Chaos in Our Schools: A Book Preview

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cover image Mar 19, 2022.jpg

Foreword

 

        Americans may agree that education is in trouble in our country.  They might never agree on how to fix it.  The experts have propagated numerous theories over the decades about how to provide rigor and effective instruction in the classroom.  One such expert weighs in on this exercise in the first paragraph of his op-ed that appeared in Education Week in 2015:

“Let’s review the educational cure-alls of past decades: back to basics, the open classroom, whole language, constructivism, and E.D. Hirsch’s excruciatingly detailed accounts of what every 1st or 3rd grader should know, to name a few. It seems America’s teachers and students are guinea pigs in the perennial quest for universal excellence. Sadly, though, the elusive panacea that will solve all of education’s woes has remained, well, elusive.” [1]

 

     This is from Dr. James Delisle, a noted Gifted and Talented specialist who spends his time now as an education consultant and author.  His books appear prominently on Prufrock Press’s webpages. When I read this op-ed in 2016, I thought, ‘Amazing!  Someone of note finally speaks the truth about our educational woes.’

 

[1] Dr. James Delisle, “Differentiation Doesn’t Work”. 2015. Education Week: https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-differentiation-doesnt-work/2015/01

 

 Table of Contents 

Foreword   

The New Normal                           1

How We Got Here                         5

The Backlash Against Teachers        7

Best Practices – Differentiation       13

Best Practices – Visible Learning    25

Introducing Common Core            35

What is Common Core?                37

Why Common Core?                    40

The Testing Conundrum                47

An Aside:  Murky Financial Waters   61

Jumping in Without a Plan             67

Nuts and Bolts                            75

Performance Evaluation Explained   91

Like a Smack in the Head             111

Evaluations, Pre-191                     121

Why Growth?                             131

The Search for Transparency        139

Teaching to the Test                   149

Testing for Data Collection           163

Best Practices vs. Reality              173

The Bottom Line                        183

A Plan for Elem. School Reform     191

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From a teacher’s perspective, there is a disconnect between the messages routinely delivered by administration and the reality we experience in the classroom. 

 

     We are continually told that if we would just latch on to ‘this best practice’ or ‘that best practice’, all our students will respond positively, and every issue in our classroom will be resolved.

     This fad driven professional development creates havoc in schools and cynicism among teachers.  No strategy touted by their principal is given much credence because teachers know that next year, something new will take its place.

     The education elites have become fond of thrusting cutting-edge programs at us – I have manuals for many of these sitting on my shelves at home, distant memories of their tried-and-failed implementation clouding my mind.  I also remember my introduction to some pretty major requirements: Differentiation, Visible Learning, and Common Core, back in the school years 2012 and 2013. 

     In truth, teachers want to believe there is a cure-all for the malaise they see in their classrooms.  But we know something the experts don’t: the reality of classroom teaching.

 

     Where did all these education game-changers come from?  Why have we been assailed over the last twenty years by what has become a cottage industry of re-inventing learning? 

     I believe we can trace it to our lawmakers.

 

     In 1965, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a piece of legislation that addresses the disparities in achievement between impoverished populations and everyone else.  It is where we get programs that begin with the word Title:

 

  • Title I:  mandated programs in low-income schools.

  • Title II:  funding for school libraries, textbooks, and preschool programs.

  • Title III:  mandates and funding for adult education.

  • Title IV:  $100 million over five years to fund research and training.

  • Title V: grants under Public Law 874 (for Title I, to address operating costs in low-income schools).

  • Title VI:  definitions and limitations to the law. [1]

     Every five years, this Act has been reviewed by Congress, with new legislation added periodically, such as Title IX in 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in any program receiving Federal funds.  There are numerous other education reform laws on the Federal books.  To summarize and analyze them all would require writing a separate book. That is not my purpose.   I will, however, address two of the more recent adjuncts to the original ESEA.

     In 2001, Congress worked in a bipartisan way to write a new extension of ESEA, naming it No Child Left Behind (NCLB). [2]  One of its major provisions is called Adequate Yearly Progress.  AYP “allows the U.S. Department of Education to determine how every public school and school district in the country is performing academically according to results on standardized tests.” [3]

      The very name No Child Left Behind promises positive change.  Unfortunately, the bill contained enough improbable-to-achieve mandates that Congress had to establish flexibility in its implementation and waivers for its requirements. [4]  The ultimate waiver came in 2009, when Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a bill that places measuring growth in students above grade-level achievement as the arbiter of success. 

 

This is a flawed proposition on two fronts: it requires teachers to focus on activities other than teaching, and it provides false security to students and guardians regarding learning.

     When Congress passes laws without considering the domino effect of policies that surely must ensue, chaos jumps in.  What we have now are well-intended but ineffective multiple layers of requirements.  Federal mandates mean that states must also enact their own measures.  Circular bureaucracy is the result.

 

     In 2010, Colorado’s legislature created a bill they coined The Educator Effectiveness Act, Senate Bill 10-191.  From the moment it passed, districts across the state developed and continue to hone teacher evaluation systems that reward compliance with mandated documentation and data collection. We’re talking massive amounts of paperwork as well as people employed merely to cross the t’s and dot the i’s.  Genuine concern about students is pushed to the back of the stage as a façade of competence jumps into the center.

     I endured one of these district evaluation schemes for five years; it seemed to have no purpose other than appeasing people in suits who sit around mahogany tables discussing how they can keep teachers on edge and the money train on schedule.  I have no reason to believe every district in Colorado and any other state with similar legislation is evaluating its teachers very differently. 

     The Educator Effectiveness Act portends to be a performance-based doctrine. [5]  However, half of the evaluation system mandated by it comes from one person’s unaudited subjective notes about a teacher’s performance.[6]  A third comes from the teacher’s own reporting on her activities and supposed classroom data.  Around 15 percent comes from a convoluted algorithm that applies a school’s overall test performance to each of its teachers.  If you think that is a good idea, consider this:  What if you weren’t working in that school last year?  And what if the algorithm is not applied with fidelity?  Would anyone know?

 

Complex systems require complex paperwork and lots of money.  They also allow for the very real possibility of subterfuge among participants.

 

  Chaos appears to reign in our schools: 

  • Poor policies couched in pleasant language.

  • Websites filled with near-worthless information.

  • Growth, whether authentic or not, considered more important than achievement.

  • Administrators and teachers participating in appearance-based protocols.

  • Requirements for teachers becoming more important than actual teaching.

  • Students seen more as subjects of data collection than as learners.

 

    I will address each point in this book.  My own plan for improvement appears at the end.  If you are tempted to jump ahead, don’t feel bad.  Just as students are coached to look at the questions prior to reading nonfiction to get the gist of what they must know, you, dear reader, may get benefit from seeing the endpoint I propose prior to reading the expose that supports it.  But that’s your choice.

     Our public schools are tax-supported institutions.  How much do you really know about them?  What can you share about the curriculum your child is studying and the tests he is taking, right now?  Ultimately, it is the students who are the most important part of a classroom.  That idea has been diluted in modern attempts to improve the quality of education delivered in this country.

 

    This book is written from the perspective of a teacher who has worked

in the classroom for thirty years.  I am not a self-professed expert, just

a regular person sharing how education research and mandates were

implemented in my school, along with the pitfalls of addressing technique

while ignoring setting.  I am sure plenty of actual experts will weigh in on

my claims.  It is up to the reader to discern what to accept and what to

consider with suspicion.          

 

 

T.L. Zempel

 

[1] Paul, Catherine A. Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

[2] U.S. Department of Education: No Child Left Behind

[3] Wikipedia: Adequate Yearly Progress

[5] U.S. Department of Education: ESEA Flexibility

[6] Colorado Dept. of Education: State Model Evaluation System. Updated 2019

 

Chapter One:  The New Normal

What does it mean to be consumed by bureaucracy?  

     Colorado schoolteachers have been finding out for nearly a decade.  Their professional lives are controlled by policies that are not only cumbersome, but deceptive as well.  People outside the field do not understand the many layers behind what goes on inside our schools.  Indeed, most of their information comes from political soundbites, yearly feel-good speeches from principals, and lobbyists for new taxation initiatives.  They have no idea what it means when someone touts the terms Best Practices, Proficiency Scales, or Research-based.  Okay, so they have some idea, but they don’t understand how these concepts have become doublespeak [1]

    The paradigm of education has shifted over the last decade.  In Colorado, it means documentation has eclipsed teaching as the mainstay in a teacher’s career, as mandated by the Colorado legislature.  Of course, this is not what the legislature intended, by any means.  It is what happens, however, when humans are given a directive that is impossible to implement as hoped for.  Here is the mandate, as described on the Colorado Department of Education (CDE’s) own website:

 

“Senate Bill 10-191 changes the way all educators (principals/assistant principals, teachers, and special service providers) will be evaluated in Colorado with the ultimate goal of continuously supporting educators’ professional growth and, in turn, accelerating student results.

The new evaluation requirements include opportunities for reflection, review, professional development and growth. SB 10-191 requirements include:

*  Annual evaluation for all principals/assistant principals, teachers and special service providers.

*  Evaluation based on statewide Quality Standards defining what it means to be an effective teacher, principal/assistant principal or *special service provider; the professional practice Quality Standards account for half of an educator’s annual evaluation

*  Non-probationary status is earned after three consecutive years of demonstrating effectiveness

*  Non-probationary status is lost after two consecutive years of less than effective ratings.[2]

 

    Paying teachers for their performance might sound like a good idea, because what teachers do is important to the development of future generations of citizens.  We all know that. Most of us also suspect there are quite a few teachers who are just skating by. This is likely because we have experienced one or more of them ourselves. 

     Pay-for-performance, however, is a slippery slope, with unintended consequences.  Some of those consequences might appear beneficial, but the reality is that all of them are flawed, potentially to the point of fraud.

 

The new reality we are faced with, as teachers, is that it is more important to talk strategically about teaching than to teach.

 

    Teachers are rewarded, monumentally, for completing two activities:  collecting data and documenting instruction. In fact, the more a teacher documents her classroom activities, the more likely it is that a principal will give her that favorable review. 

    In the spring of 2017, I took my evaluator up on his invitation to provide documented evidence that would refute any rating on his final evaluation of me. (He provided this opportunity to all his teachers.) Looking back through my digital notes, I found the evidence I needed and submitted it.  He did change his marks from ‘proficient’ to ‘highly proficient’ on three indicators and I was grateful.  He had no idea, however, when I had completed that documentation or if it represented anything that had really happened; for all he knew, I could have looked at his preliminary findings, determined what might change his mind, and added notes to my year-long handwritten plan book, a document that is considered to have legal merit.  (That is not what I did; the point is that he couldn’t have known that.)

    Our schools have become havens for multi-level bureaucracies, and our teachers are now saddled with pointless and redundant requirements in their jobs.   

    How did we get here?   It’s been an amazingly short journey, traveled in purposeful stages over only a few years.  Once the directive was issued via legislation, school districts jumped into overdrive and the changes began their rollout in the fall of 2012.

 

     Our current path began with the idea of growth.  As teachers, we all agree that growth is essential.  If we’re not growing, we’re stagnating.  The focus on studying growth as a strategy to meet student need did not ring alarm bells for many of us at first.   We teachers had been studying growth in Colorado Student Assessment Program [3] scores since its inception in 2001.  We used the information to adjust our teaching strategies, informally, because that’s what teachers do. 

 

By 2012, analyzing growth in standardized test scores had turned into tracking growth

in our own classrooms.

 

    We were informed that the growth in our students’ knowledge is so important it eclipses their actual test performance.  Furthermore, because it is not possible or fair to rate every teacher on the growth of CSAP scores,[4] a system that could be doable by every teacher had to be developed.[5]

    The new evaluation protocol required us to create skills-oriented goals for our students and track their growth using whatever metric we desired. At the end of the year, we would report this growth to the district’s online system.  It became clear after the first year of this exercise that the growth we tracked wouldn’t need to be verified by anyone other than ourselves.

   

    In 2013, I began to wonder what could happen if the concept of rewarding growth were taken to the extreme.   Investigating the requirements of SB 10-191 on the CDE’s website, I discovered that it was not only a performance mandate for teachers but for principals as well.  Not only were teachers evaluated annually on their students’ growth, but principals were evaluated on both their schools and teachers.  That was my ah ha moment.

    Were principals creating goals for their teachers like those we made for our students?  Were my colleagues and I the unwitting participants in another person’s own growth goals?

    Our principal had shared the new evaluation rubric with us; we knew that part of our evaluation pie was labeled School Growth.  We were told it represented an aggregate of CSAP scores plus how our school faired on its Unified Improvement Plan (UIP).  Only the principal understood what that plan entailed or how success was measured.  I had to wonder what her evaluation rubric looked like.

I knew a teacher’s data could be suspect; it was not difficult to imagine a similar scenario for our administrators. The new reality that we were introduced to in 2012 became the new normal in our careers.  Teachers were consumed with the protocols required to receive a favorable evaluation to the extent that our students necessarily moved to the periphery of our efforts.  This became the elephant in the living room that no one addressed, ever. 

Notes:

[1] Doublespeak:  deliberately euphemistic, ambiguous, or obscure language.  The term is a hybrid of two terms made up by George Orwell in his book 1984, “doublethink” and “newspeak”.

[2] SB 10-191: Senate Bill 10-191, The Educator Effectiveness Act

[3] Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP): Colorado’s state standardized test (2001-2011); completed in March each year.

[4] Not all students took the CSAP.  Only those in grades 3 – 7 and 10 did.

[5] There is more to it than that, of course;  the unions had resisted paying teachers according to test scores for decades.

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