More Reflections on Change by a Veteran Teacher Still Going After Many Years of School Reform

Summary: This continues my sister-in-law Ticia’s reflections on changes she’s seen in forty years of elementary teaching, which include the school reform movement. Last post focused on changes in kids over that time; this one ponders shifts in support services and resources, as well as building climate and teacher autonomy.

The increased motor activity level in my sister in law Ticia’s classrooms over forty years of teaching seems to signal an increase in kids with disabilities, Attention Deficit Disorder with or without Hyperactivity the most obviously. Yet the old dilemma remains — how much is legitimate learning disability, how much is the detritus of poverty, how much the relaxation of cultural constraints, how much is heightened awareness and diagnosis driven by closer scrutiny of kids whose skills lag too far below the norm? A given kid may test the requisite two grade levels below age, not from a genuine disability, but because of a complex of factors arising from low income status. The school psychologist is required to rule out the effects of poverty, but a kid thereby disqualified needs the extra help no less than one who technically qualifies as learning disabled.

In Ticia’s school, given these factors referral is an uphill battle. Lurking in the background is the ugly reality that special education is expensive for school districts.

Historically, Ticia and her fellow teachers held off on referral, because in their experience some kids who early on progressed slowly seemed to jell by fourth grade as their brains matured, and were fine thereafter. Moreover, there is always concern about labeling a kid “disabled,” because the designation can become an indelibly etched and degradingly prophetic self-image.

But now, with heightened anxiety about bringing all kids along, there is countervailing pressure to better support lagging kids from the get go. In Ticia’s school formally qualified special ed kids are included in the regular classroom, with small groups focused on specific skill levels, and Instructional Aides (IA) in the classroom to assist the teacher with some of these mechanisms.

In my own high school, these IA’s would assist any student who needed help, identified as disabled or not, which tended to camouflage individual identity. Moreover, there were so many kids in each classroom with some kind of accommodation that teachers evolved to providing accommodations as a matter of course to all kids, which struck me as a reform in teaching practice itself.

Along with IA’s, an inaugural math specialist has arrived at Ticia’s school for this fall. As a result more help is available, though veteran teachers may eschew the help, preferring the comfort of autonomy in their own classroom. Nonetheless, the specialists and the IA’s are moved around to assist teachers whose test scores lag in one area or another, mandatorily I would guess, such is the increased pressure on administrators to leverage their own responsibilities and authority into improved test scores.

As in other high poverty schools around the nation, when the rate of poverty in Ticia’s school passed 50%, free breakfast and lunch became provided to all students in order to better ensure nutrition and alertness in students. Doing so also eliminates the stigma of poverty to some extent, because all kids are getting the same help. Hungry kids drag down test scores, you see. NCLB has had its uses.

One of the most eye opening changes Ticia has seen is the Florida voter driven constitutional decree that primary classrooms be capped at eighteen (yes, that’s 18) students, a move based on the consensus of research that classes of that size boost academic achievement K-3. Due to the cost, legislators have been left squirming in their collective hot seat, and so have repeatedly tried to water down the classroom limit.

Meanwhile, online resources, workshops and curricula that enhance teaching methods continue to proliferate as kids are required to know and do more, particularly in math and science. These systems have in common a research base founded on observation of master teacher techniques, and so distill the essence of a gold standard; they codify and make more efficient what good teachers have always done.

Covey, Kagan, LESRA, and Marzano are among the copyrighted names of teaching and evaluation structures familiar to teachers and administrators across the country, none of which existed forty years ago. They represent a revolution within the communities that concoct teacher training and curricula, in response to NCLB and international test comparisons, unwelcome cudgels as they have been.

No review of forty years of school would be complete without a nod to the astounding bridge that technology has built, and its complex relationship to kids’ learning. Forty years ago a “device” as likely served a literary function as anything. Bill Gates was a scrawny kid with big glasses.

Teachers now enter the profession having been trained more fully in uses of technology than their senior colleagues.

Expensive to buy and soon to be replaced with one more powerful, today’s computers are increasingly used in high stakes testing and for related tutorials, though in Ticia’s experience in her Florida school such practice has been characterized more by chaos than stability. “Do this…No! Do That.”

Agenda that play the testing game raise disturbing questions about shifts in schools away from deeper learning and growth, but are rational responses to contemporary forces acting on schools.

Ubiquitous devices circa 2016 of various sorts – TV in the bedroom, smart phones — expose kids to more information than their parents and grandparents had at their disposal, and in the bargain serve to loosen the conceptual influence parents (and teachers!) can expect to exercise; today random cultural cooks also create the sauce.

Moreover, arrived in school: Carts of computers. Smart boards. Google. Document cameras that project source material and improve visual access. Microphones for teachers to be heard over the din.

Computer instruction and library/media time, once a staple in schools in part to keep low income kids up to pace, has bowed to increased science instruction, because science test scores are stagnant. Meanwhile, computer time, once sought out, has become as mundane as pen and paper, as though computers have already had their fifteen minutes of fame.

Changes in school climates are situational. In Ticia’s predominately low income school, which has been graded poorly by the state, the pressure is particularly acute to improve test scores. As anywhere, when principals and superintendents feel their job is on the line, they tend to become more controlling, and in turn the line teacher feels micro managed, her skills disrespected. When a new Marzano based evaluation system was being implemented, it was resented because teachers historically had a role in evaluating themselves. Yet the administration proved to be worthy collegial coaches, and so earned staff sympathy.

Ticia and her colleagues have been admonished to avoid going off on a tangent, to keep to the curriculum with test score improvement in mind. Discouraged is the “teachable moment,” when the psychological stars align and teacher has the entire class in her hand, rapt at attention to some particular topic. A critical moment of teacher-student bonding is sacrificed to keep the ship on course. Yin and yang.

The current top down feel is accentuated for newer teachers, who must maintain a notebook, listen to their lead teacher, and bear closer scrutiny. New teachers have three years in Florida’s system to make the grade or be cut loose. Help is proffered. In the face of poor test scores, teachers may be moved around among grade levels on the assumption that a poor fit for one age group may be a good fit for another. Three such moves have fit this description in the same number of years in Ticia’s school, an exponential leap from times in the past.

Team teaching across grade levels and disciplines is the official policy, but has withered in the face of time constraints and occasional incompatibilities. In my own high school in recent memory, such teamwork was only assured by regular attendance by administrators at meetings designed to interpret testing data; the admins themselves had little spare time on their docket, so their presence signaled the importance they gave to the meetings.

Remarkable in all of this is the continuing durability of teachers’ collegial and personal bonds to one another, despite the obvious centrifugal forces.

Amid the tangled array of changes in kids and culture, curriculum and technology, innovation and reform, teaching and building atmosphere, I shake my head in ambivalent respect for the entity No Child Left Behind. The literal words in the title have been taken seriously and broadly across the school community, if with mixed success, because children continue to be left behind. Schools have impressively been put on notice that change is in the air, and teaching as a discipline I am convinced has become more professionalized. But teachers unjustly have been over-blamed for the failures of schools, and test obsession has corroded a balanced sense of what schools should be doing. In the end, the feds may be too far from day to day community action to effectively control as much as they have tried. Of most damage, however, is that NCLB has taken the collective eye off the pernicious role of poverty in the suppression of kids’ learning, and so has sidetracked a proper address. At the same time, its last message and epitaph is exactly that. Are we listening?

Thanks, Ticia!


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1 Response to More Reflections on Change by a Veteran Teacher Still Going After Many Years of School Reform

  1. Sharon says:

    Very interesting reflections and, as usual, written with a great turn of phrase!

    Sent from my iPad


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