America’s Most Wanted: Week 4 Blogical Discussion Post

For you special education teachers out there, here is what our federal Secretary of Education thinks about us.  It is only going to get worse.

http://dianeravitch.net/2014/06/25/arne-duncan-proposes-new-accountability-for-special-education/

UPDATE     6/25/14

I wanted to add a few links that I shared below that I feel touched on many of the comments provided.  I’ll have to say I was surprised that  everyone is feeling the heat and shared many of the same opinions, comments and concerns.   I believe I am a good teacher, and I can tell by your responses that all of you are dedicated teachers well versed in your craft.  If you have time take a look at the following three links.

http://www.post-gazette.com/news/education/2014/06/05/Bill-would-cut-seniority-based-layoffs/stories/201406050229

http://www.sfgate.com/business/networth/article/Dumping-tenure-law-would-help-state-s-credit-5556863.php

http://dianeravitch.net/2014/06/24/belleville-n-j-why-teachers-need-tenure/comment-page-1/

 

 

For the first time in a number of years, I taught a 9th grade special education English class with students whose reading levels ranged from 3rd to 5th grade. I got excited as I haven’t had the chance to use my reading specialist skills since teaching special education at the 2nd and 3rd grade level.  I got together with a retired reading specialist, pored over my favorite book on reading instruction , and developed a game plan incorporating reading fluency, word study, spelling skills and comprehension strategies.  Lo and behold, my students reading and spelling skills grew, with all of them scoring in the middle affix level of spelling and an average reading growth of 1.5 years.  One student grew over 2 years in her reading level!!  You would think that would make me an effective teacher, but if you did, you thought wrong.

It turns out I am America’s new most wanted; a teacher at the top of the salary scale whose students cannot pass the PA Keystone Literary test, and who currently cannot be fired without just cause.  (See HERE and HERE, and HERE for how that may soon be changing.)  To make it worse, I have a pension, benefits, summers off, and am a union member.  You see, it doesn’t matter if I have students who truly have learning disabilities and are not able to successfully master the required tested curriculum, students who hate school and learning, students whose parents are never around or can’t/won’t help their child with homework; my students’ inability to score proficient on the state standardized test is my fault.  As such here in Pennsylvania, 50% of my evaluation will depend on student achievement.  Given the population that I teach there may come a day that I will be deemed “needs improvement”, which under the current law only has to happen twice in a 10 year period for me to be fired.

I have no problem with teacher accountability, but take exception to the fact that America’s schools are failing, and failing as the direct result of unqualified teachers.  While I have no doubt that there are ineffective teachers, I don’t believe that the percentage is any higher than any other occupation.  In fact, even in California case hyperlinked above, the plaintiff’s expert speculated that the percentage was between one and two percent.  Public education has been used as a political whipping boy since the days of Ronald Reagan to the point that failing schools are taken as common knowledge, facts and logic aside.  While we all know an anecdotal story about failing teachers, do these individuals make up a large percentage of teachers, or are there other factors that weigh more heavily in the perceived failures of our school system?  I know what I think, what about you?

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17 Comments

  1. Daren,

    I totally agree with your viewpoint regarding how regarding your feelings about how the world of politics view the field of education. While statewide and national test scores can be one valid way to demonstrate student knowledge growth, it is only one way. As you know, our district has recently adopted Learning Focused Schools and also the SLO (Student Learning Objectives). While there are a few organizational benefits to these tools, the overall process to create them is so incredibly time intensive (not to mention repetitive) that it takes needed time away from finding ways to continue to improve my teaching skills. I also agree with you in stating that there are very few teachers who are ineffective (like you said, no more than any other field of business). A majority of teachers truly care about their job and their students, and are essential assets to student’s knowledge growth.

    I found your articles regarding the removal of tenure and the firing of “ineffective” teachers disturbing. I did not realize this theme has started to infect the entire country (I thought it was more localize within the state of PA). I also find it very scary that 50% of our evaluations are based on student achievement. While this percentage intimidates me, the reality of it is that I will be okay because a majority of my students are high-leveled learners and seem to score at least proficient on statewide tests. For you, this is not the case. You have some students who will never pass these tests, due to true learning difficulties and disabilities. While this is not actually a result of your teaching abilities, it will be portrayed this way in your evaluation, which is not fair.

    Tiffany

  2. This sure is a hot topic in education, most commonly in the faculty room. It is so sad how “teachers” are viewed today. I am a primary teacher, so the 50% of the evaluation from test scores does not yet effect me, because I do not give my students standardized tests. I came from teaching sixth grade, so I can feel your pain. I often hear the primary teachers say, “It does not effect me, or I am not teaching that (even if it is common core). This is very difficult for me because like I said, I came from the upper grades. I understand that what the primary teachers don’t teach or choose to skip over, negatively impacts the students for the future. It makes it very difficulty for students to pass, when some teachers in the primary level teach what they want, rather then what needs to be taught. I know one teacher this year that did not teach science at all because she did not like the series!!! While I do think there are certainly ineffective teachers, I do see wonderful teachers who pour their heart and soul into teaching. I think teachers need to be accountable, but I do not think this method is appropriate.

    • The one positive of the evaluation system we are seeing is that the emphasis is moving away from my students and your students to our students, but as you pointed out, there still is a way to go. I taught the elementary level for 4 years, about 3 too long. I was seen as a glorified aide and teachers were upset when I pulled kids out of their rooms to remediate. Even when I brought my programs into their classrooms, they would sit behind their desks while I taught their whole class reading, writing, spelling skills or math facts. I unknowingly upset a lot of teachers my first year there as I was not going to hand score the SAT tests. I hadn’t done that at the middle school level when I was there. Come to find out that all teachers wanted that as they didn’t want my students scores to average in with their class scores. Consequently there was a big push to identify kids very early and, in my opinion, way too aggressive so as to keep low kids from ruining class room averages.

  3. Daren,
    I have been in the field of special education for 32 years now and I have seen many changes come about again and again. There has always been the threat against teachers as the culprits for failure among our students.You are right on the money that we are all on “the most wanted” list as teachers. I work closely with the state and with our IU on teacher effectiveness and it still amazes me that they don’t even know what this evaluation and SLO’s should look like for students who do not take the state assessment but the alternate assessment. Isn’t it enough that they are basing some of our evaluation on student performance and now they add SLO’s into the mix. It doesn’t give teachers a fair, fighting chance. I know how hard it is for students with special needs to make academic gains but it sounds like you were doing a fabulous job with them Hopefully someone is looking at your students’ progress to see all your efforts in working with these students.
    At this point I’m not quite sure of the % of teachers who are mediocre to say the least. I know that there are those teachers who unqualified but still have students who are score proficient despite the teacher. There are many who are rewarded with a satisfactory evaluations but special education teachers continue to struggle under the same guidelines. Our system in PA is definitely in need of fixing.

    • I really enjoy my job as a special education teachers and get personal joy from accomplishments like that, but I hope I can hold out and make it to 32 years or more. SLO’s are the next big thing, and even though no one in my district knows exactly what were are doing with them, and we won’t be trained until the fall, we are to start now. After looking over material I am still confused. Oh well. I have gotten cynical, but I believe with good reason. When younger teachers say that they can’t believe the people in power are doing what they are doing and don’t they know the consequences, I tell them the people in power know exactly what they are doing. They aren’t trying to improve schools as much as they are trying to prove they are failing.

  4. As an Algebra I teacher, I find this very nerve-racking! For the past several years I have been teaching Algebra I to a class that is made up of around 75% of students with IEP’s or 504 Plans. These students are required to take the Keystone Exam. I almost feel as if “I shot myself in the foot” because not only is the content very difficult for them but many of them have extreme testing anxiety. I hate the thought of “teaching to the test” but my job (which I love) and salary is dependent on these test scores. I love what I do and I love the students that I teach. Like you, I think it is important to hold the teachers accountable (just like we hold our students accountable) but 50% of our evaluation being based on state testing scores seems ridiculous to me. For example, I have had several students that have demonstrated growth in Algebra I, yet, have scored basic on state testing. I am interested (and very worried) to see how these evaluations play out. Good luck to all of us!

    • You hit some very relevant points, and ones that I also share with you. I also teach a special education Algebra class with another special education teacher. I think we have done a great job and of the 11 that were with us last year, 5 were pushed out to the low level regular Algebra class, all doing well. One girl was actually the top student for the 2nd semester earning a 98% counting the final. That success, however, changed the dynamics of the class. The ones that were left were the ones that didn’t work to their potential. I can’t tell you how disappointed I was for Keystone testing when some were done in 15 minutes and, my lectures aside, never picked up a calculator or a pencil to write on paper and figure out the problem. We do our Keystones on the computer and a computer test to many of my students means easier buttons to push randomly. They see no downside to failing the test, but it comes back to haunt us all.

    • My daughter is actually one of those students that has an IEP for extreme testing anxiety. If you utter the word “test” to her, she freaks out and panics. Recently the online school that she attends started using timers to ensure that students were not stopping and looking up answers while taking the test. She tried the timer function and immediately bombed every quiz or test. Her anxiety was off of the chart. It wasn’t until one of her teachers actually got her on the phone and just asked her the same questions verbally and without a timer and they realized that she knew the information cold, but that she could not take a timed quiz/test to save her life. Her grades were A’s before the test timer. With the timer, she failed each quiz and test. She has a GPA of over 3.6 and the timer was killing her. Now she takes quizzes without the timer and her teacher verbally asks her the questions and she is doing fantastic. For weeks prior to standardized testing, which she gets as much time as she needs due to her IEP, she is prepped on how to take tests. They don’t use the word “test” around her. Even then, she panics and her scores are well below what she is capable of. I cannot imagine how much time and effort her teachers put into her education. While her standardized testing may not show it, her verbal tests show how strong her teachers really are. If they were judged based on her standardized scores, it would be a huge disservice to the teacher compared to how much she really has learned.

  5. I found the articles you linked to disturbing because although there should be teacher accountability in schools, there are numerous reasons why student achievement does not translate into a high test score.

    I am an independent teacher who has a contract for only a year. The Head of School does not really need to justify a reason for dismissing a teacher. There have been teachers who have been teaching longer than others who seem like exceptionally great teachers who have not had contracts extended. The public story might not match up with the private ones. One never knows all that goes into administrative decisions. Because our school is non-profit and “religious-based,” we do not get unemployment if we are terminated without cause, either. We do not have tenure or a union or even a teacher representative.

    A major teacher complaint in independent schools can be that there is no real performance assessment and the Head of School or division head only shows up if there is a parent complaint. Someone once expressed to the principal a certain amount of stress and concern when she was told parents just loved her. She wanted to know what would happen if the parents did not react well to a classroom procedure, or lesson. Tuition paying parents do have a certain amount of clout and voice opinions loudly. many teachers feel principals are fair, listen to both sides and try to reach a compromise so everyone feels like winners.

    Teacher colleagues from Philadelphia have expressed views and frustrations similar to yours. They have students who have made phenomenal progress in a short number of months and yet the success is not recognized if they are not proficient on standardized tests.

    Keep us informed!

  6. You have chosen such a hot topic right now, Daren! It is so very frustrating to me to have politician’s making educational decisions…and most often the decisions come down to money and control. Something surely needs to be done. I am just not sure of what the answer is to that!

    • I’ve thought about this a lot and I think we teachers are our own worst enemies. Not for bad reasons, but for naive ones. We become teachers not for the salary, benefits, pensions, summers off, etc, but because we love teaching. I didn’t know a thing about salary schedules or benefits when i got hired. We believe that everyone can see this and value what we do. We believe our own experience is unique and surely everyone will realize what a good job we do.I have had many parents very happy with what I have done with their child, but praise goes nowhere fast. Complaints however, go straight to the top. I will say I might not have become a teacher if I had known of the politics involved. Like it or not we have a very political job, and unless we are willing to wade into the political fray and duke it out, especially by voting our jobs, things will never change. We may have reached a tipping point now, but I sincerely hope that is not the case.

  7. The question posed this week is one that strikes a chord with all of us. We are all hardworking teachers, and despite the politics involved and the frustrations we feel toward those in power, we hold ourselves most accountable to our students. The constant blame that is placed on teachers for failing student achievement is enough to discourage even the most motivated of teachers. However, at the end of the day, it’s those kids we are working for and despite public opinion, we will continue to work around the clock to do what whatever we deem necessary to increase student achievement – not just the type of achievement that is indicated on standardized test, but achievement in all areas – social, emotional, etc.
    I believe that “failing teachers” make up an extremely small percentage of teachers and as Daren mentioned, probably no larger a percentage than is found in any work place. Instead, there are so many other factors that contribute to this perception of failure in our schools. These other factors are outside a teacher’s control or realm of influence.
    One of the biggest factors that affects student achievement is poverty. The statistics noted in the article, “Back to school: Rethinking America’s global education rankings,” confirm something that has been quite evident to teachers for a long time – a student’s home life drastically impacts their achievement in school. The article states, “The data suggest that the higher the instance of students receiving free and reduced meals, the lower the academic performance.” I’ve seen this hold true in my own district. Out of our three elementary schools, one has a significant population of free and reduced lunch students and this is always the elementary school that performs the lowest on standardized tests. Honestly, poverty affecting achievement makes sense. Just look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – food on the table, a sense of security – circumstances such as these must be met before achieving higher forms of functioning such as problem-solving or creative thinking. It’s no wonder that poverty-stricken students struggle. They’ve got bigger things to worry about!
    The public needs to recognize that blame for poor achievement cannot be placed solely on the teacher. Teachers have no control over so many aspects of their students’ lives so it doesn’t make sense to hold the teacher solely accountable for how the student performs. I’m reminded of a story I read in a newspaper a few years ago. It’s become a quite popular scenario used to demonstrate how teachers must work with what they are given – no exceptions. Here’s a link to the story: http://www.jamievollmer.com/blueberries

  8. I am taking the Student Engagement and Standards Based Learning PLS class this week in a face-to-face format. Wow! I don’t have to worry about standards at the college level, but I have learned so much this week. Yes, teachers in Illinois are very concerned also. Some of the teachers pink slipped at the end of this school year were the older, stagnant, not-up-to-date teachers. However, as you have all discussed–without tenure, are the highly-paid teachers at risk of losing their jobs?

    We spent a whole week going over the standards and how to write lesson plans. It is still very confusing. They even have standards for mythology in there for I think it was 4th grade. Oh my!

    I know teachers who retired last year before this all came into effect. Many other teachers are spending hours and hours creating school assessments and re-creating their lesson plans.

    Good luck to all of you on this. This is one time that I am happy not to be a part of the discussion.

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