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.

A teacher’s perspective, part 1: the 21st century classroom

The following guest post was written by a friend and colleague who teaches at a large, selective New York City public high school. Over the last several years, her descriptions of the changes wrought by various new technologies, the imposition of Common Core, and an increasingly byzantine evaluation system that effectively punishes teachers for teaching, have provided me with an illuminating glimpse into some of the more alarming changes the public school system has recently undergone (and continues to undergo), and piqued my interest in understanding how standardized testing fits into the secondary landscape as a whole. I have found her insights invaluable, and I invited her to write this two-part series because I thought that it was important that those insights be shared with a wider audience.

Twice a year, during parent/teacher conferences, I get to meet you. I get a fascinating snapshot of your families, and what my students convey to you about my particular classroom. During these brief moments, I often wonder how much you really understand about how differently your children’s educational experience is from your own. Today, I would like to clarify how profoundly different it is.

Perhaps you read the educational pages of national newspapers. There you will find desperate appeals to revamp education. Some of the themes you see are as follows:

  • Bored children who need more creativity and less rote learning.
  • Dull teachers who need to teach less and allow children to take control of their learning.
  • A technology gap that needs to be addressed with more tablets in the hands of more children at ever younger ages.
  • Higher standards that must be maintained by giving large corporations such as Pearson lucrative contracts with our schools to test them and then use these scores to evaluate teachers.
  • A competitive college process that must be combatted with more AP classes at younger and younger ages.
  • A challenging job market that requires working in teams, thus making group dynamics a paramount skill for students to master.

It is a constant harping that the 21st century school must have a completely different dynamic from the one that you knew in the last century. My own class is particularly different from the way I was educated. When I was in high school, I sat in rows with my classmates. Being shy, I rarely spoke, but I listened and learned a lot. When I became a teacher, I wanted to be my childhood “dream” teacher: someone smart and funny and challenging who stood in front of a class and explained things. I never thought a teacher would do anything else.

But here is a snapshot of my class: I begin class with a short exercise called a “Do-Now” – a 1-3 minute activity that reviews previous information, is short enough to accomplish quickly, and gets students’ attention focused on the new class. For the rest of the 45-minute period, I switch activities every 10 minutes so that students don’t get bored, and so that they practice different kinds of skills. Sometimes they work in pairs or groups, and sometimes they listen and take notes.

When I go to AP Workshops, I often get stunned looks from private school teachers who are shocked at my AP results – especially because I teach at a public school with 34 students in a class. I have been told by my administration that I am charismatic, that kids love me, and that they never get parent complaints. I am not a disgruntled teacher who conducts class in a stuffy, old-fashioned style; but I do worry about how the implementation of educational fads, when taken to extremes, can affect our children’s learning.

Traditionally, K-12 educators have never reacted strongly to educational fads. When I first came to education as a career changer 10 years ago, one of my first department meetings was about a concept called SMART goals. Fresh from my master’s program, I set about to master what lurked behind this impressive acronym. The older teachers just laughed at me, and told me to pay no mind. They said educational fads come and go, and there would be a new one next year to replace this year’s educational jargon. However, in the years to come, the tone changed. New teacher evaluation systems were put into place that would assure that these fads were systematically implemented. Teachers who resisted these fads found themselves under immense pressure from administration, and more often than not retired from teaching in exasperation.

I call them fads because there is little empirical research to vouch for their efficacy. Even if there is research to back up a particular strategy, administrators are not particularly adept at rolling them out at a macro level. Do you remember the metaphor of the butterfly effect? – even the smallest changes in education can have profound effects when instituted widely, and often these effects are unforeseen. I watch these unexpected effects play themselves out, and frankly it terrifies me, as well as the teachers I work with. As you are not in the classroom to view them, I would like to give you a bird’s eye view of how these changes are playing out from my perspective.

The implementation of these fads in New York City can best be understood if you care to read 115 pages of the Danielson Framework. It is the work of Charlotte Danielson, who designed a system for administrators to use in the evaluation of classroom teachers. It has four domains with numerous sub-domains making for a grand total of 22 measures of teacher effectiveness, actually 23 if you ask teachers to submit “artifacts” (http://usny.nysed.gov/rttt/teachers-leaders/practicerubrics/Docs/danielson-teacher-rubric.pdf).

Danielson’s Framework was so complicated to implement that the DOE had to organize extra days of professional development to explain it to us, as well as spend large amounts of money training supervisors to use it. Ultimately, Danielson’s work proved so unwieldy that the New York City DOE now uses an abbreviated version of it when evaluating teachers. In my last formal observation my supervisor used 7 of the original 22 measures.

When teachers first heard about this new evaluation system, some rejoiced. Before Danielson we could not be recognized for excellence – we only received satisfactory or unsatisfactory ratings. Now excellence could be acknowledged! However, reaching for the brass ring in the Danielson Framework, as it was first presented, meant giving up your sanity. It is not humanly possible to be excellent in every category during a brief classroom visit by an administrator. It became abundantly clear to me that a system which micro-manages teachers’ behavior would change the classroom profoundly. Teachers tried so hard to ring every bell on the 22 measures that their teaching style took on an ADD quality. Where I used to do three activities in 45 minutes, I now did five. In some ways it made me a better teacher – a student is less likely to be bored if I move them quickly through different styles of teaching. But the deep, slow, methodical learning that many students desperately need had to be put aside. In fact, I often ask myself the question: are my students’ obvious lack of attention skills due to my teaching style, or is my teaching style adapting to their lack of attention? Probably a little of both.

At the same time the more methodical way of teaching went to the wayside, administrators came to denigrate any kind of teacher mediation that did not consist of “high-level critical thinking” accomplished in a group setting. The general idea is that children of the 21st century can do a Google search when they need information. Thus, anything other than deep critical thinking, as indicated by constant, group-based chatter, is a waste of their time. In fact, Danielson describes a “true” classroom discussion as the following: Rather, in a true discussion a teacher poses a question and invites all students’ views to be heard, enabling students to engage in discussion directly with one another, not always mediated by the teacher (p. 64).

As administrators came in and out of our classrooms, students were no longer given simple comprehension questions or, heaven forbid, a worksheet where they could cover essential basic information in a methodical manner. The fact that students needed to assimilate some of that basic information before they could engage in higher-level activities was not addressed or even acknowledged. One of my colleagues likened the situation to being in college and having recitations without lectures. But due to fears of being assessed poorly, teachers increasingly abandoned any hint of the lecture format. The fear is so intense that I have witnessed many teachers actually apologize to students for “talking at them” when they feel the need to clarify information for too long, aka “lecture.” As for how this change plays out for students, I have noticed that the overuse of group work interferes with their independent thinking. Often, the moment a question looks difficult, they immediately turn to the person next to them, as it does not even occur to them to solve it on their own.

It would be logical to assume that students enjoy a system where they have so much control over their learning. However, when you actually ask students their preference, you get a very different viewpoint. Typical responses are as follows: Teachers who put us in groups are lazy. Teachers put us in groups because they do not want to teach us. I hate group work. Why won’t the teacher just explain it to us? It is so unfair – the smart students do all the work and the lazy students coast. Group work is a world of all-consuming frustration. Yet Teacher’s Ed courses systematically convince every novice teacher that we do our students a disservice by being “the sage on stage” – what is clearly needed is a “guide on the side” – yet there is little empirical research showing that group work is superior to guided learning. Additionally, for all their talk of giving students a larger role in how they learn, they ignore students’ obvious antipathy towards group work, and when pressed, cite their conviction that everybody in the 21st century workforce now works in groups.

Another unproven fad of the 21st century schoolroom is the idea that more technology will increase learning outcomes. Standing by my Smartboard one day, I was aghast to hear from an administrator that it was not enough that I use technology. If I wanted a good review, my students had to use technology as well. But laptop use by students invariably has two paradigms: students hide behind their laptops, distracted and off-task, or they type prodigiously like automatons, which makes me wonder if typing has the same processing “feel” as writing notes.

Even more frightening than the apparent lack of concentration, I have noticed that some teachers turn out the lights in the room so that the Smartboard is easy to see. In fact, on one of my evaluations I was told that I should turn out the lights and shut the blinds so as to see the screen better. A dark classroom creates lethargic students, and I find myself averse to creating this depressing atmosphere. When I come into a classroom and turn on the lights, students often complain. Apparently, they like learning in darkness. It is a frightening metaphor for education.

In part 2: how reforms have altered the arc of teaching and assessment.