I feel a lot of distance between us lately, and not just because I'm child- and mortgage-less. It's because I'm embarrassed of you. The public thinks we're a bunch of whiney, overentitled babysitters and ever since NCLB debuted back in 2002, you've done precious little to improve our public relations.
I'm not at all trying to tell you that NCLB is perfect legislation or even that I have a perfect grasp on its policy or funding. But then, none of the complaints I hear in the teacher's lounge, at department meetings, or around the blogosphere concern policy or funding.
You guys complain that NCLB forces you to drill-and-kill your students, that it sucks the life out of learning, that you've had to abandon your best lessons, and that it stifles your creativity. The Educator Roundtable has posted a lot of sobering, lucid criticism (completely sourced, no less) that really make the aspiring educational activist proud. But the rest of you just whine. And it's killing me.
My union's monthly propoganda rag, California Educator, is often painful to read, full of conspiracy theorizing, transparent political rabble-rousing, and hoary teaching clichés about "making a difference," but its September 2006 issue was almost unreadable. Quotes from an article entitled NCLB Gets An F ranged from sensational to sniveling.
Many educators believe that the true purpose of the law is to set schools up for failure.
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education blames NCLB for increased obesity among youth.
Montaño, who trains future educators, says NCLB has had a devastating impact on those considering entering the teaching profession. "There has been a decrease in teacher candidates throughout the CSU system."
Does anybody outside the echo chamber believe any of these? I can't decide which assertion is more absurd, or if the issue is even one of absurdity. Perhaps these are just suppositions run horribly amock. Since state-controlled schools are the occasional reality, NCLB must be an insidious ploy to privatize education. I've never seen even anecdotal evidence that physical education has been threatened since NCLB (nor does California Educator bother to supply any). But even if PE classes were cancelled nationwide, NASPE isn't worth its funding if it blames NCLB before cheetos and bad parenting.
It gets worse once we push past all that unsubstantiated provocation.
Science teacher Mark Green … fears NCLB will soon take the fun out of teaching his specialty. Next year, [middle school] science will be subject to standardized testing under NCLB.
The drill-and-kill approach to learning is turning children off to school and offering no opportunities for students who might excel in other areas.
Pacing charts tell teachers what page they should be on at which time on what day. If students are unable to keep up, the constraints of the pacing guides keep teachers from going back over the material.
If I ever meet "science teacher Mark Green" I will have some very incredulous eyebrows for him. I sincerely hope the effect of all this entitled sobbing is limited to our teacher's union where I know Mark has plenty of friends. But I suspect these complaints are leaking out into the civilian world, where we increasing come across as spoiled children snuffling in the sandbox at the loss of our favorite toys. This is embarrassing. I tell new acquaintences I'm a pimp. At least they know I work hard.
In between drafts I spent a lot of time researching NCLB at Shut Up And Teach and Practical Theory and it's clear there are serious problems with NCLB. But this makes it more important — not less — that teachers stay on message. Most are content to set up this transparently false dichotomy between "serving my kids" and "teaching to the test" when there is a nearly limitless expanse between those extremes for the teacher who's willing to work at it. You people can rally against NCLB without embarrassing yourselves and me but you've got to pick the right reasons and stick to them.
I certainly don't dispute that NCLB constrains teachers. I mean, I personally feel constrained. But I have nothing but scorn for any teacher who floats the idea that these constraints have forced her to drill-and-kill her students, to trample past students who need help, to abandon creativity, or to sour her students to learning. Please name me another profession that had fewer quality control checkpoints than "teacher" did pre-NCLB. Even if NCLB were the most constraining legislation since Prohibition, I would still have nothing but dismay for these teachers whose first reaction to accountability is outrage rather than innovation.
I've written at length about how The Wire, in its third season, spoke lucidly and loudly to the difficulties of teaching at-risk youth. It did so obliquely, though, through tangential subplots involving the failures of well-intending police and parents.
However, in its fourth season, when it tackles the Baltimore school system directly, it becomes preachy, didactic, and almost as annoying as my colleagues' ritualized mope-fests over standardized tests, though much much more eloquent.
Disgraced-police-officer-cum-middle-school-math-teacher Prezbo goes through a learning curve easily recognized by any former student teacher. He's weak on the first day, passive-aggressive, and unorganized. He opens with the problem about two trains traveling towards each other at different speeds, the fate of which trains no one has cared about since the early 1980s.
Especially not Prezbo's class.
Mercifully, the writers don't try to pass Prezbo off as an expert teacher by end of the thirteen-week season, but he and his students do meet each other halfway on the whole math thing. Prezbo teaches them the probability of shooting dice and suddenly the class is motivated! Prezbo's constantly-queasy, put-upon expression melts a bit as he observes pockets of learning around the room, groups of four and five playing craps and tossing Monopoly money on the floor. It's a beautiful scene — sincerely — and further into the season, several students turn their knowledge of probability tables into big winnings in a street game.
But then weeks pass, those tests start sneaking up, and the teachers of Tilghman Middle gnash their teeth, tear their clothes, and scatter ashes around their classrooms.
CUT TO: Prezbo droning at his class, drilling-and-killing problems straight from the test manual. An administrator looks on approvingly. Once the administrator leaves, Prezbo slumps into his desk, and says acquiescingly, "We have 45 minutes … we can practice probability." Cheers abound. Prezbo beams. Teachers watching HBO lean to their spouses and mutter obscenities about how NCLB "constrains teachers."
All you people shame me.
One gets the sense from The Wire that if only those pesky adminstrators weren't popping in all the time and if only those creativity-killing, obesity-causing standardized tests weren't approaching annually, Prezbo and his class could shoot craps every day for the rest of the year.
In what drunken script conference did this rhyme with good teaching? In fact, Prezbo represents the laziest kind of teacher — the guy who only wants to teach the easy and fun material — for 45 minutes no less.
But teacher to teacher, let's be honest. Learning is difficult. Learning runs a tractor through gray matter, plowing beds for neurons to connect. It was easy for most of us but it isn't easy for most of our students. It's typified by confusion, questions, and frustration.
Our measure as teachers is not defined by how well we engage students in lessons that are inherently engaging. Even a non-credentialed hack like Prezbo can spin gold from a golden lesson.
It so happens this week I'll be teaching the exact same lesson as Prezbo, leading with the same salacious Vegas tie-in, hooking my kids the same way he did his. They'll roll dice and gamble with lima beans for Tootsie Rolls. It's fun. The kids will love it. I know that for as long as they're rolling dice, discipline won't be an issue. But if I spend more than a half hour of class time on such a superficial introduction to probability, much less the weeks Prezbo seems to have squandered, I'll be really embarrassed of myself.
No, our measure as teachers is defined by how engaging, lucid, and relevant we can be during the difficult lessons, by how effectively we prepare all our students for their futures and for mandatory assessment, all while maintaining a brisk pace through a wide breadth of material. Nothing less. Know this: our worth as teachers didn't change on January 8, 2002; our burden of proof just became greater.
As such, NCLB was the best thing that ever happened to mediocre teachers. As of January 8, 2002, mediocre teachers were no longer complacent, unadaptive, dispassionate, boring creatures incapable of differentiated instruction and intolerant of learning modalities. No, NCLB was just sucking the life out of teaching.
No longer were mediocre teachers too lazy to create fun and satisfying learning experiences that transferred easily to state testing; NCLB was forcing them to teach to the test.
The accountability measures of NCLB have mobilized the mediocre. After all, if they don't bemoan the lens that's drawing nearer their classrooms, someone might look through it and realize that …
… they allocate hundreds of instructional hours to activities that are fun and unchallenging for students and rather than find ways to make the other subject strands a little more fun and lucid, they gripe that NCLB is making teaching too rigid.
[Alternatively: If the learning can't be fun -- and forgive me, completing the square may never be fun -- make it clear. Make it satisfying.]
… they wait until the end of the year to start reviewing for standardized testing and once they finally check the released questions they claim they've been forced to drill-and-kill their students.
[Alternatively: Download the questions early. Work them into openers, into games, into assessments. If you read the questions straight from the manual in Prezbo-esque monotone, yeah, the kids'll check out.
Instead, phrase them expectantly. "Let's see how well you guys are gonna do in the spring." I walk around and check their answers to a question-of-the-day and holler out a running tally -- "Nine students right, three wrong." -- which doesn't let anybody know how her neighbor did but which turns "drilling-and-killing" into a fun, challenging competition. Believe me. Even though your students are more cynical than you are about assessment, they still want to know if they can handle the challenge.
I think the Algebra CSTs are too heavy on quadratics but damn if the Geometry test isn't a fine and fair exam I'm happy to let represent my students. My point is: have you people even looked at the test you're sweating to discredit?]
… they take five minutes to get their students working, they let them line up at the door ten minutes early, and in between they burn the clock with slow transitions between activities. I'm not going to condescend to my audience by multiplying these wastes over 180 school days.
[Alternatively: Set the expectation from the first day that we work bell to bell. Everyday, when the bell rings, I walk in from greeting students at the door, give a quick welcome, and then silently count to thirty at a corner of the board reserved for discipline. The warmup exercises have been on the board since the bell rang and the students know that anyone who isn't working quietly when I finish counting stays after class thirty seconds.
They also know from experience that if the class packs up early, I add problems to their homework assignment. They know that we don't leave until everyone is in her assigned seat.
I keep the day's worksheets within arm's reach; I am rehearsed and planned and consequently, despite a close finish, I don't feel rushed by NCLB. That includes all sorts of exciting project-based learning.
California Educator makes the shameless implication that minute-by-minute curriculum maps are commonplace nowadays. Even if this were true, if you're going to cry to me about the pace of your year, the first thing I'm going to do is ask you how well you use class time. I'm going to ask you how much time you waste reviewing homework. Classroom management deserves its own post but we'll let it suffice now to say it's awfully difficult to meet content standards if you make yelling at your class an integral part of your daily lesson plan.]
Montaño is wrong. Enrollment across CSU teaching schools is down not because highly-qualified graduates are afraid of NCLB's challenge. Enrollment is low because, as a profession, teaching has never been so disgraceful. Would all the intelligent, motivated university graduates who want to associate themselves with a pack of sobbing, embittered, entitled, lifetime-credential-holding children please raise their hands?
Listen, I do regret my tone somewhat. (For the record, my first draft was frequently unprintable.) I started teaching 18 months into NCLB so I never knew these salad days of slackened accountability my colleagues speak of in such reverent tones — days when it didn't matter what you taught so long as it was fun enough to placate your unruly students, days when you didn't have to hone your time management because, hell, if you didn't finish the book, that was the next teacher's mess to clean up. I'm glib and disapproving but, sincerely, I realize that NCLB must have been a rather rude surprise.
But remember that we define ourselves not just as teachers but as human beings by how we handle ourselves when the easy turns tough. You can complain and try to kick up enough dust to cloud your complacent practice. Or you can see this as one of the proudest and most challenging moments our careers, when we were called to serve every student, every racial and socioeconomic subgroup. A moment when one race left behind was serious enough for us to deem its entire school left behind.
Even though I have never worked harder for less compensation in any other job, I am so thrilled to have entered teaching for such a time as this. Complain, all you obstinate teachers, mired in mediocrity, fettered by inefficiency, too stubborn to seek help. Complain as loud as you want. I'll still be here, still doing my job.