's cries are wholeheartedly ignored by Duncan and the DOE - as well as Washington as a whole. They censor their blogs and comment spaces - and delete email that speaks out against their policies. They claim all teachers are on board with these draconian practices described by this post.
Duncan has been lying to the President, to Congress, and to the media - who are also deaf to the outcry of teachers. They assume we wish for this testing, merit pay, and the charter privatization movement. The sanity will only end when 3.5 million teachers in this country walk out of their classrooms and let the politicians deal with it.

Posted by: Care1 | June 18, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

If we can't persuade Duncan to listen to these horror stories, we need to consider civil disobedience. Perhaps we should have monkey-wrenched NCLB testing early on.

Posted by: johnt4853 | June 18, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

I am a middle school teacher in northern VA and my school is going to experience exact the same things next year Mr. Groth described.
I was born and raised in Taiwan where teaching to tests is very common. Everyone is obsessed with testing. Test scores decide what schools you go, what job you have, and whether your teachers will like you. In other words, students are very motivated to get good scores. Parents are motivated to help their children.
In my school (and many other schools across the United States), many of the kids who have far below grade-level skills and have parents who never finished high school. Their parents might not speak English at all. Then, teachers are expected make all students score high on standardized tests and being punished if students don't no matter how hard teachers have tried. It's totally crazy! Only Americans do this.
American education once was the role-model for many countries in the world. Soon it will become a joke.

Posted by: salukiindc | June 18, 2010 5:06 PM | Report abuse

"I do believe that districts have settled on the fiction of older teachers being less effective to save money."
_____________
I think Celestun100 hits a bullseye with this statement......unfortunately, I don't believe that it's all about the economy. Getting rid of older teachers also insures that institutional memories are gradually erased, particularly as younger and younger teachers have less and less acquaintance with educational history and the liberal arts, and are encouraged to move on to other careers once they become seasoned and alert to politcal agendas.

I grew up as a child of the U.S. military in post-war Germany and became an adult during the "Cold War". The description Mr. Groth gives of his year in the classroom smacks of all the warnings I heard about the kind of control that the Nazis and Communists exercised, and the imaginings of an Orwellian future. I never thought I would see an American administration work to have this kind of
control over teachers - but - our current societal situation makes me think we may starting down this path. When one small group of people can wage so much political influence over a society's educators and not give credence to its intellectuals, it is frightening indeed.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | June 18, 2010 5:37 PM | Report abuse

I have to disagree with some of the comments posted. In Vermont (and many other states I'm sure) older teachers are the ONLY ones protected from losing their jobs because of seniority. As a new teacher in my district (just one year) I faced losing my job throughout the school year due to budget cuts... next year will be more of the same. I have nine years of teaching experience and am more qualified than others in my building who have more "time in" yet because of union rules I'm on the chopping block first.

As for Obama and Duncan, our school received stimulus money this year but there were so many rules guiding what it could be spent on that we ended up wasting it on Elmos and SmartBoards that many teachers in my building won't use. (And according to a post the other day they don't show much benefit in the classroom afterall...)

Posted by: AimeeTeach | June 18, 2010 6:23 PM | Report abuse

PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large wrote: Getting rid of older teachers also insures that institutional memories are gradually erased, particularly as younger and younger teachers have less and less acquaintance with educational history and the liberal arts, and are encouraged to move on to other careers once they become seasoned and alert to politcal agendas.
----------------
I agree with you here. My district has created a curriculum in my subject area (elementary music) that completely goes against what research shows to be effective methodology. Unfortunately teaching methods are really just touched on in undergraduate school in music. One must really study them at depth in graduate school. The younger teachers just take the curriculum guides and teach it as written. A lot of more experienced teachers, modify the lessons accordingly and don't use many of them. We aren't required to, but we are supposed to give the assessments--some of which are just inappropriate. I think part of the problem is that those of us who have experienced the various fads that come and go in education, have discovered what is most effective in our own classrooms. We tend to push back against some of the changes that are put on us--not because we want to maintain the status quo, which is what the reformers accuse us of, but rather because we have discovered what works.

Institutional memory is really an asset. It can keep a school from repeating a lot of mistakes that were made in previous years.

Posted by: musiclady | June 18, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

AimeeTeach, I agree with you that currently newly hired teachers have no job protection. But when I say they want to get rid of older teachers due to the expense, I mean that currently districts are agreeing to contracts that take away extra pay for experience. If that happens then new teachers starting now will not get a better salary as they gain experience.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 18, 2010 6:43 PM | Report abuse

So here is my question to all you senior teachers, what do you do about the teachers who just want it easy? Should they be allowed to be teach less? As a parent I want to believe that whatever teacher my child gets will be held accountable to teaching the full range of curriculum for that year. If it does not happen my child is hurt. So how to do propose that we ensure this happens what ever the level of seniority? Every time I see these stories it appears that everyone but themselves should be held accountable. It does not work this way in the real world, you are accountable, you are expected to be on similar tract as your peers. These complaints just don't hold water to a parent, who is accountable every day in her job.

Posted by: Brooklander | June 18, 2010 8:18 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Groth's sentiments were echoed by thousands of teachers this year in our school district. In fact, the facebook site, Testing is Not Teaching was born as a result of these issues back in Sep 09. This seriously flawed curriculum which was hurriedly launched, micromanaged down to the color of tape to label items, and dictated to schools without any pilot testing, without input from teachers or stakeholders in the process turned out to be one of the greatest disasters in our School District-one which all trust was broken between the Board & the community. From Aug thru Dec, the opposition grew to a fevered pitch. Nov's Board mtg had over 1200 teachers & parents in attendance. Over 120 attendees spoke against the curriculum in a Board Mtg that ended about 1:00 a.m. This has been a horrific year for our School District but in many ways unified us as a community. When SB6 hit, we were staffed and ready to insist our voices be heard. As I read Mr Groth's letter, I was reminded of a commercial years ago...
"A (teacher's) Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste."

Posted by: rsolnet | June 18, 2010 9:37 PM | Report abuse

As a follow up to my previous post and as an alert to any DOE staff reading these blogs, one of the greatest lessons learned by our Superintendent and Board Members (5 of 7 seats are up for re-election) was the fact that they waited too long to acknowledge the outcry. They kept insisting it was only a handful of 'renegades' or a few disgruntled, incompetent teachers, or a few elitist parents, etc. The longer they waited to acknowledge the issues, the more they ignored the existence of blatant problems with this over testing & curriculum, the more they insisted this will die down, the greater the fury grew. It became a combative, hostile environment--one where teachers feared retribution, one where ethics charges were filed, one where lawsuits were considered, etc.

Posted by: rsolnet | June 18, 2010 9:48 PM | Report abuse

@Brooklander:

First, there are few teachers who just "want it easy" - you can't go into teaching expecting it to be easy.

What you are really talking about is some of the following: teachers who don't have the physical stamina or temprament for today's teaching; being overwhelmed and overloaded; burnout - which is very real - a bad match between personality and teaching post, and discouragement or not feeling supported or respected......

What to do about some of the above teachers who are not effective because of some of the above?

Firstly, it is really the principal and department heads' job to track, evaluate and monitor teachers: they do the hiring and present the expectations. If a parent is unhappy with a teacher's performance, that parent needs to have a conference with one of the administrators. I did so with my own child in the past, and a lot of things got straightened out. Sometimes a little intervention can go a long way.
Sometimes a lot more is needed - a good principal cannot just sit on the sidelines, but gets in there with his/her staff.

These are some of my suggestions, I am sure
the folks here have many others:

1. Real reform would include a little more of the college model, especially at the high school level - create more part time positions so that people who love to teach but can't handle a full load can still be a part of the profession.

Part-time positions, from 2/3 spots to
1/2 time to tutoring or mentoring would be ideal for people on the verge of retiring but still want to pass on their knowledge.

2. Team-teaching is really great for certain situations, and takes the burden off of one person to come up with every lesson every day; the best of teachers can and will catch a cold or the flu,or get a
migraine just thinking about report cards.

3. Parents can bring in treats!!!! You
will be very popular with the staff. One school I worked at had a parent that loved to cook and she brought something to the staff EVERY week. We didn't want her child to graduate because we didn't want to lose her!

Parents and teachers need to be partners and not adversaries....it's very tough, because we are talking about raising human beings, and there are no easy answers.

Stay concerned; we live in very difficult and changing times. Gentleness and patience is always appreciated.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | June 18, 2010 11:15 PM | Report abuse

Brooklander-

PLMichaels makes an important point in saying that no one goes into teaching expecting to take it easy. Anyone who thinks otherwise discovers just how hard it is very quickly. That's one reason why such a large percentage of people quit within a few years.

As for accountability-we know we are accountable for what we do. But teachers' objection to the current emphasis on standardized testing is over the way high test scores have become the goal of education at the expense of good quality education. It isn't an objection to being held accountable in itself.

Good test scores do not mean that the teacher is particularly good or that the child had learned much of anything. That's what this article is about. Experienced teachers who love teaching and who want to continue are angry and frustrated because they know what an injustice NCLB is inflicting on YOUR children, not because they don't want to be held accountable or are lazy.

If they were lazy, they would find other jobs and wouldn't expend the energy required to protest this outrageous fraud.

Regarding accountability: yes everyone is held accountable for whatever job he or she does. The problem in education is that teachers are routinely held accountable for things they can't possibly control. Would you blame a doctor whose diabetic patient persists in eating candy and refusing to take insulin despite being thoroughly informed about the risks? When that patient dies is it the doctor's fault?

Posted by: aed3 | June 19, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

PL Michaels
I like your ideas and agree about the burnout and part time. I suppose it would all depend on districts being willing to pay health insurance for part timers.

I also agree with you that people who want it "easy" probably quit after the first month of teaching. It makes me laugh to think of someone who wants it easy in teaching.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 19, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

celestun100,

I don't believe school districts would be willing to pay for health insurance. I recently got a call from a school for a .7 position. I was told there would be no health insuranced.

Posted by: aby1 | June 19, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

Well, something would have to change. It doesn't seem to me that reforms are going in that direction. I'm sure there will be a few progressive states or districts that implement a policy that retains experienced teachers for the reasons mentioned in the posts above, but most will look at it as a money issue.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 19, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

As far as health insurance goes--it depends on the district. Montgomery County pays the same percentage of benefits for employees who are .5 or more.

Posted by: musiclady | June 19, 2010 7:30 PM | Report abuse

I think the commentors on my post miss an important point, too many schools have a percentage of teachers who have burned out and are overwhelmed and yet don't move to another career option, often because they are so close to retirement or lack the imagination to move to another life option. I have a coworker who described how his dad hated the high school students he worked with for the last 10 years of his career. I swear several of the teachers at my school dislike the children, especially the boys. I don't deny that these jobs are hard, but I do think that we have to ask these teachers to either move on or figure out how to change, this often can only be done in a more systemized fashion. Also given this topic, I have always wondered by why teachers only negotiated pay raises instead of 7 or 10 career breaks for sabaticals. It would seem that such a year could reward teachers and refresh them.

Posted by: Brooklander | June 20, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse

I've always said that government entities are always the last and slowest to adopt strategies that work for other endeavors/enterprises. While most successful businesses know and exploit the knowledge and skills from those closest to the problems, e.g. listening to the guys 'on the shop floor,' in public education we still employ 'top-down' decision making, which has proven to be an abysmal failure in all other endeavors.
There is a growing storm of teachers like Mr. Groth, and myself, who are closer and closer to looking these consultants and administrators in the eye and saying, 'Hell no, this is bull#$%^." From my more cynical eye, the reason some schools seek to remove more seasoned teachers isn't about cost, but influence. A seasoned, experienced, dedicated teacher typically has built a loyal 'customer base' of satisfied parents and former students who trust their judgement far more than any administrator or consultant. If these teachers wanted they could raise an army of supporters for their cause, supporters who pay taxes and vote for school board members. We are closer and closer to that time where we may have to raise that army, because Duncan, et. al. are taking us down a dumber and dumber path that we must change now.

Posted by: pdfordiii | June 20, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

@Brooklander--You raise a valid point. However, acting like one "hates" the kids isn't necessarily an "old" teacher thing. As you imply--it does have to do with being in the wrong profession. This could be attributed to burn out or to one simply choosing the wrong livelihood. I remember a couple of teachers my own children had who acted this way. Both had less than 5 years experience and ended up leaving the profession. There should be support for those who are nearing retirement and facing burnout. Mentors, the option of part time employment and other supports could make a difference. Sadly, many administrators exacerbate the problem by trying to punish the older teachers by giving them the worst students or bad conditions as a way to make them want to leave. How does that help the kids?

MD retirement is one of the worst in the country. Most teachers cannot afford to live on it so they will hang on until they can collect social security. Offering buyouts for those with a certain number of years in the system might get the older burnt out teachers to leave. The older ones who still love their jobs and the kids will stay. What do we do with the younger burn outs?

Posted by: musiclady | June 20, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Brooklander raised the issue of sabaticals, and it is a really important point. I never received a sabatical in all the years I taught because none of the schools I was at offered them. One year I did try to negotiate a sabatical, and the principal, an administrator/specialist who had never done sustained regular teaching, didn't even understand the concept....because I was a senior staff member, she finally agreed to let me come in AN HOUR LATER during the day. I spent my "sabatical" watching TeleTubbies and asking myself, "what is wrong with this picture?!?"

True sabaticals used to be given regularly to help teachers stay fresh and to avoid the dreaded burn-out. But,they seem increasingly rare. Like many other things in our society, we are trying to "do things on the cheap" regarding the human elements, and hoping that technology and increased testing will make up for the difference.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | June 20, 2010 3:35 PM | Report abuse

It isn't just that burned out teachers don't move to another field because they are so close to retirement. In the '60s and '70s, in Ohio, at least, a teacher had to have a bachelor's degree in education. If you wanted to go into secondary education, you could minor in the field you wanted to teach, but there were plenty of teachers who had taken very little except educational theory courses. In addition, the college I attended, and I think many others, provided student teaching in the senior year.

I heard a lot of students at my college talk about how they discovered they were no good at teaching or actually hated the kids. But with almost four years of primarily education courses, they couldn't change majors; they lacked most of the academic courses they would need and would have in effect started college all over.

These are the teachers who are now approaching retirement.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | June 20, 2010 8:04 PM | Report abuse

I still think it is a myth that older teachers hate students. I don't agree that so many who hated kids stayed in teaching all these years.

There are many older teachers who love the kids and who keep learning all the time. My son's science teacher is that way.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 20, 2010 8:30 PM | Report abuse

Most teachers don't hate kids, but if it is even a small minority of 20% that can have really bad results for a kid if it is a critical learning point. My friend had a son in a Fairfax county school that had a first grade teacher that everyone raved about and then when she had that teacher it was a disaster and several people remarked that they thought this teacher had become somewhat burned out and her son desperately hated school. It was a terrible launch for him. The point being that like many things in human existance teachers are stuck by both the school management and unions in a shortime horizon so a lot of the things that could make them more effective over the long term are not done such as sabaticals, shifting grades or team teaching. That said I still don't think anyone should get that extra whatever number of years to the penision as crappy teacher, kids just should not be sacrificed. This is truely where the social contract needs to get a lot fairer to kids.

Posted by: Brooklander | June 20, 2010 9:01 PM | Report abuse

Brooklander-

You should ask yourself WHY teachers burn out. Anyone would burn out after decades of the kind of sustained stress many teachers put up with.

One important question to ask is, why are teachers in this country expected to put up with so much? Why must they be subjected to what amounts to hazing? It's an incredible waste of experience and talent.

In the countries whose schools are held up as good examples, teachers with many years of experience are regarded as highly respected human resources.

So why do we routinely run them into the ground and then act disgusted when they falter? Why do we, as a culture, act as if they should expect to be treated like garbage to be thrown out when they get tired? Why does it come with the territory in the US when it doesn't have to?

What an incredible, stupid waste!

Posted by: aed3 | June 20, 2010 9:09 PM | Report abuse

Brooklander wrote: Most teachers don't hate kids, but if it is even a small minority of 20% that can have really bad results for a kid if it is a critical learning point. My friend had a son in a Fairfax county school that had a first grade teacher that everyone raved about and then when she had that teacher it was a disaster and several people remarked that they thought this teacher had become somewhat burned out and her son desperately hated school. It was a terrible launch for him.
---------------------------
Another thing to consider is that people relate to each other in different ways. I remember my kids' favorite high school teacher. He had been at that school for 25 years and both of my kids considered him to be the teacher that taught them the most. He was also the only teacher to contact me when my 9th grade daughter was "working below her potential"--something I was very grateful to him for. My son had a friend who hated this teacher and ended up transferring out of his class. Likewise, my daughter had a social studies teacher in 10th grade who alienated my daughter with a sarcastic remark that totally turned her off. Yet another friend loved this same teacher and ended up studying history in college because of her influence.

My point is that people get along with different kinds of people. If your child is having trouble getting along with a teacher to the point that it is interfering with his learning, then ask to have him transferred to another class. There may be other kids, however, that are thriving with the same teacher. One cannot judge a teacher by the opinions of a handful of people. This is why regular observations by administrators of teachers at work with students is a necessity. Sometimes people just have personality conflicts.

Posted by: musiclady | June 20, 2010 11:56 PM | Report abuse

I have noticed that the parents seem to like the teachers when their children do well in their classes. A friend, whose daughter is always acting up and doesn't complete assignments in middle school told me she liked the teacher who didn't give homework. I worked with that teacher and I know he does what the parents want so they don't complain about him. This friend thinks that the other teachers aren't good. But they are the ones with high expectations for their students. The guy who doesn't give homework is very friendly, but does he deserve this great reputation for doing less? I don't think so.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 21, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

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