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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Understanding the problems: a letter from a teacher

Education Reform has become the buzz right now, and teachers have obviously been under attack. The root of all of this is ISTEP scores. Why are so many kids failing ISTEP? It is easy to point fingers at schools, teachers and administrators, but that doesn’t explain why so many kids do pass ISTEP. How can so many children pass ISTEP with the same education as those who don’t?

And are teachers at one school better than another?

That would perhaps be a valid point if every teacher at a school came from the same university. But all teachers come from a variety of universities and educational backgrounds, so to deem an entire school “bad” is as ridiculous a notion as believing that all police officers are alcoholics because you only hear about the ones getting DUIs on the morning news.

So, what is the problem?

Teachers often bite their tongues and often have to portray Zen-like patience when it comes to the answer, because the answer means you point the finger at nearly every living soul and the problem can’t be controlled by legislation. The problem is parents. There. I said it. Parents.

Now, before I go on, I know there may be quite a few parents out there who may be screaming at me, saying, “I work hard with my child, and they still fail at school and on ISTEP.” I’m not talking about you. You are in the minority. The rest of this speaks of the majority.

Now, find a school with low scores and you find a general lack of parental involvement. Find a school with high scores, and—you guessed it—you have plenty of parents involved in PTO, making phone calls to teachers, writing e-mails, attending extra-curricular activities, volunteering in classes, tutoring after school, keeping up with grades online…The list goes on and on.

It is unusual to have a parent conference concerning academics or behavior where both parents are present, let alone see a father present. In most of the cases, the father has been out of the picture for years. Can you legislate that a man should act like a man and be a good father?

And if you doubt me, ask any teacher about this: when students who receive midterm or report cards with almost all failing grades, their parents almost never ask to speak with the teachers about the grades. You’ll get some requests to communicate on e-mail, have a phone call or conference with parents who have children with Cs and Ds, but rarely Fs. You’ll hear the kids who fail laughing, “I won’t get in trouble. My parents don’t care.” The answer is simple, once again. Kids who fail often have parents who don’t care. This is why they fail. You don’t have to read Sigmund Freud or get a PhD in psychology to understand the psychological needs that aren’t being met by these students who fail. They fail because they aren’t cared for or loved enough by their parents.

I once had a female student who overheard another student complain about being grounded. She said, “I wish I could be grounded.” All eyes in the room snapped back to her in wide shock. She said, “My mom doesn’t care enough about me to ground me. “ She, of course, hadn’t seen her father in years and she hated her mom’s boyfriend. I wonder how a teacher could fix this problem and make her care enough about herself to work in school and pass ISTEP?

School As a Business

I know that many people believe that school should be treated as a business, and the success of teachers should be evaluated based on their students’ performance. And like a business model, an unsuccessful teacher should be fired—the way it would be done in the business world. As a matter of fact, in the latest draft for principal evaluations, it states that principals are “human capital” managers. Human capital. There are those who say that we should be paid the same way business professionals get paid: by commission. The better you are, the more you get paid. That sounds great, but when a salesman gets shut down by a client, they move on to sell to someone they can convince needs the product. We have to keep pounding away at the same clients, no matter their background. We even have to keep and educate the "bad investments." If we could "cherry pick" our students like other countries or private schools, public education would look stellar. But we take your tired, your poor, your hungry, your abused, your bright and gifted. School is not a business and to treat it as one is to defile the nature that makes public education so wonderful in America.

Teacher Evaluations

So, do teachers fear being evaluated and being paid according to their performance? I’ve never met a teacher who has a problem with being held accountable and being evaluated. Most teachers love the opportunity to show off what they’re doing in front of someone who understands what kind of effort it took to get there. And there are plenty of bad teachers out there who should be fired, but evaluating a teacher based on the performance of children who take a test and have no consequence for success or failure? This is the problem.

Science of the Teenage Mind

As a middle school teacher, I’ll address issues with the teenage mind, and since I know that Dr. Bennett used to be a science teacher, I’ll speak his language and explain why teachers’ incomes should not be based on adolescents going through puberty.

Everyone knows that teenagers have a lot of hormones raging through their bodies. That’s a given, but there’s more. The last part of the brain that is “shaped to its adult dimensions is the prefrontal cortex, home of the so-called executive functions—planning, setting priorities, organizing thoughts, suppressing impulses, weighing the consequences of one’s actions,[1]” and adrenal sex hormones become extremely active at this age causing adolescents “to seek out situations where they can allow their emotions and passions to run wild.[2]” In other words, they seek fun, but the parts of the brain used for exercising good judgment haven’t fully developed yet. That’s why they are risk-takers and try so many things at this age that are so self-destructive. Also, since the prefrontal cortex is underdeveloped, adolescents mainly depend on the amygdala for decision-making. This is the part of the brain that processes emotion. This is, of course, why adolescents are more impulsive than adults. But that’s not all, the nucleus accumbens, a region in the frontal cortex that directs motivation has less activity in teenagers than adults as well. This explains why most teenagers like to avoid hard work and lack perseverance. (Park 56-65)

So, to sum it up, teenagers love high excitement and thrill, lack motivation, are infused with hormones, lack judgment and good decision-making skills and are mainly dependent on emotions to make decisions because their minds have yet to be fully developed. And you want us to base our salaries on their performance?

Sociological Factors

If these were the only factors that teenagers have to deal with on a daily basis, we could perhaps struggle to adjust, but many also have to deal with rape, molestation, divorcing parents, parents being arrested or imprisoned, jumping from foster family to foster family, moving for the third time in one year because mom has a new boyfriend, bullies, alcohol snuck into lockers between class periods, drugs, drama in the hallways, anger and mental issues. To say that all students can obtain one year of education for every year they are in school is to completely disregard Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which says that survival and safety needs must be met before all else. There are so many students who do not get these needs met daily, let alone on the day ISTEP is taken, so why would academics be important to them?

►For example, we had a student a few years back who earned a Pass-plus on the Language Arts section of ISTEP in seventh grade, but something happened in the following year, something incredibly traumatic that neither he, nor his foster parents, would divulge to any of the teachers, counselors or our principal. It obviously altered his personality. He refused to pick up his pencil on the written section his eighth grade year no matter how kindly we begged and pleaded with him. To the state, his scores represent a teacher failure, not the failure of his parents or himself. What would you have done?

►We also had another student who had missed weeks of school with unexcused absences (By the way, we can report parents for educational neglect when their children have excessive absences, but nothing ever happens. The state has given us no teeth to act. The latest teacher evaluation draft holds educators responsible for student tardiness and attendance. How’s that going to work? Do we have to pick them up from their homes and bring them to school too? Even the police aren’t allowed to do that). Anyway, the student with the many absences has a backstory that includes a father who used drugs and eventually committed suicide by overdosing and a mother who had lost custody to her after her father's death. She took the ISTEP and we, not her family, had to claim responsibility for her failure.

►The other day we had a parent conference with a student and her mother. The student refused to do homework because “it was a big waste of her time.” Her mother yelled at her, “You need to do it!” Over and over she yelled at her daughter. Every teacher has seen this and they are collectively rolling their eyes as they read this, because they know, that if a fourteen-year-old girl has flunked every class, all these years, the parent has done nothing to help her child. The scores are online, she could see all these zeroes at anytime, yet she acts surprised in front of teachers to make it look like she cares enough about her daughter’s education to verbally berate her in front of us. To the state, we failed this girl.

Student Sabotage on ISTEP

This brings up another important point. What’s to prevent a student from being high or drunk when taking the test? Should we drug test students before the test and have psychological profiles of every student to account for sociological differences or events in the last twenty-four hours—like being beaten by a mother’s boyfriend or not eating dinner the night before? I'm not saying we shouldn't try to overcome these problems and push every student to their personal zenith--life must go on and kids are going to have to learn to deal with the harshness of reality--but to hold a teacher responsible for a child's scores when the child is at an age where coping with major issues is usually in a self-destructive manner and their relationships with friends is more important than school is preposterous. And what’s preventing a child from getting retribution toward a teacher they’re not fond of by failing purposely? Think this won’t happen? I heard a student in the hall saying the other day, “We could screw over (teacher’s name) by failing and making her starve!” Yet my son, my wife, my home, my family, my income is dependent on the performance of these kids who have no consequence for failure and could think things like this.

And the negative sociological effects--at least in our corporation--is growing rapidly as our student clientele has drifted from 12% free and reduced lunch to around 43% in the last ten years (it was as high as 50% earlier this year). Do not doubt that these influences make a difference. Where you see more poverty, you see less parental involvement and lower scores. (Compare Center Grove or Carmel scores to IPS). This is the reality. Parents are the key to a child's success. In the middle school, individual teachers see their students 42 minutes a day. How influential do you think that is compared to a lifetime of outstanding or abhorrent parenting. If you think all parents and all students care about their education, you’ve been misled. And if you know this is true, then you cannot support legislation that would make us depend on students’ score as an evaluation tool.

Does Merit Pay Work For Other States?

As a final point on teacher merit pay based on student performance, “Vanderbilt University's National Center on Performance Incentives researchers found that students in classrooms where teachers received bonuses saw the same gains as the classes where educators got no incentive.[3]” Matthew Springer, executive director of the Vanderbilt center and lead researcher on the study said, "Some people were initially disappointed when they saw the results, but quickly turned around and said, 'Well, at least we finally have an answer.’ It means pay can't do it alone.[4]"

The Best and Brightest

Now, the Governor claims to want the best and brightest in education, but why would anyone go into teaching? Especially smart people, who realize their income is dependent on hormone-infused, risk-taking pubescent children who have no consequences for their attendance in classes or performance on ISTEP. Who would risk financial security on children? Adrenaline junkies?

Do teachers get overpaid?

Governor Daniels said, "As always, the union's demand is more money, no change. Their priority is their organization, not the young people of Indiana. Their special interest domination of education policy from the local level to the Statehouse has hurt Indiana children for too long, and this year change must finally come." Are unions bad for education? Where is your proof? “Three prominent state studies find roughly similar positive effects for teachers unions on average scores on either the SAT or the ACT—between 4.5 and 8 percent.[5]. One of these also finds a similar positive effect (4.4 percent) on high school graduation rates.[6]”[7]

And for the Governor to simplify our plight to something like this is an act that reeks of political smear campaigns. Where you vilify your opponent by picking one aspect of their argument and twisting the words to benefit you (And which union representative said that teachers want more money? If you’re going to say such venomous things about an entire organization, it’s best to be specific. If this is true, that person may not represent the needs of the entire organization and the union needs to deal with this). He said he’s “putting himself in the shoes of a voter who says, ‘The teacher next door I just figured out makes a lot more than I do but doesn't work all year.’”[8] Saying teachers don’t work all year is a statement of such bold ignorance it defines the person who would say such things as either na├»ve, cold-hearted or incapable of understanding.
All teachers went to college, many have invested in Master’s degrees, and we must make enough to pay for our student loans and have a life style that is equivalent to the effort it took to get the education as well as abundant hours over and above the regular work week. Teachers work twelve months in nine and spend the extra months getting more education, working on lesson plans and getting extra jobs on the side to afford to pay off the loans we took to become teaching professionals. How many jobs require continuing education—6 credit hours--every five years, but must be paid for by the individual? And do you think we should be paid less and expect to find jobs that only need us three months out of the year? Where is that job? We’re not NFL players asking for millions, we’re asking to keep what we have, the money that you would take away from our families by basing our income on a child who takes their seriousness on ISTEP on flights of whimsy and circumstance. Children don’t realize they hold teachers’ financial security in their hands, but if they did, we alter their anxiety levels while taking the test and strip them of their childhood. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of the kids throwing up on the day of ISTEP testing. Do you think that might affect their scores?
Imagine how they will respond knowing their success decides their teachers’ income. And teachers may start eyeing each other in a whole new light, and school morale may plummet as teacher effectiveness on ISTEP is compared, but as I’ve fully explained, there are many variables involved in a student’s performance on ISTEP outside of a teacher’s influence. To be honest, I might find it hard to show kindness, respect and patience to a child who doesn’t work, knowing they’re taking money out of my wallet and from my son’s college fund like a legalized thief.

People say, “You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” but you’re asking us to force the horse to drink without any consequence if he doesn’t.

Are charter schools the answer?

As stated before, Governor Daniels wants the best and brightest to teach our kids, yet up to 50% of teachers in charter schools can be without a teaching license, and they don’t have to be in the process of getting one. Also, you might notice, “Of the top 100 performing schools on ISTEP in all grade levels, only one was a charter school. And of the 50 worst ISTEP scores, 31 came from charter schools,”[9] so taking public school funds to back these schools is tantamount to investing in a dot com company in the late nineties. Did they leave that statistic out of Waiting for Superman? Yes.

Teacher “Experts”

Governor Daniels has said that he wants teachers to be experts in their field, but this also shows a level of ignorance. What defines an “expert?” A deep and thorough understanding of the material? It is easy to say yes to that, because as a retired teaching friend of mine always says, “Everybody thinks they understand teaching because they once sat in a classroom.” But aye, there’s the rub. You can’t understand at all until you face the reality of getting in front of a room full of kids who would rather be anywhere but in a classroom. The art of teaching has very little to do with understanding content. I once heard a minister at a church teaching a class on spiritual gifts say, “My spiritual gift is in teaching, but not teaching children. Teaching adults.” Kids just didn’t get him, he said. But the truth is, he didn’t get children. To be honest, he was boring and kids don’t put up with boring people the way adults do. He knew the material as well as anyone (I should know. I was a snot-nosed PK), but he lacked the skills obtained through educational programs that would teach him how to deliver material without requiring intravenous injections of caffeine to his students.

Once again, the content is not difficult. As a matter of fact, anyone with a high school diploma could understand it because they had to understand it to get the diploma in the first place. Yes, it is that simple. Teaching is about how you present the content. Creativity is not something knighted upon one who earns a degree, but education classes teach future teachers how to develop and implement proper differentiated instruction and various assessment techniques (Differentiated instruction is a requirement based on the latest draft for teacher evaluations, yet how would someone without a teacher’s license learn how to differentiate?). But even more than that, a great teacher has other intangible qualities that an expert in a certain field may not have: charisma, desire, empathy for kids who come from abuse, humor, cleverness, a quick wit (you will be eaten alive without this…trust me) and above all authority. Not the kind of authority you get from being an adult or being an expert, but the kind that is fostered from educational classes, student observation and teaching experiences (In my experience, I’ve seen incredible student teachers coming highly-prepared from places like Franklin College and Anderson University. And no, I did not attend either one of those). Without this kind of authority, it’s interesting to watch how quickly middle school kids can drive you crazy. I saw a biochemical engineer who wanted a new career in teaching come into a middle school classroom and leave in tears and frustration everyday when the kids told her how boring she was and how much “she sucked.” She didn’t get why “kids just don’t listen.” Needless to say, she went back to the lab. Teaching is hard, and I challenge any naysayers who think we don’t deserve the salary we earn to spend a week teaching in IPS. I’m not bashing the IPS system, quite the opposite. I did a student observation there in college, and Home Economic classes couldn’t function because kids couldn’t pay fees, no one did their homework in science classes, and the seventh grade student I shadowed during lunch had been recently suspended for selling drugs, and he had so much power, that with the wave of a finger, a boy moved to another table to eat alone because he had looked at the wrong girl--the drug dealer’s crush. IPS teachers are ridiculed, but they have one of the hardest jobs in the state. Spend some time there and you’ll walk away wanting to grant IPS teachers with sainthood, martyrdom and a lottery ticket (or maybe a Discovery Channel series).

Some Suggestions Based On Successful Charter Schools

However, I do have some suggestions based on what seems to work. Since, as most educators with five minutes of experience could attest, meeting the students’ needs at the foundation of Maslow’s Hierarchy Pyramid is most important for lifting their scores. We could all take a note from the Christel House Schools: yes, charter schools, who reach out to families by offering them “counseling about parenting skills, financial planning and, in some cases, job training.”[10]

Also, many successful charter schools have parents sign contracts that outline hours of involvement required for their child to remain in their school. This involvement includes things like establishing mandatory amounts of parent volunteering time throughout the year, the amount of hours the parent must work with their child on homework during the week(some contracts have the parent assign a specific place, amount of time and materials for daily study periods after school), the number of adult workshops parents must attend, making sure the child is prepared everyday for class, making parents attend monthly meetings (missing a meeting earns a fine or additional volunteer hours), and outlining mandatory parent conference attendance throughout the year.

If a parent is unable to afford breakfast, lunch and books for school or their child has failed ISTEP, is it too much to ask them to take some of these responsibilities to ensure their child succeeds? The charter schools that are successful with low-income kids do this. Legislate parent involvement like this, and all schools--public, private and charter--will succeed.

Evan Camp
8th Grade Science Teacher
Greenwood Middle School

[1] Park, Alice. "What Makes Teens Tick." Time Magazine. 10 May 2004: 56-65. Print.

[2] Park, Alice. "What Makes Teens Tick." Time Magazine. 10 May 2004: 56-65. Print.

[3] Associated Press, "Study: Merit pay for teachers doesn't improve student test scores." 21 September 2010, Web.

[4] Associated Press, "Study: Merit pay for teachers doesn't improve student test scores." 21 September 2010, Web.

[5] Kleiner and Petree, “Unionism and Licensing of Public School Teachers” in When Public Sector Workers Unionize, edited by Richard B. Freeman and Casey Ichniowski (University of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 305–19; F. H. Nelson and M. Rosen, “Are Teachers Unions Hurting American Education? A State-by-State Analysis of the Impact of Collective Bargaining among Teachers on Student Performance,” Technical Report (Milwaukee: Institute for Wisconsin’s Future, 1996); Lala C. Steelman, Brian Powell, and Robert M. Carini, “Do Teachers Unions Hinder Educational Performance?” Harvard Educational Review 70, no. 4 (2000): 437–66.

[6] Kleiner and Petree, “Unionism and Licensing of Public School Teachers” (See footnote 3)

[7] Eberts, Randall W. "Teacher Unions and Student Performance: Help or Hindrance?." Excellence in the Classroom 17.1 (2007): n. pag. Web. 16 Feb 2011. .

[8] Ben. "Daniels' Target: Greedy...Teachers?." Politico 9 May 2010: n. pag. Web. 16 Feb 2011. .

[9] Urbanik, Vicki. "ISTEP: Charter Schools Failing to Measure Up?." Chesterton Tribune 14, February 2011, Web.

[10] King, Robert. "How Christel DeHaan Launched Attack on Childhood Poverty." IndyStar 12, July 2010, Print.



  1. “The problem is parents. There. I said it. Parents.” When I started to read this article I was hoping you would say that. You are dead on correct!

  2. My 8th grader spends 2-3 hours per night and part of most weekends doing homework. Although she does very well at school, she says that she feels stressed all the time. She is smart, hardworking and has parents that keep on top of her to always do her best. And still, there are times she struggles, maybe with a certain class or lessons or just feels overwhelmed. So how in the world is a child who has a less than great home life supposed to succeed? I made it through middle school and it seemed so much easier back then. btw, your blog seems to really come down on the kids.