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Walking Moral Tightropes is NOT a Reform Strategy

Late last week, I wrote a piece titled How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year.  In it, I detail the 48 DAYS that I spent teaching high level skills -- things like interpreting nonfiction text, evaluating the reliability of online sources, and building new knowledge through collaborative dialogue -- that are in my curriculum but that WON'T be covered on the new high-stakes multiple choice tests that our state is using to evaluate teachers.

My core argument was a simple one:  There's a very real chance that I'm going to stop teaching anything that isn't tested simply because I can't risk the poor evaluations and terminating contracts that will come with low test scores.

Since then, I've gotten a ton of push back from practitioners who argue that guys like me are the problem in education.  "What we REALLY need," they say, "is teachers who have the courage to teach important skills even if they AREN'T tested!  You need to be brave enough to put the children first."

Is anyone else bothered by statements like those?  Am I the only one who is tired of the suggestion that teachers must willingly add "sacrificial lambs" to their job descriptions in order to save today's kids from the consequences of crappy #edpolicies?

Listen to most observers of education and they'll tell you that they know full-well that the system our kids are learning in is toxic.  They'll tell you that the concepts and behaviors that matter most are being pushed aside because they can't be tested.  They'll tell you that value-added models of teacher evaluation are unreliable.  They'll tell you that teachers who can get kids to pass tests are not the same as teachers who can prepare kids for success later in life.

And then they'll tell you that the solution is for teachers to walk moral tightropes.  If we're good and honest and just and pure and brave, the collective narrative goes, we will willingly ignore the potential consequences -- which range from terminating contracts to public humiliation -- and "do the right thing for the children."

That's nuts, y'all.

When our best hope for change in education depends on individuals willing to completely subvert a dysfunctional system, it's not teachers who need to change.  It's the policies and practices that govern their work. 

#trudat

_______________________________

Related Radical Reads:

 How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year

Walking Moral Tightropes

Bulldozing the Forest

 

10 Comments

Jeff commented on May 15, 2013 at 7:57am:

Ethics

I'd rather go down knowing that what I did was morally and ethically responsible than to perpetuate a flawed system that will destroy a generation of kids. The only reason I stay in education in these trying times is because I believe that I can be an agent for change. I think you believe that too.

Bill Ferriter commented on May 23, 2013 at 5:16pm:

I'm Not Sure Anymore....

Jeff wrote:

I believe that I can be an agent for change. I think you believe that too.

________________

I'm really not sure about this anymore, Jeff.  Just as importantly, I'm sick of working against the system.  If a flawed system is what communities want, a part of me wants to give it to 'em. 

Every time that we kill ourselves to succeed in spite of the system, don't we give policymakers excuses to ignore the changes that are necessary?

A part of me wants to do what I'm told and let society wallow in the miserable results it produces.  Maybe then enough eyes will be opened to the disaster that our nation's education policy has become.

Any of this make sense?

Bill

Martha Paxson commented on May 17, 2013 at 1:17pm:

Walking Moral Tightropes

I really appreciated you voicing what so many of us have been thinking. I find it interesting that the population of this country would be so "up in arms" about teachers not being willing to risk their jobs simply to do the "moral thing" of teaching children what they need to know. It seems to me that the same ones who moan about teachers backing down and only teaching to the test are the very same ones who do not always maintain strict moral behavior in their own lives. I would hope that I would have the intestinal and moral fortitude to do what I know is best for my students, and I am fortunate to work in a small rural school that gives me some freedom in doing that. However, when it comes down to the fact that my very job security ultimately depends on how well my students do on standardized tests, you can bet that I will spend some time in class preparing them to be successful in passing that test. 

Bill Ivey commented on May 17, 2013 at 4:49pm:

Intriguing!

If the teachers who are willing to risk their careers (and in so doing, place not only their own future but also that of their family at risk) actually do put themselves out there "for the kids," and they all get fired, who will be left to work with those kids? It's a sobering notion.

Elsewhere on this site, in response to a posting by Leanne Link, Lori Nazareno wrote a comment about system design and the need to, essentially, rebuild our school system from scratch. That seems to go well with what you are saying - toss out the dysfunctional policies and practices.

Meanwhile, the gender activist in me wonders whether this is rooted in gender prejudice and stereotyping. We have a long history in this country of many people expecting women to sacrifice themselves for relationships in general and for their kids in particular. Women have traditionally predominated in the teaching profession, and continue to outnumber all other genders put together. Would as many people be asking teachers to sacrifice themselves "for the kids" if it were a historically male-dominated profession? I wonder.

Kate commented on May 17, 2013 at 6:21pm:

Not a Lamb

I've had similar comments when I accidentally slip up and talk to friends who are not teachers - of course that's usually just before their eyes glaze over (the problem with having non-teacher friends - no one wants to hear about my job). In the value added system we started this year, we did some "practice evaluating" during our week long in-service at the beginning of the year. The example teacher was an English department head who taught AP and remedial classes, and was rated very high by all of his students, and had average AP scores of a 4 (which is fairly impressive). However, because of the way our model works, the scores of the other students, plus one bad observation put him in the "unacceptable" category, depending on which group evaluated him with this supposedly non-qualitative model. Looking at my work this year, and assuming all the other categories I can't directly calculate are acceptable scores, I still fall under "unacceptable" because one class did not meet an arbitrary benchmark set for a post-test that tests nit-picky detailed facts with excessively confusing questions. I won't even start talking about the semester class that took the post test this past week (while our school doesn't end for another month and a week).

I'm the only salary for my family, because my husband can't find work in this poor economy. What am I going to do? Next year I am going to drill the "facts" into my students head, even though what I really want to do is teach science. I can't be a sacrifice, losing my job so that students can learn to think like real scientists, instead of memorizing the 196 random facts expected from our standards.

Liz Wisniewski commented on May 21, 2013 at 6:32am:

Your Post Is Important

First - I agree with Bill Ivey.  After working 20 years in a male dominated environment and now 7 years in teaching, the sacrificial lamb attitude towards teaching is striking.  Members of a female dominated "caring" profession are viewed as those following a calling, not a livelihood, thus the difficulty in long-term teacher recruitment today.  

Second - I thought your post was especially powerful.  So powerful that it should be repeated.  All teachers should start advertising how their teaching decisions are affected by testing so that the public can understand that testing impacts curriculum decisions.  That "Ole Devil Time" impacts schooling too, there is only so much time in a day where students are truly able to cognitively work.  When that time is spent "covering" a vast array of topics for a standardized test, other things must be jettisoned.  Your point by point time accounting of your curriculum was amazingly valuable - I wish that there was a forum for all teachers to post exactly how testing impacts what they can provide to students, so that the general public can understand the specific impacts of our test crazy system.   

Liz Wisiewski commented on May 21, 2013 at 6:34am:

Your Article is Important

First - I agree with Bill Ivey.  After working 20 years in a male dominated environment and now 7 years in teaching, the sacrificial lamb attitude towards teaching is striking.  Members of a female dominated "caring" profession are viewed as those following a calling, not a livelihood, thus the difficulty in long-term teacher recruitment today.  

Second - I thought your post was especially powerful.  So powerful that it should be repeated.  All teachers should start advertising how their teaching decisions are affected by testing so that the public can understand that testing impacts curriculum decisions.  That "Ole Devil Time" impacts schooling too, there is only so much time in a day where students are truly able to cognitively work.  When that time is spent "covering" a vast array of topics for a standardized test, other things must be jettisoned.  Your point by point time accounting of your curriculum was amazingly valuable - I wish that there was a forum for all teachers to post exactly how testing impacts what they can provide to students, so that the general public can understand the specific impacts of our test crazy system.   

Scott McLeod commented on May 22, 2013 at 5:51pm:

We fight from within

Those of us who are fighting from within the system have to somehow STAY IN the system. That's the challenge and, unfortunately, we sometimes have to make less-than-pure decisions in order to remain within...

I'd much rather struggle with a few ethical dilemmas - fighting mightily all the way - than walk away or get booted out.

Chris McLean commented on May 27, 2013 at 5:53pm:

You Lost Me

Since I am from another state, please forgive me: how does teaching those upper level skills not impact the concepts that you are expected to teach?  Doesn't great discourse lead to better content knowledge?  Wouldn't source evaluation lead to better knowledge?

 

Of course, I ask this knowing the answer - when we value content over skill (as so many multiple choice tests do) we exclude teaching process to our students. 

KB commented on May 28, 2013 at 8:39pm:

Keep up the fight

Mr. Ferriter:

First, forgive the initials for name but with Dd in the high school years now, I do all I can to not risk her privacy online by mom-ing her into some form of far too easily produced teen disgrace (we will survive this stage, we will).

Second, saw your goodbye to Typepad, will continue to keep an eye on your doings in your new home.  It has been a long time hasn't it?

Third (and on topic), the waves of change crashing on education warrant a bit of duck and cover.  For good or ill, the times they are a chang'n.  While some may suggest a moral high ground must be held, I sometimes wonder for those of you in the field professionally if it is easy to even know what that will look like five years from now.

Fourth, hope that little gal of yours is doing well.  The homeschool journey continues, and Dd will be graduating far too soon (it really has been a while eh?).  K

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