The Change in Our Public Schools

By: Dani Langevin – January, 2015

Changes have been made in public schools and parents need to be informed and become involved. Educators have been told that “time on learning” is essential. They are not to waste time on anything that may take away from their students’ learning. It is mandated that educators must also be highly qualified in their subject matter. This requires more than just a master’s degree. It is constant training in new ways of teaching English Language Learners, students with special education needs, attention deficit disorders, food allergies, emotional issues, economic deficiencies, along with the constant retraining in subject areas, ever changing teaching and testing practices, and pedagogy. Despite these requests, public schools are making changes that contradict almost everything that they demand of their educators.

Let’s address time on learning. The school year is 180 days. On average, students undergo 20 days of state mandated testing each year or more. This is one month of time on learning lost to testing. Be it the MCAS, the newly piloted PARCC, math benchmarks, ELA benchmarks, writing standards, reading standards, science standards, and countless others, students are tested to exhaustion. Assessments are definitely a part of the learning process, but they are not the end all, be all of it. How a student is able to use their knowledge in a practical situation and solve a problem to come to a productive solution is what real assessment should measure. Darkening in bubbles and answering open ended questions that ask a student to discuss the writer’s purpose is not problem solving.

All of this testing is happens in the last quarter of the year. It is the educational system’s hope that the students have had ample training and practice in the subject areas they are being tested in: math, language arts, and science, and that they are well prepared to show that they are proficient in each of these areas by completing a state and/or federally mandated test. Again, this is after months of training and practice. If this is required of our students, then why is it not of our educators? Some public school systems have instituted new teaching practices without training their educators in it. When teachers have questioned administration on why they are being asked to teach a program that they have not been trained in at all, they are told, “Just do the best you can.” Case in point, in one local system the Lucy Calkins Writer’s Workshop was piloted this year.

Teachers were not trained in it and told to, “Do the best you can,” by following the also newly piloted curriculum map for English Language Arts and use the Writer’s Workshop that they have had not one day of training in. This is an extremely intensive writing program that asks teachers to have students write personal narratives showing epiphanies, produce intensive research reports, author memoirs expressing life-changing lessons, and other develop other writing skills that are well above their maturity levels. No data has been provided that this program improves student writing levels or scores on the end of the year tests. And if teachers are required to teach certain skills, train student in these skills, and allow their students to practice these skills before being tested then why is it that teachers are not given the same courtesy when piloting a new program?

It is this writer’s and educator’s belief that all academic subjects are equally important to the overall intellectual health and well being of every student. It baffles me how anyone who has dedicated their life to education does not agree with this and yet some subjects have been pushed to the wayside to place more emphasis on other subjects. For whatever reason the author’s of state mandated tests such as the MCAS, have not been able to settle on what to assess students on in the matter of history. So, MCAS consists of math, science and language arts assessments. No history. As a result, many public school systems have all but thrown history education in the trash. Many systems have dissolved the history teaching position. In other words, they no longer have teachers who teach just history. This is more specifically at the middle school levels. Teachers, especially at the seventh and eighth grade levels now teach three periods of either math, science or language arts and one period of history/social studies. This means for one hour a day our children are being taught history by teachers who are not highly qualified in this subject and most have never been trained in or taught it-ever. On the flip side, history teachers who have certifications in other areas have been shifted into academic areas they may have been trained in, but have either never taught or haven’t taught in years or even decades. Teachers who have only history certifications may be lucky enough to slide into a high school position or they are being forced to get a certification in another subject area in order to keep their job, not and easy feat.

The reasons for these shifts, faculty is being told, are numbered. The buzz phrase is, “It’s what’s best for the students.” Because of the new evaluative tool, administration is saying that it is only equitable that all teachers need to have their evaluations attached to the state test scores somehow. Since history is not on these tests, every teacher must teach a subject that is, hence the shifts. However, all teachers regardless of the subject they teach do teach language arts. There is reading, reading comprehension, and reading and writing response in every academic subject. Attach history teachers to the language arts scores and allow them to teach what they know. That is what’s best for the students.

On another note, public education has a dirty little secret that the private sector may not be aware of and it is money. When it comes to hiring the best teachers for the job, money is the bottom line. Veteran teachers will always be trumped by brand spanking new teachers because a system can hire two or three new teachers for the same amount as they would have to pay a teacher who is 15 or 20 years into their career. This makes Veteran teachers virtually unmarketable. No system is going to hire a highly qualified, incredibly gifted veteran teacher with years of hands-on experience who knows how to handle the most unruly student, and differentiate instruction to reach the most challenged and most gifted students for $85,0000 if they can hire two or three greenbacks for the same price. It’s what’s best for the students.

Keeping to the subject of money, cutbacks on materials have become beyond tragic. Students no longer are given consumable notebooks. Teachers must run off copies of worksheets and other materials needed for instruction. Educators are wasting massive amounts of time in copy rooms running off materials for upwards of 100 students instead of using their planning time to, well, plan. Many schools have volunteers come in to do copying for teachers that allows them to concentrate on designing and preparing lessons. However, systems only allow a certain amount of copy paper per building, per year. Once the paper is gone, it’s gone. Some schools have cut back on volunteer hours hoping that this will cut down on the amount of copying. How does this make sense? Schools still have the same number of teachers, the same number of students, and the same amount of materials needed.

Regardless of who is making the copying, the copying still needs to be done because new materials are not being bought. Why not allow unpaid volunteers continue to make the copies for teachers so that they can concentrate on teaching? Not only that, because of the number of students keep increasing classes like advanced algebra have had to be doubled, but systems are not buying more books. Algebra teachers are being told that students have to share one set of books between two classes. How is this good teaching practice? Teachers are spending more money each year on everything from basic writing utensils, to copy paper, teaching supplements, independent reading books, and even tissues for the classroom. Parents could be vital if they helped with this matter. Hey private sector! Imagine having to buy your own materials to do whatever your job requires?

The good news: teachers are tenacious beasts. With everything that works against them, they forge on by training themselves, supporting one another, coming in early, staying late, and losing sleep while perseverating on how to reach every student. Every new year and on every morning they get up and go to work even after getting told they are not doing enough, being blamed by parents for their child’s misgivings, and having their jobs threatened by test scores. They keep on keeping on because they love their jobs. They love their students. They love teaching. They are what’s best for the students.