Drowning in a Sea of Compliance

posted in: Principals, Schools, Teachers | 0

Are we all about compliance these days in education?

It certainly is feeling that way.

Ordinarily, compliance isn’t a bad word to me. I’m fairly organized and am happiest when things are in place and the trains are running on time. But lately, it seems as if doing what’s best for kids has taken a back seat to regulations, at least at the administrative level.

Let’s take a look at a few current mandates:

TGRG (Third Grade Reading Guarantee):  Ohioans have seen this one before during proficiency test years as a Fourth Grade Reading Guarantee (2001). TGRG “guarantees” that no third grader who fails to reach a passing score on his or her OAA (Ohio Achievement Assessment) in reading will move on to the next grade. Schools must identify which students are at risk by assessing kids the first weeks of school (in some cases, the first days of school) and then notifying their parents by September 30.

In the Schools:  Third grade teachers and school administrators have identified vulnerable students and are doing everything in their power to ensure these kids pass the reading test – whether they’re truly capable or not. Because failing kids is rarely a solution and we don’t currently have the resources to build and staff all-third grade buildings.

In addition to affecting schools, this mandate can negatively impact both kids and parents. In many cases, we’re testing our students before we even learn their names and then telling their parents – often before we’ve met them – that their child may be held back in third grade. Not necessarily the best way to start the year.

OIP (Ohio Improvement Process):  Requires TBTs (teacher-based teams) to meet at grade level around a very specific, five-step process of assessment and instruction. In theory, sounds like a great idea. When teachers collaborate and focus on student work, meaningful conversations and action are usually the next steps.

In the Schools:  The problem may be the complexity of the forms used to “document” teacher meetings. Teachers, many of whom were already meeting around student data and discussing student progress, now spend much of their limited team time tallying up student performance on an assessment and then entering the data on the forms. Although TBTs can certainly be productive, often the opportunity to discuss students, share ideas and collaborate around reaching at-risk students is scarce by the time the forms are completed. Is there a way to simplify the process so as to honor teachers’ collaboration time?

OTES (Ohio Teacher Evaluation System):  Ohio’s new system of evaluating teachers asks principals to make 6+ touches with each and every teacher in the building – conducting classroom observations and meeting with teachers before and after each observation. Principals must also perform unscheduled “walk-throughs” of classrooms with a substantial checklist of items to be observed, and then write lengthy reports of their observations.

In the Schools:  Any principal will tell you that classroom observation is an essential component of his or her job; but how user-friendly is the OTES system? Does it allow principals to focus on those teachers who are new and/or who need more support and give latitude to the experienced, master teacher? It appears that cumbersome reporting structure of OTES has taken over the principal’s day to the exclusion of other (also important) tasks.

A second concern is the fact that this new system bases HALF of a teacher’s job performance on his or her students’ ability to pass a single high-stakes test, regardless of the students’ abilities. It’s been my experience that principals often assign the strongest teachers to the students with the greatest need, thus increasing their chance to succeed. That will change when everything is tied to the test.

And the list goes on … 

The million dollar question is:  How do we know that strict adherence to these new initiatives will result in stronger schools and better outcomes for kids?

Will repeating third grade truly result in students who can read better, or are there other avenues we can take? Will we ever address poverty’s impact on education or will we continue to mask it with mandates that punish kids and schools but do little to sort out the real problem?

Will we keep the strongest teachers in our neediest schools when we judge them by how their students do on a test, or will the best tire of the judgment and move on to greener pastures? Will good teachers sacrifice their sense of ethics and “teach to the test” or will they simply leave the profession?

What do you think? Do we educators continue to accept the status quo, doing what we are told, or do we stand up for ourselves, for our students, for education? Are we merely compliant or do we take control of our profession and look for solutions? What is the next step?

Why do we Read?

posted in: Literacy, Reading | 0

If you ask people why they’re reading, what kind of responses would you expect? Typically, you’d hear:  for enjoyment, to learn about a topic, to find out how to do something. In other words, people read for fun, for information and for understanding.

If we ask students in school why they’re reading, shouldn’t we expect the same responses?

A colleague and I recently interviewed a group of fifth graders about their reading, using the Fountas & Pinnell (2000) “Reading Interview.” It’s one of my favorites, because of the rich information you get when you sit down with a student and ask his or her thoughts about reading. After we each had interviewed about five students, we took a break to compare notes. We noticed a disturbing pattern in the interviews:  these kids were not reading for meaning.

When asked, “Why do people read?” students responded that people read solely for the purpose of becoming better readers. To questions such as, “What have you learned from reading?” or “What advice would you give students in this room to help them read well?” students spoke only of decoding. What they “learned” through reading was not information about snakes or famous athletes or how to do the perfect cartwheel. What they “learned” was how to break words into smaller pieces so they could figure them out. The “advice” they would give to classmates was not a suggestion for a good book or keeping a response journal, but sounding out words.

Is this what we’re teaching them?

If this were a group of first or even second graders, still learning to read, this would not have been so surprising, but I know I sure didn’t expect it from experienced fifth grade readers!

To be fair, the class with which we were working had already been identified as “struggling readers.” Meaning, they were reading below grade level expectations, scored lower than their peers on standardized assessments, and had difficulty completing assignments that involved responding to text. The teacher, new to fifth grade, was open to suggestions as to how to reach her students and support stronger reading habits. And so we decided to interview them, to learn how they felt about reading and what kinds of reading they might like to do.

I was expecting kids who might have trouble identifying what they liked to read, or who had trouble finding books that were both at their level and interesting to them. (This, as we all know, is problematic at this age.) I was not expecting kids who didn’t even know that he or she read because it was fun or because they wanted to learn something.

So, what does it mean? Well, of course we don’t know for sure, but it certainly raises questions about how we teach struggling readers. Are we focusing on the how at the expense of the why? Is this deficit approach common for teachers who work with kids reading below grade level? Why are we not talking about comprehension? And why aren’t we having conversations that spark the joy we can have as readers? Do we think kids who can’t read well can’t understand?

I don’t have answers yet. Obviously we’ll need to collect additional information. But I do know that our focus is going to be comprehension – reading aloud and thinking aloud so students see that a piece of text has meaning. I know that I won’t be throwing them a book and asking them questions about it without teaching them how to actually engage with the texts they read. I foresee lots of modeling, lots of shared reading, and lots and lots of discussion.

Otherwise, I can’t really call my students readers. They haven’t “cracked the code.” Knowing that letters have sounds and that, when put together they form words isn’t enough. That’s not reading.

We read for enjoyment, for information, for learning. We read for meaning.

Thoughts on Snow Days and Teachers

posted in: Parents, Schools, Teachers | 0

So, it’s January in Northeast Ohio, and it’s supposed to get really cold again this week. Hopefully, not cold enough for another snow day.

Oh!  Did I say that out loud? Please don’t tell my kids … they’ll never forgive me.

But seriously, that last round of snow days – which took the total number of days in a row my kids were home to 18 (including Christmas break) – that sent me over the edge.

As a former classroom teacher, and former kid, I want to rejoice in the snow days. I want to say, “Let’s stay in our pajamas and drink hot cocoa and curl up with a good book.” I want to engage my kids in some fun winter craft that involves burlap and fake snow.

But the reality is that I’m tired of seeing my kids lying around in their pajamas all day. Truth be told, it makes me kind of mad … I mean, I’m trying to get work done while doing laundry and cooking and cleaning. The very least thing they could do is get dressed.

No, my kids don’t want to read, or catch up on homework, or do a craft. My kids want to eat all day, and beg non-stop for food. They’ll argue with each other at the top of their lungs about the most ridiculous things, until it gets physical and I have to stop what I’m doing to referee. My kids will nag to play their iPads or PlayStation for hours on end until – out of sheer exhaustion from the harassment – I give in. They’ll ask to invite a friend over because they’re “bored”, and I’ll end up making food for four kids instead of two.

And other kids’ parents:  don’t think I don’t see you laugh when you whip out of my driveway. I know who the sucker is.

But, you know what? I’m glad I have these days. Because it makes me appreciate schools and teachers. It really does.

Sometimes I have this vision of myself as a home-schooling mom. I’ll teach my kids exactly what I want them to learn.  It will be at their level and will all be relevant. We’ll take field trips to the Science Center and the Art Museum. We’ll gather ‘round the table and have fabulous discussions about the Civil Rights movement and its impact on current events. Our art projects will be integrated into social studies or the literature we’re reading … and then we’ll write about them using the writing process.

But, let’s be real; none of that is going to happen. Because of snow days. Because I realize I don’t want to spend 24-7 with my own children.

I do enjoy talking with my kids, and taking them places, and working on projects. I know my role as parent is incredibly important. I know that the value I place on learning is critical to their success in school. I know reading to and with them sets them up for a lifelong love of reading. I just don’t want to do it full-time.

So God Bless the people that do.

Thank you, teachers, for spending your time with my kids. Thank you for trying your best to turn 7 hours a day into a meaningful learning experience. Thank you for expanding on what I’m trying to teach them at home. And thank you for enabling me to enjoy the occasional snow day I have with my kids … making our time together both relaxing and pleasant because I know you have the work part covered.

… But I really do need them to get dressed.

Basic Image Gallery Post

posted in: Photos | 0

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