Why I’m Leaving the Classroom

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One of my seniors asked last week if the rumors were true and that I am retiring.

Clearly, this youngster either doesn’t understand what retirement is OR has grossly mis-estimated my age (I’m knocking on 37).

While I’d love it if teaching were such a lucrative career that I could retire before age 40, it is nonetheless true that I have made the choice to leave the classroom after this year.

For the last three years, I’ve tried to live up to the ideal that a teacher can lead without having to leave. In this hybrid role “half in, half out,” I’ve learned so much. I still believe that this model is the ideal: systems should afford teachers the opportunity to still lead their own classrooms while also being agents of change in their school or district. For the last three years, I’ve been in such a hybrid role, teaching in the afternoons two or three periods, but spending my mornings attempting to (and I think, successfully) influencing local policy related to teacher evaluations and professional development, as well as supporting teachers in their practice.

And these three “hybrid role” years have been the toughest three years of my career. My attention has been divided and never once have I had one full week where I felt like I was doing adequate service to both roles at the same time (I wrote recently about this, even doling out what I felt were the three key needs for a successful hybrid role). Trudging forward and never feeling successful at anything is not a great way to live from day to day, so I made the decision shortly after that post: in 2015-16, I needed to choose…one or the other, not both. The Both, for me personally, was too much, even if in principle it is exactly what I believe should eventually become systematized for teacher leadership and empowerment.

There are many teacher stories of “why I’m leaving” that circulate on social media, featuring overworked, unsupported, and under-appreciated teachers who make the painful decision to leave the profession altogether. That’s not where I am professionally. Even with standards and testing and new evaluations and unsupportive public policy, I still love teaching. However, whatever work I choose to do, I want to do it well. That’s the feeling I haven’t had these last few years in the split role. Others can and do find success inhabiting both roles simultaneously, and those others are capable of amazing things. For me, the split is not sustainable mentally or physically. One or the other; in or out. Two equally appealing options.

It was not an easy choice. Because of various things, my district ended up posting a full-time TOSA job for 2015-16, I applied for and was offered the position. Next year, I’ll be a full-time TOSA, focusing on building a K-12 new teacher induction program (where no formal new-teacher support has existed in the past) and developing teacher leadership systems in our district’s new pathways model, wherein among other things teachers in hybrid roles will be supported toward success. Simply put, my role is all about cultivating and empowering teachers. Little by little, despite the fear of the unknown, I’m getting more and more excited about the potential of what this job might be able to do.

And then I have days in the classroom like I had this last week, listening to my seniors (who for all intents and purposes are long since done with this school business) give each other feedback on their practice speeches for their culminating Senior Project presentations that they will do before a panel of community members. I heard in their statements things I had taught them; little things, probably not all that meaningful, but still, they were doing what I had taught them to do. It’s hard to explain that feeling.

Then after most of the period of sustained focus, the class gradually got a little rambunctious and I (only half-jokingly) threatened to slam their 18-year-old selves into a seating chart if they didn’t get their over-sized-kindergartener-behavior under control.

We laughed, the bell rang, they left.

I am definitely going to miss it.

Student Perspective on the SBA

I am finally done testing, hooray, hooray. After we got all done, I asked my fifth grade High Cap students to critique the tests for me. I’ve noticed a lot of discussion on Stories from School about what adults think about the SBA. I thought that by this point people might be interested in the kid perspective.

First, a number of kids commented that several questions on the SBA were “super unclear.” On the other hand, they said the MSP was much easier to understand.

Solution? I bet the test questions seemed clear to the test writers. But the questions need to be equally clear to the intended audience—the test takers. The SBA group needs to scrub the tests again for clarity. It wouldn’t hurt to get some children in to do proofreading. (I know kids who would be happy to volunteer! My students gleefully pointed out every spelling and grammatical error they found on the practice tests!)

Second, my students were pretty unanimous that the math tools on the SBA were horrible. For example, they complained it was terribly difficult to put the correct answer onto the number line because the space allotted for the answer was so small. They felt it was far too easy to make a mistake due to the tools rather than due to an error in the math. In addition, they said the math tools for drawing lines were clunky. And trying to fix mistakes was a complex multistep process.

In the same way they were very frustrated with the tools in the ELA test, especially the spellcheck. None of the ELA tools worked nearly as well as normal Word tools worked. The kids could not understand why the test would make them use tools that were less efficient and less functional.

Solution? Supposedly the SBA is designed to test content, process, and critical thinking skill knowledge, right? But the test also introduces the added stress of, “Now also try to figure out how to use unfamiliar, less intuitive, less user-friendly, awkward, badly-designed tools.” Most computers in most schools in the state use Microsoft Office, don’t they? Why don’t we get Microsoft tools on the SBA? By next year!

Third, the students didn’t actually say anything to me about how long the testing took. They just looked more and more dragged out and exhausted as the testing sessions went on. Someone posted on one of the blogs that the testing is “just ten hours.” Not for my class! I had students who spent 20 hours on the SBA with another two or more hours on the MSP. When they finally finished the SBA and the MSP and then had to do STAR reading and math, they moaned. They never complain about STAR testing. But they were whipped after this year’s testing experience.

I’ve never had a class go through a testing marathon anything like this. My National Board testing didn’t take that long. The bar exam doesn’t take that long. But here we are subjecting 10-year-olds to that level of testing.

Honestly, I wouldn’t want to subject my child to anything like this. I wouldn’t want to subject myself to testing sessions of this length!

Solution? We had five days of SBA testing. No single day of SBA testing should take more than half a day, max. Really, if you can’t tell what you want from two and a half days of a student’s work, you need to redesign the test.

Finally, I had one other thing about the SBA bother me this year that had never bothered me in previous years, on previous tests. We’ve had writing tasks on tests before. But the ELA performance task was different. It gave kids the extra time to craft a well-developed story.

At the end of the third day of the ELA performance task, after nine hours of testing, I stopped by one child’s computer to ask how she was doing and to see if she was almost done. I happened to see two words on her screen. “CHAPTER FIVE.”

She wasn’t. She went back for a fourth day of ELA PT testing to finish her story. Finally she came back to class, after twelve hours of work, all excited about her story. “It’s really good! It had seven chapters by the end! It ended with—”

I told her she couldn’t tell me what her story was about. That made her sad. And she was deeply unhappy to learn she was never going to see her story again. “But that’s the best thing I’ve written all year!”

Then I went home and thought, “Wait a minute. This story is her intellectual property. It is being taken from her without compensation. Now it’s just going to disappear into the black hole of assessment. She may be only ten or eleven, but she should have the rights to her story!” Even if it’s never published, she should be able to share it with her family and friends.

Solution? As a published author (and not just for this blog), I feel very strongly about this issue. I think she and her parents should demand the return of her story.

Common Ground

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Because the topic of testing is one of the most timely and relevant intersections of policy and practice I’m going to take the risk that I am repeating some of the ideas that have appeared here and elsewhere. I’m trying to bring some of these ideas together, and hopefully I’m also adding something new. My frustration lies with our inability to find compromise, or even listen to each other for that matter. But we have to keep trying to talk, and we have to keep trying to listen. There will be some common ground.

I still have clear memories of taking standardized tests when I was in elementary school – for me it was the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or ITBS. It’s still etched in my mind: the new number two pencils, the sharpening, the interminable bubbles to be filled in, and little boxes for each letter in my name. From my first year teaching I have administered newer (and perhaps better) standardized tests to my students. There have been a few different iterations of year-end tests for my fifth grade students over the last ten years. Some years we have fewer test days, some years we have more. Some years we test on paper, some years we use computers. We all know standardized tests well – they have been with us forever it would seem, so what’s the problem? Continue reading

Three Things I learned About the SBA

downloadBy Tom

Last week my fourth graders took the Smarter Balanced Assessment, better known as “The SBA” or in some circles as “The S-BAC.” This was their – and my – second year with this test, although last year didn’t really count, since no one knew what they were doing and the scores didn’t matter. Now they do. Always the learner, and always the minimalist, I’ve condensed my reflections to three. So here they are; three things I learned about the SBA:

First of all, not everyone hates standardized tests. Or more accurately, not everyone hates this standardized test. And by not everyone, I mean my students. My students didn’t spend a lot of time listening to the “opt-out” movement, and neither did their parents, so for them the test was simply another hard thing we do at school. Other than running them through the training test and the practice test, I didn’t build the test up too much. No one puked, no one cried and none of them lost any sleep. After each of the five sessions, we had a brief discussion about how they felt and surprisingly, most of them actually enjoyed themselves. In fact, 25 of my 30 kids “had fun” during the first session. The number dropped to twenty after the last session, but still; it was hardly the child abuse that some teachers and parents report.

I do have some questions about the performance tasks, especially the math performance task. In the fourth grade SBA, there’s a math section and a literacy section. Within each section, there’s a Computer Adaptive Testing (CAT) and a Performance Task. The CAT is designed to continuously adjust the level of rigor within each student’s test based on their answers to each question. The test gets harder or easier based on how well they answer the questions. The Performance Task is not adaptive. In the literacy section, it consists of reading two articles about a specific subject (ours were about spiders and insects) and answering several extended-response questions followed by a writing prompt. The questions and the prompts, however, were not uniform. Some kids had more questions than others and it appeared that they were randomly assigned to an argumentative, informative or narrative prompt. That seemed a little weird at first, but I guess it makes sense to be ready for each of the three genres. The math Performance Task seemed – at least to me – like it varied widely in terms of the level of rigor. Some kids appeared to have much more difficult questions than other kids, which left my colleagues and me wondering why they didn’t simply give the same questions to each student. It will be interesting to see the scores.

Those questions notwithstanding, I honestly believe this is a good test. Here’s why: The Common Core is a solid set of standards that make sense. They’re well-articulated up and down the grade bands and – at least for now – they’ve been adopted by nearly every state. They might not be perfect (yet) but they’re certainly better than anything I’ve seen in the 31 years I’ve been teaching. So the standards are solid, and the SBA –from what I’ve seen – is well-aligned to the standards. Virtually every standard I taught this year was reflected on the test. I think that in very near future we’ll get a little more accurate aligning the level of rigor in our materials and instruction with that of the test and when that happens, I truly believe things will really pick up in our education system. I really do.

Please join the conversation. But do so respectfully. Testing is a charged topic and it’s easy to slip into a negative, nonproductive rant. But we’re teachers. We know how to discuss. We know to teach people to discuss! Let’s do it correctly.

Walk Out Day: About Voters, not Teachers

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In southwest Washington, this is being referred to as a “Day of Action.”

I previously shared my struggle with this particular action, and when it came time for our local to vote, I spoke in opposition of the Walk Out and voted along with 34% of my local against it.

In a democratic system, though, the majority determines the course of action. My philosophical or political disagreement with the outcome of the vote does not grant me the right to disregard it.

Sure, I could choose to just sit at home and grade my seniors’ Othello tests: 17 short-answer questions from 60 students (just over 1000 individual responses) so even if I devote a generous 30 seconds per response, just grading and giving feedback on that one assignment alone is eight hours of work. That “action” on my part, though, doesn’t contribute to any kind of larger solution. It still has to get done, though… so looks like I’ll be tossing a bit less football with my sons. Such is the choice you make when you become a teacher. I knew that going in.

So back to this:

In a democratic system, the majority determines the course of action. My philosophical or political disagreement with the outcome of the vote does not grant me the right to disregard it.

This is the message I want to communicate to voters. In a democratic system, particularly one that permits voter-generated initiatives, the decision of the voters should be upheld. Philosophical or political disagreement does not grant one the right to disregard the voice of the voter. This disregard is what is happening within factions of our legislature, and this is what I will be protesting.

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On Test Scores in Evals and Changing My Mind

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The following post is by Nate Bowling is a 2014 Miliken National Teaching Award recipient and a founding member of Teacher’s United. He teaches AP Government & Politics and AP Human Geography in Tacoma.

The following excerpt is posted below with Nate’s permission, and was originally published on his website, “A Teacher’s Evolving Mind”. His writing represents his own thinking and not a policy statement of any organization/entity with which he is affiliated.

I have always been obsessed with how and when people are willing to change their minds. In my mid 20s I was fascinated by the book Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party. Well, that’s not really true. I was obsessed by what Cleaver did after the book. After seven years in exile in Cuba, Algeria, and France, Cleaver went on to become a Republican. I was fascinated: how did a founding member of the Black Panther Party become a Reagan Republican? That is a Tarzan swing across the political spectrum in the US. How does one change their mind so much on so much?

All that said, in regards to education policy when confronted with compelling evidence, if we are being true to our calling as teachers we have an obligation to evolve. Or put differently, people who are too stubborn to change their minds when confronted with overwhelming evidence aren’t worth listening to and I want you to listen to me in the future.

To read the full post, go to Nate’s new website “A Teacher’s Evolving Mind”

 

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Opt Out? Widen the Gap

It’s testing season. Each year I administer whatever Language Arts assessment is currently required by law. I glance over the Pearson booklet at the rows of earnest faces nervously listening to the directions of their state assessment. They know results will be used to determine whether or not their receive a diploma. Their eyes communicate “we will do you proud” while their scrunched up noses say, “you’d better have taught us what we need to be successful on this thing.”

Walking the rows, I think about how 78.6% of the students in my building qualify for free and reduced lunch. At least 8% are ELL and 13.4% are in Special Education programs. More than anything, my students need education opportunities that will set them on a trajectory out of poverty and in pursuit of their version of the “American Dream”. Yet we know that this dream is guarded by a variety of gatekeepers, most vital of which is access to quality post-secondary education. One such gatekeeper is the ominous standardized test.

mindthegapI understand the urge of parents and teachers to want to resist this system and opt out. Yet, every time the topic of standardized testing is brought up I can’t help but wonder….Does the opt-out movement actually widen the opportunity gap???

I’m hard pressed to find research on this topic and I have no time for a PhD. Yet, the continued presence of a culture of low expectations for low-income students and students of color leads me to believe there is a relationship between low expectations, low performance results, and opting out of testing.

One of the primary arguments for standardized testing is that it produces data teachers can use. Standardized testing provides apples to apples comparisons for conversations about learning and growth. At the high school level, it is a key– opening doors to post secondary options. In contrast, crusaders against testing declare that it is racist, irrelevant, a waste of time and money, a ploy by the corporate education reformers, etc. The bifurcated debate tends to be simplistic and I’m glad some are writing that the issue is more complex than for/against language we use.

Meanwhile, the result of this debate is a solo message that to fight over-testing we just need to “opt out”. Although I I am critical of many things about our culture of over-testing, I discern three major problems with opt-out rhetoric. First, it gives only one solution to the issues of over-testing. Second, the language of opting out is inaccessible to low-income communities, especially those of color.  The third and most poignant reason opt out language is disconcerting to me is that it doesn’t address the implied privilege of opt-outers (yes, I made up that word!).

Time and again the people who are most outspoken about opting out of testing look the same. They are white. They sit in a middle/upper class income bracket. They know how to make noise and not be punished for it. They can get the information, fill out the paperwork and navigate bureaucracy in their primary language. Take Nathan Hale for example. It’s striking to me that OSPI reports they are predominantly white, middle class, and English-speaking. Would a browner, poorer, more linguistically diverse school be able to do the same thing? Perhaps.

The parents and communities that can and do opt-out are advantaged in another way. They can choose when it is and isn’t convenient to opt out. They can enroll their kids in AP classes and take the corresponding test. They can take college entrance exams. They can provide their students with tutoring to be successful on any test they want. Again, these families choose.

Theoretically, anyone can join with the Nathan Hale families, the Obamas, and Tom Cruise. But I’m skeptical. Those families are even more elite than we are lead to believe. Even if student test scores were poor, these parents they buy admission into a four-year university through measures (generational wealth and networking) not available to families in impoverished communities.

Opting out does not impact all students equally. It especially does not positively benefit the students at my school. I postulate, it is actually widening the opportunity gap for them. It widens the gap because in our current system a high score on a standardized test results in essential financial resources to pay for college. This gap exacerbates the system of have and have-nots giving, what one writer refers to, an “edge” to the wealthy.

Rather than an opt-out form, I’d argue that my students benefit more from the rigorous instruction that sets them up for passing any AP, SAT, ACT or SBA, and equips them to beat the legacy of low scores associated with their socio-economic status or skin color. They blossom from the positive attitude of teachers who believe they are and will be successful in Honors and AP courses. They are empowered by a narrative that says they are more than a test score but recognizes they need a strong academic foundation to overcome certain academic hurdles. Finally, if all the other elements are in place, students will one day grasp their version of the “American Dream”  because of the scholarships and grants they earned and the access they now have to higher ed.

“Teach More, Test Less”. Yes. But let’s develop a more comprehensive approach to over-testing. More than opt out paperwork distributed in multiple languages, I’d like to see solutions that maintain high standards yet transform the system for all students. Here are a few ideas tossed around in the lunch room:

  • Stop penalizing the highest need schools for low test scores.
  • Give us fewer, more meaningful tests.
  • Focus on well-written assessments that produce data points for immediate use.
  • Use assessments as ONE of many measures of achievement and growth for schools.
  • Remove the punitive, high stakes label from summative tests.
  • Provide high-needs schools with more resources to mediate student learning gaps so they can perform at the level of wealthier counterparts.

Why I’m Not Opting Out

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Katie Taylor is a recently renewed NBCT (AYA/ELA) and serves as the Deputy Director for the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession. The views represented in the blog post are her own and not representative of the organization for which she works.

 

Why I’m Not Opting Out

My third grade daughter came home from school on Tuesday, “too pooped to practice.” This is unusual for her, because rain or shine she cannot wait for Tuesdays and Thursdays because those are “soccer practice days.” She wasn’t ill, the weather was perfect for practice, so what gives?

Tuesday was SBAC testing, the third one so far in the last two weeks. When I sought the source of her exhaustion, I calculated that excluding stretch and snack breaks, recess and lunch, 4.5 hours of her 6.5-hour school day was spent testing.

4.5 hours in front of a screen, taking a test. Looking at her face, my mother bear instinct kicked in and I thought,  “I’m not having her go through this again” despite the fact that she still has at least two more days of testing to go.

And yet, after thinking it over, I decided not to opt her out of the rest of her tests.

I’ve been an educator for 18 years, a National Board Certified Teacher for 10, and a parent for 11 years. As an educator with children in public school, it is sometimes difficult to find the line between when I am engaging as an educator and when I am engaging as a parent. This year of testing has been particularly hard from both stances.

As a parent I am tempted to excuse her from testing, the educator in me knows the undue burden it would do to the other children, teachers and administrators at her school. Her discomfort was for a day, and no more than 5-7 partial days in one month. The pain inflicted on teachers and schools for low participation and low-test scores lasts entire school years.

I believe the solution lies in removing the punitive nature of what the test scores mean for schools in terms of resources and performance evaluations. I do not believe that my pulling my daughter out of school during the state tests accomplishes that. Being part of public education is being a part of a collective community, and I fully recognize that there are parts of her community that do not have the luxury of opting their children out for a myriad of reasons. For many of these families, the high-stakes tests are even more high-stakes since it’s many of these children’s scores on which resource allocation decisions are made.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like how much my children are tested, but I also don’t have any interest in returning to a time when it was okay to ignore the opportunity gap. Her teacher doesn’t want to spend his time testing, nor does her principal and I won’t affect a change in that outcome by having my daughter miss testing days.

As an educator and as a parent, I can make a change by being active in policy conversations and using my voice to change current and future testing practices.

As a parent, I can do what I did this week – listen to my daughter’s concern, tell her I’m proud of her perseverance and that all I want is for her to do her best, and then take her out for ice cream and tuck her in bed early with a good book.

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Teacher Walk Outs and Work Stoppages

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This is something I was hoping to go through my whole career without having to face.

I am so incredibly torn over the issue of teacher walk outs or work stoppages in protest against the legislature’s non-support of public education. I understand that desperate times call for desperate measures, and that the goal is to draw the public’s attention to the issue.

On one hand, a teacher walk out or work stoppage certainly gets the public’s attention. The news reports it, the internet trolls chime in about lazy and greedy teachers, and the flames of what passes for discourse in our country are fanned once again. The hope: the public will rise up in support of teachers, demand accountability from their elected officials, and tides will turn in favor of  students, teachers, and voters.

On the other hand, I wonder whether it will really have the effect intended.

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Some Thoughts on Opting out

fwy110405 019By Tom

Today was the day when “The Cart” came rolling in. That’s when testing becomes real in my school. The cart full of Chromebooks gets wheeled into your room; the day before your student start with the SBAC training test, and a week before they take the real thing. And as far as I know, every one of my fourth graders will be taking the test. No one’s opting out.

And I’m glad. Continue reading