Sunday, January 19, 2014

F#23: Fighting the Good Fight

There was an op-ed in the local paper this morning by a middle school English teacher.  In it, she lamented the state of teaching in the US and debates, as so many articles seem to lately, whether or not she should give up the career altogether.

The latest and greatest thing to gripe about in education is the Common Core, a set of standards developed by twenty-three states in an effort to make education more uniform in our country.  The high-stakes test, Smarter Balanced, is also a national test; for the first time, students in different states can be compared against the same set of criteria, and not using the individual state tests that didn't really assess the same things.

I, for one, have been excited about the Common Core.  As I look it over, I see a return to thinking, analysis, and important writing skills; these were lost arts under our previous high-stakes test, which cared much more for the feelings of students and didn't care if your spelling was atrocious or if you didn't capitalize a single word.  (e.e. cummings you aren't, kiddos; please start your sentence with a capital letter.)

The author of the op-ed was most concerned that students will not be reading literature in English class anymore.  False.  The English Language Arts standards actually apply to all subject areas when it comes to reading.  Students read nonfiction in every class they take: science, social studies, math, gym, health.  If you visit the Common Core website (, these other subjects have their own tabs under the ELA standards as a way to point out that reading is a school-wide effort.  We don't have to give up Shakespeare or Babbit (as the author of this article suggests).  

The op-ed writer also laments that the Smarter Balanced test will be on the computer, and that some students don't own computers.  I appreciate this problem, more so perhaps than this particular teacher does.  Many of my students come from computer-less homes.  The world, however, is not computer-less.  Almost every job out there requires interacting with technology.  And while many people out there naively call this generation "digital natives", they are incorrect.  Yes, my students know how to SnapChat and Instagram, but they don't know how to double space a document in Microsoft Word, and some of them don't even have email addresses.  So who, exactly, is going to educate them on how to use the technology that the rest of the world will expect them to use?  Oh, that would be us, their teachers.  

Finally, the op-ed writers bemoans that teachers are no longer being treated as professionals.  This is not new.  Although we must hold advanced degrees to keep our jobs (at least in this state), we are often talked about as if we are all, truly, only in it for July and August.  "They" evaluate us (mostly) on how well our students perform on this one test.  It's not fair.  Would I rather be evaluated by former students, those who have graduated and realize now I was right about a lot of things?  Yes, obviously.  But that's not how the system works.  At least with this new test, "they" will be evaluating student GROWTH, not so much how many kids are "at grade level".  (This is my current understanding.  That may change.  It probably will.  This is the education field, after all.)  I too, op-ed writer, have students reading at the third grade level--and I teach high school.  But, if at the end of the year, I've maybe moved that student to grade five, well, I'd consider that some excellent progress.

I don't mean to sound like a Common Core lemming.  There are problems with the whole system, if for no other reason than it was designed by people who are not educators, or people who haven't been educators for a long time.  But it is so much better than what we've been working with since I started eleven years ago.  It will take many years to see the full effect of these new standards and the op-ed writer and I will see these results later than others, as our students have had the least amount of exposure to the new standards and curricula.

But, as much as they drive me crazy sometimes, I have faith in my students.  I do believe they can succeed, even if they will hate me for pushing them and making them do the work over.  Those of us at the secondary level will have to have faith in our elementary colleagues and their ability to give the students the springboard to do amazing things when my stepson is a high school freshmen.  For now, we do the best we can with what we've got.  We tweak our current lessons to ask less about feelings and more about imagery.  We start counting those misspelled words and every uncapitalized 'i' we see.

At the end of the day, I go home exhausted.  I am only in control of the forty-eight minutes the students are in front of me; I cannot help what goes on with them at home.  I can, and will, continue to be saddened by the choices some parents have made about their child's education before the student walked into my classroom.  But I can't change it now.  I can only work with it.

So, op-ed writer, if you'd like to leave education, that's fine.  I will continue to fight the fight with my under-performing, under-nourished students.  I will be called names and told I'm unreasonable and "too hard".  But I've had enough former students contact me, apologizing, telling me they really did learn a lot from me.  So I know what I'm doing is working.  And I will embrace the Common Core, because it is part of my job now.  And I will do the best I can with what I've got, because at the end of the day, that's really all any of us can do.  

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