John Meeks: The ills of education reform
By John Louis Meeks, Jr.
I have become the teacher they have warned me about.
When I began teaching, I remember being praised by an administrator for being new to the field of education and being able to view our system from a fresh set of eyes. The administrator warned me that the veterans were cynical and wary of the work that needed to be done to improve our schools.
On the other hand, I did hear from experienced teachers who indeed viewed every round of change with a jaundiced eye. They were, after all, in the system long enough to see old ideas dumped and replaced by new ones only to see the past return with new names. They were at the mercy of the latest research and reports of the day that were going to save us from bad teachers who were at fault for our failing schools.
Now that a decade has passed since I was that bright-eyed rookie, I can honestly agree with the old school teachers who threw up their hands when a new round of trainers and consultants walked into our district with a new set of fads and follies that were meant to stay but ended up as fleeting as the ‘New Math’ that was pushed on me when I was in sixth grade.
In hindsight, I can see a few programs that were intensely drilled into me but disappeared as fast as the fervor for them rose.
Firstly, I recall the Character Counts initiative that I was asked to incorporate into my social studies classes. We sought to find ways to teach virtues and connect them to ancient civilizations. As a Sunday school teacher in my spare time, I did not really find issue with the need for building better citizens, but I believed that it was a poor fit for educators who were bound to teaching the most basic of standards, let alone playing the role of spiritual leaders to their students. Sooner or later, it all went away.
Although the Character Counts was from the district, the state was not immune to believing that education reform meant throwing spaghetti at the wall to see if it stuck. I was around when middle school students were being forced into choosing majors years in advance of actually attending college in an effort to focus their minds on a goal. The problem is, after hours of time and money were spent on turning educators into college and career counselors, cajoling seventh and eighth grade students into making choices that many college underclassmen have yet to grasp was finally deemed to be doomed.
Trial and error is no way to treat a profession of men and women who are working hard to teach children in our public schools. Take a look at how we evaluate and pay our teachers. After years of praising Duval County’s performance pay system, the state decided to tinker with rewarding good teachers. Acronyms came and went from STAR to MAP to CAST and we are still struggling to understand an assessment system that even the Florida Department of Education has expressed dismay and disappointment with.
To an extreme, many seventh grade teachers were asked to create new lessons and tests for geography classes by education leaders with the full knowledge that this work would be tossed out in favor of civics in the following school year. Pop quiz: how much thanks or appreciation did these educators get for changing gears from one subject to another and undergoing months of training to prepare for the new curriculum? The answer is simple: no.
It is no wonder that Florida’s teachers are unsure of the latest programs that come down from Tallahassee and from our local school districts. It is not for lack of trying to get someone to listen. We have tried and failed to have a fair hearing in helping to design plans that actually make sense for the people who work in our classrooms every day.
This is not to say that all I have to offer is complaining. I am pleased to know that our new superintendent of schools is taking an active interest in hearing what we have to say about an education system that seems to have valued window dressing and gotcha walk-throughs that did more harm than good.
For example, I like having a pretty word wall as much as the next teacher. As much as I tend to be a conformist, it was a real challenge for me to teach three grade levels and to break my neck putting up three sets of weeks at a glance, three sets of word walls, three sets of essential questions and everything else in triplicate with only a finite amount of time for one teacher to do. It did not matter to the powers that be that I voluntarily took on duties that demanded that I clone myself or burn the midnight oil to get the work done. I know that these demands were also made of many other teachers who taught multiple preparations for the good of their respective communities. And, not once in my career, did our education leaders find a way to alleviate the stress of maintaining records and data for so many different classes.
The new superintendent is giving us a lifeline by asking that we focus on the true goal of teaching – to ask the right questions of our students to help them find the right answers. Thanks to recent progress in higher order thinking skills and questioning, we can see the benefits of rigor without falling into rigor mortis for teacher and student alike.
Another aspect of change that I support is the move away from killing trees for the sake of looking busy. Thank goodness, we are moving away from the unwieldy data notebooks that we compiled individually and could not keep up with even if we tried. And I am also glad that the new superintendent has done away with testing and assessing our lives away and forgetting that we also had to teach and in the process missing days or even weeks of doing what we were originally hired to do. This was especially irksome to non-FCAT classes that gave up their class time to full or partial school days set aside for reading and math testing.
My biggest grievance is with something that appears as if it is an eternal part of our education system. The adversarial relationship between administration and faculty is the result of an evaluation and observation system that seems to be designed to catch us at our worst. Chris Guerrieri, a good friend of mine, has pointed out in The Florida Times-Union, Folio Weekly and other media that we are subject to a reign of terror in which administrators will walk into a classroom and hunt for ways to demoralize and denigrate teachers who otherwise are doing their best to serve our students. I do not care what the evaluation system is, if teachers treated their students in such an unconstructive way, they would be drummed out of the system.
I liken this current approach to the freelance photographer who took pictures while a subway barreled down on an innocent man who was shoved on the tracks. If there is change that needs to be made, why can’t administrators offer to assist teachers instead of watching the disasters unfold? It does little good for Monday morning quarterbacking after the fact simply to point out that the teacher failed at handling issues that need more mentorship and less malice.
With a new school superintendent and four new school board members, we can make real progress in creating a new school system that works for all. Our work, however, cannot be complete without consensus from the community and our other elected officials to work with us instead of against us.