Sunday, August 12, 2012

Retail Lessons and How They Apply to School Reform

Years ago, I got a job working for a national department store chain that has its headquarters in the South. For the largest part of my time there, I worked in customer service. While this position paid less than a position on the sales floor, I enjoyed it. Our evaluations were based on how well we did the multiple jobs assigned to us. We wrapped gifts for customers, helped customers resolve complaints and problems, assisted customers with questions about credit accounts, and other tasks. In addition, we often helped answer questions for sales associates, made change for the registers when needed, answered the phone and directed calls to other areas of the store, and paged area sales managers when employees needed help. None of these responsibilities were held up as higher or greater than the others, so we worked hard as a team to make sure everything was done well. My co-workers and I didn't fight over who would do what jobs or try to take the more desirable ones, because we were trained to believe all were important.

After a few years in customer service, management decided I would be an asset to the company selling in the mens department. I was not thrilled, but I went ahead with the move anyway. They buttered me up with praise and told me I would get a raise to go. So, there began my short-lived time as a sales associate. As part of being a sales associate we had a sales-per-hour goal. If we exceeded the goal, we would get a raise (along with a higher sales-per-hour goal), but if we failed to meet our goal, we would have our hourly wage reduced, and those who continued to fail to meet the goal would be let go. There were other duties associated with being an associate, like helping customers with returns, keeping the area neat and clean, re-pricing when we received mark-downs, going to customer service to get change for the registers, and the list goes on. But....the only real thing that mattered when it came to how "successful" we were as salespeople was the number and amount of sales. While I did have many conscientious co-workers who did all of their duties in addition to selling, you can imagine that there were many who found ways around it, or even worse, would steal the sales from my and other associates' customers while we were seeing to those other things. Now, for a company that competitively wants sales as its ultimate reason for existing, maybe this isn't a bad model.

But, how does this relate to school reform. Currently, we are in a situations where schools are judged simply on test scores. More accurately, schools are judged on one test administered at a single time during the year. (This would be like my retail employer not taking all sales into account, but randomly judging all employees on sales happening over one week.) Further narrowing this, is that in many grades, the only scores that matter are those for reading and math on this narrowly administered test. Based on results from these tests, schools are judged on their effectiveness, teachers can lose their jobs, students can be held back, and schools can be closed. Is it any wonder that schools are being turned into test prep mills? Is it any wonder that many teachers refuse to do any job that do not believe will help raise individual students' test scores? Are we really surprised if this causes the narrowing of the curriculum so that arts, discussions of great literature, critical thinking, and debate are lost so that students can practice for these tests?

Applying market principles to education will produce the outcomes of the market. Nothing more, nothing less. If we want our schools to function like the sales floor of my former department store, we will continue to tell teachers, students, and administrators that nothing else matters except a test score. And while you will have teachers and administrators who continue to do all the extras, many will only ask the simple questions, "How will this affect test scores?" And when the scores go up, the schools and teachers will be vindicated, even if their students cannot think critically, do not know science or social studies, and have no real understanding of values of the community or society.

But, if we want a broader, more comprehensive approach- one that asks teachers to take a broader approach- then we need to make sure we value those things. If we want schools to include things that cannot be assessed on a standardized test, we need to make sure those things are valued, appreciated, and rewarded. When our teachers are treated to be "sales people" chasing the value-added metric du jour, we tell them that the other things do not matter. Paying lip service to educating the whole child, while creating evaluation systems that make one factor 51% of the score trains our teachers, and yes, even the students to only chase that one thing- or to game the system to get scores regardless of their authenticity. Is this really what we want from our public schools? If not, maybe we should think about why we are letting people do this to them.

Just a thought.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

My 2012-2013 Resolution

In 2 weeks I will report back to work for the 2012-2013 school year. With new legislation having passed, I'm sure I will hear lots about teacher evaluations, value-added metrics, and the importance of test scores. Frankly, I'm already tired of it.

My students are more than a test scores. Despite the rhetoric of the reformers, my students are not products. They deserve more than being measured by a number. They deserve more from me than to be seen as a means to school-improvement score. They deserve more than the empty rhetoric that says the only way they can receive a quality education is to "escape" their "failing" school.

As I plan for the year, I am aware that the optimism of August will soon turn into the realities of November,and maybe even the disillusionment of December or the frustrations of February, before heading to the survival of the fittest in the spring. I know there will be times that I will get angry, tired, upset, and want to run and hide. I know I will be tempted to mail it in at times, and yes, there will be times I won't always give my best. I'm human.

There will be pressure to reduce my instruction to test prep and drill for the only metric that  me, my students, and my school will be judged on by the state. There will be the temptation to just do what I am told. It will be easier not to fight the system, to just go along and get along.

BUT- my students deserve more. Even when they make me angry, they deserve more. Even when they make excuses, they deserve more. Even the ones that I don't teach, but can reach by collaborating with colleagues or by helping on my own time, or my sharing lessons with the teacher down the hall, or by offering a word of encouragement- they deserve more.

So, I resolve to teach as if there is no end of the year test. I am going to challenge my students to read and respond, to write with a real world purpose in mind, to think critically and creatively, and to be responsive to the world around them. I am going to expose my students to a wide range of texts from the world of literature. I am going to push them to think about the ideas and how they impact us. I am going to ask them to discuss and write and express their views in a variety of media. I am not going to mention tests. I am going to teach, stretch, and challenge them because it is what I do as a teacher and it is what they need as students. I am not doing it for a test. I believe they will do fine on the tests if they can do what I challenge them. If not, then the test is not important.

If my efforts to do this and the results I get from my students are not good enough for the state, local administrators, or others, then they can fire me. This is a tree on which I am willing to die. My students deserve it. I have come to the conclusion, there is much more that my students need that isn't measured on a test. What isn't measured may be more important to them than what is.

Do I want them to do well on the tests? Yes. Will I teach as if that is the end goal? No. The best teachers I remember never mentioned tests. They molded me. They challenged me. I thank them for it and hopefully one day, my students will remember me the same way.

This is my resolve. I ask for your prayers for me this year. I will need them. I will need encouragement. I will need strength.

I close with words of the protestant reformer Martin Luther, "Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God."

Friday, June 1, 2012

Why I Write

Getting my students to think critically and then write thoughtfully is one of my greatest challenges as a teacher. Too often, students see writing as an academic enterprise with little relevance to their world. The fault of this is often we educators. We ask students to do mundane writing such as comparing two stories they would have never read if we hadn't assigned them. We ask students to write essays about topics which do not interest them. Finally, most of their writing is handed in to us, we read it, mark it, return it, but it has no real world significance to the student. I want to change that. I want my students to write real world discourses that will be read by real world audiences.

But---here's the issue. How can I expect my students to be life-long writers if I am not. It becomes the ultimate example of hypocrisy.

So, from that line of thinking, this blog is born.

I hope to accomplish as a writer a blog that shares what I know. I will likely write about educational issues because that's what I know. I may share poetry from time to time. I may write about what I am reading. I may write about sports or family. At some point, I may write a memoir or two.

I challenge my students to write thoughtfully. Sometimes this will be a struggle and thereby become a reminder to me of the struggles my students face when they attempt to write. I hope that I will be able to cultivate readers. At times, maybe I can offer ideas to issues that interest you my readers.

But most importantly, I am writing because to be a teacher of writing, I must never forget to be a writer.

Until next time,

Vance