Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Why I'm Going To Grad School

At the end of my last post, I said I would write later in the week about why teachers leave teaching. I decided to write about why I'm not going to be a classroom teacher next year instead because:
1) I've been trying to remember that all summer.
2) I think there are lots of reasons why teachers leave teaching, but all I really know is why I'm leaving.

As I said farewell to my students and colleagues in June, it was hard for me to believe that it ever seemed like a good idea to leave them. My favorite part about teaching is the relationships I get to build with a group of people who, in many cases, come from very different places than me. All of my students are Latino, many of them were born in rural Mexico, and many of them are growing up in poverty. I am white, grew up in Kentucky, and come from a pretty affluent family. Yet here we are, thrown together for six hours a day, getting to know each other.

Each week I would have one of my students be the Star of the Week, and the Star would get to make a poster full of pictures of herself and her family, plus fill out a little questionnaire about her favorite things, her dreams for the future, etc. The Star got to share her poster with the class, we asked some questions about it, and then it stayed up for the rest of the week. I was often amazed by the pictures by students brought in, but one really stood out to me. This picture was of Joaquin, a quiet, brilliant, intense, athletic boy who came to the U.S. from Mexico in first grade and managed to score Proficient or Advanced on math standardized tests from second grade on, despite the fact that he knew no English when he came here and his parents had very limited education themselves. In this picture, a four-year old Joaquin walks barefoot down a dry, dusty, deserted path, lugging a huge, huge bundle of corn stalks over his shoulder, carrying them where they need to go. What a different world he knew before - of corn and cows and dirt paths. Of course, that world exists in the U.S., but it doesn't exist in the town where I taught. Joaquin lives in an urban apartment building now, crammed with other families from Mexico and all over the world, with graffiti and gangs and pigeons and pavement, pavement, pavement.

Joaquin and I both got to cross borders in our classroom. I got to know about his worlds and he got to know about mine. And we got to create one together. Those opportunities can be so rare in life, opportunities to really build relationships with people whose lives are unlike ours in important ways.

It makes me cry to think about Joaquin. Not because anything bad happened to him - though I do worry about him because he has a bad temper and likes to hang with the tough guys, so I'm afraid he'll get into fights. But as far as I know, he's fine. He got identified as gifted and got redesignated as Fluent English Proficient, and both of those things should help him get into good classes in middle and high school. I cry when I think about him because I want our school system and our society to serve him well, and I'm afraid they won't. I want his brilliance to be recognized, I want him to learn all the math he wants to learn, I want him to get the support and encouragement and financial help he needs to go to college, I want him to feel proud of his native language and his background, I want him to stay out of gangs, and I want him to have all the doors open to him that a white middle-class kid would have.

In the largest sense, I'm going to grad school because I want to have more power to make the educational system serve Joaquin and all my students better.

I know that I had a lot of power as a teacher. I got to inspire Joaquin and my other students, to teach them about long division and the civil rights movement and haiku and Judy Blume and Gary Soto and global warming and irregular verbs and what college is like and what engineers do. Sometimes, though, I felt powerless, like a cog in a wheel of a machine that was shoddily built.

An example: The past two years because of pressure from No Child Left Behind, we had to teach language arts using only our state-adopted language arts curriculum. That seems reasonable at first. But our Houghton-Mifflin materials, the publisher insists, are not designed for students reading more than two years below grade level or students who have English Proficiency Levels of 1 (beginning) or 2 (early intermediate). Ten of my thirty-one students fell into these two categories. That means our state-adopted materials were not designed for about a third of my class.

Our district's answer to this problem was to start a reading intervention class. This class was called REACH and was for students decoding at least two years below grade level. During our regular two-and-a-half hour language arts block, students who qualified for this intervention program got pulled out of the regular classroom and were taught the REACH curriculum by our Resource Specialist teacher. This may or may not have been a good idea and a good program; I don't know enough to say.

Students who had been in the U.S. for less than two years were automatically excluded from participation in REACH, though. It makes sense that students whose reading difficulties are caused by lack of English knowledge need a different curriculum than students who are fluent English speakers but who still struggle with decoding words. Our school could have had a separate intervention program for students who were decoding at least two years below grade level AND who had been in the country less than two years. This English Language Development intervention group would have been taught by an ELD Coach, I think, and would have used High Point materials. But only a handful of fourth and fifth graders - mostly from my class - fit this description, so no High Point group was created.

Three of my students qualified for REACH. This left me with seven students in my language arts class for whom the language arts materials I had to teach with were inappropriate. When I pointed out this contradiction to administrators, they basically told me that yes, our language arts program was not designed for these students, but yes, I had to use our language arts program and only our language arts program as my curriculum for all my students. This made me feel like I was banging my head against a brick wall! Why wasn't my school taking my students' needs seriously? Why was I not allowed to adapt and modify curriculum as I saw fit to help my students actually learn to read and write in English?

My student Wilfredo, who I've written a little about before, came to the U.S. in third grade. Was I really just going to hand him the Houghton-Mifflin fourth grade reading materials in English and pretend that that's teaching him to read? Of course not! Did administrators really want me to do that? No! But in this weird follow-the-script, accountability climate, that's what they had to tell me to do and that's what I had to pretend I was doing.

That's just not right. Wilfredo should be able to get an excellent, appropriate education, building both his English skills and his content knowledge while getting support in developing friendships in his new environment. For too many kids like Wilfredo and Joaquin, though, that doesn't happen. They sit in class, not understanding what's happening, not learning either English or content knowledge, feeling alienated and/or checking out. We can't afford to waste these students' potential! And that's why I'm going to grad school.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Let's Improve Education By Firing Teachers

Turns out I needed a longer break from thinking about education than I anticipated. But I do have these topics I've been wanting to write about for a while. So here’s the first in … well, who knows – maybe an occasional series of posts on education policy and my experiences as a teacher, this time with more of a wide-angle lens.

Back in May, Nikolas Kristof wrote an op-ed in the New York Times with a proposal (developed by the Hamilton Project) for radically improving public education. He says presidential candidates should advocate these three measures:
1) Abolish teacher certification requirements.
2) Make tenure much harder to get so “weak teachers can be weeded out after two or three years on the job.”
3) Offer annual incentives of $15,000 to “good teachers” who teach in schools serving low-income communities

I agree that there are some teachers who should not be teaching, and I agree that the students who need the very best teachers are much more likely to have the least-qualified, least-experienced teachers.

But proposals to get rid of lots of teachers always strike me as quite odd. We do not currently have too many people clamoring for teaching jobs; we have too few. The extent of the shortage varies by state, grade level, subject area, etc., but the shortage exists. California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell stated in a press release this April that California is projecting a shortage of 33,000 teachers a year by 2015.

The shortage is not just a result of lots of teachers retiring. You have probably already heard the much-cited statistic that half of all teachers leave within their first five years in the profession. I’m now part of this statistic. And many of my friends who started teaching when I did are leaving, too. Most of us are still doing something related to education. There are three people (including me) out of my 20-person credential/master’s program cohort who are getting a PhD in education. Another woman in our cohort does curriculum development work now. A friend who got her credential/master’s a year before me went to work for a children’s book publisher. Out of the approximately 40 teachers at my school, 10 left at the end of this past school year. At least two of them are taking teaching jobs elsewhere, but many are planning to leave the profession for good.

With all of us leaving the classroom already, is the answer to the nation’s education woes really to get rid of even more teachers?

Let’s look at the proposal Kristof is advocating:

The Hamilton Project study recommends that the weakest 25 percent of new teachers should be denied tenure and eliminated after two or three years on the job (teachers improve a lot in the first two years, but not much after that). That approach, it estimates, would raise students’ average test scores by 14 percentile points by the time they graduated.

Where would we get teachers to replace the 25% of new teachers who would be “eliminated” each year? I understand that under the proposal Kristof is advocating, teacher certification requirements would be abolished, so I suppose the proposal’s authors are assuming that this would lead to more people applying for teaching jobs.

I don’t have research to back this up, but, just based on common sense, I bet that people who just jump in front of a classroom without any student teaching experience are more likely to leave teaching than teachers trained through a certification process. If you’ve never had a chance to try out teaching, to try out actually being on your own in front of a classroom, how can you know it’s what you want to do? One article on New York City’s Teaching Fellows program, which recruits people from around the country to come stand up in the front of their own NYC classrooms after just 7 weeks of summer training, states that 10% of these teachers leave before the end of their first year. Thirty percent are gone by the end of the third year. Program administrators say these rates of new teachers leaving are the same as other big city school districts’ numbers. I haven’t seen the numbers to prove or disprove this claim. But many Fellows complain that their training was inadequate and that they did not have a realistic picture of what to expect in their classrooms.

Regardless of whether non-credentialed teachers are more or less likely to leave teaching, it seems clear to me that too many teachers are leaving teaching, period. Sure, maybe some of them were ineffective and we’re better off without them, but all of them? That just can’t be. Poor teacher retention is an expensive problem. The costs associated with recruiting, hiring, and training a new teacher varies by district. One study tried to add them up, and put the national price tag at $7.3 billion annually. According to this study, Chicago spends almost $18,000 to replace each of its thousands of teachers that leave each year, while the small district of Jemez Valley, N.M., spent $4,366 on each new teacher. Even taking the low figure, that means my school will spend $43,660 (and countless hours of the principal’s time!) replacing the 10 teachers that left this year.

In addition to the costs associated with replacing teachers, think of all the school district (and therefore taxpayer) money that was spent training me and all the other teachers who are leaving. The value of those investments can disappear when we leave. I’m expensive. I got a state-funded tuition remission to pay for my master’s/credential program. I got some student loans forgiven via a state program for teachers. I got fellowships from my university that helped me support myself while I got my credential. I got paid to attend many professional development workshops during my five years as a teacher. This all adds up to tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer investment in me. And while I do intend to make use of this investment and contribute to the profession of education, I won’t be doing what these investments were supposing I would do – teach children in public schools.

Why do we leave? I’ll leave that for a blog post later this week.

But for now, let’s stop trying to improve education by hastening the departure of even more teachers!

(And who, exactly, would determine which 25% of teachers would be "eliminated"? How? I'm assuming these decisions would be left to principals. Perhaps 25% of all new principals should be eliminated within their first two years. And 25% of all new district superintendents. And 25% of all new education policy researchers.)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Day -1: The Index

Today was my last day of teaching at my school, at least for the foreseeable future. Here's a summary of my five years there a la Harper's Index. (I stole this idea from a blog I used to read.)

Number of times I've been late to school: 2 (both because my car broke down)
Number of field trips I've organized: More than 30
Number of students who started my class not knowing their letters and sounds in English or in Spanish: 2
Latest I've ever stayed at school: 11:30 pm, I think
Earliest I've ever gotten to school: 5:45 am, I think
Number of my students whose family members have been shot and killed: 2
Number of former students who have been expelled for dealing pot in middle school: 1
Number of former students (that I know of) who have ended up in juvenile hall: 1
Number of weekly progress reports I've filled out: 1050
Number of spelling tests I've graded: 1050
Number of babies who have been born to teachers working in the 10 classrooms in my building: 7
Number of student teachers I've supervised: 3
Number of students I've taught: About 160

This sort of seems like a sad list, a list dominated by problems. Maybe that's because it's hard to quantify the joys of my job, my successes. They are there, though, and I'll remember them.

Two teachers at my school retired today after 34 and 38(!) years of teaching in our school district, respectively. One of them had to sign an oath swearing she wasn't a Communist when she started. They weren't allowed to wear pants at the beginning. I'd like to see their Harper's Index of their careers.

I feel sad today. I realized that the reason I don't want to move out of my classroom yet is because I'm not quite ready to give it up. I still have a few blog post ideas in my head, too, so I won't give this up quite yet either.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Day -2: Promotion

The two big events of the day were as follows:

1) My friend/teacher-across-the-hall and I went to go see our first class of students graduate from eighth grade. Wait, did I say graduate? I mean, of course, be promoted. As you have probably have noticed, sometime since we were all in eighth grade, using the word "graduation" to refer to what 14-year olds are doing when they don caps and gowns has become taboo. As the middle school principal pronounced today, "I present to you the promoted class of 2007." I never thought that vocabulary switch would take hold. But one of my former students came by the other day and said, "I just wanted to invite you to promotion on Thursday." The word at least crossed the kid-usage barrier.

We were sitting in bleachers on a football field behind an outlet mall, melting and squinting in the bright, bright sun. The students were far away from us on the field, but we cheered for all of them and we liked noticing how they still walked the same way we remembered them walking in elementary school.

I like knowing that four years from now, I can show up at high school graduation and lots and lots of those students (I hope!) will be there, and I can cheer for them again.

2) The new fourth grade bilingual teacher who will replace me spent the morning in my classroom. She just finished getting her teaching credential, and her enthusiasm is palpable. Talking to her makes me realize how much I've learned in five years. She is excited for her promotion, too.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Day -3: When Overwhelmed ... Sort Fraction Circles!

This leaving thing is so surreal. I can't get my head around the fact that three days from now I won't really be a teacher anymore. Perhaps I will still be a teacher in an abstract sense, and I will still be a teacher in the minds of my former students, but I won't be a current teacher at my school, thinking about the next school year.

I have been so overwhelmed by the idea of leaving that I have accomplished next to nothing in moving out or saying goodbye. Even the usual end-of-the-year projects I normally do - burning CDs for my students of songs we learned, writing awards for each student, filing papers in students' cumes (their folders that follow them from one grade to the next) - I have been unable to complete. Mostly, I've just been hanging out with people after school, spending time chatting with a student, the teacher across the hall, the custodian. I guess I can cast that as part of my leave-taking project; I'm appreciating the people around me and enjoying the time I have with them. It feels a little like that while I'm doing it, and it feels a lot like procrastination.

My friend (the teacher across the hall) was laughing at me yesterday because I accidentally flung my pen across the room, and I spent like 20 minutes crawling around on the floor looking for it, as opposed to doing all the millions of other things I should have been doing. But I needed that pen! It was the last ballpoint pen in my classroom! That task was immediately in front of me, so I could handle it. But I never found the pen.

Today, here's how I decided to spend my time after school: sitting on the floor with two students, resorting fraction circles into little plastic bags. You can imagine fraction circles, I'm sure. They are plastic discs, divided into fractional pieces. Each set has a whole, 2 halves, 3 thirds, 4 fourths, etc. These fraction circles are very useful for teaching students about equivalent fractions. But they'd gotten all mixed up over the years, so one set might have 8 fourths but no fifths. I decided to have two students empty out all 16 bags of fractions circles and resort the hundreds of pieces into complete sets. This was important, really it was! What would next year's teacher do if I left her with mixed-up fraction circle sets?

I sat there with my students, meticulously counting out eighths and tenths and twelfths while we talked about their families and their summer plans and their soccer team. They loved their monotonous task. "It's like a puzzle," Eddie said.

That hanging-out/procrastination time has been the best part of my days lately, just being in my classroom while that steady stream of people - current students, former students, other teachers - come through to visit me, the teacher-me. What will it be like when that teacher-me identity is gone, when no one can come visit it in my classroom?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Day -4: Retired Teachers' Wisdom

Today we went on our last field trip of the year. It might seem like I take my class on field trips all the time, but I really don't. In fact, this year I've taken my students on fewer field trips than ever before. My school narrowly missed making Adequate Yearly Progress as defined by No Child Left Behind. We met 15 out of 17 targets for improvements in our standardized test scores, but because a handful of Latino students and English Learners missed the target in Language Arts, our school is subject to a variety of sanctions. The way my school and district are interpreting these sanctions, we have to implement something obliquely called the "Academic Program Survey." We have to solemnly swear that we are teaching using the state-adopted textbooks for language arts and math and that we are teaching language arts and math for the state-mandated number of minutes each day (150 minutes a day for language arts and 60 minutes a day for math). Moreover, we must solemnly swear that we are implementing this state-adopted curriculum with "full fidelity."

This fidelity does not require a marriage vows, but it does require a disavowal of some field trips and other forms of fun. "Full fidelity" apparently means that we must teach the required number of minutes with the required textbooks 90% of the time. My school interpreted this very literally. There are 180 days in the school year, so we were granted 18 days this year when we could deviate from the state-mandated schedule/materials - 3 days at the beginning of school, 4 days at the end, and then 11 "Flex Days" of our choice. If we are deviating from the state-mandated schedule/materials on a give day, we must write "Flex Day" clearly across the top of our posted daily agenda.

Some teachers who used to take field trips eliminated them altogether this year because they were worried about using up their Flex Days. I still took 7 field trips this year, but I also used up more than my 11 Flex Days, I'm sure. Fortunately, I was not required to submit a list of which days were my Flex Days.

If this sounds bizarre, umm, it is.

But our field trip today was great - the complete opposite of our field trip to a mission a few weeks back. We went to our little town's local history museum. They don't have a great collection of artifacts or any amazing architectural treasure. But what they do have is a retired teacher/principal who designs and leads their student tours. What a gift she is giving to the town's students!

Our day started with students getting into three different groups to perform readers' theater plays. One was an Ohlone creation myth, another was a series of testimonials by people living at Mission San Jose, and the third was a play about the baptism of a new baby at the Mission and the surrounding conflict between the Ohlone and the Spanish. Students got to wear great costumes, which they loved! Then we had a snack break and our class split into two groups, one of whom got a tour of the museum and a brief overview of the town's history, focusing on the Rancho period after the missions closed. The other group went on a tour of an early home built by descendants of the original rancho land-grant holders. We ate lunch in the home's beautiful courtyard and then got ready for the afternoon activities. Parents led four different centers about different aspects of rancho life. At one, students got to design their own cattle brands and practice roping a (fake) cow. At the next, students made salsa and hot chocolate. For the third, students designed a map of their own imaginary rancho. In the fourth, students made beautiful punched tin milagros (which I'll try to take some pictures of tomorrow).

So many things about the day's events were great. The pace of the day was perfect, with students sitting and reading and listening to plays in the morning when they were the most calm and then doing hands-on activities in the afternoon when they were more antsy. The vocabulary the tour guide leader used was also perfect. She explained difficult words, showed objects to illustrate her points, and repeated key concepts many times, usually eliciting student feedback. To me, the best part of the day's plan, though, was that parents got to lead the centers in the afternoon. It was so great for my students to see their parents as experts in a school context! All of the centers revolved around activities that most of the parents grew up doing on their families actual ranchos in Mexico, and to have those experiences valued is so important. Our field trip helped students and parents to realize that the history of California is, in large part (at least pre-Gold Rush), the history of Mexico, that the people who lived in our little California town two hundred years ago were people a lot like them who spoke Spanish and ate tortillas.

So you retired teachers reading this blog (I know there are a few of you!), we current teachers need your wisdom! Plan cool activities for our students to do on field trips!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Day -5: Report Cards

I can't believe it, but I actually finished my students' report cards today. Each student's report card has 81 boxes, plus a space for written comments. I have 31 students. So that means that in the last 48 hours I have filled in 2511 boxes!

Back when I was in elementary school, I think we just got one grade for math, one grade for writing, etc. But in the brave new world of standards-based report cards, such simplicity is long gone. I have to give my students 19 different grades in math alone, one for each of the 19 math standards my district has deemed to be most important. There are actually 44 math standards that fourth graders in California are supposed to master, but we only give report card grades for 19 of them. Here is a sampling:
* Uses algorithms to add/subtract multi-digit numbers
* Knows the definition and value of prime numbers
* Decides and explains when a rounded solution is called for
* Uses and evaluates parentheses in equations
* Finds the length of horizontal line segments on a coordinate graph by subtracting the x-values
* Finds the length of vertical line segments on a coordinate graph by subtracting the y-values

For each of these standards, I have to assign a grade from 1 to 4 - 1 meaning that the student is working below grade level, 2 meaning close to grade level, 3 meaning on grade level, and 4 meaning above grade level.

This method of grading leads to many conundrums. For example, there are no standards about fractions on our report card. None. Yet fractions are an important topic in the fourth grade math curriculum. When I calculate my students' overall math grade, should I factor in their grades on work related to fractions?

Our district has standardized trimester assessments we give shortly before we fill out report cards, and data from these assessments are supposed to help us assign grades for each standard. Yet this trimester's math assessment has only 31 questions. Let's say there are three questions about using and evaluating parentheses in equations. If a student gets 2 out of 3 of those questions right, that's only 66%, which puts them below grade level for that standard (at least according to our old grading scale). Let's say the student got 80% on an algebra test I gave about using and evaluating parentheses in equations. How do I weight these two measures?

Also, our district assessments are not cumulative. Each trimester, different standards are assessed. But just because a student didn't show mastery of the algorithm for long division in March, though, doesn't mean he hasn't mastered it by June. Our district assessment we give in June does not have any questions about long division, however, so we have to figure out our own ways to reassess standards from earlier trimesters.

One of my favorite standards to assess is, "Uses a variety of strategies for reading comprehension." What does that even mean? Of course my students use different strategies for reading comprehension. We practice predicting, summarizing, questioning, and lots more with everything we read. But how can I reduce their use of reading strategies to a single number? What does "on grade level" mean when you are talking about how well someone makes predictions about texts? Or there's the standard, "Understands words with multiple meanings." Well, of course my students understand words with multiple meanings. They know that "bat" can mean a flying animal or something with which you hit a baseball. But how well my students do on assessments of their ability to understand words with multiple meanings just depends on whether they happen to be familiar with the words on the assessment. I can't possibly teach them every word in the English language with multiple meanings.

The district's answer to questions about the ambiguity of the standards when applied to reading is that students should be assessed on their mastery of these standards using "grade level text." But take the standard, "Recognizes events of the story and the motivation of characters." Some students can recognize a character's motivation in one story in our fourth grade anthology but not in another. Maybe they have a personal connection to a character in one story and that makes the character in one story easier to understand. How can I accurately state the student's ability to determine characters' motivation in all 4th-grade-level stories?

I have to think through these issues for 81 different boxes! And remember, this is elementary school. No one's life is going to be determined by what grade she got for "Uses and evaluates parentheses in equations" in fourth grade.

For better or worse, I've never had a parent question me about a grade I assigned. I kind of wish a parent would ask me to justify how I arrived at a grade. But the parents of students in my class are so deferential to teachers. "La maestra" is a title with real authority and respect in Mexico, and they really think that I know best when it comes to their children's education. Plus, the report card is so overwhelming, that many parents don't really know how to interpret it, never mind what questions to ask.

But, despite these issues, the important thing at the moment is that I'm done with report cards! I've never finished them 4 days before they were due before.