02 July 2016

A teacher’s perspective, part 2: when the arc of teaching is lost

This is the second post of a two-part series written by a friend and colleague who teaches at large public school in New York City. Part one described some of the changes brought about by the introduction of the evaluation system known as the Danielson Framework as well as the continuing pressure to involve technology in every aspect of the learning and teaching process. Here, the writer discusses some of the effects of those changes, on both a small and a large scale.  

The abandonment of chalk and talk for the Smartboard has had some strange consequences. Screens have a passive, television-like feel to them, which is reflected in students’ reactions. Often, when I write something on a Smartboard, it does not occur to students to take notes from it (why take notes from a TV?), and I have to force them to write it down.

In fact, some students are so averse to taking notes that they ask if they can take a screen shot of the board instead. This passivity unnerves me, and I simply do not know how to adapt to it. In fact, as elementary teachers have increasingly abandoned script, my students can no longer take notes at the speed I need them to. In addition, they often cannot understand script or are incapable of taking down printed words accurately. And finally, they seem oblivious to the fact that taking notes is an important skill that they will need in college.

This attitude is not surprising due to the fact that the Danielson Framework does not reward teachers for developing listening and note taking skills. According to Danielson we should see Students actively “working” rather than watching their teacher “work” (p. 71). I truly miss the days when I could go to the board and write notes together with my students, but this is now considered a waste of their time.

Teachers usually prepare PowerPoints, which they often send to their students via email, and many are experimenting with “flipped” classrooms where students get the information at home and spend teacher time working in groups. To adults, the flipped classroom sounds intoxicating, but I assure you, to a struggling student it is a lesson in frustration. While a few of my most exceptional students may be capable of teaching themselves, the vast majority of my students need a teacher to walk them through their first exposure to challenging new ideas. 

SmartBoards are also designed to eradicate the need for paper in the classroom. The administration rations my use of paper, and I have been called to the mat more than once for using too much. They have a point. Anything I put on a SmartBoard, students can potentially write down. But again, many of them lack the attention to detail that copying from the board requires.

There is a psychological component as well: students spend most of their day talking in groups, so transitioning from bell to bell has become much more problematic. When the bell rings, teachers are supposed to have a “Do-Now” (a brief “warm-up” assignment) waiting for students – ideally on the Smartboard. However, getting students to switch gears and focus on a new subject without chatting with one another is increasingly problematic for teachers.

In addition, the passive feel of the SmartBoard does not nearly grab my students’ attention as well as my greeting them at the door with a piece of paper. The calming effect of a tangible object in their hands is considerable, and I use it to my advantage whenever I can. It never occurred to me that paper had such a calming effect on students until I remembered how classrooms felt earlier in my career. Those students instinctively quieted themselves when the bell rang because they did not identify schoolwork with conversation; they knew part of their job was to take notes and listen; and they were not distracted by their cell phones. That classroom had a quieter less chaotic feel to it.

These changes in the classroom are distinct and striking. I feel them every day, and I try to adapt to them. However, there is another more insidious change that I only think about when I have time to reflect, and over which I have absolutely no control: the way the arc of teaching has been taken away from us – an arc devised by the teacher, with regular written assessments that culminate in a large review of the semester, followed by a double-period final.

What exactly is changing? Why does the arc feel different? There are a number of reasons. 

Grade inflation 

Classroom participation, homework grades and group projects allow those who have not mastered the material to have respectable grades. A student who is well-behaved, copies their homework from friends, and coasts in group projects is automatically rewarded with at least a B. When so many points are given away for good behavior and group work, actual knowledge is de-emphasized. My written assessments become meaningless, as they do not affect students’ averages to any significant degree.

The teacher as Data Miner

Teachers are now being told that assessment should play a part in every lesson. Practices such as “ticket out the door” (a mini assessment that must to be handed to the teacher on the way out the door so that he/she can ascertain if the individual lesson was a success) are emphasized extensively by administrators. Online gradebooks are also looked at favorably by administration, as they want to see large numbers of assessments – preferably daily.

Coercing teachers into constant grading considerably interferes with the arc of preparing students for a comprehensive exam, and teachers now create far more mini-assessments then comprehensive exams. The Danielson Framework clearly encourages this shift:

Assessment of student learning plays an important new role in teaching: no longer signaling the end of instruction, it is now recognized to be an integral part of instruction. While assessment of learning has always been and will continue to be an important aspect of teaching (it’s important for teachers to know whether students have learned what teachers intend), assessment for learning has increasingly come to play an important role in classroom practice. And in order to assess student learning for the purposes of instruction, teachers must have a “finger on the pulse” of a lesson, monitoring student understanding and, where feedback is appropriate, offering it to students (Danielson Framework, p. 75).

In candid moments teachers will admit that the constant pressure for quantity over quality has affected their assessments. There are more canned tests from publishers and more multiple choice questions that can go through a scantron; conversely, there are less short answer and essay questions which require hours of grading.

As for students, I am witnessing more and more of what I call “the brain dump,” where they learn just enough information to do well on the upcoming assessment but have no knowledge of the information a week later. It is a disturbing phenomenon, but without large comprehensive tests quite understandable.

Accountability 

 In the 20th century classroom, students were accountable to their teacher; today it is the teacher who is accountable to the students. How are we accountable? By creating online gradebooks that show constant progress, devising rubrics that explain how students got their grades, and detailed explanations as to what will be on any upcoming test so that there are no surprises – total transparency! As a novice teacher, I thought accountability was absolutely key. Now, after watching how it plays out, I have become more conflicted. Students who fulfill the often low expectations of a rubric can get a 100 – unheard of from my high school teachers.

Your own children are masters of the rubric. They have been trained from a young age to follow it and do just enough work to get the grade they want. My own teachers gave vague instructions such as “test on chapter 2,” which forced me to review a large quantity of information and decide what was important enough to be on a test. Most of the time I over-studied. Today, I put detailed instructions on a website with page numbers to study, and I often give a practice test with the same format the day before.

Oddly, all this accountability makes students somewhat entitled, and they demand even more information about their test e.g. How many multiple choice questions? Will it be three or four short answers? etc. It is as though the format matters more to them than the information that must be studied.

Perhaps even more disturbing, students lose the skill of covering a large expanse of information on their own and evaluating its importance. They hone in just enough to do well on the test – adding to the  “brain-dump” phenomenon. 

Common Core

If you look at the New York City Department of Education website, you will see that 60% of my evaluation is based on classroom visits, and the other 40% is based on state and local assessments – thus, the importance of the final exam has been supplanted by standardized tests.

When I first began teaching, my final exam was a double period, and my assessment had to be reviewed before the test date by the head of the department. My students were riveted to my review during the two days prior to the final.

As Common Core tests took the spotlight, my final exam became one period, and nobody in administration cared enough to even look at it. It is painfully obvious that my final is considered of little consequence, since Common Core tests are linked to our evaluations. I find this shift quite disconcerting – the arc of teaching that I had been accustomed to is completely lost.

Advanced Placement

Nowhere has the shift been more pronounced than with AP classes. When I first began teaching the majority of students would take one or two AP classes, and they needed a recommendation from their teacher. The students felt it was an honor and wanted to prove themselves in a college-like environment.

Today, my students take three and four AP classes, and it is nearly impossible to block those who are not capable of the work. As they cannot possibly do such a large array of college level coursework on a high school schedule, their work reflects a high-school mindset. In fact, now that so many students are taking these tests, teaching during the month of May comes to a standstill as students disappear to take their AP tests.

My particular high school has eradicated many Honors classes and placed those students in AP classes instead. Why? Mainly to make the school more competitive on paper. Whether you are for or against AP classes, it necessary to admit that this reflects a profound shift away from the structure of a teacher-led arc of study.

While writing this piece, I reviewed the Danielson Framework in a very different mindset than before. As I perused the examples of a distinguished (level 4) teacher in each domain, I was stunned to see how many examples involved ceding power and expertise to the learner. This is a common refrain in progressive education. However, as I witness what can be an effective form of pedagogy in moderation being taken to such an extreme, I am even more convinced of its detrimental consequences.

If my time spent with students and parents has taught me anything, it is that young people crave smart mentors who lead and challenge them. We are in daunting times — the progressive left seeks to marginalize teachers with group-think and learner empowerment, the conservative right seeks to curb unions with expensive teacher evaluation systems and on-line learning, and finally the business world seeks to profit by selling standardized testing and curriculum. Although the buzzword disrupt is currently in vogue, we owe it to young people to understand the consequences of such widespread and drastic changes before implementing them.

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