When you are a hammer you see all problems as nails

The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost

 

The only constant part of life is change, and the sooner that is embraced, the sooner you can let go of some of your worries.  However, that doesn’t mean all change is good.  That quote is Lady Galadriel’s opening narration from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  It is an immortal woman speaking in a very melancholy way.  Her world was coming to an end … and it was looking like the forces of evil might triumph. 

 

Education has been changing a lot in the last 15 years, and while some of that change is good, most of it hasn’t been good.  While people do need to roll with that, there is a limit to which most people can take all at once.  Most school administrators are aware of this, and have tried to help mitigate the change that their schools have had to endure.  This is for the sake of their staff and their students.

Our school district is different.

About a week ago, our superintendent (allegedly) said to a group of teachers and other administrators that he had hosted numerous teachers in tears in his office asking that he stop some of the changes that have been happening in our district.  He said he would not, and in fact was going to be continuing forward with even more changes.

Before I go on, let’s analyze this:  perhaps this alleged quote isn’t true, and it might not be.  Unfortunately, it does seem to fit the M.O. of our leadership these days … one that sees only the horizon, and not the damage being done now.  It may not be true, but it is, sadly, all too believable.

 

One aspect of change has been the overall approach to teaching.  This is not wholly bad, but it has taken its toll on students.  Schooling is now more collaborative, and is much more based on trying to build skills and deeper thinking (learning how to learn). Rote memorization is all but gone.  The bad part is that most elementary students are not learning basic factual information, while they are being asked to perform complex processes before most of their brains are developed enough to handle this.  The bad part is that we have seen an ever increasing number of kids coming into freshmen year who are already burned out and hate learning.  More and more kids simply won’t do more work because they are mentally done.

 

Another change in our district compliments this.  While we can count homework, we must be careful to keep it to a minimum part of the grade.  In my classes, homework doesn’t count for more than about 5% of the overall grade, and as such, we do a lot of homework in class.  The good part about this is that it actually gets done (vs not done or simply copied), and students can consult with me for help in person.  The bad part of this is that we have really had to pare down the number of topics we teach.  This isn’t wholly bad, but our more advanced kids lose out on some topics.  As you might guess, the worst of this is that our kids that go to college get shell-shocked when they realize reading and other work done at dorm/apartment/home isn’t really optional (even if it isn’t going to be graded).  Some of my former students who have come back have reported that this has been one of their biggest adjustments.

Another plus is that a student’s grade is now virtually 100% based on tests and quizzes (and labs).  This makes it hard for a “hard working” student to get by, and thus an “A” is really an earned grade …  that might sound harsh (or apt) … but today we got some news that really turned things over:

Today we learned that starting next year, all students will be able to retake any test they want, with the higher grade standing.  Let’s go in depth with this one:

The discussion on this began with the extremely false assumption that kids can have bad days, and that teachers, villains that they are, would force a student who was unprepared because of powers beyond their control to take a test.  Most teachers I know would never force a student to take a test if there were mitigating circumstances (domestic problems, health problems, etc).  Then our leadership got a hold of “Mastery Learning”.  “Mastery Learning” is the hypothetical philosophy that students should continue learning until they master something.  On paper, there isn’t too much problem here … why not force a student to keep learning until they get it … you do that when learning to ride a bike, you do this with swimming … no one-and-dones there.  It fits with the idea that different students learn at different rates (something I have long championed, and which Common Core/NGSS flies in the face of).  However, a paper hypothesis and reality in the social sciences are often too very different entities.  People who support “Mastery Learning” tend to be data and end product driven.  This might work well in some businesses, but is not a good idea in education because so much of education is what occurs between the beginning and the end.  Our superintendent is someone who, like a lot of folks in the social sciences, thinks he understands data and how to properly collect it and analyze it.  When you are a supporter of data driven outcomes based education, you see anything that can’t be measured as the problem (like the hammer that sees all of their problems as a nail).  Our superintendent has been consumed with aspects of education that he sees as measurable (Even if they really aren’t important), and seems to ignore things that can’t be measured easily.

Some of my colleagues have been experimenting with this … most of them were true believers, but over the past three years they have come to see the problems … and they are numerous.

  • For one, the students who should be the ones who take advantage of this (F – low C students) rarely do this because they simply don’t care enough about their grades.
  • The more advanced students go full blast to push their grades up.  The problem is:  imagine you are taking 6 classes and you are learning new material while trying to do remediation work to prepare for a retake in some of those classes.  We are seeing many of these students, who are already near or at burn out getting there sooner.  This leads to:
  • The number of mental health issues is at near epidemic proportions in our school.  Between me and my colleagues, the number of students suffering from school avoidance, school anxiety, apathy, depression, etc is far, far higher than we have ever seen it.  I have had three students in tears this year over their progress (the lowest grade for the three was a C+)
  • Some of our kids do take a pragmatic approach to education (do the best, learn, don’t get knocked out).  Sadly, some of their parents have the “A or bust mentality”, so when a retake is an option, while the student may be happy with their B, the parents refuse to accept this.  Thus the kids get pushed by their parents to be over-stressed.

The kids are taking a beating with these changes.  Is there help in sight?  The answer is the other big initiative starting next year.  This is called:

AP FOR EVERYONE!

I’ll let that soak in for a moment.

 

Starting with next year’s incoming freshmen, they are being pressured to take at least one AP course.  Many of them will be taking AP World History.

You might be asking if our students tend not to take AP classes.  The answer is absolutely not … over half of our students take an AP class at one time or another.  Why the push?

The first reason given is “we need to challenge our students more”.  That was immediately followed by the school’s ranking on the U.S. News & World Report ranking not being high enough (in case you didn’t know, that ranking is largely based on the ratio of AP tests taken-per-student).  Our school has made it clear that AP test scores will no longer be that big a priority … but we did want kids taking that  test.

 

All the while, our teaching staff has been taking a major hit.  Our school board heard a report that days lost to illness are at a record high.  The costs being incurred by our insurance plan have gone through the roof.  The stories of teachers turning more and more to antidepressants and drinking are starting to get worrisome.

 

The other thing I worry about is that within the professional community of teachers and administrators, the word on our district is well out there, and the word is not good.  in a couple years, we will have a large percentage of our teaching staff retiring, and some of them will need to be replaced.  With fewer and fewer teachers out there, and with Illinois’ pension situation, fewer and fewer willing to come from out of state, I am worried that we will not be able to attract the talent that we used to be able to attract.  In short:  our superintendent sees his vision of education come to fruition, complete with the unintended consequence of turning students off to learning, driving staff to quite literal madness, and assuring that finding top notch staff in the future will be much more difficult.  We as a staff are left asking why do this … and no one has a forthcoming answer.

 

My biggest fear is that it will only be a matter of time before someone takes their life over this.  That really is how bad the morale of some of our staff and students has gotten.

 

What’s next?  In two years, we are likely going to see a new schedule that will reduce the amount of contact time in science … which with the new NGSS standards will likely force us to cut almost all of the laboratory experience for kids.  That will be the same year that we will no longer be able to assign “zeroes” for missing work (the minimum grade will be 43% … don’t ask … this is based on the argument that colleges work on a five point GPA scale, thus we should do so for all grades).  This scale can work when you have self-motivated students and you don’t want to wipe them out with one or two assignments … but this system is also a godsend for the lazy.

 

I know that many of my colleagues are starting to test the water regarding leaving education.  Some are taking leaves of absence next year, which is their attempt to look at surviving on one income or looking into a new profession.  Some are talking about just leaving.  It is so sad to see this district which really was a shining beacon of a school district fall so far so fast.

I am trying to stay positive.  I believe that human problems can be solved by humans, and that this problem too can be solved.  I only hope that it can be solved before some staff member or student does something terrible to themselves.

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