Archive for September 2014
I had a chance to visit the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio last spring. I enjoyed the few hours I spent there, though I needed about three times as long to see all of it. Still, I saw tons of cool planes from WWI and WWII. The gift shop was stocked with all kinds of interesting stuff, including dozens of model airplane kits. I was nostalgia-struck, and decided to buy two models to someday put together. That “someday” tuned out to be the middle of August, and I’ve finally assembled the first of the two.
What a pain in the ass. The number of individual paints required to cover the planes is staggering. Between my two models, I need about twenty-five different paints—some of which are almost impossible to find. Then there’s the damn directions. Even as a well-educated adult with design and assembly experience, I was often dumbfounded. And you can forget total adherence to the directions and full functionality of the model if even one major piece is off by 1/16″. After a week of casual assembly, the pieces of the model sat on my kitchen table for days on end without me touching them. But I wasn’t going to pack it in and give up. I’m far too stubborn for that. So I forged ahead, putting parts together in clusters, painting, repainting, and rereading directions six or eight times. I still screwed stuff up. The model box said it was appropriate for ages ten and up, but I’d probably get a visit from DCFS if I put a ten-year old through the agony of assembling one of these things.
Thankfully, I learned a few things along the way and already have some strategies for the other model. Don’t know when I’ll get to it. Maybe when I have a few months to spare. There was some interesting historical information included with this first model, so at least I learned a few things besides how to manage a huge tediousness huge mess on my kitchen table.
The P61 Black Widow was designed exclusively as a night fighter… it could reach a top speed over 370 MPH…
Four .50 caliber machine guns were mounted to the dorsal turret and could be controlled by any of the three crew members… there were also four 20mm cannons in the ventral location on the fuselage pod.
The P61 Black Widow proved to be effective for its purpose, though it was too slow to compete with higher-performance and jet-powered planes developed near the end of WWII. The plane was also vulnerable to giant predatory cats…
continued from yesterday…
Test taking in general is fraught with an unbelievable set of variables. In no particular order, a student’s test score can be influenced by poor weather conditions, a lack of sleep the night before because they were up playing video games or texting with a friend, they didn’t eat breakfast, they are apathetic about school, they see no immediate application of the test results, they are pissed at me for whatever reason, or (and this is a VERY popular one among younger students) they dislike me and think that failing the test will fail me. After twenty years of teaching and seeing students act out by refusing to take a test or to take a test seriously, the dreams of millions of students have finally come true. If they fail their PERA test, they can directly influence the performance evaluation of a teacher. There is no way we can make them take a test seriously and give their best effort. And it’s dangerous to underestimate the level of hatred (or at least distrust) many at-risk students have for their local school. It runs through the generations to the point where it’s almost a phenotype. Their parents didn’t like or trust the local school because of so many negative experiences, and even the students themselves have had 8-10 years of negative school experiences. In many ways, measuring teachers by test scores is similar to measuring doctors by their “cure” rate. But doctors don’t have any control of patients taking their medication, changing an unhealthy lifestyle, or even being interested in their own wellness.
I should mention that there is no plan in place for supervision of testing for the test that counts for comparison scores. This is one area where tests such as the ACT and SAT really get it right. Testing conditions are highly regulated. Cheating is so rare that when it makes news, it usually makes big news for the mere fact of how much effort and conniving it takes to cheat on the test. But there is little or even no regulation for teachers who might literally feed students answers. I’ve already said that I feel like my test is The Gospel According to Burd because the questions are based on things I already know I’m going to say over and over and over this semester. So “feeding” students answers is part of my regular teaching routines if students are paying attention. But if, for instance, a teacher uses an online article and set of questions for their test, and those are pretty easy to find for any particular discipline, there is almost nothing that can be done to prevent that same teacher from revisiting the same article multiple times throughout a semester until their students have mastered the content and questions. There is nothing that can be done about students who are wise to the system and can find the article on their own and repeat it ad infinitum.
I was in a meeting last week in which a colleague noted that nobody has brought up the “I Don’t Know” option. We’re supposed to be giving a test on skills the students have little clue about, yet they can still guess an answer and get it right on multiple-choice questions. If that guess is a right answer, that right answer counts against me. But nobody talked about one of the multiple choice answers being “I Don’t Know” when a test is initially given. Instead, we tell students the same things we tell them when they take the ACT: Try to eliminate options until there are only 2 left, and then guess. Hell, that’s a standard test-taking strategy. But not for our PERA tests. That strategy could lead to a teacher losing his job. So should we go against what we tell students otherwise? If so, why send contradictory messages? And what about a discipline in the foreign languages? This was brought up at the same meeting. A student might know almost nothing about Spanish, and would bottom-out on a PERA assessment at the start of the year. But in my discipline, a student already has 15-17 years of English language experiences and could easily decode or make a very good educated guess and stand to get a question right. If they do so, I stand to show less growth than another teacher and could lose my job.
I recently read an article in The New Yorker about the standardized test cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools. An interesting quote in the article came from David Berliner, the former dean of the school of education at Arizona State University. Though Berliner was speaking specifically of No Child Left Behind, his words may be even truer in regard to what Illinois is doing with PERA:
“The people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty.”
PERA isn’t addressing poverty, which is the most significant factor facing public education. It is creating more testing, which continues to feed the great social sorting machine that is testing. The poor and non-white students will continue to be separated from the non-poor white students, though the former populates our schools every bit as much as the latter (my school is roughly two-thirds minority). Politicians (especially “reform” politicians) will continue to beat the drum that public schools are failing and there is nothing they can do to fix that, and they may soon point to the failure of PERA as an example, even though the roll out of the legislation is hamfisted. The truth is that they aren’t willing to do what it takes to fix public schools.
I fear that what will ultimately happen with PERA is Very Little. I can promise you that if my colleagues and I are already thinking of these pitfalls that many other teachers and districts are thinking of them, too, and some of them may not act with the same degree of integrity that I attribute to many of my colleagues and myself. Instead of hurrying under-performing teachers out of public schools, it has the potential to create another way for them to protect themselves. Am I worried? Of course. I don’t like walking around with a target on my back, and I don’t like working in a system that is consistently tying my hands while outside influences continually change the rules of how the public education game is played. But I don’t have a choice. I’m not going to quit. I love my job too much, and believe too strongly in the good that comes from public education. I guess I’ll drift towards the ultimate teacher refuge. I’ll close my door and teach.
I gave a test last week on the sixth full day of school. Ninety-five percent of my students failed. Two days prior, I had given another test to a different group of students. Ninety-five percent of them failed, too. These numbers aren’t the most disturbing factor in what is happening with the current state of public teaching, nor is the fact that I’m giving tests on the fourth and sixth days of the school year. What’s most disturbing is that both of these tests were purposely designed by me to be so difficult that the students would fail, and the harder I can make them fail, the more likely I am to show how much they learn in my classroom and thus prove how effective I am as a teacher.
This is where we are in Illinois and in my district with the Performance Evaluation Reform Act (PERA). The legislation is now on our doorstep, and next year it will go into full effect. Roughly two-thirds of my performance evaluation will be based on classroom observations; the other third is comprised of the results my students achieve when they retake the tests I gave them last week. In preparation for this, my district has been forging a new ironclad evaluation instrument. I’m not worried about that. I’ve aced every evaluation instrument I’ve faced. This new one promises to be much more rigorous, but I know I’m up to the challenge. This is all in response to tenure laws that purportedly protected ineffective teachers that had the good fortune to be born before younger and supposedly more effective teachers. Instead of a “last in, first out” approach when a school is facing reductions in staff, less effective teachers of any length of experience can be released instead of the youngest or least tenured, provided those younger teachers prove themselves to be better than the older ones.
What I am worried about is the tests I just administered, and the tests administered by my colleagues. Administering an impossible test at the start of the school year is one helluva “How do you do?” Instead of building some trust and establishing expectations the first few days, I’m instead torpedoing my students. Most students come to the new school year in the same way most teachers do. We’re glad to be back, and glad for a fresh start. Most of my students, even the ones I will eventually come to consider my “bad” students, want to start off on a positive note. They want to take a test and pass it and prove their worthiness. Heck, well more than half of them gobble up the summer reading tests they have to take and at least pass with a “C.” But here I am in the position to purposely fail them. If I can’t do that effectively, I could lose my job.
The tests I administered are exclusive to my classroom. If it happens in my class, I can test it. That doesn’t sound like much of a problem, but it’s actually a huge problem. In my Creative Writing class, the test pretty much amounts to The Gospel According to Burd. Take my test around the county, and students won’t make heads or tails of it. It’s a hard test. It’s one of the best tests I’ve ever written. Doesn’t matter. It is generally invalid because it’s not normed to anything. It’s a non-standardized test. There is no standard base of knowledge for Creative Writing like there is for basic English and Reading skills, and there isn’t a panel of experts in the field or a psychometrician who created the test. There’s me and the heavily biased manner in which I teach Creative Writing. I can no more say what the best practice is in creative writing than I can the best practice in teaching or parenting. I teach creative writing by handing down the practices that I have researched and that work best for me, and constantly adapting them as I grow as a writer and a teacher. This isn’t an endorsement for standardized tests—you’ll never catch me endorsing standardized tests. This is an endorsement for how ridiculous and frustrating testing has become in our public schools.
What’s more, the testing conditions are exclusive to my classroom. Who’s to say I’m not playing loud music, or constantly distracting students, or short-changing them on time limits, or even imposing impossible time limits when they take the test the first time? Plus, if students don’t make an effort, or even if they’re absent, those blank answers can work to my advantage if I never have them make up the test. Why not bet on my students not remembering (or not even caring) that they took a test way back at the start of the year? With so many tests already being taken, what’s one more that may or may not have been missed?
I counted the tests my Reading students will be taking at the start of the school year. This includes all the PERA tests in each of their classes, a benchmark test my district administers, a pre-test they’ll soon take for an online database we use, plus, a standardized reading test we administer because students are placed in Reading class based on a score from a standardized test they took nine months before they came to high school. If they didn’t take that test seriously, or if they learned some things in those nine months, their abilities may have risen and they deserve a chance to show that. Nonetheless, my students will have taken ten tests in the first fifteen days of class. These are already mostly at-risk students who dislike school and especially dislike tests. Tests have rarely if ever brought good news for them—they’ve served only to show how much they don’t know or how far they are behind grade level. It’s hard enough to get them motivated and believing that the major assessments like the ACT are important and to take them seriously. Now we have to get them to believe the same thing seven more times at the end of the semester when they retake the PERA test in each class—in addition to the regular final exam. At what point does the adolescent brain say “Enough is enough,” and shut down? How can all these tests be serious, and why should I take them all seriously?
I made friends with Rachael Stark out at The Skids a few years ago. We palled around for a few weeks, as much as a New Yorker and a Chicagoan can without coming to fisticuffs. Anyhow, she’s a pretty solid writer, yoga queen, and friend. She’s been blogging for The Huffington Post for a year or so now, and is kind enough to send me a link each time she posts. I told her she’s gonna get a book out of all these posts, so you heard it here first. Last week, she made the front page with her blog about her grandmother: One Penny at a Time: The Most Important Lesson I Learned From My Grandmother. Check it out. I enjoyed it quite a bit.