mean mama

public education, reimagined
September 24, 2008, 4:37 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I am very tired of hearing about “teacher accountability” in this election.

If you are a teacher, you are probably nodding your head. If you are not a teacher, you are probably saying, “What’s wrong with teacher accountability?”

Well let me ask you this. If you are a doctor, should you be held personally responsible for every single one of your patients’ outcomes? If you are a lawyer, should you be fired if you don’t win every case?  If you are a social worker, should you feel personally responsible for the psychological state of each of your clients?  Most would say no, because each case/relationship depends on many things: family support, living environment, the patient/client’s abilities and dispositions, cultural backgrounds and financial situations, and countless other influences.

Like in any other profession, if you are clearly bad at your job you should be fired. But the main determination of whether a teacher is successful these days seems to be based on test scores of students. That is an absurd measure. My father-in-law once said to me, “Well, how else can you hold teachers accountable?” Well, you should probably determine whether their students are making any real progress, in the context of their personal situations. If a third grader comes into the classroom in September not knowing how to read, is it not absurd to expect that he will score well on a standardized test at the end of the year? And should the teacher not have the opportunity to work with that student and help him begin to read rather than being forced to prepare the entire class for test-taking for the entire year? Look, I’m not completely against holding kids back if they are not performing at grade level, but they will probably never perform at grade level if teachers can’t teach them to.

I believe to really teach struggling kids (and probably the majority of NYC students could be considered as “struggling”), you would need small classes. How small? I’m talking 12 kids per one head teacher and one assistant teacher. Start first with the “failing schools” and make the classes small (the schools that get 200K/year with which to do what they want are just fine for now). Teachers will know their students well, students will know their teachers well. Accountability from both parties will be naturally important, because what goes on within a small classroom is pretty transparent. Take away the tests, or at least have less frequent tests, giving teachers more time/energy to teach to individuals’ needs. Then and only then will we begin to see more clearly who the more and less successful teachers are. And the teachers who really don’t like teaching would be more likely to opt out of such a system, because they would have to work harder if they really had to figure out what each of their students needed.

There may be dinosaurs out there in the public system, and there may be some truly caustic teachers, but most are simply jaded and stressed out about the testing. Most are decent people who, given the chance to actually be successful, would probably work a little harder. As the saying goes, “Let teachers teach.”

Both candidates have their solutions: Obama has preschool programs, college tax breaks, less testing, support for failing schools, and incentives for teachers. McCain has school choice, doing something about our kids’ sucky test scores (more tests, anyone?), and other conservative hogwash. But neither has suggested reducing class size.  It may be an unrealistic solution, but we seem to throw money at plenty of “realistic” solutions that do not work (I wonder how much all that testing and test-scoring costs…). Keep your increased teacher compensation for now and make teaching something that people can be successful at and therefore get excited about. Then more people will want ot be teachers. Make public eductation something that works, something that tax payers can once again believe in. Then more people will participate in their children’s educational processes.  Make it so that successful schools get an incentive for helping failing schools, rather than successful schools getting hundreds of thousands of extra dollars while failing schools are penalized for bad test scores. I have worked at an officially failing school, and I promise you that asking the teachers to just. work. harder. is not going to increase test scores. (By the way, the kids scoring well at the “successful schools” often have supportive families, home environments that are conducive to study, and – let’s all say it together – TUTORS!  So rewarding schools for test scores is somewhat artificial.)

Much of what I am saying is based on a special education model. Special ed classes are hardly ever large. There is a lot of communication between schools and families, even in the lowliest of schools. Perhaps this is because special ed students have individual education plans that, by law, must be followed. In the failing school where I taught, many of the kids displayed such incredible problems that, though they were cognitively and physically fine, I would almost consider a need for a special kind of education. I have dealt with special ed kids who probably needed services less than some of these kids needed help. Not that we should compare, but it is kind of remarkable. I do see the field of special education unfolding in more innovative and thoughtful ways that general ed, and I daresay that special ed should be our guide in dealing with the country’s educational crisis.

I can’t seem to wrap this up in any eloquent way, but those are my ideas. Obie, give me a call and we’ll have lunch.


4 Comments so far
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Agreed. I teach in a progressive charter school with a class cap of 16 (and often there’s a para in the room since we are a full inclusion school). It has simply revolutionized my ability to teach.

Comment by Lo

Well said.

But… sadly, when I taught special ed., I had 17 educable mentally handicapped students and no assistant (and I wasn’t the only one–a learning-disabled resource class in my county had 30 students and no assistant)? Illegal? YES. Did anyone care or do anything about it? NO. Wanna know why? Many of my students were exempt from testing.

Comment by Co

Wow, Co , that’s nutz!

Comment by meanmama


I work in informal ed, and periodically flirt with the idea of going over to the dark side 😉

I’d make more money (which is a sad statement about what I make), get summers “off” and it would play nicer with my family’s schedule. So why don’t I?

High stakes testing and school culture that says learning has to be made fun. I went to a progressive PUBLIC elem school in NYC and we enjoyed learning. We also spent about a week and a half of the year thinking about the standardized tests. That’s it.

Comment by artsweet

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