Monday, October 13, 2014

Teaching: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Teaching is one of my passions. Even now, when I am working to further my writing career, I know that teaching will always be a part of my professional life. 

This is a prospect that I look forward to. 

Especially because I feel like I've finally found my educational niche. I am currently leading two creative writing workshops (yea!) in addition to my position as a Child Development teacher for teen parents. It is sooo fun. It's amazing what happens when you can work with students that are actually interested in the subject matter.

I do not, however, look forward to the days when people who know almost nothing about teaching think they have the right to tell me how to do my job. 

After almost eight years in the field of education, I've had my share of bad days. The vast majority of them have not been caused by difficult students. Rather, they have been the result of the laws and red tape created by people who seem disconnected from the realities of the classroom.

The biggest example I can think of is NCLB- No Child Left Behind. This policy led to the demand that every student become Proficient by the year 2014. (It will be interesting to see what happens now that the deadline has arrived.)

Proficiency is a worthy goal, but there were, are, a few major flaws in this law.

First, proficiency is determined solely on a student's performance on standardized tests comprised mostly, or completely, of multiple choice questions. At this point in the debate about NCLB, most people agree that all this does is assess a student's ability to take a test. In my own classroom I only used multiple choice tests to assess basic comprehension of facts, or to make sure my students had completed the assigned reading. The more important, in my opinion, assessments were done with short answer questions, essays, and creative projects. I wanted to push my students to develop their creative and critical thinking skills, not their ability to regurgitate memorized facts. 

Other assessments need to be used if you want to have a clear picture of what a student has learned. You also have to take into account the variety of students your encounter. A multiple choice assessment might be easy for one student, and extremely difficult for another, and not because of their work effort or diligence. Don't get me wrong, multiple choice exams have their value, but that value is specialized and therefore limited.

The second problem is that the math behind NCLB is impossible. The law demands that 100% of students become proficient. No offense to the writers of NCLB, but that is mathematically impossible.

Whenever such demands were brought up in a staff meeting I wanted to project a picture of a bell curve.

Bell curves are natural. Populations tend to follow this pattern. In the terms of education and academic proficiency, this means that some students are going to be high performers and some are going to be low performers. This is natural and to be expected. 

Remember, these scores are based on performance on multiple choice exams focused mostly on Math and English. I don't know about you, but I know plenty of people, high school students included, who are very capable and intelligent but who could care less about Math or English.

But NCLB says this isn't good enough. It says that 100% of students have to be proficient or advanced in Math and English. They have to be the same as everyone else in regards to these abilities and aptitudes. Differences in ability and experience didn't matter. Flexibility is not allowed.

In my opinion, human beings are supposed to be different from each other, we are supposed to have a variety of talents and abilities. This is exaclty what brings us together as a society. If everyone could perform at the same level in everything, doing well in a particular area would no longer have value. All of our uniqueness would be lost.

Maybe I'm too contradictory by nature, but such a world sounds like a boring place to live. I don't think I would last there very long before causing trouble of one kind or another. 

Then there is my third problem with NCLB. 

As a teacher I became frustrated when I saw my students struggling with the demand for proficiency. I saw some of them working hard to make improvements, but then giving up when their movement up the scales was slow. As a high school English teacher I encountered a lot of students who had given up years ago. I had to work hard to convince them to even give English a chance. 

"Proficiency" and the labeling associated with it, underminded every bit of encouragement I gave my students to keep working and learning. It was the go to word and they weren't allowed to join the party unless they were good enough. 

There is a lot more I could say, but this post is already getting long. So, I'll cut myself off now. 

But I would love to hear your thoughts about NCLB and modern testing practices. 

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