Tag Archives: education reform

The Most Miserable Time of the Year


It’s a sad scene when kids who can’t read are forced to take standardized tests they have no reasonable chance of passing.

It’s even sadder when they know it.

Here’s one who has made considerable reading improvements thus far this year but still has no clue what he’s doing. (“I’m so confused,” he said.)

Here’s one on a kindergarten reading level who this year finally learned all her letter sounds. She goes through each word sounding out every s-i-n-g-l-e letter and considers it reading. When she gets to the questions, she says in her developing English, “I no know.”

This one’s crying. That one’s been staring at the same question for ten minutes. This one’s coloring in the picture that accompanies the passage. That one’s finished almost as quickly as I am done reading the directions.

“Pointless” is not even a word that begins to come close to describing the value these tests have to me and my students. News flash: they’re all going to fail. News flash again: force me to sit for three days taking a five hour test on physics and I’ll fail, too. I can tell you this without even looking at the test.

If you need an assessment of my students’ readiness for the next grade, you might consider asking me. After all, I can tell you all the things a test can’t, such as the types of scaffolds that have enabled them to make some strides this year. Or how much greater the comprehension is when text is read to them. Or what else they need to learn to continue to move forward. Or how they’re “accessing” the grade level standards but, given all their deficits, it’s virtually impossible without a lot of support and guidance. Or who has involved parents and who pretty much fends for themselves once they get home. Or who may be being hit, or who doesn’t eat breakfast, or who brings chips and calls them “lunch.”

I could tell you plenty about these kids, and plenty about the tests.

The sorry thing, though, is that no one’s asking.

A Tale of Two Classes


If yesterday was the least stressful day of the school year thus far, today was one of the most.

A blizzard Tuesday threw roads and transportation in New York into chaos. NYC schools remained open the next day. However, for whatever reasons they had, many students and staff were not at school. I was, and in my class, 7 out of 12 were present. Later, 6 first graders were brought to me because their class had to be split up in the absence of so many teachers. So, my room was filled with me and 13 kids with disabilities.

I decided that, since these little first graders didn’t know me, or anything about the room or the floor they were on, that I should buddy each one of my third graders with one of them. I created a kind of big brother/big sister dynamic so the first graders would walk in line, raise their hands, and do some work on this unique day. The results were fantastic. My third graders took to their buddies and made them their responsibilities.

I had some math work for the little ones to do – basic single digit addition for practice (on a color by numbers picture for fun). I instructed my third graders to sit with their buddy and help them if necessary. Here’s what I saw:

  • Third graders teaching different techniques for adding.
  • Third graders instinctively getting supplies for the first graders.
  • Third graders teaching first graders basic multiplication facts.
  • Everyone working efficiently.

How nice that my students finally had an opportunity to say, “I am better at something than someone. I can really help.” It gave them pride – a feeling they seldom get to feel because the work they’re required to do is often ridiculously beyond their abilities.

While yesterday was a smooth day – with relative quiet, lots of smiles, and organized chaos, today was anything but. Students returned after their day off in the snow, and things were just off from the start. It didn’t help that for two hours to start the day, they had to sit for a benchmark math assessment that frustrated them to no end. It didn’t matter how many times I told them they hadn’t learned how to do something. Those familiar feelings of inadequacy and disappointment ballooned quickly.

In fact, little true learning happened in my class today. We started with the benchmark math test. Then, we had a period for reading in which I worked with my lowest group (all on kindergarten levels). With all their bickering over a game and their frequent interruptions during the lesson, it felt like we hardly accomplished anything. In fact, I had to very sternly remind them why they were in this reading group in the first place. They saw I was angry, and they settled down and resumed working. From there, students had to finish writing the next scene from the difficult chapter book we just finished. (It sounds fun and creative, but is very difficult to do). Some of them had to finish after lunch, and between routines having been disrupted by missing school or medicine, as well as that crushing frustration of not feeling good enough, the day was very dark.

I was reminded as I drove home that failure in school – actually, the sinking feeling that one can’t be successful – begets behavior problems. It happened today. It will continue to happen as long as students like mine are held to standards that don’t support their needs, and in fact insult them. What a shame that the goodwill they had with the opportunity yesterday to feel important, big, and special with their first grade buddies dissipated over things that, in their lives and even this year, will mean pretty much nothing.

Some Try, Some Fail, and All Suffer


Over the past, literally, four days, I administered an end of unit reading and writing assessment to my class of 12 students with disabilities (11 of whom receive English as a Second Language services).

This assessment featured: two passages that were both two pages long, a bunch of multiple choice questions after each (some with two parts, where the second part built upon the first), a written constructed response for each, and a written extended response that required using both passages. Is it any wonder it took us, literally, over 4 hours to finish?

The reading was dense (regardless of me reading each passage twice). The questions were wordy. The writing prompts were confusing. Without even looking at the finished products, I’d venture that most, and probably all, of my students showed no understanding of what is expected (not by me, mind you, but by the geniuses who come up with this arbitrary and overwhelming stuff).

They all told me it was too hard. Some of them asked me what they had to do. Many of them told me they didn’t know what to write. A lot of them copied straight from the passage (regardless of how many times I said, “Make sure you put it in your own words.”)

And three of them cried.

On day one, a boy refused to even take a guess at a multiple choice question. “I’m scared,” he said. “Just put anything, it doesn’t matter,” I told him, to no avail. His eyes reddened and welled with tears, and the tears dropped onto the floor as he looked down. His neighbor leaned over and said, “Come on, just circle A, B, C, or D.” Hoping to show him that everyone was in the same boat, I told him to watch as I surveyed the class: “Who thinks this is hard?” It didn’t matter to him that all hands went up. He was crippled by anxiety.

On day three, my student who is by far the most significantly behind in reading and writing, refused to write anything. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Regardless of how many times my para and I told her or encouraged her, she wouldn’t do anything but put her head on the desk. In the end, she cried as well.

Today, I wised up and had the students highlight what they needed to do. I read the prompt to them several times and directed them how to turn back to the passages. One girl repeatedly said, “I can’t,” and “I don’t know,” and, “I need help.” I explained to her it was like a writing test, so I couldn’t help. “But it’s hard!” “Yes, it is,” I agreed. Again, I polled the class to see who thought it was hard. All hands went up. Then I said, “Put your hand up if I’m helping you.” No hands went up. It didn’t impress her. She wrote nothing and will take a zero on that part of the assessment.

What did I learn about my students from this? Nothing I don’t already know. The notion that they are asked to do work that is totally inappropriate to their current abilities was clearly reinforced.

What did my students learn? Maybe what they’re going to find out eventually anyway, as long as our education system doesn’t adapt to valuing all abilities and the differences among our students: They’re worthless.

Why do we do this to them?

Reality Check


Well, the time has finally come. It’s “see you in September” time. While the kiddies still have one more week of summertime bliss before they strap on their backpacks and skip along to school, we New York City teachers have our alarms set for earlier than we want. My lunch is packed, and when I’m done with this post, I’ll pack my bag, too. Goodbye, summer. Hello, reality.

I admit, I am having great difficulty approaching year six of my career with the usual renegade optimism I’ve always summoned in the past. On the plus side of things, I’m happy to remain in the same room I’ve been for the last two years. I am also tenured now, which could work in my favor. And, I’m predominantly a third grade teacher for the third straight year, so I’m able to continue to hone my skills in teaching that grade’s content.

There are flip sides to all of this, too. I’m glad to be in the same room again, but with precious few hours for me to be in the room to set up before the kids arrive, there is plenty yet to be done. I’m glad to be tenured, but the city’s new evaluation system may make that distinction moot; in the spring, no one had an answer what kind of protections tenure afforded teachers moving forward, and I’m yet to hear anything this year, either. And, while 11 of my students this year are third graders, one is not. How does he get the education he needs and deserves?

Yes, it is difficult for me to find the positives right now. Uncertainty sits like a dark cloud over the back to school proceedings. Perhaps clarity will begin to reveal itself at our meetings tomorrow, but right now, it’s a morass of concern.

All I can say with certainty is that in one week, 12 little darlings are going to arrive in the schoolyard, casting their eyes toward me, excited to be back, scared to be back, indifferent about being back. And it’s on me to harness that excitement, assuage those fears, and overturn that apathy.

Major challenges await. It’s impossible to know the form they’ll take. But, there’s a trend evident in each of my first five years: by the end of the year, magically, everything has fallen into place. It always seems impossible that that will happen. This year is no exception: it seems impossible now, but it will be reality by June.

 

It’s Okay to Be Disgusted


There’s news out of Florida on the testing front. If you haven’t yet heard or read about it, I feel obligated to warn you: it’s grotesque.

It’ll probably turn your stomach a little. It has the potential to raise your blood pressure a few ticks. It might bring a scowl to your face.

But don’t worry. It’s okay to be disgusted.

There’s a boy named Michael. He’s nine, and in Florida, that means the special time in his life has finally come when he takes Florida’s standardized test. Sounds like another anti-testing sob story, and you’re not disgusted yet? Keep reading.

Michael is your typical kid in so many ways, except for the following: he’s blind and he’s mute.

Now, I’m not by any means saying someone who can’t see or speak is incapable of deep thought, comprehension, or success. Obviously we know that isn’t true. Nor am I saying Michael himself, in his unique situation, is totally helpless or hopeless.

But here’s the thing about Michael. In addition to being blind and mute, he has a very limited mental capacity. Michael’s brain is literally incomplete. He has a brain stem, and that’s it.

Let that soak in for a minute. He has a brain stem, and that’s it.

But just because he’s at that special age where tests are the only way to show any kind of competency, Michael had to take the test.

No vision, no speech, no complete brain. Yet still, bless his heart, a test taker.

Now’s the time to be disgusted.

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume Michael didn’t do too well on this test. Am I holding him to low expectations? Am I saying he can’t do certain things? Am I saying he won’t ever be college and career ready? Uh, yep, I am.

Michael has lived and will live his life on drastically different terms than most. I’m not a doctor (just a know-nothing teacher), but, barring incredible medical advancements, I imagine he’ll never bathe himself, dress himself, feed himself, write his name independently, or articulate an opinion. I’d also have to guess he could never comprehend the testing instructions or a reason for it. His life will probably never be comparable to his peers, except for the fact that he is held to the same academic standards as everyone his age.

It’s okay to be disgusted.

But it’s those who let this happen who should feel the most disgusted. For they are the most disgusting.

A Question on Testing: What’s the Point?


My students – with their IEPS, modifications, accommodations, academic struggles, and all – just completed a three-day ELA test.

On day one, they did their best. On day two, they tried their hardest. And on day three, they slogged up the stairs, uninterested in and unmotivated by the prospect of facing this even one more time.

An hour and 45 minutes on day one. An hour and 45 minutes on day two. An hour and 45 minutes on day three. In all: five hours and 15 minutes across three days. Five hours and 15 minutes of silence, confusion, doubt, and frustration. Yes, they were willing to give it “The Ol’ College (and Career-Ready) Try,” but by day three, they had seen and had enough.

What will these tests show that we don’t already know? That they read significantly below grade level (by any standards, Common Core or otherwise)? That their writing ability doesn’t reflect their speaking ability or intelligence? What’s the point?

They were finished with day three by the end of day two. All they cared about this morning was that after today, this test would be done.

Do you think my students are the only ones who felt that way? Why do we subject them to so many hours? Shouldn’t, say, 20 multiple choice questions and two or three essays suffice? The kids are not interested or invested, so they’re not at their best.

Do these tests show the full scope of my students’ capabilities? Or the capabilities of others?

I think we all know the answer to those questions.

Fake It ‘Til You Make It…If You Make It At All


They’re silent. At least they got that much out of this. You can’t talk during a test, plain and simple. Even the slightest sniffle or throat clearing will be treated with suspicion.

Some of them are looking back to the passages – maybe they’ll pull it out. Sure, I know no one expects good grades on this year’s tests. But maybe, just maybe, these kids will pull off a shocker.

Or…maybe they know “What Good Test Taking Looks Like,” so they’re turning back, putting pencil to chin in a thinking pose, and underlining.

But I see in their faces that nothing here makes sense. The words are too long and too many. The questions are too boring and too many.

But they try. They’re too young to realize that, while the test is hard for many their age, it’s even harder for them.

What are they learning from this experience? You gotta fake it ’til you make it.

But with tests like these determining who’s smart and who’s stupid, how could they ever make it?

What Testing Does to This Teacher


I’ve written previously on the damage I see done to my students when they’re faced with a test on which there’s no way they can possibly do well. With all the hyperbole leading up to the standardized tests they take, and because they are virtually impossible to pass if you have a disability, my students are often left to feel worthless, regardless of what strides they made heading into the tests.

We’re into it now. Around this time, benchmark assessments and practice tests are du rigueur in my third graders’ worlds. And so for me, the cycle begins anew, just as it has since I started teaching special education: Kids make significant progress on their levels and terms -> kids forced to take tests way above their levels and terms -> kids realize there’s something wrong and made to feel worthless -> kids frustrated, disengaged, unmotivated, and upset.

GOOD TIMES!

Recently, I’ve sat and watched with my downcast head in my open palm as my poor 8-year olds have been made to sit in their chairs for unnatural lengths of time, like tiny little soldiers whose feet don’t touch the floor, thinking they have a clue about how to answer the questions in front of them, but demonstrating by their blank stares and nonsensical responses that they are lost. Can’t blame them.

Every group of students is different. These third graders are not nearly as talented or interested in math as last year’s class. They also have the added “bonus,” lucky little winners they are, of taking Common Core-aligned tests. Read: lots of multi-step, multi-operation questions, each one seemingly designed, with a little more vitriol than the previous, to invalidate English language learners and students with disabilities.

Bless their stubby pencils and little hearts, they try. They show work (whether it’s appropriate to the task is another story). They wait patiently for their friends to finish so I can read the next problem. They smile when they think they got it right.

And, in their stunted spelling (learning disabilities, you know), they answer a short response question by saying, “I dink dis test is to haid.”

What’s this do to me? It makes me sad. Makes me angry. Makes me mad. Makes me question myself. Makes me worry about unrealistic expectations. Makes me pity the kids.

One colleague had the best advice about how to deal with this: “Don’t look.”

When we’re all jumping off a cliff together, that’s pretty solid advice.

fiscal-cliff-looking-peering-over-the-cliff-stock-market-technical-analysis-option-trading-etf-education

 

The Report Card Wow Factor


Getting a report card is no fun when you have no chance to get a good one.

Wow, we’re coming up on report cards already! And, wow, we’re still grading kids with disabilities by the same standards as everyone else! So that way, of course, they can see how deficient they are in what they’re supposed to know, thereby adversely and badly damaging their confidence, self-esteem, and desire to put in an effort in school.

Wow.

I know I’ve written about this before, but can someone please elucidate the very fine reasons for presenting a hard-working child – who won’t likely ever be on grade level because of a cognitive disability – with an unsavory report of grades multiple times every year? What is the inherent message? Choose any of the following:

“Hey, Johnny – you’re really not good at anything.”

“Hey, Sally, if you’d only try harder you might improve.”

“Hey, Billy, all the work you’ve put in this year – pretty worthless.”

“Hey, Annie, you’re a joke.”

And on and on.

I believe, if grades have to be given – and in a standardized system everything absolutely, positively MUST have a number (preferably a punitive one, duh) – then the grades should be given on the basis of student effort and improvement.

Do you know that last year, one of my third grade students improved from a kindergarten to a second grade level in reading? Yes, really. And do you know that on his report card, he got a 1 (i.e. “significantly below grade level”) three separate times? Yes, really.

“Hey, kid – I think what you’ve done is amazing, but sorry, you’re still a 1.” What a message. What a killer. What a way to turn a kid off to school.

If you’re a teacher, you should believe this: it is not the destination that is most important, but the journey. We want our students to grow, challenge themselves, and improve. So then why are we reducing everything to a grade? Doesn’t anything else matter?

There’s a Problem Here


If you work in one of the 45 states that adopted the Common Core standards to start this year (and chances are you do), then you are probably aware of one major glaring issue regarding the implementation of the math standards.

That is: how can we teach this new, deeper style of math when it supposes that students have had previous years of training and learning in a similar style?

Common Core supporters will say that’s exactly the reason we needed these standards, but that misses the point. The point is that until a class of students has received Common Core instruction from Kindergarten to the end of their careers, it’s not going to make sense. So, my students, who are brand new to the Common Core way of math, are starting out way behind where Common Core supposes they should be.

This should have been a discussion before Common Core was green lighted and rushed into our classrooms. It might have gone something like this:

Logical Thinker: “Here’s the thing. If we start Common Core in every grade this year, it can’t possibly work for all students.”

Skeptic: “Of course it can.”

Logical Thinker: “No, it can’t. Think of it this way. We’re going to ask third graders, for instance, to do math based on what they would have learned in second grade. Only thing is, they didn’t learn Common Core math in second grade, so they don’t have the prerequisite skills to do the Common Core math in third grade.”

Skeptic: “You know what? That’s a good point. And that’s going to be true for all grades, except…”

Logical Thinker: “Kindergarten. If we start Common Core with them this year, then they can do Common Core in first grade because they’ll have done it for a year. It all builds on the previous year so kindergarten is the only grade we can really start with without totally demoralizing kids, teachers, parents, and administrators.”

Skeptic: “This actually makes sense.”

Logical Thinker: “Of course it does. So we start with kindergarten in 2012. Then do kindergarten and first in 2013. Then kindergarten through second in 2014, and continue implementing it in waves until the 2012 kindergarteners are at the end of their career.”

Skeptic: “Okay. I get that. But what about all the kids who don’t get Common Core? We’d just be failing them.”

Logical Thinker: “No, we wouldn’t. Implementing something like this requires logical thought, and that’s why I’m here. We will fail them only if we cause them frustration by expecting them to do math they can’t be expected to do. You can’t build a building without a foundation. Where is their foundation?”

Skeptic: “Yeah, that might be a problem.”