How School Reform Changed the Good Teachers

SEE! That white boy is pointing at AFRICA!

I want you to think back on your high school experiences. Try to remember the good teachers. The teachers who didn’t just teach you but inspired you or gave you perspective or honed your skills. Recall which lessons you remember well and which ones you don’t (I, for example, completely forgot that I had read Macbeth in the 10th grade and still know nothing about the play but I remember much of Julius Cesar from that same year [I should also point out that most teachers don’t have time anymore for 2 Shakespeare plays]).

I want to challenge you. Your favorite teacher, the ones you remember most fondly and who had a big impact on your life, are NOT good teachers anymore.

I firmly believe you would not recognize the courses or activities of your favorite teachers if you could retake them today. But does this make them bad teachers? The alternative is for them to lose their jobs by not meeting the Standards. The alternative is for them to spend their own money from a shrinking paycheck. They have to put in more hours at school for remediation and for giving students extra time on assignments that previous years students’ would have easily completed.

I think that for two reasons: either they had to substantially alter their curriculum or they left the profession. Schools are not the same as they were when you were in high school. If you graduated before 2004, you didn’t have to take NCLB tests like the Georgia High School Graduation Test. If you graduated before 2004, your teachers didn’t have to alter their curriculum to meet the Georgia Professional Standards. If you graduated before 2006, your school didn’t have much data to see if it passed AYP. In other words, the school systems didn’t demand two dozen (or more) days of test preparation from their schools. If you graduated before 2008, your teachers were still getting a 1% annual raise. Since then, the school systems have stopped the “step” increases and decreased teacher pay through furloughs all while hours worked have gone up.

Did extracurricular activities influence you? I probably benefited more from my high school debate team than any other factor in my education (except those socio-economic ones). My coach stopped sponsoring the team in 2007 even though we were in the state top 5 in all of our events since 2003 (and ranked nationally in the top 20 in 2004). Nobody replaced him. Most schools have cut all funding on non-athletic programs. Similarly, the coaches and faculty sponsors for smaller activities don’t get extra pay for their coaching/sponsorship. Many schools dropped their newspapers entirely. Most year-books are simply created by a yearbook company and filled in through a template rather than created by the students. Teams (and teachers for field trips) have to rent county school buses for travel – most counties provide no money for travel of any kind.

You should feel lucky that your gifted and AP teachers were shielded from this for a few years longer than the general ed. teachers. But schools quickly saw that having numerous AP programs made them appear prestigious. The number of AP courses went up. Enrollment in AP went up. Pass rates on AP exams went down. As a freshman, students can now take AP courses if they want to: AP human systems (social geography), AP ecology, AP exercise science (kind of like PE + anatomy but still taught by PE coaches). These all count as core content area credit for graduating high school but many students don’t even take the AP exams for college credit. AP teachers are still required to meet the GPS even through they are also trying to meet college board requirements that don’t always overlap.

What about vocational and career oriented programs? (My quick recall tells me that the only one among our readers who spent time in vocational courses was Lisa.) We hear plenty of rhetoric about schools needing to prepare students to enter the workforce but the vast majority of counties cancelled their vocational/career programs entirely. These classes didn’t count toward the NCLB requirements because the policies sought to improve college attendance. Even though Lisa will be going to medical school next year (and focusing on how to best serve high-need populations) the health occupations teacher who inspired her and hundreds more to become a doctor (or nurse, or technician, or EMT) is told every year that the career technology program in her county is on the chopping block. In Gwinnett, if students want to take career courses, they have to enroll at a special high school in the far south of the county. They have to pay a few hundred dollars in tuition (I think it was about $250 a semester) and they are responsible for transporting themselves to school – no buses. Fayette just doesn’t give you the option. You’re college prep. Indeed, counties like Gwinnett and Fayette routinely boast that 100% of their students are on college bound tracks.

Policy makers and the public in general have a bias to replicate what worked for them. The point of challenging your memories is to point out a bias in our reasoning. We educated and (somewhat) successful people tend to want to replicate the factors which made us successful. In policy, we see that bias represented in the goals dictated: only careers in Law, Medicine, or Business have prestige because those are the careers from which our policy makers come. Is it any wonder that they seek to create a system which pushes kids to follow in their steps: don’t go to that stupid shop class, take more AP classes; no matter what, go to a 4-year university; get into business school, law school, or medical school. The attitude seems to be: “college was great for me and made me successful; therefore, we ought to encourage students to follow in my footsteps”. When we place these pressures on schools through both societal prestige/opinion and through policy, is it any wonder schools are failing to meet those demands?

I’ll use myself as the test-case. I come from an affluent family. My parents are well educated from good universities and my dad was very well compensated for his work at a major Wall St. firm. I attended an elite suburban high school (and private school when I was younger) and the value of my post-secondary education is somewhere around $60 thousand dollars (in terms of tuition, state schools are cheap). I have my masters in teaching and I can’t find work and I make $18k a year with no current prospects for improving that. The guy installing my dad’s high-definition satellite is an electrician who owns his own cable/satellite installation business on the side. He went to tech school for 2 years and is a trained, certified electrician. He makes $60k a year in salary and more off the side business. Yet he has no prestige. No politician looks at him and says “there’s the American dream”. Oddly, only the marketplace rewards him in the form of adequate compensation for his expertise and hard work.

This is all to say that our vision of success and prestige is just as guilty of warping our educational system as the policies of NCLB are. When being a good teacher only means pushing kids to pass standardized tests and then pushing them into 4-year universities, we’re doing our communities a disservice. Yet nobody seems interested in changing where the prestige falls. Nobody want to pat an electrician on the back and say “you’re a model of success”.

Our schools and policy makers are busy trying to get us to replicate their success. Toward that end, our teachers are on the line for preparing kids for “a global marketplace” or for “high-skill, high-wage” careers. The good teachers are ones who meet the needs of these goals.

But what really makes someone a good teacher?

It is nearly impossible to decide who is and is not a good teacher. Teachers might succeed in one environment but fail in another. The school I work in used to be one of the best schools in Georgia. In 2004 it had the highest SAT scores in the state. The community it serves was an affluent suburb of professionals with a strong middle class background. It was mostly white but the county bussed students in from poorer areas in an effort to improve their performance. The results were inconclusive. Many of the teachers there have been at the school since it opened. Several teachers have won state teacher of the year over the 14 years the school has been open. Many of the teachers have been nationally recognized for their involvement, teaching, or coaching. There are numerous teachers with PhDs and EdS degrees. Many are certified by the National Board. The teachers generally live in the community that the school serves. Their children went to school there. Parents and community members were heavily involved in the school. I couldn’t imagine a better recipe for a successful school.

The school, however, has changed over the past five or six years. The demographics of the community shifted in the wake of the real-estate crisis. Apartment homes were built in the spaces between neighborhoods and property values dropped. Minorities, especially Hispanics, moved into the area. With them they brought the dual challenges of language and poverty. The school didn’t make AYP last year by a hair-thin margin.

These former teachers of the year are finding themselves with an increasing failure rate. “These kids,” they say, “don’t do the work. They don’t study, they don’t do homework, they sleep through class. They deserve to fail.” So they fail. Are these bad teachers?

In my view, these teachers need to change their attitudes. If they still taught the same kids they taught six years ago, they’d be fine. But they don’t. What purpose does the “rigor” serve if it results in too many students failing. Failures are fine at 5% of the student body. At 10%? 20%? 50%? Are we really doing society a favor by holding these students to the same standards as their demographically distinct predecessors?

I suppose this is a flip side to the dehumanization of the testing system. The teachers here are used to one kind of student. They were wildly successful with that group of kids and are finding themselves threatened as they fail to meet those same expectations with another group of students.

When I did my student teaching in a Title I school, I heard several teachers and administrators comment that teachers in “good” schools weren’t good teachers because they didn’t have to try. They didn’t have to work hard because their students would always do the work in front of them. The refrain was: “they don’t have to teach”. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s some truth to that.

If a student doesn’t have a computer at home, or the time to do reading/homework because he or she needs to work to feed him/herself, why would you expect that student to live up to the same standard of performance?

I work with a teacher who expects her students to complete work at home or if they can’t, they should come in before or after school. My (unvoiced) question to her is “How?” How can these kids get here early? The bus arrives 10 minutes before first period begins. Their guardians leave early in the morning to work (or simply won’t bring them to school). They can’t afford a car. There’s no local transit system (one big advantage students had in Gwinnett county was Gwinnett’s public transit system stops near many of the schools). If they stay after school, nobody will come to pick them up. Many students don’t have computers at home or can’t afford the software used in this particular class. These aren’t problems which this teacher is used to dealing with. This teacher frequently tells students that putting in extra time is the only way to pass the class, but extra time is a luxury. Teachers at this school fail to recognize this and are hurting their students.

And it’s only going to get harder. In two years it is possible that this school will become Title I.

I don’t want to misrepresent the school. I don’t work with every teacher and I am only sharing impressions based on the interaction I have had (I’d love to do a formal academic survey of teacher attitudes here but I don’t know how). I firmly believe that the school is still effective for most of its students. I simply think that the faculty and staff here are going to have a difficult time with the changing demographics if they continue to have the same strategies and expectations they’ve had for the past decade. This is no different than the challenges facing schools like Lassiter and Sprayberry in Cobb county, or Duluth high school in Gwinnett.

I don’t think these are bad teachers. I don’t think they deserve to be fired because their kids aren’t passing state exams. I simply want them to learn how to adapt and how to put their previous energy and dedication into new lessons and new expectations. I want them to find a way to alter the curriculum in a way that maintains the rigor but embraces the difficult home lives of their students.

It’s asking a lot, I know. It’s also something which their school system won’t help them do. They have the added pressures mentioned above: high expectations, less pay, more responsibilities, increasing accountability. I’m also not sure how to help them. I don’t have magic lesson plans to reach the hardest to teach students (despite what my Masters program led me to believe). I can’t bring up attendance rates in high risk communities (can’t teach ’em if they’re not here). I can’t make their parents or guardians care about school or find them the time in their busy lives to help students on homework and projects. I can’t fix the county’s or the state’s revenue problems (at least not until election time).

I can only do one thing: become a teacher. While I’ve spent 3 years (as of this May), $30k on a degree (and cost of living while being a student), and countless hours trying to become a teacher, I haven’t gotten my own classroom yet. Maybe it shouldn’t be this hard to become a teacher. Maybe I’m a failure or maybe I’m just unlucky with my timing. But I know that I have a chance to be great. I know that I’m aware of many of my assumptions about teaching and learning and that I am flexible enough to change with the students. I believe in the stated mission of public education: learning provides opportunity. I will give it my best shot. I will bend over backward to help my students. I will put in the hours and the money and take on all the stress and thankless assessment and pay cuts because I have no other choice. If I’m going to do something good, a classroom is the place for me to be. I am going to be good teacher.

This post originally appeared at Forms of Inquiry on April 17th, 2011 as the last post in a series on teaching and education.