Wednesday, April 28, 2010

ELA Exam... a review

So the annual New York State ELA exam has come and gone, and I'm fairly confident the students walked away with a feeling of success. After looking over the test, and hearing feedback from students, I am confident that we covered the necessary material for them to "pass" the test.

However, it's the notion of "passing" that is the center of the post. A colleague of mine told me today that in order to score at least a "2" on the test, students only had to answer seven questions out of 39 correct on the sixth grade test. Is this an indicator of how low our standards have become? Since when is scoring less than 20 percent on an examination considering passable? The state should be ashamed of itself if this prediction of scoriong proves true.

For the alst few weeks, my students and I have been learning test prep stategies to help them on the exam. For me, this involved reviewing grammar, word use, and parts of speech (topics that are typically left out of the stardard curriculum in New York City). As I proctored the test, I noticed something... my students not only filled all of the available space writing their essays but they had to use the extra blank page in the back of the book. I was elated.

But I still wonder, are these non-uniform tests really proving growth, or are the tests being dumbed down each year to show "growth" when really the students haven't mastered anything new?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Really reform or reform for real?

Reform is needed, but this isn't it.

For weeks I've been wavering on the merits of merit-based pay for teachers. Sure I can understand why non-teachers would think this could be a potential driving force for reform in an educational system that so desperately craves it. Even more pro-reform self, a teacher in practice and in heart, thought the idea had some merit to it.

However, there are too many "what ifs" at stake to drastically alter the way the education system hires, fires, and retains teachers. Certainly, drafting legislation without the input or consent from teachers is never going to work, but goodness knows teachers are slow to change the status quo, especially when it could signal their time in the classroom has come to a close.

Now, let me preface, I have my reservations about merit based pay. I believe that teachers are morally obligated to work hard and try to educate EVERY student that sits in their classrooms, even if that means rewriting lessons, altering curricula, or reaching out to coworkers, peers, and parents for advice. Teaching is by no means a profession for the self-absorbed, but unfortunately many of our union and school board leaders have become so anti-change that our students are suffering. To that end, I do believe that teacher tenure should be abolished. Like one of my professors at the University of Florida said after turning down tenure twice, "If I am no longer fit to teach, then I shouldn't be in the classroom." Thank you professor for creating what would become a linchpin of teaching philosophy.

But where to we begin to institute change in our school system? Is it right to force merit-based pay onto an unwilling populace/workforce? Both questions are difficult to answer. In Florida's case, the attempt to force merit pay onto school districts statewide would have led to revolt among teachers. Let's be frank, did the state legislature honestly think that teachers in a state where the average starting pay is significantly below the national average stick around if their pay was centered on student test scores? Of course not.

This is where the "what ifs" come into play. What if a menacing administrator schedules all low-level students into a single classroom as payback against a teacher? That teacher certainly could not increase test scores with a group of students who are either seriously below level or lack the skills needed to catch up to their peers. Ultimately, the teacher would be at risk and not the administrator. Secondly, what would stop teachers from forging the tests or giving the answers to the students? Sure this is an extreme example, but it definitely happens in classroom across the country on Test Day. Lastly, teachers are only with students on average seven hours a day; they cannot control what those students do the remaining fourteen hours. Without parental support, teachers cannot possible make any gains with their students... the test results prove it, the research proves it, and quite frankly, my own practice has proven it.

If the United States wants to reclaim its status as the preeminent educational system in the world, it's high time to abolish tenure (much like the Washington D.C. school district is attempting to do), close the "rubber rooms," give under-performing teachers the boot, and finally fund schools equally so that ALL students have access to the resources, extracurricular activities, and class choice that made the American school system great in the first place.