Thursday, November 20, 2014

A parent's perspective on school reform and accountabilty.

File:School of Athens Raphael detail 03.jpg
Raphael, School of Athens (detail)
When I was a high school math teacher, I kept an eye on the educational trends that influenced what happened in my classroom, and I had some pretty strong opinions about curriculum and policy. Now that I'm a stay-at-home mother of a child in public school, I am more concerned than ever about what's happening in the schools.

We live in Prince George's County —  the underdog of the Washington metro region —  and we want to stay here. We love our community. Though I'm pleased with the local elementary school our son attends, I am eager for the struggling schools in the county to improve. If Prince George's County is going to boost its reputation, the public schools must become a viable option for families who care about education.

But I am worried about the stories that I'm hearing from teachers.

The new teacher evaluation formula mandated by the state of Maryland heavily emphasizes both a data tracking requirement called Student Learning Objectives and, beginning in the 2016-2017 school year, standardized test scores. I am concerned that the increased emphasis on standardized testing comes at a high cost, not only in terms of dollars spent, but in time, energy, and morale. Moreover, the paperwork burden on teachers, as a result of a hyper-focus on data and high stakes testing, has become overwhelming.

One of my friends is considering leaving the teaching profession after her second year. She says that the time in the classroom is "awesome," but the paperwork and other aspects of dysfunction in the school district's bureaucracy may drive her away from teaching. Another teacher friend told me that she cries on her way home from work nearly every day. When I asked one highly regarded teacher about the amount of paperwork the county requires, she told me that the burden on teachers has become so great that she feels almost like she is in an abusive relationship that she needs to get out of. This is a woman who sparkles when she talks about reading and science and the kids in her class. This is exactly the kind of teacher we need to hold onto.

The more I hear from teachers, the greater my sense of urgency becomes. I don't want our best teachers to leave. I don't want them to burn out. I don't want our great teachers to become mediocre teachers, because the burdens of  mandatory data-tracking and test prep deplete their energy and passion. And while I acknowledge that we need a way to help our ineffective teachers improve or get them out of the classroom, I don't believe that these new accountability measures are the answer.

Prince George's County's version of the Student Learning Objectives requirement looks to me like nothing more than bureaucratic silliness: I can't see how it's going to help the lousy teachers get up to speed. And an increased emphasis on standardized testing is the wrong approach. When teachers turn their classrooms into test prep factories, they usually can get results in the short term (i.e. higher test scores), but what are the long-term costs of teaching to a test that measures a narrow set of skills? What kinds of learning and thinking will be emphasized, and what will be minimized? What kinds of experiences will students miss because their teacher's job depends on getting her students to do well on a standardized test?

This is not just a local problem: It is echoed in school districts around the country, as schools fall under the influence of the new corporate reformers and their allies in government. I fear for what's happening to our public schools.

I fear that the creativity and joy that happens in the classroom will erode, under the banner of accountability.  I worry that test preparation, data tracking, and paperwork will increasingly overshadow meaningful teaching — the kind of teaching that inspires kids and instills in them a love of learning. And that would be a shame. Because as demanding as it is to be a teacher or a learner, as exhausting as it is sometimes, I really believe that learning and teaching are inherently joyful activities. To learn something of substance — to wrestle with a new idea or master a difficult skill — is deeply satisfying. The best kind of learning challenges us and changes us — how we think, how we see the world, what we can do, what we can become. If that kind of learning is going to happen in the classroom, we must demand that our teachers be treated with respect. We must not allow new accountability measures, paperwork, and standardized testing to get in the way of a teacher's most important job. We need teachers who are fully engaged in the business of teaching.

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