Saturday, June 23, 2007

Circumventing the STAR regime - some useful tips

As we all know, the accountability tests stifle real learning and creativity, and punish minority kids disproportionately. Conscientious educators will, then, no doubt, welcome a list of strategies for defeating these tests. Inspired by some solutions designed by this principal, here are some tips to add to your toolkit.

Altering the responses after the students have submitted their scantron sheets is an obvious way to go. The drawback of this approach is that you can all too easily get busted, because the scoring machines can detect erasures, and a statistical analysis of your number of wrong-to-right alterations can land you in the hall of shame. So, you will want to consider other means.

A better approach is to administer a test that enables students to succeed. Give the PreCalculus students the Algebra II test, while kids enrolled in Algebra II take the Algebra I test, and students whose transcripts will report Algebra I tackle the 7th grade standards of the General Math exam. If you delay mailing home the STAR report cards long enough everyone will forget about them. You can repeat this procedure for years without anyone noticing, and the kids will always be a year ahead of the test they're taking.

Of course, applying some thought to the selection of test takers can be very helpful. This is rendered simpler if you track your lowest performing and most disruptive students into the same class early in the year. Come STAR testing time you can temporarily dissolve this class, so that their performance will never be measured. If you feel you need a different reason to expel these students for the occasion, it should be quite easy to provoke an altercation that would merit disciplinary measures, because these are some angry kids.

A different procedure for improving your test taker pool is to utilize your Independent Studies program for diverting students who will not be good test takers. This program serves many students who have dropped out of their various high schools, for example due to pregnancy, family obligations or other issues. Everybody loves a program that assists such challenged kids in earning a high school diploma in spite of the odds. In addition, this program can absorb some kids from your regular day classes who have poor attendance and low scores, so that you can continue collecting ADA funds for them while removing them from the classrooms. A beautiful side-effect is that you can exempt all these students from STAR testing by classifying them all as seniors. A win-win situation all around, in other words.

These measures are all fairly safe, in that you can apply them for years without eliciting much questioning. What will land you in trouble are measures that are relatively inconsequential in terms of affecting student scores. Thus, handing out photocopies of earlier testing booklets will very likely provoke the wrath of the testing authorities, and this is true even though prepping from these booklets will be unlikely to make much difference for your students' scores. Since any standards driving your students' instruction throughout the year are likely different from the ones on which they will be tested, a couple of weeks of test prep by irate teachers is unlikely to earn you many points. Since this will additionally get you in trouble with the nitpickers at the CDE, taking this track is a mistake.

Hopefully both the recommendations and the warnings and caveats listed here will be helpful in shaping your strategy for STAR testing. By judicious application of these suggestions you can ensure that the scores bring your school glory while providing limited comparative data about the quality of your students' credits. This will aid you in getting underserved minority kids into college and out of the ghetto, and since we all share a commitment to this greater good, the value of this list of strategies should speak for itself.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Summer Plans

Per Dan's orders, here's my list:

  1. Catch up with friends and family. Act tourist together with mom-in-law when she comes visiting next month.

  2. Read Teaching English Language Learners, ENVoY, Getting Things Done and Kite Runner. Write a little about them here.

  3. Set up a website for my courses for next year

  4. Plan out those courses.

  5. Go for a day hike about once weekly.

  6. Figure out what exactly those BTSA requirements involve.

  7. Teach math at San Quentin one evening per week.

  8. Revive skills at novelty cake decoration that have completely atrophied the past few years.

Hm, looks like it would be a good idea to get started.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Good teacher, bad teacher

While a good or bad plumber is just good at plumbing or bad at plumbing, an evaluation of a teacher as good or bad carries overtones of moral judgment. In part rightly so, in that the quality of our work impacts children who have little choice about the matter, and in that this impact can be of lasting benefit or harm. It then becomes an ethical responsibility to teach well enough or else leave. Teachers often weigh their various job options partly in ethical terms, noting that while they do have the option of leaving dysfunctional schools, the students do not, and that for the children stuck in there the alternative to a teacher disgusted by administrative failure may well be a teacher who does not care at all.

Research on moral outlooks as predictors of teacher quality and longevity appear to provide contradictory conclusions. In the article Teacher Burnout in Black and White, Martin Haberman refers to one study that indicates that
the notion that altruism can be the motivation of teachers serving diverse children in poverty should be problematic
while later referring to another, older, study which concludes that
special education teachers who stay express an altruistic purpose and deep personal obligation to serve their students. Those who leave have an unselfish regard as well but lack the depth of conviction found in teachers who stay.

In the same article, young idealists, who burn out in droves within few years, are contrasted with "strong insensitives," teachers who stay because they do not care enough to be discouraged and who take no responsibility for student failure. Haberman refers to studies that suggest that actually
teachers who leave have less of a negative impact on schools and students than those who burn out but remain in teaching.
Staying beyond some critical level of exasperation does no-one any good.

Who can stay in dysfunctional schools and do right by the children for an extended period of time? If these are, as Haberman suggests elsewhere, typically non-judgmental and apolitical, able to focus on their classrooms while chaos reigns outside, then they are probably not the same people as those who are inclined to shake up and reform a school, to start a new school, or to take action to drive out administrators who do harm. A certain set of personality traits may be needed for protecting learners and learning in a poorly run district for an extended period of time, and since large, high-poverty school districts have crushingly great inertia such teachers are sorely needed. A different and incompatible set of inclinations altogether would seem to be needed for reorganizing and reinventing schools to serve students better.

This complicates the simplistic idea that somehow a good teacher is a good person who does what is good for the kids, and it replaces elements of the moral judgment inherent in the expression "good teacher" with a question about a good fit between teacher and situation. If matters of teacher quality overlap with the domain of morality, being a "good" teacher in the moral sense is in part a matter of chance and circumstance. I suspect that much public debate about teacher quality would be more constructive and engender less defensiveness if teacher effectiveness were cast in more relational terms and less in terms of personal ethics.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


Having done the job search rather haphazardly and half-heartedly for too long, I am suddenly in the position of having to make up my mind fast. I have to choose between accepting an offer from a parochial school that acted remarkably quickly, or else declining it in order to wait, probably for weeks, while the public school district processes my application. This year as last year, I applied to a very few non-public schools as a backup plan. Last year the only private school I applied to contacted me, scheduled an interview and offered a position all within a few days. I declined in order to work in a public school. This year a parochial school has completed the whole process in two days, and now I have to make up my mind in a hurry.

Ideologically I am committed to the public school system and to the schools that have the most difficulty with attracting qualified teachers. I have also gained a year of hard-won experience with the peculiar challenges of such schools, and it would seem a waste not to seek an opportunity to apply this learning. I am not terribly well cut out for such jobs, however. A colleague charitably described my performance as running hard with short legs. I am knowledgeable and hard-working and care a lot about the students, and they notice all of this. I am also absent-minded and distractible, and my voice does not carry well. A lack of confidence and an inclination to feel guilty without much reason makes things worse. Predictably, classroom management is an issue.

A judgment of my ability to educate students in high-poverty areas can be tempered by the fact that the school I worked in this year is particularly dysfunctional. Many classes have had attendance rates below 50-60%, and so the composition of these classes has changed from day to day. A complete lack of access to student records has complicated planning and appropriate student placement. There has been no school-wide discipline system. The principal would reprimand teachers in front of the students for mistakes they had not made. The school will probably either be closed or under new management when August comes around, due to legal irregularities. While schools in high-poverty areas are frequently plagued with worse administrations and less structure than other schools, I have reason to believe that this one is worse than is usual even for this area. Creating a safe, productive learning environment inside the classrooms would be correspondingly harder.

Even so, a number of teachers at my school certainly were much more successful than I at establishing normalcy, routine and involvement in their classes. In contemplating the alternative to accepting the job offer I have, I am deterred not only be the prospect of waiting for weeks without knowing anything, but also by the possibility of undertaking too difficult a job. I am certainly willing to work hard and to face up to my weaknesses, but there is nothing noble about going to battle without appropriate arms. I have some hours left to make up my mind.