Multiple Choices-The Teacher’s Dilemma

Okay folks; get out your #2 pencil. Choose the best answer from the following choices.

A teacher’s job is to:

a)    accurately assess each student’s ability and structure a curriculum to maximize his or her academic potential.

b)    work on bringing student test scores up to minimum expectations.

c)    fill in gaps in skills and conceptual understanding for struggling students.

d)   challenge students who are performing at or above grade level.

e)    do all of the above.

So, what do you think? Certainly all of the choices seem like things we should reasonably expect our teachers to do. In fact, if the system were set up properly, most of these goals would be complimentary to one another. Choices c and d are basically just supporting details for choice a. So does that mean we can safely choose option e and go about the work of teaching with a clear sense of purpose? Well, if you read my last post you know that I don’t think the answer is quite so easy. (The obvious choice is hardly ever right on these things.)

As you might suspect, I believe the monkey wrench in the works is choice b, and most teachers (and administrators) in public schools get the loud and clear message that raising test scores is job #1. If the tests in question were better designed, then this wouldn’t necessarily pose much of a problem for teachers. Unfortunately, the tests and the standards that they are based on were not designed especially well. As I began to explain in my first post, they fail to accurately address the range of student ability, and the narrow band of skills on which they do focus often includes material that is not even appropriate for students in the targeted age group. I’ll explore that in more detail in later posts.

So we, as educators, are faced with a choice. Do we try to give all of our students a program that will allow them to maximize their academic progress, or do we try to bring their test scores up? The main point of this blog is to make the case that these priorities are truly in conflict with one another. Now, I realize that there may be some classes, schools, maybe even districts for which this is not the case. If your student body is comprised of a homogenous group of students who come from homes with literate, well-educated and native English-speaking parents, then you might have a chance to work on both goals in tandem. You might at least be able to meet the needs of most of your kids while preparing them for testing.

But the reality is that very few of our schools are filled with a homogonous group of high achievers. Most of us, whether in rural, urban or suburban neighborhoods have a significant number of students who are struggling. They are well below grade level academically, no matter which bar you use to measure them. The question of why so many kids in our country fit that description is a topic I won’t try to tackle in this post, but it seems pretty clear that there are many factors at work. As we keep learning, complex systems fail in complex ways.  The pressing issue is that these students are here, in our classrooms, and they need help now. The gaps in their basic skills, fundamental concepts and study habits need our immediate attention.

The problem is that if we take the time to really provide the curriculum and instruction to address the needs of these kids and bring them up to speed, we will never get to all the material that will actually be on their standardized tests. This is especially true in the upper grades, when students can be two or three years behind grade level in one or more subjects, and still not qualify for special education services. So what’s a teacher to do? Do we spend our time giving the students what we know they need, or do we try to bring their scores up by teaching them specific skills without any meaningful context? (I can teach a monkey to type e=mc2, but that doesn’t make him Einstein.)

It might seem obvious that the more important goal is to deliver appropriate instruction to these struggling students, but the pressures to bring up test scores is intense. In many parts of the country teachers who raise their scores can look forward to cash bonuses or promotions. And when scores dip below minimum requirements, a cascade of consequences is triggered. The longer a school’s scores remain low, the more serious the consequences become. School’s can face closure, replacement of the staff and administration or even district takeover by the state. At a minimum, teachers can expect to lose any sense of autonomy they might have had in terms of developing and implementing curriculum, which will result in far fewer options for meeting each student at his or her level. Teachers are chained to their state-adopted curriculum, and to the pacing guides that go with them.  As a tragically ironic result, the struggling students are almost assured to continue struggling as the curriculum marches on without them.

So how to get out of this catch-22? Well at this point the only workable strategy seems to be trying to pursue both goals. Teachers need to run two programs in parallel: one to actually teach the students what they need to know to move forward, and one to prepare them for the spring tests. This is a tall order, believe me, and it’s not fair to expect that most teachers will be able to do it effectively, especially in their first few years on the job.  And even those teachers with the experience and expertise to do it fairly well could be much more effective in meeting the needs of all students if they didn’t have to waste time and energy getting their kids to jump through the hoops of the current testing system.

Regardless of what you think of the standards, doesn’t it seem reasonable that the tests should not only measure students’ mastery of the standards, but also their progress towards that mastery? As it stands now, teachers across the country are faced with an incredibly difficult choice. Do they teach the students what they need, do they try to turn them into machines for taking a test that is largely irrelevant to their academic needs, or do they try to do both? The scary thing is that many teachers succumb to the intense pressure and focus on test preparation throughout the year, to the exclusion of all else. Others have turned to cheating in desperation, erasing student answers and filling in forms themselves. I’m not sure which is more troubling. At any rate, count me among the ranks of teachers trying to actually teach my kids and prepare them for testing. I hope that my fifteen years experience and the extra hours at work will be enough to let me juggle both with success, but I look forward to the day when I, and teachers everywhere, can really focus on teaching with integrity and expect to be evaluated in the same way.


About maestromitch

I have been teaching in California schools, both public and private, for the last 15 years. I started to blog as an attempt to further the conversation about the state of our public school system, and to make the case for a more balanced and rational approach to educating our children.
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5 Responses to Multiple Choices-The Teacher’s Dilemma

  1. janet lowy says:

    As long as the “bean counters” are in charge, education will continue to be viewed as a “business” instead of an “art”. A better way of measuring student progress is the test that is used once every three years for special education students, The Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Academic Achievement III. This shows the strong and weak areas of a student’s academic tool kit and gives a “snapshot” of grade level and age level equivalencies. It’s not perfect, of course, but is a much better way to see academic progress. You use the analogy of lowering the bar. I have always thought of the standardized testing as throwing the nonswimmers into the deep end of the pool. It doesn’t matter if the pool is 5 feet deep or 12 feet deep. The water is still over their heads and they are drowning. The true problem is that individual testing is very expensive and that although everyone gives lip service to the importance of education, they don’t put their money into the things that truly make a difference–the teacher and the classroom. I don’t need and rarely use a promethian board, but I do need better desks and more comfortable chairs for the children. We expect them to work in conditions that adults would find intolerable. I’ve been teaching since 1972. I have taught both elementary and middle school children. I am currently a middle school special ed. teacher with the Alum Rock School District. I see 21 students during the day–some for all periods, others for two or three periods. Most of these students are Hispanic or Asian. All of them have specific learning disabilities, and most of them could be doing better than they are currently doing if I were allowed to teach them according to their needs instead of according to the district-mandated curriculum. I really appreciate having this forum to express my frustration. I see teaching as a creative process and I want to give my students more access to experiences outside the classroom and more opportunities to explore their own creativity. This won’t happen as long as the powers that be insist that students not at grade level have to have intervention classes instead of electives. Your son didn’t do well on the state math test? Great. Let’s make him take twice as many math classes and take away his chance to apply math skills in wood shop or art classes. I learned fractions by taking piano lessons and learning to read music when I was five years old. I was in the school band in middle and high school and in the chorus at UCLA. But it’s considered “an extra”, unimportant to the current curriculum and so music goes out the school door as more “intervention” classes move in. I don’t see this as an improvement.

    • maestromitch says:

      Thank you Janet. There are many of us sharing your frustration with the current state of affairs, and I agree with you on all points. Resources are spent foolishly, teachers are not allowed to exercise their professional judgment and a one size fits all curriculum (that fits for very few) is forced down our throats. There is little room for flexibility, creativity or innovation in today’s classroom, for the teachers or the students. What an irony, considering how much of a clamor there is about how American students aren’t prepared for the new economy that depends so much on, wait for it, flexibility, creativity and innovation! Let’s keep the conversation going, and try to spread the word.


  2. Jennifer Goodheart says:

    I recently attended a district wide training about ‘data teams’ a district wide mandated activity in which we analyze student data to inform our selection of teaching strategies. in and of itself, a good process, one we have engaged in for years, informally. the trainer mentioned that our results might lead us to need to reteach concepts and that pacing guides might not match our students needs. i asked if this meant we could disregard district pacing guides when they did not match our students’ needs. the trainer replied, “Let’s table that question.” I never got a response, despite the fact that the room was filled with administrators who are responsible for creating said pacing guides.

    • maestromitch says:

      Yes, the ultimate irony of all the mandated assessments is that they rarely are allowed to inform what we do in the classroom. What’s the point if teachers are going to be told to continue with the same approach regardless of the outcome? I’m lucky to be working in a school where there is a mechanism to provide extra support for students based on our mid-year assessments, but I know many schools don’t have the resources to do that.

  3. Jennifer Goodheart says:

    sorry, forgot to mention, this is a beautiful and thoughtfully written piece.

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