Monday, February 17, 2014

Common Core, SBAC, and Teacher Evaluations: What’s the big deal?

If you’ve been at all tuned in to recent developments in educational policy in the United States, you’ve probably heard something about the Common Core.  If you have children in public schools, you’ve probably also heard of the SBAC testing (that’s “Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium”).  Additionally, if you are close to any teachers in your life, you’ve probably heard about the new teacher evaluation process – designed, like Common Core and SBAC, to improve student achievement.  In Connecticut, we might say that we’ve hit the trifecta.  In teacher-speak, we might call it the “Perfect Storm.”

As an educator with nineteen years of experience in the classroom, I’ve witnessed educational trends come and go.  Writing Across the Curriculum, backwards mapping, work of the discipline, and data-based decision making are some of the buzzwords that all boil down to the same thing: making sure that kids are learning and that we know they are learning.  We get it; we’re teachers; that is our goal.  (And if that’s not the case, get out of the classroom.  We know who you are.)  As the saying goes, a rose by any other name…

So here’s what’s different.  I’m going to explain this in the form of an analogy.  Bear with me, because it’s really not that far-fetched.

Imagine a corporate board room.  In that board room are some business people, some writers, some educational “experts,” and maybe a university professor or two from some elite educational programs.  They are all, in theory, interested in making sure all kids learn at high levels.  (Buzzword.)  But, remember, I said corporate board room.  That should do more than just imply there is a greater concern: profit.  Together, this group looks at some research.  (Educational research is mostly done in poor, inner-city elementary schools, where the university education labs largely exist.) They decide that all kids would learn better if all of their lessons were taught in Latin.  (Stay with me.)  Latin is a great language; full disclosure: I taught Latin for eight years.  But I digress.

This corporation (we’ll call it Education Corporation) has some high-stakes in this plan.  They publish the books students and teachers can use to make this transition, and they can offer the option for schools to hire consultants to present workshops to teachers.  They run and maintain the software that schools use to keep records, and – think $$$ -- they make and score the tests that all students will take on an annual basis to measure their learning.

The program sounds great!  It’s just what this country needs!  It will bridge the achievement gap!  We will rise to perform at the levels of other nations!  Because Latin, you see, would be the common standard by which all students would be assessed.  If everyone is held to the same standard, the achievement across schools and districts and states can be assessed by the same measures.  Education Corporation traverses the nation, impressing states and the United States Department of Education with its plan (imagine colorful PowerPoints with impressive graphics).  They all buy in, and they buy in quickly.  “Buy in” is the operative term: it’s a buzzword for getting on board and deploying the plan, but also committing to spending obscene amounts of money on (“buying”) preparation materials and tests themselves.

Let’s remember that students are still supposed to learn the same things they do now: critical thinking, reading comprehension, practical math – just in Latin.  It’s not so much about learning the Latin – that’s just the method of conveyance.  But of course, they will need to learn Latin.  And before the students learn Latin, the teachers must learn Latin.  (Alas, I’m ahead of the game!  But only in my analogy.)  Did I mention that this needs to be done, like, yesterday?  The tests are this year.  That’s this March.  Six or seven months from the beginning of the school year.  I repeat: teachers need to learn Latin.  Students need to learn Latin.  Teachers need to plan their lessons to be engaging, evoke higher-level thinking and complex problem-solving…in Latin.

But we can’t do that.  See, we now need to spend our time learning Latin.  And that takes away from the time I need to plan the lessons of what I need to teach for my subject – because my students still must learn the three branches, how special interest groups factor into policymaking, and how to be an all-around great citizen.  March looms…we’re struggling mightily.  We’re limping along to learn the new language and how that will factor into the BIG ASSESSMENT: the SBAC.  Just teach to the test, that’s all! you may be thinking.  Great idea, but I haven’t seen the test.  It’s not developed yet.  I’ll repeat that: I have no idea how my kids will be assessed.  I know some of the stuff they need to be able to do – from the Common Core standards – but I really don’t know how it will be assessed.  Did I mention that the test has not been developed?

Let’s bring this to Connecticut.  As part of this shift in educational practice and increased public demand for teacher accountability, teacher evaluation criteria have changed mightily.  In past years, at my high-performing school district, we have been required to participate in team-based professional development goals and document the related student achievement.  Our classes have been observed, and we have discussed strategies that work and strategies that could be improved.  Professional discourse abounds; we’re serious educators.  Now?…Oh, it’s crazy.  We have five goals.  For these five goals, we need to use data and professional learning to prove we are doing the things we typically do – but according to new rubrics.  We get more observations (not a problem; come into my class any time), have more meetings, track our work in a cumbersome online system, and most importantly, we have to explain how teaching in Latin is improving our students’ achievement.

But I’m learning Latin, and so are they.  I struggle every night with my own Latin language attainment.  Now I must conduct my professional development in Latin, and write five reports on a regular basis documenting how the new Latin learning is going.  I need to develop SBAC-like assessments for my students in Latin (did I mention I have never seen the SBAC?  I have no idea how the SBAC is scored?)  The SBAC is also taken online…that alone should make you chortle if you’ve ever tried to get on the internet on a public school computer with public school wifi…you’d still be waiting for stuff to load.

I’m frustrated; my students are frustrated…I have stacks of papers to grade (in Latin)…I’m up late, my dishes are dirty, maybe I have clean underwear for tomorrow…?  And forget about my own kids!  Because I almost have.  Did I mention that they come home grumbling about SBAC too?  And they struggle with their Latin?  Luckily I can help them because I am a teacher and I’m kind of doing all that stuff too…but my poor friends who aren’t teachers have NO EFFING CLUE what their kids are learning.  I can’t spend too long helping my daughter with her Latin-algebra, though, because one of those five data-based professional development reports is due tomorrow at 8:00 am.

Are you exhausted yet?  Now remember, I’m not actually talking about Latin.  I’m talking about adding and implementing an entirely new structure of teaching and learning across all grade levels.  The principles behind the trifecta of Common Core, SBAC testing, and teacher evaluation all sound really good.  Again, they are all designed to get kids learning at high levels.  That is not a bad thing.  But how different is that goal from what we really do on a daily basis?  Why change the language, format, testing, and professional development – all at once?  Why not just work with us and target our individual strengths and needs as experienced teachers – and reserve the intensive attention needed to support the rookies or experienced teachers in need of extra professional guidance?  I can’t teach well when I’m being pulled in so many directions beyond the existing multiple directions.  I’ve suffered.  My colleagues have suffered.  And all that equates to…the students suffering.

I’m presuming that you are reading this because you know me and realize how dedicated I am to my profession.  I may be na├»ve enough to expect I won’t get responses that mention anything about holidays and summers…good benefits…and working for the public.  If I were to make a list of all of the changes and additions to the expectations I’ve experienced since my I began this career nineteen years ago, it would astound you.  But this new stuff, this trifecta – this is different.  It’s huge; it’s cumbersome; it’s a lot – and I have yet to understand or see any proof of how this serves as any benefit to the students.  In fact, I think its sheer magnitude actively detracts from student needs.  Targeted professional development from professional educators who have current classroom experience with the demographics we teach could be so much  more valuable than teaching students to draw dots on paper to “work out” a math problem that can be done in seconds in their heads.

Help.  It’s all I can say.  Save us.  Save your kids.  Save your tax money!  Education Corporation should not monopolize and corporatize what is best left to communities and states.  Our kids are NOT one size fits all and neither should be their education.