Recently, I had a very interesting conversation with a colleague at the continuation high school I teach at. In her reflections on the changes that have occurred over her 20 year career with the program, there are interesting insights into the transformation the larger educational landscape has undergone. As we have moved towards a more business-like, corporate model of education, we have sacrificed much of the nuance and personal connection between teachers and students.
She began teaching in 1990, and spent the first 9 years working at a small store-front satellite of the continuation program. Working with one other teacher, she served a class of 20 students in a largely impoverished, yet growing community. At that point in time the community did not have its own high school, and so children would take the bus to the main campus. Speaking to a teacher at the high school during that time, she recalled being told that “80% of our problem students come from that community”. And so when many of them were inevitably expelled for drugs, fighting, or academic failure, they were sent to her continuation classroom.
Because there were two teachers, the students were able to have many of their needs well met. There was little administrative interference, and thus planning was based on what the teachers thought best. They were given 2 hours of preparation time each day. This allowed them the freedom not only to plan excellent content, but the time to make connections with the community. They would make numerous daily phone calls home, as well as actual visits to their students’ homes.
As anyone who has worked with at-risk populations knows, this kind of holistic approach is vital to getting at the root cause of the child’s lack of success. In speaking with the parents, visiting the home, not only hearing about but seeing the challenges the student is facing, allows the teacher to better understand and therefor communicate effectively with the child. In the traditional education model, there is simply not enough time in the day to make these types of connections. With a functioning population, this is not a big problem. But in communities devastated by drugs, gangs and violence, as well as lack of education, the ordinary classroom environment and its expectations for proper academic and social behavior are too difficult for many students to navigate.
After nine years, my colleague returned to the main continuation campus, where she has been teaching ever since. With the passage of NCLB, the steady drum beat of “data collection” and other business-like approaches to education grew ever louder. The emphasis on treating each child holistically lessened, and more and more time was given to processing new evaluative, “accountability” systems. An endless procession of old ideas were dressed up as new, in the always elusive quest for a sort of “killer app” that would radically transform dismal student performance, and close the achievement gap once and for all.
A key feature of NCLB is the concept of placing low-performing schools under “program improvement” status. What this amounts to is a specific number of hours mandated for staff-development training, the content of which is chosen not by the principle but by school administration. Not necessarily poor quality in and of itself, the practical effect of these trainings is that all of a school’s collaboration time is suddenly taken up by so-called intervention strategies that are designed by people who are rarely involved at the site level. Often times, development “packages” – whether seminars or software – are bought in bulk by the district, and each school is expected to utilize them.
This can be an enormous waste of time, money, and ultimately, student performance. Because of the top-down way in which these “program improvement tools” are foisted upon teachers, with no input from them (aside from hopefully some intervention by the union who might negotiate specific requirements for pay or development time), there is no way teachers can give quality feedback as to a program’s efficacy. A dysfunctional feedback loop is created in which the teachers are expected to follow a program or lose their job, and the administrators have little interest in whether the program is useful, caring only that the protocols are being followed. This is a classic pitfall of the corporate world, wherein employees are expected to doggedly follow some or another procedure cooked up by someone at multiple levels of removal from the actual production floor, and there are no communication channels established by which production staff can honestly and openly provide effective feedback. One of the maybe counter-intuitive benefits to the company of worker organization is that a sort of democracy is established, and workers are liberated to take an active role in challenging what can be inefficient or unhealthy policies. When it comes to education, the teacher is the last line of defense from these types of out-of-touch, wrongheaded decisions. Yet there has been a slow but steady march towards a corporate model, with NCLB laying the groundwork. And it is no surprise that some of the same problems that plague the corporate world have also come to plague education.
The Data Analysis Worksheet, or DAW, has become a prominent feature of education reform in California. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. The idea is that by having teachers of similar subjects collaborate on a regular basis, creating a common, objective measure of student performance in their class, they can then use the data to improve instruction. A standard is chosen, and then students are given pre and post assessments. Students are placed into intervention groups, and teachers brainstorm ways to improve targeted instructional strategies. Most “program improvement” schools are required to follow the program. What this means is that at least 4-5 hours a month becomes requisitioned for the DAW process. In practical terms, this top-down, rigid and centralized planning methodology takes the place of time that formerly could have been used for bottom-up collaboration between teachers, driven not by what some “suit” thinks is best practice and is not tailored to the specific site’s needs, but by what the actual teachers see as a priority for the students. The DAW can very quickly become cumbersome, of little use because of difficulties applying it to varied instructional environments.
What has essentially occurred is a massive shift in power away from teachers and principals, and towards administrators and legislators who are many levels of remove from the classroom. But what has driven this transformation? In large part, it originated in recognition that the nation was failing millions of poor students, and a subsequent judgment that this was due to inadequacies in teaching practice, not structural disadvantages that can only be reliably remedied by addressing the individual needs of low-SES students. In an effort to drive a stake through the heart of the achievement gap, power has been almost spitefully yanked away from those in daily contact with students.
In my colleague’s case, this has meant not only sharp cutbacks in her ability to reach out to and support her students, but what amounts to an hour of her preparation time each week spent laboring on a sort of educational kabuki. Because, you see, the DAW is worthless in a continuation environment. Because of the transiency, wide variance in ability and preparedness, as well as general mental health, any good data we can collect and share with colleagues is buried within terrible data – the continuation environment is largely designed for students to work independently, and at their own pace. Direct instruction generally takes the form of one-on-one interactions between teacher and student. In many cases, the student is doing no work at all, yet receiving a form of “therapy” from their teacher, in that a concerned adult is trying daily to help get them back on track – even if that means getting them to make the most minimal, yet invaluable behavioral changes. Sometimes it takes a student weeks or even months to develop the motivation to begin doing his or her work, but within that time, the teacher has been making calls home, asking questions and trying to do whatever he can to get that kid “back on the wagon” so to speak.
The continuation environment isn’t a microcosm of the larger high-school. It is basically filled with only the most at-risk kids. But their story isn’t so far removed from so many other low-SES, low-performing students. The majority of them are from the lowest-SES populations overall. The problems they face are complex, and there are many structural impediments to their finding success. But the same can be said for low-SES students in general. And instead of placing our faith in the thousands of teachers out there who work with these populations every day, who likely became teachers because they were willing to make the emotional and physical sacrifices necessary to help these students succeed, we have demonized them as sub-par failures, protected by corrupt unions. We have decided to look toward the corporate model of success in which orders are handed down from above, with little input required from below. That may work in some industries (although frankly, I’m skeptical), but it certainly isn’t going to work in education.
My colleague is reaching the end of her career, one in which she has watched the pendulum swinging in one general direction, and to poor effect – measured by her ability to meet the needs of her students. As I look towards the future of my own career, I can only hope to be a part of a reversal of that pendulum, one in which control is localized, teachers are empowered, and resources are targeted toward those in society who truly need them most.