Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Students Who Don't Give a Sh**

Someone sent this to me a while ago, but the fact that it keeps popping up in my mind while I'm at work speaks to the truth of its message.

In The Know: Are Tests Biased Against Students Who Don't Give A Shit?

While obviously facetious, the pundits in this clip bring up a very real worry that permeates the ranks of educators and the public at large.  Many students seem to be very apathetic about their shot at a free education today.  Watching this clip makes me think of an article in TIME Magazine about Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart's  Rally to Restore Sanity.  With all of the crap being thrown around about education, teachers and otherwise, it's tough to know what the facts are and what the statistics are saying.  People are making into extreme issues those that are not and the middle- the vast majority of Americans- are being left out of the conversation altogether.  Pundits like Stewart, Colbert, and the people at The Onion, seem to be doing a better job of "reporting"on the middle's opinion than any other news source simply because they are pointing out how ridiculous the information is that we're being fed.  In this case, they don't try to point fingers or make sweeping assumptions, but instead make fun of an obvious, but now very serious and extreme issue: many students don't like going to school.

Why don't kids give a shit?  From my perspective, there are a lot of reasons.  Here are a few:
  1.  They attend school in a system that is in desperate need of revamping.  Americans don't work factory jobs anymore.  Let's stop pretending that our students are going to (unless they move out of the United States).
  2. The media and many parents tell students that teachers are incompetent, in part because teachers did their jobs so well over the past several decades (ie sending students to college) that a lot more people have just as much higher education as teachers do.  Assuming they are incompetent, who would want to sit through seven hours of listening to morons?  I certainly wouldn't.
  3. Progressive reforms in education have done a pretty good job of teaching students that they should question information being given to them, while the standards movement results in the opposite.  Teaching to tests sends the message that there is a set of correct answers to be memorized, whether the tests are designed to assess that or not.  It seems that these conflicting messages make for a disjointed education that is both confusing and off-putting.
  4. Video games and cell phones are far more exciting to the majority of children than listening to teachers talking at the front of a classroom (which is still the most common form of instructional delivery).  Granted, this does not mean that a majority of students don't listen to teachers.  It's simply more difficult for a single human voice at the front of a room to keep our students' attention.  In the adult world it doesn't seem much better at times, as you can see plenty of adults on their Blackberries and iPhones during their work meetings when they should be listening to a single voice at the front of the room.
  5. Parents are working more and talking to their children less.  How many families arrive home at approximately the same time these days and sit around the kitchen table to talk while they eat?  While the advent of the T.V. did plenty to erode that picture, the large array of digital devices we use these days certainly pulls us away from the face-to-face interaction that accounts for much of childhood socialization.  When children show up to school, they are less accustomed to listen to adults and other people in general when they are spoken to directly. It seems as though it's literally becoming more difficult for children to pay attention to humans in the non-digital form.
  6. There are some bad teachers out there that simply aren't worth listening to.  Sad, but true, but a very small minority of teachers in general.
  7. Social promotion allows students to be passed along no matter what they do.  A few students figure this out by the sixth or seventh grade and stop working.  That's tough to turn around.
  8. Controlling large classrooms of students used to be much easier, as most children were taught from a young age that adults meant authority.  While most children listen to their parents, our society seems to have shifted from authoritarian parents toward nurturing parents.  The teaching profession has also shifted (or attempted to shift) from an authoritarian model to one where the teachers nurture their young charges.  It's very difficult to nurture thirty-five students when you have an average of less than two minutes per day with each, however.
  9. Finally, what might be the most significant issue, teachers are charged with educating all children.  A couple of decades ago many, if not most, of the students who really did not care at all simply did not go to school and were therefore not bringing down any teacher's test scores.  The behavior problems they would have brought with them never walked through the school doors.  It's much like the skewed perception of dropping SAT scores: privileged white males were the only ones who took the SATs thirty years ago- of course there is going to be a drop in the scores when a much more diverse cross-section of society begins to take them.

This list may be incredibly presumptuous and none of these individually account for the majority of the students who simply do not give a shit.  In fact, I would assume each only counts for a small portion of the students who really couldn't care less about school.  Combined, however, these factors seem to have led to a sizable chunk of our student population walking into classrooms around the country ready to do absolutely nothing and being perfectly fine with that.

And so for education, this video, however comical, speaks to a truth that the middle is worried about, but which they've been aware of for some time:  some students simply do not give a shit.  Is it solely the teachers' fault? No.  Is it solely the parents' fault?  Nope.  Are the poor choices students make, and therefore the students, solely to blame?  Uh-uh.  In an era where passing the buck is the most fashionable thing to do, each group of stakeholders in our children's education tends to point their fingers elsewhere.  To most of us in the middle, however, it's clear that it's a village issue, not just one factor that raises our kids.

So when are the major news sources going to talk about that?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Conferencing with Parental Units

Oh the parents- some are delightful, some are enraging, some are entirely absent from the education equation, and most are well-balanced adults doing the best they can for their kids.  We usually see the gamut during Parent Conferences, but this fall most of what I got was the normal, well-balanced kind.  This drastic change from the four previous conferences I've had in New York would have been startling had I not been so busy before and after they happened.  The expectation that this might be the case, paired with two years of experience calmed my nerves considerably before meeting with the parents.  I've also made an absurd number of phone calls this year and have already informed most of these parents about what's going on in class.

On Thursday night from 5-8 and Friday afternoon from 1-3 we invited our parents to come in, sit down and chat with their students' teachers.  I set out a bunch of the hats I wear during instruction, cleaned and pushed all of the desks back to the wall, save for the circle of desks set up for the parents and I to sit at.  The turnout was pretty decent, all things considered, and predictably strongest in the younger grades, while progressively weaker in the upper grades.  The conferences with this set of parents went remarkably smoothly, especially compared to last year and the year before. These parents are more involved and willing to work with teachers than the parents my students in the past have had.  During my first year, a large number (but not most) of our parents were hardly there for their kids and it showed in the fact that the class of students was aggressive, disruptive and way behind in school.  Those conferences were also not as well attended.

Every time we have conferences, we learn a great deal about a child's home life and what they go through.  Even if their parents aren't willing to come in or call, it says a lot.  If they come in, it's oftentimes the case that the apple has not fallen far from the tree, which helps to explain our students' successes and failures.  Of course, this is not always the case.  I had one parent (who showed up as we were packing up to leave) tell me that he was ecstatic that his son was even passing.  He knew that his son wasn't an A student or a B student- that the young man was a C student at best.  This led to a very awkward conversation, as his son certainly is at least a B student in most of his subjects and is a young man who works crazy hard to get good grades.  After trying to convince him of this as delicately as possible and getting nowhere, I decided simply to redouble my efforts with his son in the classroom and not bother with him about academics.

Some conferences leave me wondering how much of an effect I can really have on a child, while others leave me more hopeful than ever.  In turn, some parents are prone to screaming, others crying, and others to long-winded conversations about themselves (and practically to themselves).  This year the parents were all ears, willing to work with me and I believe each of them left satisfied with the conversation they'd had.  The higher caliber of these parents is reflected in my students, who are stellar and in general come from much healthier home lives than my students last year and the year before.

The success of these conferences also spilled over into the fundraiser we scheduled for Friday right after they were over.  With the help of a local, Upper East Side bar, my team raised $1200 for our class trip to Washington D.C. next June!  If it hadn't been for the bed bug reporter, I would have called the conferences and activities thereafter entirely successful for the eighth grade.

image: http://www.teachervision.fen.com/classroom-management/printable/6521.html

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

1 Bed Bug = Media Sensationalism

Bed bugs are very serious.  They are possibly the last thing I want coming into my apartment.  If my girlfriend and I were to find them in our living space, we'd probably move across the continent, no questions asked.  And they've become a major public nuisance in New York and in other large cities across the country.  These things are likely to be the one organism the survives the end of the world- even more so than roaches, which we, and most New Yorkers, do have in our living spaces every once in a while.

So when a reporter showed up outside of our school to interview our parents leaving Parent-Teacher Conferences about the bedbug found at our school, this was no laughing matter.  Unfortunately for our school, we'd not been alerted by the Department of Education that the specimen we'd sent to them to be inspected (following DOE protocol to the T) was in fact one of the vermin.  Somehow this reporter had caught wind of it, and took it upon herself to harass our parents about it.  She, of course, did not talk to our administration first and decided instead to go straight for the parents leaving conferences, who were enraged by the fact that our administration did not inform them of the (unconfirmed) pest.  If I were a parent I would have been pissed too.

If the facts given to me by the administration are all correct, it seems as though we did everything right.  There was a bug found in a classroom that appeared to be a bed bug.  We collected it and sent it in a sealed envelope to a lab to be tested.  The entire classroom it was found in was disinfected as a precautionary measure and then we waited for the results to come back, continuing to teach children and prepare them for the future in the meantime. 

Then this reporter shows up at the door.  Now, this is not confirmed, but in my head it was a young reporter trying to dig up more dirt on public schools and get kudos from her boss at the network.  Never mind the fact that our school is one of the best in the neighborhood.  Never mind the fact that it is a very safe place for our children to be in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States.  Never mind the fact that our staff is extraordinarily dedicated and willing to go above and beyond for our students every day.

There was one dead bug.  It was almost definitely carried in by one of our seven hundred charges, though it may have been spawned from thin air by a mystical DOE policy.  Because of this reporter our attendance dipped dramatically today and parents are extremely irritated with our school for an issue that was not within out control. 

For a very long time in this country major news programs and papers have sensationalized stories in order to sell their product.  Between corrupt politicians from whom we can't get a break and a media who makes people hysterical over the most minute issues (and I'm not saying a bed bug problem is insignificant), the Americans in the middle- most of us- are having a terrible time being represented by the institutions that are supposed to govern us and keep each other in check.  Instead they seem to simply take advantage of us.

Next month I'll be teaching about the Spanish American War and how yellow journalism (sensationalist media) pulled us into a war that was just about a land grab.  This incident will serve as a teachable moment during that lesson.  I just wish it didn't come at the cost of causing friction between our parents and our staff.

Lastly, our principal asked the reporter to return and air an objective report on the positive things our school is doing for our students, not to mention the fact that our school was rated as one of the top ten cleanest in the city last year (out of 1,600).  I'll let you know if she comes running back with her notepad and camera...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Wikinomics: A New Model for Education?

A major trend right now is to see how various business models can be applied to education systems around the country.  The basic instinct behind this movement is that successful people should run our public education systems.  As a basic measure of success in today's society is the size of an individual's bank account, it's become very easy to spot "successful" people and then rope them in to fix our schools.  Unfortunately, pegging the success of a given school is not as easy as looking at the bottom line of a company.

I'm into ed reform, so this movement has caught my attention.  At the very least I'd like to hear what people have to say about it.  An unfortunate truth about this whole idea is that the business folks put in charge of education systems have been anything but clear about their business-style visions for the public schools.  Perhaps I just missed that email or something, but I've done my best to learn what the city's and the chancellor's plan to fix New York's public schools and all I hear is a bunch of trash talk being tossed back and forth between the Department of Education and the union.  As far as I can tell, it's just assumed that the former business execs will cut out the fat, reform the system in one way or another, and that will be that.

Part of this research on the use of business models in education has led me to a number of good books and articles on emerging business models.  The second of two books I was able to read over the summer was actually a BusinessWeek bestseller that I picked up at La Guardia while waiting for a flight late last spring.  Wikinomics, by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, is a supremely fascinating book if the effects of the internet on society are up your alley.  While they didn't talk a lot about the application of "wikinomics" to the education system, it was certainly all I thought about while reading through the book.

Wikinomics outlines the fact that a new business model has emerged from the tech age and the internet.  In addition to outsourcing labor and opening up like a public library the intellectual property of many highly respected companies, open source code, web servers, platforms, etc. are part of that new model.  For those unfamiliar with the world of open source code and services, it refers to the idea that anyone has access to the detailed code that is the backbone (and all the other parts) of the internet and the various computer programs you use daily.  With that access given to everyone, people have created amazing things that rival anything a closed-system, private sector company can create.

Sound strange? Of course it is.  Our country was built on the backs of hard laborers and entrepreneurs.  Now many influential and powerful members of the net generation are basically sharing nearly everything they create and not demanding a profit every step of the way.  In the wake of this there is every kind of software you can imagine posted free and legally to the internet- software that is just as outstanding as the stuff for which companies and individuals pay hundreds of dollars per license.

What does this mean for education?  Nothing yet, as far as I can tell.  While these phenomenal businessmen and businesswomen stepping up to take charge in our education system were and are very "successful" in their own right, they aren't finding real ways to lessen the cost of education while keeping it's quality in tact (let alone improving it).  Canceling all contracts with Microsoft and Apple, training tech guys in the use of open source software and platforms and retooling schools with laptops purchased at wholesale price would do wonders for the budget. 

Sounds simple, right?  Perhaps I'm just missing a major piece of this equation.  If the people in charge of the system are so successful, I'm sure they would have already thought of using open-source software and platforms.  Even still, if I opened my own school, it would be an all open source workplace.  And that would just be the beginning.

 A significant ongoing conversation I've had in the last year has centered on what technology is going to do for the teaching profession.  At this point I see the move in the direction of national standards as one that will be lasting, which will open up the idea that K-12 teachers will be able to teacher in more than one state.  Why is that significant?  Because many teachers will be educating our youth almost completely online for many subjects (clearly things like gym, dance, art, and orchestra will not go online).  In that kind of world, parents will not only be able to send their students to the school of their choice (hint: the best schools that have the best teachers), they will be able to pick specific teachers they want educating their children.  This would essentially be open-source education, where people can design the education they want for their children or they can choose the best program out there that's already been designed.

What's more, teachers will be able to concentrate their efforts on teaching rather than on classroom management, which will become someone else's (in many cases the parents') problem.  In terms of funding education, taking operation costs down to what it takes to pay teachers and to support a very robust online platform should substantially reduce the cost of educating children and cut out a lot of the bureaucratic b.s. that goes into operating a major school system over a long period of time.

But who am I to say that will work?  Again, I'm sure if such an idea is viable, the business and media executives now running our public education systems already have it outlined and nailed down. To be honest, I'm working within a pilot for NYC public schools that is supposed to bring more classroom instruction online.  Perhaps what I've just said is the end goal of the initiative, however, no one has made that end goal clear.  Like many other reforms in this field, the initiative has this sort of "let's see what happens" feel that is oftentimes coupled with a project ending and not being expanded on.

Tapscott and Williams talk about a major shift in the way people are doing business around the world.  Outsourcing, opening up intellectual property rights and increasing collaboration exponentially across geographical borders is where we're headed.  If education is supposed to prepare young people for their lives after high school, as the current factory-style education system used to, we're going to have to see a major shift in the way we educate the children- one that reflects the new collaborative model of business and life in general.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

NCSS Conference in Denver, Live from New York

Friday things were going crazy:  Four other teachers, a professor and I were corralling three hundred students from 3 different states in one space, facilitating discussion between fifty to a hundred of them at a time, watching out for snide remarks, giving feedback all while presenting the whole thing to a group of history teachers.  This was the NCSS conference in Denver and we arrived with some new flare this year.  And a shiny new web platform.

This school year we have been working on an online collaborative platform at least one Friday a month called the "Just War Ning".  Basically, our group paid $200 for a subscription to this website that allows different discussion forums, uploading Google Docs, videos, pictures, and much more.  Our students bite not only because they like the idea of talking in real time to students at other schools around the country, but also because the platform allows them to friend other students and personalize their own page.  In addition to seeing who can create the shiniest personalized page and upload the most glamorous profile picture, the goal is to discuss what justifies war and then apply it to a number of historical examples.  So far the students have done just that.

The professor who helps to coordinate this effort was the advisor to all of the teachers involved when we were in undergrad (and graduate school for most of us).  He took this platform to Denver and presented it at the NCSS conference, letting a whole gaggle of history teachers watch as our students hashed out this month's war- the War of 1812.  Now, generally speaking, the folks that attend these conferences are a bit older and are looking either for a way to get away- so far I've seen San Diego, Houston, Atlanta and took my first trip to D.C. for this conference- or they are actually looking for new strategies to use in their classrooms (though it can be both, from time to time).  Our presentation was less about handing over materials, which seems to be a key motivator to get butts in seats at your presentation, and more about demonstrating what is possible when teachers are willing to try new things and work on new initiatives.  That said, the people who attended the two-hour workshop said that they were rather impressed with the work we've done.

About five years ago I joined NCSS at the behest of my advisor and professor.  Most advisors in the school of ed urged us to join our respective content area's national organization (my other quasi-advisor for foreign language education did the same for ACTFL), and I was interested in attending the national NCSS conference that year, which went hand-in hand with membership to the organization.   Regardless, I would also endorse joining your professional organization for the same reason I think attending conferences is important- it helps to keep you up to date on what is happening in the field, which is something many teachers are very bad about.

Conferences are also a great place to network.  If you plan to stay in your one, single classroom for the next forty years, or have already stayed in a classroom for forty years, it may not seem obvious why you would want to network as an educator.  As was the case in our presentation last Friday, however, education is going to see a shift, at least in part, into an online setting.  At the college level it already has.  Collaboration from school to school, district to district, state to state, and globally is just one facet of what networking can bring you.  If you plan to leave the classroom and stay in the field, the value of networking of course is a bit more obvious.

In the end, I was happy with the way the presentation was received, but a bit bummed I did not get to go to Denver for the weekend.  Other than presenting and hearing myself talk, seeing a new city is my favorite part of attending these things.  This time it was necessary for me to stay back and monitor the students as they sat in class and worked online, but hopefully I'll get to a conference in person next year.  I'm thinking the ED-MEDIA conference in Lisbon...

Image: http://www.history.army.mil/html/bookshelves/resmat/wo1812.html

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Klein Means Small in German

For those of you who are not familiar with New York politics/education, Joel Klein is our school chancellor.  This means he is the guy most in charge of the 1.1 million students in the system, the 1,500 or so schools, and about three dozen districts spread across the five boroughs that make up the city.  He's hated by the union and by most parent organizations and is championed by few.  Tuesday, the city found out that Klein would be stepping down at the end of the year and his replacement was announced.  Unfortunately for the union, the parent groups, and many others, his replacement seems to be incredibly like him, at least superficially.

As a classroom teacher, I have a few issues with the way this is going down.  First, there is a tremendous outcry/unanimous eye-roll happening amongst the ranks of teachers in the city.  This, of course, is a near-daily occurrence for New York City teachers.  However, I must say that it could be justified in this case, as Klein's replacement, Cathie Black, has absolutely no experience in public education- even less than Klein did.  She did not attend public schools.  Her children did not attend public schools.  Her background is in business.

Now, however successful a person might be in business, it doesn't necessarily mean they will fair one way or the other in education.  A point I hear few bring up is that business in the United States is only successful if a company turns a profit and, as it turns out, schools do not actually profit from students' labor, which to me says the for-profit model is misplaced in public education.  The confusion seems to stem more specifically from the fact that principals should be able to get rid of bad teachers much more like an employer in the private sector would.  This principle is then expanded to include every other aspect of the American business model (if I can refer to American capitalism so broadly), which is antithetical to the idea that we are providing free public education to the masses.

The second and most obvious issue I have with our Mayor's move to appoint Black is that the leader of the largest public education system in the nation must be able to command the system, to lead the people in that system.  Regardless of how successful a person might be or how much money they have made; regardless of whether it makes sense or not, the teachers and the union in New York City will not follow a chancellor who has no experience working in education.  This has very little to do with Black.  Perhaps she has an amazing plan to fix everything from our individual school's lack of a gym to the rock-bottom tests scores seen across the city, which surfaced once the state made the scoring rubric for tests difficult after students had already taken them (in years past, they were made much easier so certain politicians could look good and be re-elected).  Even if she does have great  and solid plans for these things, I don't think it matters in this city.  Teachers simply are not going to listen to someone with no experience in public schools.

A suitable analogy might be if an extremely successful urban planner was sent to Afghanistan to command our troops on the ground and determine how we're going to win the war and reconstruct Kabul.   While he may know an awful lot about what will make a healthy, thriving city, the troops on the ground- the ones who will have to carry out his orders- probably won't listen to the guy for longer than five minutes (and then only out of courtesy).

When you're the folks between a rock and a hard place, you look to a leader who knows what you are going through.  Teachers in the city feel embattled by the media. They feel that in many ways the public has turned its back on them and that students and parents no longer have to shoulder any of the responsibility for educating our nation's children.  Appointing a successful business woman to a post as important as this one is not going to rally the troops, nor is it going to draw better teaching talent to the city.  At best it will perpetuate the consternation teachers are feeling.

And so, I am apprehensive about the new appointment.  Personally, if she has a solid policy plan I can get behind, I will support it.  If she does not, I will not.  Unfortunately for her, the handful of teachers that would potentially back a solid plan won't be heard over the other 80,000 pedagogues in the city.

Photo: courtesy of AP http://www.silive.com/news/index.ssf/2010/11/publishing_executive_cathie_bl.html

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Who's Who?

It was a day back in the spring of 2000 when Who's Who? showed up at my door.  My initial thought was, "Well, I certainly must be a who."  They sent me a letter in the mail telling me I was someone, which is and was all my generation has been striving to be.  How could I not love their product?!  Their was no monetary obligation to the company and they were going to send my name around the country with many thousands of my closest friends, all of us being somebody (finally).

For those unfamiliar with the company that sells Who's Who Among __________, the model is genius. Target families with students who have received academic scholarships and offer to put their name in a "prestigious listing," which can be purchased for just a few dozen dollars.  Up until the day I got a letter from them, I'd received some commendations from teachers and an honors breakfast here and there for my academics.  Most of the effort I put into grades was done simply because I wasn't very good at sports or other things and my competitive streak needed to find an outlet.

All I needed was a bit of an ego stroke via the USPS to get me going.  Apparently I was somebody among American high school students.  Of course, what that really meant was I was someone who fit the profile of a person who would potentially spend fifty bucks on a book simply because my name was published in it.  Mind you, I wasn't going to be taken and pay extra for the half-inch by half-inch picture to be put at the bottom of the page.  Clearly that was excessive and a waste of money.

According to Wikipedia, Who's Who "is often categorized as a scam since it is an attempt by a private company to make money through proud parents and students who purchase the book and various memorabilia." While a lot of people I know were taken by this "scam,"it was certainly an incentive to keep me working in school.  Being told by random strangers that you're doing a good job and that you are doing what is right, coupled with strong parents and home support, can certainly make you want to achieve more academically.

Unfortunately for many of the students at out school, the praise given by many people at school is either meaningless, as it's given to anyone who can breath, or they simply know that what they have produced is not all that good.  For many of the same students, there is also no praise at home whatsoever for their positive efforts (however fleeting they may be).  For parents that do give praise, as well as teachers, we are the people the students see on a regular basis and a lot of the advice and feedback we give is swept under the rug.  I wonder if getting some praise from outside sources might do our students good, though I doubt they'll be targeted by companies such as these.  That said, if a former student of mine asks me about Who's Who when they hit the eleventh or twelfth grade, I will first be impressed before thinking, "what a scam," as they will have fulfilled some kind of prerequisite when compared to their peers in order to be targeted by these scams.

Why do I bring this up?  I received in the mail yesterday a letter giving me the chance to be in another book published by a company like this:  Cambridge Who's Who among Executives and Professionals in the field of Education and Research.  I was chuckling to myself the entire night about how ridiculous the letter is.  Today I found out this company is even shadier than the original Who's Who?!  Needless to say, they won't be getting my money/my parents' money this time around.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Go Ahead, Publish the Scores

Today I graded a paper and gave it a 91%.  It was a miraculous paper.  It was a delightful paper.  It may have been the best paper I've ever read.  With every sentence, my jaw dropped further and further.  I shifted in my seat, crossed and uncrossed my legs, read and reread, and ended it with a call to the student's house.  This student and her mother- we chatted, we cheered, we jumped up and down in the teachers' lounge (just me).  It was phenomenal.

This student has a 65.5% in my class, including this paper.  She is one of the five students I held back from last year.  In January she could not form a coherent sentence, let alone a paragraph.  At the end of last year, our learning specialist/8th-9th grade special education teacher had a conversation with this girl about her Exit Project.  She led her through a passage about Rosa Parks and Parks' contribution to the Civil Rights Movement.  This included an explanation of what was necessary to answer some basic questions about Parks' life.  After working with the student for quite a while and helping her to finish the paper, which in this case simply meant filling a page with a lot of jumbled nonsense, the teacher asked the student who Rosa Parks was.  The student's response: How should I know?

Now, you might assume that such a jump could be grade inflation or the result of a student cheating.  I would readily assume the same were it another teacher's classroom.  In fact, for the same paper I caught no less than five students who copied material largely from the internet and several more who copied a large section from one another.  Those students will receive a zero or next to a zero on their papers. THIS student, however, is (honestly, but sadly) not capable of cheating without making it brutally obvious.  Instead, she created a paper that lives up to the standards I set for the entire eighth grade and, based on the papers I've graded so far, passes the muster and must be counted amongst the A's.

Mind you, this paper has untold grammatical errors, which is the lowest category of her grade.  If you teach in the suburbs, this paper would make you cringe.  If you teach at the college level you would toss it immediately into the trash can.  This paper, however, I am going to photocopy and keep. I'm going to pin it up in my kitchen and show to my friends and family.  It's going down in history, my history, as one of the major events in my early teaching years.

If you speak to most teachers who began their careers in the city, they will tell you that their students reduced them to tears constantly throughout their first year in the classroom.  My own experience left me wanting to throw chairs across the room (much like my students) much more than crying.  There have been several instances that brought me close to this point of tears, however, always revolving around students' home lives.  This student's progress, however inconsequential to people outside of her life, is miraculous.  I predict her scores on the state exams will most likely still count against the school in the long run.  In spite of that, this progress might be the largest and most concrete I've seen in the past two and a half years.

If you follow the news, a recent issue coming up in education is the release of teacher's test scores to the public so the public at large can judge how teachers are performing.  This student's progress makes me think of why this might not be the best idea.  Now, keeping teachers accountable is important.  I think it certainly should be done and done better than it is right now.  To be honest, I'm not entirely against releasing test scores to the public.  It's pretty easy for me to say that though, as social studies is no longer tested by the State of New York until a year or two into high school. 

This student's progress might illustrate the point as to why releasing a single test score (or even a set of scores from the same test over several years) might mislead the public about a given teacher.  Now, it's assumed that because this student's improvement is in writing that the ELA teacher is the one responsible for this improvement, just as a decline in achievement would be her fault.  What is not apparent is that this change took a village, just as all solid education does.  The student learned the writing model last year in English and practiced it in Social Studies, Science and again in Math (nuts, right?).  She received a very explicit outline for this paper from me and a lot of direct instruction over three weeks, not to mention 1.25 years, of class.  The decisive factor, however- a nameless, phenomenal adult took at least an entire afternoon, sat down with the student and demanded that she follow the outline I gave her.  No answers were handed out.  The student did all of the research.  The paper was written completely in the student's voice- a voice that could not possibly be reproduced by any member of our faculty. 

This student did better than she ever has before.  An entire TEAM of adults did their jobs.  We devoted hour upon constructive hour to a single student for a single assignment and it paid off.

I would have given up a week's salary to hear this young lady on the phone, finding out that she'd finally done something right in my class after over a year of work receiving painful failing grade after failing grade.  In spite of her best efforts, mine, and all of the adults who care about her success at our school, it took this long to produce something related to social studies that stood up to the standards laid out for her and simply could not be given any other grade.

No Child Left Behind was written to make sure students like this were not left behind by our public education system.  It took a (finally) willing student and a team (a real team) of very capable adults to help her achieve success in the classroom.  We all worked very hard to make sure this happened.  While the nation seems hell-bent on rooting out the individual teachers that let students down, they also seem damned sure that they will never find teachers who work to make sure students succeed.  If they are so convinced that the education system is being undermined by the very teaching staffs that make it up, why don't they root out the teachers and in this case caring adults who are doing their jobs?

My thoughts are that the media should publish whatever they want and the public should interpret it however they'd like, but also must demand it not be so sensationalist.  When the state test scores of students like this are published and ELA teachers are condemned or exalted, this student's writing will be on the wall.  If they want to come after my team or me once that has happened, I'll stand up and do what I can to stop them.

In the end, however, it is the public's education system.  I suppose they can do what they like.

image: http://schools-demo.clipart.com/search/index?q=grade&a=d