Monday, June 30, 2014

Thoughts on Education

This morning I read this article HERE about a battle in education in Maryland.  In response, I wrote the following letter to the writer of the article that I thought I'd share here...


I just read your article from Sunday's Sun about “A New Battle in Maryland Education”.

I wanted to share a few things that might be interesting to include in future articles on the subject of testing and teacher evaluation. But, before I begin, I should explain who I am so you can understand the background I am speaking from. I earned my MA Ed in curriculum and instruction thirteen years ago. I taught middle school in Colorado and Texas. Then, I taught remedial math in a community college GED prep program in Georgia. I also taught math part-time in a private school in Georgia for one term. Since moving to Maryland eight years ago, I have been homeschooling my three children. I have seen all three modes of schooling (public, private, and homeschooling) and do not feel that there is one right answer for all children. For some children, homeschooling is the best option. For others, private, and for others it is public schooling. As a former public school teacher and as a community parent, I care deeply about what happens in the schools. I have many friends who work in the school districts here and I talk to people wherever I go about our state's education system, because I care.

When I first moved here, I was floored to learn that the school boards were not entirely elected. I grew up in Southern California where the boards were wholely elected. As I researched the state board, I learned that the board was not representative of our state's varied counties, but focused in on two or three counties. I was shocked to read the biographies of the board members and additionally learn that seven of the twelve have not been educators. This last piece of information is a very influential one. Teachers who have not been parents often think they know how to parent because they can manage a classroom. But, on the flip side, parents often do not understand the challenges and skills a teacher needs to have and use constantly in the classroom if they have not been teachers themselves.

In the same way, policy makers who have not been teachers often place unreasonable expectations on teachers. The SLOs are an example of this. I have assumed that teachers were involved in the invention of these plans which are basically “classroom IEPs” but I have not researched the matter in depth. Most of the teachers I have spoken with in the counties surrounding the area where I lived still didn't know how to write one of these mid-year of this school year even though they were supposed to be implementing one this school year. Maryland is micro-managing the implementation of the common core standards by dictating lesson plans and adding on the additional burden of the SLOs to teachers' plates. My understanding from your article is that the state is requiring teachers to be accountable to these SLOs (which many teachers have received very little instruction about) but not the test scores from the common core for two years? Is this true?

To connect test scores to teacher evaluation is extremely unfair in my opinion. I recently had a friend call me from Nevada and ask me about the schools in Maryland. He had a friend who was offered a job in this state and was considering the position, but wanted more information about whether the schools would be good for his child. He quoted the national ranking of his state (49th) and asked about Maryland. In reply, I told him that as an educator I don't pay any attention to those statistics. There are many important factors that statistics cannot take into account. The first is the socioeconomics of a community. The more resources—intellectual and physical—that a community has, the more successful the schools in that community are. Here are three articles that I found quickly on the web that mention its importance:
This article explains SES and mentions in its conclusion that although SES is often mentioned in the introduction of research, it is not factored into the measurement of outcomes... as it is not factored into test scores.
A quick and easy article to read which summarizes the relationship between SES and education outcomes.
A third, easy to read article about the relationship between SES and educational outcomes.

The second factor I mentioned to my friend about why I don't pay attention to test scores is student transience.
This article makes some wonderful points about the impacts of transience on students. Students who move a lot are typically below grade level. They do not have the academic and emotional stability to rebound quickly from a move.
This is an excerpt from a book that states that the number of moves a child makes is connected to lower test scores.
This third article is a dissertation focused on a particular school district in Tennessee. Its implications are limited in my mind, but it made the point that most of the transiency was interdistrict and when standard programs (ie. Curriculum) were implemented there was less variance. The problem with taking that and applying it to a nation like the Common Core does is that children across the nation have such widely different sets of background knowledge and experiences. A child from an urban, inner city area will not understand the same stories that someone from a rural area in Iowa would. I would daresay that the academic needs of the communities are different. So, when the focus of classroom education is required to focus on taking a test, teachers are not able to build the knowledge children need to understand the world they live in. There simply isn't time. Within our own state, we have urban and rural areas. The state policy makers on the board of education all come from urban areas. Hmm.
To judge a teacher on test scores when 50% of her students are not the ones she began the school year with, is extremely unfair. Transience is not factored into test scores to my knowledge in any way.

Lastly, the encouragement I gave to my friend was that the greatest predictor of how a child will do in schools is the parents. I live in an area of our county that many people look down upon and people often ask me about the schools. This is what I tell them in reply. How your child does depends on you. Get involved in their schools. Communicate with their teachers. Ask about their days. Our county uses a math program that most parents struggle to help with at home (and which causes issues for most students I hear about). Parents need to be able to help their children with their homework. It is not a school's job to parent children. They are to educate students. Teachers and Parents need to become teams again—working towards the same goal.

Unfortunately, our system currently seems to constantly pit parents and teachers against each other. Teachers are defensive because they are judged by test scores, yet there are so many factors that they have no control of. Those factors multiplied this school year when districts micromanaged classrooms by dictating lesson plans to teachers and how the common core should be implemented. Teachers are not supposed to be robots. They, like me, were trained modify curriculum and teach to the needs of their students. Back up, go a little slower, reteach, move ahead. Teachers have been trained. We need to let them do their jobs and what they were trained to do.

Obviously, my opinion is that test scores are a very poor way to measure how teachers are doing. We live in a world now that doesn't believe in teachers and doesn't believe they can do their jobs. Why do we have so many teachers on instructional plans in Maryland schools? Why don't we have administrators that are backing their teachers and believing in them? I've heard of a few. I've heard of many that aren't. My heart grieves for the state of education in our state. I may homeschool my children, but I still care. I do not homeschool because I don't think teachers can't do their jobs. I homeschool because I love teaching my children and I am able to modify their education plans in a way that public schools cannot do. It is the best option for my family. I am a better teacher after homeschooling for the past seven years. I have learned a lot. It has also prompted much reflection in me about my time in public schools. My conviction that teachers need to be allowed to teach and do their jobs has never wavered. I someday hope that we will let them do their jobs again and believe in them.   

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