A Lesson on Accountability Part II

My apologies, Mr. President.

It has been over a month since I wrote Part I of this post. To be completely honest, I have put off writing the second part because I’ve been too angry to write it.  I’m so frustrated with what I hear coming from our government, with so-called “experts” who have not spent a day of their life in a classroom, yet have the expertise to tell us what’s wrong with our schools, and with all the blame and finger-pointing that has become the status quo in American education.

To preserve my integrity as a teacher and professional, I cannot allow myself to get carried away in frustration and anger, because I teach CHILDREN. Everyday, I go to my school and look at those bright, eager faces who are waiting to learn. I don’t want them to feel like something is wrong with their teacher. So that is my excuse for the delay in completing this post. It was the right thing to do. Now, though, my thoughts are ready to pour out of my fingers. It’s time to finish.

In the last post, I addressed the overuse and misuse of standardized testing, as well as the practice of making teachers scapegoats. Since that post, Daryl Cagle, a political cartoonist I have followed for years, posted one of my new favorites. In addition to the parents in the cartoon, Cagle might have also added you, our President, Mr. Duncan, Secretary of Education, and a number of other politicians. That cartoon inspired Lee Kolbert to write a blog post about what has become acceptable behavior: blaming teachers, questioning every decision a teacher makes, etc.  Both Cagle and Kolbert pose some food for thought about the changes in education over the last 40 years.

Part II will focus on the issue of teacher tenure, merit pay, the role and future of Physical Education and the Fine Arts in American education, the issue of funding public schools, and a suggestion for you.

1) Tenure: I’ve been an educator for most of my adult life. I understand how tenure is meant to function, and I have witnessed how it actually functions. There are many in our society who have called for the end of teachers’ unions/associations (not every state provides for teachers’ unions), as well as the end of tenure. But is tenure really the problem? Or is it more about what is easier to deal with when it comes to removing ineffective teachers?

Maybe I’m lucky. I work in a district and a state, in my opinion, that has very high standards for our students, and our teachers are expected to be exceptional. I truly believe that, in my little corner of the world, for every poor or ineffective teacher, there are at least a hundred others who are amazing teachers. I know that may not be the case in every school or state, but I can only speak to my own experience. Many of my colleagues have continued their professional growth and postgraduate education, they work far beyond the posted school hours, and they give their best every day. These people have earned their tenure. If they are struggling to be more successful, they need support and relevant professional growth opportunities. Most struggling teachers want to be effective teachers. They just need help. When their jobs are threatened, they are not receiving that help. Threats don’t work on students… why would we think they would work for teachers?

Administrators need to have the opportunity to spend time observing their teachers and working with those who need assistance. I don’t think there are many teachers in this country who chose this field because it meant doing the least amount of work possible and having summers off.  If I think about it, as an educator, I haven’t had a free summer since 1991 (last summer of undergraduate school). Most teachers chose to teach knowing that they would be underpaid and underappreciated. You have to be passionate to be a teacher! Some teachers lose that passion along the way. They just need to feel appreciated and supported in an environment that allows for personal and professional growth. I don’t see that in a lot of schools around our country.

And really, this all goes back to blaming teachers for students’ lack of progress or success. That responsibility cannot lie ONLY with the teacher. Is the teacher highly influential in a child’s life? YES, but not the only influence. When study after study shows the effect of the parents’ education on their children’s success, we cannot ignore the simple facts that  families MUST be part of the equation for successful education of children. How can we bring our parents and community into our schools to become partners in our children’s education? If our schools could spend less money on standardized testing, for example, we might be able to afford more programs to create those partnerships. Until that happens, you will not see children reach their full potential.

Tenure isn’t the problem. Adequate support and relevant professional growth opportunities can transform and inspire teachers. A transformed and inspired teacher will transform and inspire his/her students.

2) Merit Pay: while I think the idea of merit pay is rooted in rewarding those teachers who really want to help their students and will go to any length to ensure success, I think the reality of merit pay is unrealistic. On any given day, an elementary student in the United States might see up to 5 different educators. Most elementary students in the U.S. have a classroom teacher with whom they spend most of their day. The other educators are teacher librarians, art teachers, PE teachers, music teachers, counselors, and administrators. Some students work with paraeducators in one-to-one or small group experiences. Which of those educators will be responsible for ensuring success on a standardized test? I believe ALL of them are. Which educator will actually receive the merit pay? This is a pretty risky incentive, one that I believe will foster unnecessary resentment among colleagues. In the middle schools and high schools of our country, students encounter even more teachers. How do we decide which educator was the one and only person responsible for a child’s success on a test?

The other issue I have with merit pay is that it does not foster collaboration. By nature, humans crave social interaction. We’re taught that sharing is supposed to be a good thing. I’ve learned more about teaching through collaboration with other teachers than I have in any graduate level course. When we share our successes, as well as our failures, we learn more together. Merit pay, in my opinion, will absolutely crush the collaborative culture we’ve worked so diligently to cultivate. When it becomes a competition for pay, people will not want to share what makes them successful. By sheer nature, we will become hoarders of our innovative ideas… and kids will lose.

Merit pay works in business where profits are at stake and competition is good for business. Schools are not businesses, and should not be run as such. Our bottom line is ensuring every student learns. There is no profit at stake. Children are at stake, and I feel competition among our teachers put our children at risk.

Should great teachers be rewarded? Absolutely! Those rewards are out there- we just need more of them. Recognition of hard work, grants, teaching awards, opportunities to present what we’re doing… these are all recent examples of what I’ve seen teachers request in lieu of merit pay.

3) Physical Education and Fine Arts: Currently, in my state, Physical Education and Music are required as state standards in every school, elementary through high school. The number of hours required differ for each level of education, but they are required. I’m worried that will change, as a disturbing trend continues to sweep schools in other states. Faced with budget crises, school boards and superintendents are cutting these curricular (not extra-curricular) areas in favor of  “essential” subjects- reading, math, and science. Never mind the significant amount of brain research regarding all the positive effects on learning from physical education and art and music classes. A simple web search will point you to more than the few links I’ve provided. We have all this research, yet these programs are still cut. That doesn’t make any sense, unless people truly believe that pulling out exercise, opportunities for creativity, higher order thinking skills, problem-solving, teamwork, and life skills are less important than reading, math, and science. Our kids might know how to read and write, solve familiar math problems, and memorize a few scientific facts, but how will they know how to work together to solve a problem they have never before encountered? What will they be prepared to do once they leave the familiar and rigid structure of school? Physical Education and Fine Arts Education classes extend and enrich reading, math, and science.

Full disclosure: I am a music teacher. Some people think I fight for music education in public schools because it’s my job and I don’t want to lose my job. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I fight for music education because it’s the right thing to do for kids. I know what academic advantages music education provided for me… and I know what advantages my students have because they come to music every other day in our elementary school. Yes, we learn to sing, move to music, and keep a steady beat. Some might argue that’s not very important. Even though I disagree, I can also say that my students’ experiences are far beyond those simple objectives I report in my grade book. In every class, they have the opportunity to answer questions for which there is no right answer. They get to create, play, evaluate, synthesize.

Maybe more importantly, students in my music classes are CONNECTING their learning. In math class, they learn math in isolation. In my class, one song can teach us something new about reading, math, science, world cultures, as well as how to connect all of those areas. When we learn a new concept, we involve three of the five senses (seeing, hearing, and touching), and we ALWAYS learn by doing. I don’t necessarily prepare my students to grow up to become world-class musicians, but I do hope I am preparing them to become world-class thinkers and learners.  I am not an exceptional teacher. There are more like me than not.

Jon Orech is an educator whom I have recently begun following in my network. He wrote a post about Fine Arts teachers and how they “get it” when it comes to teaching and learning. After reading that post, I thought, “he gets ME and every other fine arts educator who fights for what’s right for kids.”

If we know what is right for kids, why are we not ALL fighting for it?

By the way, I don’t have to teach music. Again, this is not about me worried about job security.  I have worked, as I noted in Part I, in the private sector in e-commerce, several technology fields, and higher education. I received a superior public school education when I was growing up which, coincidentally, included challenging Fine Arts and Physical Education classes. Because of that superior education, I can do whatever I set my mind to do.  I do not HAVE to teach. I CHOOSE to teach. And again… there are more teachers who are as passionate about teaching and learning as I am than those who don’t really care about their students’ learning. Let’s fight for those people, too, while we’re at it.

4) Funding Public Schools: This morning, I heard a sound byte on the Today show of Michael Petrillo of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Basically, he stated that schools need to get used to the fact they will have to operate with less money. So… let me get this straight. Our students are not successful enough to compete globally, teachers are not doing their jobs properly, the new Blueprint for education is supposed to relax some of the unfunded mandates of NCLB, yet standardized testing is still the rubric by which we judge which schools are succeeding… BUT, schools have to just deal with the fact that they are getting less money? That’s a little tough to swallow as a taxpayer. My taxes have helped corporate greed remain alive and well in the form of bailouts, but our kids just have to suck it up? I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t fly with me!

Asking schools to “make do” when they already operate in a very lean hierarchical structure means telling kids, “You are not important enough for your country to invest in you.” Most schools were built to reasonably accommodate 25-30 kids in a classroom. Some districts are laying off teachers due to lack of funding, and the teacher to student ratio is expected to double. Have you ever been in a classroom with 25 kindergarten students? 25 8th graders? Probably not. Classroom management with that many kids is challenging at best. Doubling that number is unfair to every single child in that room, and I can predict that test scores, and more importantly, LEARNING will suffer.

In an age where technology is further dividing the have’s and have not’s, we’re telling our schools that they DON’T need decent broadband internet connections or up-to-date computer access for every child. In my classroom, there is one computer for up to 24 kids at a time, unless I check out laptops. I can check out those laptops- our school has two carts of about 26 laptops each. Keep in mind that I compete with at least 20 other teachers for those laptops. Our school is luckier than most that don’t even have that much.  Cuts in funding mean fewer technology updates and equipment, and again, our kids will fall behind. Many people argue that kids don’t need computers and internet access to learn. Of course, they don’t. But if we expect them to compete globally and learn how to be successful in an age where information changes by the second, they cannot do that without the proper tools. Thirty years ago, we wouldn’t have batted an eye at purchasing textbooks, pencils, and paper for our students. Those were the necessary tools. Now, our tools need to provide access to current information on a global perspective. That requires funding.

Are we saying that our children, the future of this nation, are LESS important to us financially? They are not worth our investments? Was the Race to the Top grant initiative supposed to encourage states and schools to innovate and thereby receive additional funding? In my opinion, it was just a contest with winners and losers. If we want our students to compete globally, we can’t have any losers. Racing to the top means stepping on people at the bottom.

I have basically one suggestion for you, Mr. President, on how you can help all children in the U.S. become successful: LISTEN to the right people.  Listen to educators. Listen to students. Listen to parents. There are voices out there with solutions, and they are begging for the opportunity to be heard. These voices will give you the answers you need to successfully reform American education.


A passionate advocate for the future of our nation’s children

A Lesson on Accountability Part I

Dear Mr. President:

In the past two weeks, I have read more about schools, teachers, and accountability than I have ever seen in my nearly 20 years in education. Sadly, I can’t say that what I’ve been reading is encouraging. The one word I see over and over again is “accountability.”

Accountability IS a good thing. As a teacher, I strive to instill its meaning into the mind of every single child I’ve taught. Accountability is a life skill that will make you or break you as an adult. But please understand me when I say that I’m afraid “accountability has become nothing more than a political buzzword, and I’m more afraid for American education than I have ever been in my life… and it’s not because I’m afraid of how that term, accountability, relates to me.

An American education has always been about opportunity. EVERY child in the United States has the right to attend a public school. We don’t turn children away because they cannot afford to attend public school. We even ensure they have meals during the day, whether they can pay or not. I fear this right may disappear.

You, Mr. President, are asking for more from our schools, but when was the last time you spent some serious time observing a typical school day/week/month in any public school? When was the last time you saw a teacher work with a child before school, during a lunch break, during teacher plan time, after school… all to ensure that student learns? When was the last time you asked what type of programs are being offered at schools to help struggling learners become more successful? When was the last time you attended a public school nighttime program that focused on bringing a community into a school for a multi-age learning opportunity?

I don’t deny that some schools could do much more to help their students become successful. What I do see, however, is the blame placed squarely on the shoulders of the teachers. We both know blame doesn’t lead to improvement. Besides, are the teachers the only adults responsible for those students academic success? How many of our children have parents who are supporting their education? What are schools doing to bring in community members and parents to be accountable for their children?

Are there bad teachers in our country? Sure, but I can assume that the percentage of bad teachers to good teachers is actually much less than you think. What I really see happening: teachers in the United States are becoming scapegoats. One of the most important things I learned in my history classes is that, when a nation is in crisis, scapegoats are created to assume the blame and suffer undeserved and, many times, brutal consequences. Please explain how blaming and firing teachers will EVER lead to successful schools?

Full disclosure: I am a teacher. I have always been a teacher, even when I was a student in elementary school. My teachers noticed at a very early age (2nd grade!) that I was a natural at helping students understand the concepts we were learning. Peer tutoring was something I loved. From the age of 8, I wanted to be a teacher. One of the most amazing things to witness is that point when you truly see understanding in a child’s eyes.

I worked really diligently to become a teacher. The first few years of teaching, I wasn’t very good. Sure, my choirs sang well, my students could recite facts about music back through the Renaissance period, but I was hung up on classroom management. I didn’t have enough strategies to be as effective as I should have been. Those strategies came with time, as well as advice from a master teacher mentor.

Eventually, my classroom strategies improved, and then I remembered the most important thing about teaching: LEARNING. Those kids didn’t care what I had to say. They wanted to be involved in their own learning. My goal was to help them learn to think, but more importantly, learn to learn. Those were skills they would need their entire lives!

Eventually, I left teaching for higher paying jobs. I felt I wasn’t really making an impact on children, and I was burnt out. Outside of education, I was successful… but  unhappy. So, I took a very hefty pay cut and returned to my first love, teaching. Teaching music, to be exact.  I love working with my students, and I take ownership of their learning and well-being. They are my children.

Almost every day, a student might ask me, “Why is writing (or science or math…) so important to you? It is just a music class!” My answer is the same now as it has always been: you are LEARNING. You are teaching your brain something more important than any fact you will ever remember.

Which brings me to the last point of Part I: your version of accountability is all about standardized tests. Standardized tests do not, and never will, measure LEARNING. They only measure “remembering” and occasionally “applying.” Those are the two lowest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Standardized tests do not measure analyzing, evaluating, creating, inventing… what do we want more for and from our children? Yes, I want children who can read and write, but I also want children who can think for themselves and can move beyond what we already know to what we do not yet know.

I will gladly admit there are some facts that must be memorized before we can move on to higher order thinking skills. Those facts currently on standardized tests, however, do not fully measure what a child knows and is able to do. Yet, we are basing our entire definition of success in schools on standardized tests. Money is tied to standardized testing. Threats to teachers and administrators are tied to standardized testing. Children are being threatened with standardized testing!

Have you ever seen a 2nd grader stressed out because he knows a standardized test is approaching? I have, and it sickens me. 2nd graders should not be worried about a TEST. The result of all the pressure and emphasis on standardized testing: teachers have begun teaching to the test. We can’t have teachable moments in the classrooms anymore, because “it’s not on the test.” “If it’s not on the test, we don’t teach it.” Students do not love learning. They don’t love or even like school. How are the children of this country going to be successful if they don’t want to learn? Their definition of learning has become “preparing for a test.”  And I don’t blame them.

To close Part I of this note to you, I want to re-emphasize my two main points: we cannot have true accountability with tests that are so inadequately measuring our students’ true capabilities and potential; nor can we expect scapegoats to rise up and suddenly become accountable when they are shoved down, stepped on, and blamed for everything that is wrong with American schools. There has to be a better solution. I will address those ideas in Part II.

(Edu friends: I really want to send this post (and Part II) to our nation’s leaders. I would be grateful for any suggestions you have! Thank you!)