Identity Crisis: How Teachers Can Get Their Groove Back

What does it really mean to be a teacher? Depending on whom you talk to, teaching is a trade, a craft, a profession or even an art. Rush Limbaugh and his ilk are even calling it a scam to bleed the taxpayers. I can’t think of any other job that has such an ill-defined identity or tenuous status. Why is this so?

I’m sure a big part of it has to do with the history of teaching as a women’s job in a patriarchal society. Though it meets the dictionary definition of a profession now, it hasn’t always. It doesn’t help that the American educational system has been falling behind (or failing to keep up with) schools in other first world countries, so public opinion varies about just how “professional” teachers really are. The old adage, “Those who can’t do, teach,” sums up the low opinion many have about those of us who dedicate our lives to education.

But what about the teachers themselves? How do we define the work that we do and our role in society? We want to be treated as professionals, but do we act accordingly? At the risk of angering or alienating some of my peers, I want to suggest that we teachers hold a large part of the blame for not demanding the respect that is accorded to most other professions.

Despite what Mr. Limbaugh says, the huge majority of us go into teaching for all the right reasons. We want to serve the common good, we enjoy working with children, and making a lot of money is not our first priority. I have worked with dozens and dozens of teachers, and they are among the most competent and intelligent people you’ll ever meet. So why don’t we command more respect? I think the main reason is that teaching tends to attract a certain personality type. For obvious reasons, teachers tend to be caregivers. Most teachers, especially in the elementary grades, naturally put the needs of others first and are not necessarily comfortable advocating strongly for themselves.

In the realm of teacher compensation, this deferential tendency has been somewhat counterbalanced by the force of the teachers’ unions. In many instances teachers have gone on strike to protect their wages and benefits. But while they have shown solidarity in protecting their salaries, teachers have failed to band together to protect their status as experts in their own field. Over the past few decades, the decision making power of teachers has slowly been eroded by the standards movement and the outside pressures of standardized testing. We have been asked to abandon our educational training and principles, and as far as I can see we have more or less done so with little struggle.

Is this how professionals behave? We will walk out if our pay is cut, but we stand idly by and hand over the right to make the most important decisions in our classroom without a fight. Where is the strike to make the case that teachers know their students better than state and district bureaucrats or textbook publishers? Where is the walkout over mandated testing that sets up our students to fail and does nothing to meaningfully guide instruction? Where have the unions been as teachers have slowly been stripped of their status as leaders in their own schools and classrooms? For a group that is characterized as being so much more idealistic than materialistic, we have failed to stand up for our ideals as strongly as we’ve stood up for our salaries.

Even when teachers had more control of their classrooms, we have never had the same social status (or salaries) as doctors or lawyers. To be fair, those professions require longer post-graduate education, so it might make more sense to compare teachers to nurses, accountants, or even librarians. Teachers are still on the low end of the salary scale compared to some of these professions, but my hunch is that they are comparable in terms of social status. I know that librarians got a big status bump in my view when they banded together and refused to surrender circulation records to the FBI which were demanded under authority of the Patriot Act.  When they were asked to go against their professional principles, they refused, eventually suing the federal government on grounds that those provisions of the Patriot Act were unconstitutional.

So maybe we cannot aspire to be held in equal regard as doctors and lawyers, but I’d settle for the social status of those librarians who refused to be pushed around by inept politicians and bureaucrats. It’s time that we teachers get our groove back, and start pushing more forcefully for the things we really believe in. I know that there is a climate of fear and powerlessness in many districts, but the only way to combat that is to band together as we have in the past and start pushing back.  The stakes couldn’t be higher, not for our children or for our country. It’s high time we reject the characterization of our profession as the “delivery of instruction” and re-assert our role as the most important and qualified decision makers in education.

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When you’re immersed in the jargon of your profession it can be difficult to step back and reflect on the meanings and implications of everyday words. Recently it struck me how often we talk about student performance, rather than student ability, student skill, student knowledge or student understanding. We constantly hear that we need to measure student performance, raise student performance and be concerned about which other schools, states or countries might be outperforming our own.

The word performance has multiple connotations and definitions, but they all relate to an action of one type or another. Furthermore, its various meanings are almost always associated with an outcome rather than a process. As far as I can tell, in the field of public education the word usually refers to a student’s ability to come up with correct answers, especially on standardized tests. The fact that we use this word as much as we do reveals much about the expectations we set for our students and by extension our overall approach to teaching them.

It seems obvious to me that this focus on student performance belies our obsession with standardized tests, but the fact that we avoid the word understanding when we talk about those tests is an admission of their limitations. In mathematics it’s easy to see how a student can learn to come up with correct answers without having any real mathematical understanding of what they are doing. At the same time, a student who understands a concept perfectly well can be thrown off by the language or format of the question. Furthermore, a student’s success on standardized tests depends as much on their test taking strategies than on their mastery of the material. Some of my brightest and most capable students do horribly on multiple-choice tests because they don’t manage their time well and they rarely consider all possible choices before answering.

By constantly stressing performance, teachers have very little incentive to spend time building up the conceptual foundations that underlie the disciplines they teach. Instead the pressure is to focus on whatever strategies or routines will lead to more correct answers on the test. As discussed in earlier posts, this problem is compounded when students have gaps in their baseline knowledge. Those students tend to fall further and further behind as teachers try to skip to the material that will be on the test, even though the students lack the background knowledge and understanding necessary to really master it. Even the students who can keep up and do well on their report cards are often missing the deeper levels of comprehension. Math department chairs in high schools bemoan the lack of conceptual understanding they see in the students who have earned straight A’s while being accelerated through algebra and geometry in middle school. Universities struggle to reeducate freshmen who earned outstanding AP test scores, but lack basic writing and critical thinking skills.

So maybe we think of our students like athletes. If they work longer and harder their test taking performance will improve, just as their athletic performance would with more hours in the gym or on the field. Or maybe our students’ performance on standardized tests is more like an actor’s performance on screen or stage. We prepare them to play the role of someone who has mastered the material, and the suspension of disbelief only lasts until we see them in a context that is less scripted.

At any rate, it is clear that we need to make it our baseline expectation that students really understand what we are teaching them, not just that they can produce correct answers in a well rehearsed setting. Of course, we also need to make sure that our curriculum and assessments are relevant and appropriate to the needs of our students. Until we make these fundamental shifts, we are going to continue seeing many students who either fall hopelessly behind, or who graduate with skills and knowledge that allow them to perform well in certain settings, but lack the depth of understanding to apply their knowledge in novel ways in higher education and their careers. We owe our students an education that leads them to become lifelong learners, problem solvers and critical thinkers, not one that just teaches them to play the part.

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I closed my last post with a quote about research. It’s a topic that deserves more attention, since “research-based” has become one of the most ubiquitous catch phrases in the reform movement. It’s interesting to me that the same camp that has all but pushed science instruction out of the K-5 curriculum with its emphasis on testing math and language arts has become so obsessed with the scientific method as the guiding light for reform.

My undergraduate degree is in biology, and science has always been one my favorite academic disciplines. During my studies I developed a healthy respect for the scientific approach to problem solving, but I also developed an understanding of the limitations of such research. My professors made a point of hammering home lessons on how to interpret the conclusions of scientific studies, and to be skeptical of any results that have not been replicated repeatedly and independently.

One of the classic lessons I learned is the mantra, “Correlation does not equal causation.” The idea is that just because there is some kind of association between two things doesn’t mean that one is the cause of the other. For example, a study on car ownership and longevity might show that there is a “link” between owning more expensive cars and living longer. That doesn’t necessarily mean that owning a Ferrari makes you healthier, or that owning a clunker will put you in an early grave. In fact, a more reasonable explanation would be that people who can afford Ferraris can also afford the best healthcare, and/or have more leisure time to exercise, and/or have the education to make wise choices when it comes to diet and lifestyle. Unless the researchers find evidence of the actual mechanism by which one thing affects another, a study can only show that there is some unexplained connection, and even that needs to be demonstrated repeatedly to be considered reliable.

Acknowledging the complexity of the system being studied should be a key part of interpreting and weighing the findings of any research study. Teaching and learning (and pretty much any social endeavors) are incredibly complex processes, influenced by an incalculably huge number of variables. A study might be able to show that a particular curriculum or instructional strategy correlated with an increase in test scores in a particular school or district, but what does that really prove? Are there other explanations for this result other than the quality of the curriculum? Maybe scores increased because of the quality of the teacher training that accompanied the curriculum. Maybe administrators put more pressure on teachers in the area of math because of the huge investment in the new curricular materials. Maybe scores increased because teachers knew that the district was doing the study and they did more test preparation with their kids. Maybe they increased because the curriculum more closely resembled the format of the test. Then again, maybe it was something totally unrelated, such as demographic shifts in the district or a more nutritious lunch program that started in the same year.

Ok, so even if these types of research studies aren’t as conclusive as we might like, isn’t it better to make decisions based on shaky research than on no research at all? I say no, especially if it leads to an overconfident view that dismisses the complexity of the task at hand. Decision-making at the classroom level requires a balanced approach that takes multiple factors into account, including the prior knowledge of the students, their cultural and socio-economic background, the instructional modes with which they are familiar (and have had success), and the strengths and style of the teacher. In my experience in private schools (as well as my current public school), my fellow teachers and administrators almost always use this kind of balanced approach to decision making. Though the teachers don’t always agree with every final decision, they at least understand the process and have opportunities to make their case and have their opinion considered. In short, they are treated as professionals.

In contrast, in much of the public school system it has become commonplace for administrators and politicians to use research studies as a tool to strong-arm teachers into casting aside curriculum and instructional strategies that they have built up over their whole careers. Insistence on “research-based” methods has become one of the hammers with which the so-called reformers have squashed the independence and creativity of our teachers. You may have used a lesson successfully for the last ten years, but if you can’t produce a double blind study showing how it raises test scores, it’s out the window. This is one of the reasons public school teachers are feeling increasingly undervalued and demoralized. The situation is even worse when they know that the new research-based approach is a poor fit for their students, but their professional opinion carries no weight.

The idea of trying to apply science (or pseudoscience) to societal issues is not a new one, but there are plenty of examples in history that should make us skeptical about the wisdom of such an effort. Obviously I wouldn’t equate the current fad for research-based methods in education with movements like social Darwinism or eugenics, but I do see a couple interesting similarities. In particular, many of the strongest proponents don’t really seem to understand the science that is supposed to underlie their positions. Even worse, these questionable interpretations are being used by some in positions of power to disenfranchise another group. You may be able to argue philosophy with your principal, but how can you argue with SCIENCE?

I’m not suggesting that there’s no value in educators and curriculum developers keeping abreast of the findings of brain researchers, or that there’s no room for well-designed studies in educational research. My point is that the results of such research should be viewed with an understanding of its limits, and in the context of the complexity of the learning process. Those of us who navigate the murky waters of education simply don’t have the option of relying on science to point the way. We must develop our educational philosophy, build our skills, strengthen our teaching personas and even hone our instincts. Yes, teaching is more of a craft than a science, and you should be wary of anyone who tries to tell you different. They’re either trying to force their perspective on you, naively grasping for an easy solution to a complex problem, or they’re selling you something.

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Who says it’s high?

So why should you accept my opinion about where the bar should be? I’m not a specialist in child development, or in much of anything really. I guess you could say that elementary school teachers specialize in being generalists. Really, during the school year I’m so busy planning and teaching that I hardly get a chance to pick up a book for fun, much less to keep up with the journals or read about the latest in brain research. I have never been an expert in developmental psychology. I don’t even have an advanced degree in education.

What I do have is fifteen years of experience working with a range of kids in public and private schools. Most of my exposure to the standards is with those here in California, though from what I understand they’re fairly representative of the rest of the country. My best point of reference is fifth grade, since that is what I am teaching this year. It’s also the grade level that I have taught the most since I started my first substitute teaching job fifteen years ago. Since then I have been the lead teacher for ten different classes made up, at least in part, of fifth graders. The bottom line is that I have more than a passing familiarity with this age level.

Fifth graders are knowledgeable, inquisitive, surprisingly independent, and generally a lot of fun to be around. Intellectually they are, on average, smack dab in the concrete operational stage of cognitive development. That means many of them are not ready for serious abstract thinking, at least not without a lot of support to help connect abstract concepts with the concrete. Here lies a major problem. The fifth grade standards, at least in California, are a minefield for the concrete operational thinker. Take a look at the released STAR test questions to see what they are expected to master by the end (if the end of the year comes in May) of the fifth grade.

Every question ties directly in with one of the fifth grade standards, which are tightly bunched around a fairly narrow group of main concepts. There are barely any whole numbers here at all. A mystifying proportion of the questions are about prime factorization. There are several questions involving graphing on a coordinate plane and other beginning level algebra problems involving positive and negative integers.  These topics involve some serious abstract thinking, and many fifth graders are simply not ready to understand them in any kind of deep way, at least not in the context of these sorts of problems. It doesn’t have anything to do with how intelligent these kids are. It’s just that ten year olds tend to think like…well, ten year olds.

There is also a huge leap in some areas between fourth grade and fifth. After having no questions at all on the addition and subtraction of fractions on the fourth grade test, fifth graders are suddenly expected to add and subtract mixed numbers with different denominators.  In order to that successfully, students need to master several discreet sub-skills. They need to be able to find like denominators, add and subtract fractions with like denominators, convert improper fractions into mixed numbers and put fractions into simplest form. Not one of these skills is measured independently, so a student who has mastered most of them but can’t pull them all together won’t be able to demonstrate what they’ve learned at all.

By overshooting the developmental level of the age group and failing to measure incremental growth, the developers of the standards and the tests that go with them have created an almost meaningless assessment tool. Combine that with the No Child Left Behind mandate that all students must eventually meet or exceed state standards as measured by those tests, and you start to see the impossible situation that our public school teachers are facing.

There is intense pressure to do what cannot be done, and actually teaching your kids what you know they need to learn to move ahead can get you fired. Teachers can either take that risk or do their best to cram in the skills that their kids need for the test. Some, like me, will try to do both. At any rate, the summative effect seems to be that our high school graduates have missed out on a meaningful mathematics education. By pushing them too far, too fast, we’ve turned math into a set of hoops to jump through rather than a lens through which to view the world in a meaningful way. It affects our global competitiveness and the quality of our democracy in profound ways, not to mention the individual toll taken on all those kids who repeatedly experience frustration and failure.

So I say the bar is too high, and I don’t need research to prove it. Unfortunately, these days everything has to be “research-based”, so you would at least assume that the standards people have good data (the standards movement prizes data over all else) to back up the decisions they’ve made. Well, they looked at all the research they could find (8,727 published studies) in the process of putting together the California math standards. 956 of those were actual experimental studies and 110 of those met their criteria for design and validity. They wanted to know what should be taught and when it should be taught. This, in their own words, is how it went:

The principal goal of the study was to locate high-quality research about achievement in mathematics, review that research, and synthesize the findings to provide the basis for informed decisions about mathematics frameworks, content standards, and mathematics textbook adoptions. Although a goal of the study was to find experimental support for the scope of instruction and the sequence of instructional topics, none of the high-quality experimental research studies addressed these important aspects of mathematics instruction. Mathematics Framework for California Public Schools, pg. 205

So how do they know that this is what we should teach our kids and when we should teach it?

They don’t.


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A Brief History of the Bar (Pt. 1)

All right, how did we end up in this mess? For this entry I poked around quite a bit trying to figure out the history of the California math standards. As many stories in education go, it’s a tale of the swinging pendulum. Some of the details are fuzzy (and some are hotly contested), but this is what I’ve been able to figure out so far.

In the 1990’s California was going through what has been dubbed “The Math Wars”. This was basically a philosophical battle, which roughly divided along traditional progressive/conservative political lines. On the left were a group of educators calling for an approach to mathematics instruction that emphasized the importance of conceptual understanding. Many in this camp believed in the constructivist approach to teaching, basically the notion (radical to some) that kids develop as stronger mathematical thinkers if they actually have to think mathematically. Rather than being given formulas or algorithms that are then explained by a teacher, in this model the teacher’s role is to support students in figuring out mathematical principles and strategies themselves. Once an underlying concept is discovered, the teacher presents the standard formula or algorithm in order to formalize it.

On the right was a group advocating for a “back to basics” or a more mathematically “pure” instructional approach. They criticized the constructivist approach to mathematics instruction (and the curricula that sprung from that movement) as “fuzzy math”, and feared that students were allowed and even encouraged to learn mathematical concepts without the precision and rigor that necessarily defines mathematics as a discipline. They also felt that the curricula that were based on the constructivist approach failed to adequately develop basic math skills and computational fluency.

One of the key events in the California Math Wars was the release of the 1992 California Math Framework. This document was developed at a time when the constructivist, “conceptual understanding” camp held the reins. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics had released their own fairly constructivist standards three years earlier, and the 1992 California state standards followed suit. When schools started adopting curriculum that aligned with the new standards, there was resistance by many students, parents and teachers. The textbooks looked dramatically different than the ones that parents had used in school, with far fewer pages covered with problems in tidy rows and columns. Instead, flipping through a textbook would reveal pages of word problems, often accompanied by diagrams and drawings. Teachers who did not fully understand or embrace the constructivist approach struggled with the curriculum, and their complaints spread among concerned parents. When test scores started to drop in many parts of the state, the tide against the “whole math” movement started to rise.

In response to increasing public pressure, in 1997 the California State Board of Education put together a committee to write a new set of state standards. The Academic Content and Performance Standards Commission worked on the math standards for most of the year, but the resulting draft was not well received. The document, produced by a committee of twenty-one, was bursting at the seams with content to be mastered. It also contained several mathematical errors and some ambiguous language. Even more disturbing to the Board, it reflected much of the same constructivist philosophy that had caused such an uproar following the 1992 framework it was meant to replace.

The board’s solution was to give the draft to four Stanford University mathematics professors. They were directed to correct the mathematical errors and purge the standards of any reference to teaching strategies. They were also directed not to remove any of the mathematical content of the original draft. They completed their rewrite in a matter of weeks, resulting in the standards currently in place in California.

The genesis of the California Math Standards explains a lot about the problems they have created. It’s not surprising that a committee of twenty-one people, working for several months, came up with a set of standards that is over-packed with content. It’s also not surprising that a group of university math professors produced a final document that totally ignores the developmental readiness of elementary school students. What is surprising is that there hasn’t been another groundswell of opposition to this burdensome and clumsy document. For thirteen years teachers have tried to squeeze their kids into the box mandated by the standards, to find ways around them, or just to fly under the radar. We should demand a real rework of the standards, one that recognizes the reality that kids are not empty vessels to be filled with knowledge, but that also respects the rules of formal mathematics. Is it too much to ask for a little balance?

The federal government’s new Common Core State Standards Initiative gives me some hope. The standards produced by this project appear much more streamlined than the California standards. If those standards were accompanied by an equally reasonable assessment tool to replace the current tests, it could pave the way for a new era of reform. Instead of playing the game of test preparation at the cost of meaningful learning, we could focus our efforts on developing instructional approaches that lead to both understanding and mastery of the basic skills and concepts that our students need to succeed at the next level.

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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.

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Why Lower the Bar?

So why would anyone, let alone an untenured public school teacher, suggest publicly that we lower the bar for our nation’s students? How can lowered expectations lead to anything but educational disaster? Well, for my first post I’m going to try to go big picture, and in that spirit I’m going to take a step back and consider a more fundamental question first.

What exactly is the bar?

We all understand that “the bar“ is a metaphor for our overarching educational goal, but what does that goal look like? Does it refer to the goal that our students will master the grade level curricular standards that have been adopted by their state? Does the bar refer directly to the standardized testing that has become the focal point of every academic year? Or rather, could the bar refer to the broader goal that our students maximize their academic potential to become productive, informed, healthy and engaged members of a democratic society?

If I thought all this talk about raising the bar had much to do with the third option, then I wouldn’t feel compelled to start this blog. I would be content to teach my class and cheer on the educational reform movement from the sidelines. When I refer to “the bar“ in this blog, I’ll be talking about the state standards and the fill-in-the-bubble tests that are meant to measure students’ mastery of those standards. Most of the major efforts of the reform movement over the past 20+ years seem to have been focused on standards and testing, and I see those manifestations of “the bar”, at least in their current state, as serious obstacles to the goal of an appropriate, meaningful and relevant education for our schoolchildren.

So why lower the bar? Well, most importantly, it’s too high. The high jump analogy should make that one kind of obvious. Imagine a child who is trying to clear a five-foot high jump bar. She is not even close to being able to reach it, but rather than start with a lower height that is just out of her reach and then giving her the appropriate training and coaching to succeed at that height first, the coach comes up with the brilliant solution of raising the bar still higher. Whether in athletics or in the classroom, it’s not a great motivational technique and it doesn’t lead to very good results. Any teacher who has watched a child on the wrong side of the achievement gap take a standardized test can tell you that the self-esteem movement in educational reform is officially over. It’s not easy to set up a group of your students to fail, and that’s precisely what we’re asked to do every spring.

The bar is also too narrow, though the high jump metaphor breaks down a bit here. Our standardized tests only address the standards for the current grade level of each student. If a student is significantly below grade level (and we know that many are), there is no way to demonstrate how much they have improved until they’ve actually caught up completely. This disincentivizes teachers from actually filling in the gaps in struggling students’ educations and giving them the educational foundation they need to move forward. Instead, teachers feel the pressure to “teach to the test” even though the material on the test is more or less incomprehensible to students who don’t have appropriate prior knowledge and skills. It’s also important to note that in the current system there is very little incentive for teachers to challenge students who are already performing at or above grade level.

So what am I really suggesting? First of all let’s toss out the fundamentally flawed notion that we should have one blanket expectation for all of our students. Our assembly line approach to education is hopelessly out of date, and we all know full well that our students come to class each year with a huge range of prior knowledge, skills and intellectual abilities. Focusing our energy on one set of expectations for all students assures that we will be failing to reach many of them. If we set the bar too high, we can’t show the progress of our struggling students. If we set it too low, we don’t challenge the rest or give them a chance to shine. Our standardized tests should cover a much broader range of skills and knowledge, and they should make more of an effort to test reasoning and conceptual understanding. In that sense, we need to spread the bar out (and I guess make it out of better material). Also, we should be setting individual goals for every student based on where they are academically. I guess that means that every child should get his or her own bar. Now a blog entitled “Ok, Spread the Bar and Give a Personalized Bar to Every Child” would not have quite the same ring, but if “Ok, Lower the Bar” ever makes it into a sound bite on the news or in a political speech, at least you’ll know what I really mean.

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