Students (and teachers) after lunch be like…
I once had a professor who called bureaucracy, in our university or in business or in the public sphere, administratium, the heaviest element. It made everything slower, harder to wade through, and generally more frustrating by the fact of its very existence. While he talked about this fictive element jokingly, it was clear he felt stifled by the burdens of administration.
The teacher profiled in this NPR article, Rick Young, shared my old prof’s disdain for administratium.
“Everything’s very time-consuming. In in my mind, it’s not productive time,” he says. “It’s not helping my students. It limits the freedom of teachers to really freely teach and of principals to freely lead and evaluate.”
Young, an effective and beloved instructor in an alternative high school, has given up teaching after 25 years, thanks entirely to the weight of imposed standards and formats and requirements from district, state, and federal authorities.
Much of the burden he and educators across the country face comes from our national addiction to data. Everything related to education must be turned into a metric that can displayed on a PowerPoint slide. If something can’t be datafied, then it is all-too-often deemed unessential and is tossed out of the school along with PE and Art and recess. Hence, our love of standardized tests and our push for teacher evaluations (which have been shown to be poor measures of ability). Standardized tests often just show whether a student is good at taking standardized tests, and can demonstrate wildly incorrect results based on a number of confounding factors (race, gender, sleep, diet, weather, etc), AND aren’t always good indicators of future academic or career success.
Instead of overburdening our educators with mandates, focusing on better training and support for teachers, paying them better and attracting more enthusiastic and capable people to the field, and, critically, not losing them in the first year or two, would go a long way to improving education in America. Train good people, give them the respect (salary) and support they deserve, and step out of their way.
This article from Edutopia by Elena Aguilar has been making the rounds lately, for good reason. She captures the confusion and strains of the first year of teaching well. I’m not sure all of her points resonate so much with me, as my teaching context has been quite different than hers, but certainly I can relate to what she says. For one, I adamantly wish I’d had some sort of coach or mentor during my first year (point #5 in the post), or any year after that. Having to wing it, day after day, wears you down, even in the relatively low-stakes environment I worked in my first few years.
One thing I might add to her list, a trivial point, is to save your materials and make them reusable as much as possible. After the third or fifth or ninth time you’re cutting out the same Concentration tiles, you’ll want to turn those scissors on yourself.
Every single semester while I was teaching at a university in South Korea, my coworkers and I had multiple students ask us for specific grades at the end of the term. The reasons were what you might expect: they needed a certain GPA for their scholarship, the student housing rules required certain minimum grades, their parents would be violently unhappy, etc. And every time, I would have the same kind of response:
Student: Teacher, I need an A to keep my scholarship.
Student: You have to give me an A [please] .
Me: First, I don’t have to do anything. Second, teachers don’t give students grades; students earn their grades.
Then we’d have a long, sad conversation about what the consequences of them not getting the needed grade would be, and I’d asked them why they didn’t consider this when they were writing their essay at the last minute, or they were absent all those days, or why they half-assed their mid-term, etc. Then we’d look at their participation sheet (part of my gamification project that I used to grade their participation score, which was 30% of their overall grade as set by our department’s curriculum) and I’d ask them why they put in so little effort each week if their grade was so important. If they could make a very strong argument about their participation score, and they could do it in reasonably fluent English, I could give them 1 or 2 more points in their participation band. Sometimes that was enough. Often it wasn’t.
I had friends in other schools where this situation was even more fraught. One colleague at a university in a small city a few hours outside of Seoul had to put Scotch tape on his grades so the administration couldn’t easily go back and alter his students’ scores after the semester ended. Other friends talked about their department heads or deans getting calls from parents telling them to change their precious snowflakes’ grades, and then being forced by their bosses to make the change.
This article on Slate talks about the same phenomenon in the US. The author, Rebecca Schuman, says it well:
When a student claims to need a certain grade, she is operating under the assumption that grades are doled out arbitrarily—the result of a professor’s whim and mood. This stands in stark contrast to reality, which is that in an ever-more-torturedaim at transparency and fairness—even in so-called “subjective” disciplines like the humanities—a professor’s grading system often comes courtesy of multiple tortured rubrics. Those rubrics are themselves tied to ever-more-intransigent “learning outcomes,” resulting in an intricate web of math and check marks, all of which are explained in detail on pages 450-499 of the 900-page syllabus.
For myself, if a student came to me sometime before finals, I would always, always try to find some way for them to help themselves: let them turn in old homework for partial credit, tell them what they needed to do to earn a bunch of participation points, or whatever. They were being at least a little proactive, and I wanted to encourage that sort of behavior.
In my current job, I’ve encountered much less of this issue. There are a few of reasons for this. One, my program is a prep program; we have grades, but mostly students are just concerned with progressing through the five levels and passing the final exam so they can enter their faculty department. Grades just don’t matter that much to them, so long as they get the minimum of 60% at the end of the module. Secondly, the students often go over the instructors’ heads straight to the level or department heads. Unlike in Korea, though, the bosses here are not very willing to change the teachers’ grades, because, thirdly, we have a clear, promulgated, and mostly objective rubric for assessments. There’s little wiggle room for the students’ to ask or demand more points. Sometimes, our level head or supervisor might re-check an essay or oral presentation video and see if there is any gross mis-grading on the part of the teacher, but it’s rare that a failing student gets to go ahead into the next module after the teacher has submitted her grades.
So, teachers, make your assessment system transparent and make sure students are aware of their standing regularly.
And students, don’t tell your teacher you need a grade. Go out and earn it.
This short letter to the editor by Stephen Krashen raises a critical point about education in America.
When researchers control for the effect of poverty, U.S. students score near the top of the world on international tests. Our overall scores are unimpressive because of our unacceptably high child-poverty rate, now about 21 percent. The problem is poverty, not teacher quality.
How can we expect children to learn when they’re hungry, sick, and stressed? We know that poverty reduces cognitive bandwidth: Survival issues take up more and more brain power when those needs are not being met. So it should come as no surprise that children living in poverty cannot perform well in school.
What’s also distressing is how many politicians approach these problems in such unhelpful ways. Requiring more high-stakes testing is not any kind of solution. Focusing on teacher tenure and performance evaluations isn’t really addressing key problems. Closing neighborhood schools in high poverty areas, thereby forcing children to travel farther to study in larger classes seems counterproductive in many cases. The idea that failing schools should *lose* funding is insane. Of course, throwing more money at schools, per se, isn’t necessarily a solution either. Anti-poverty programs targeted at children might yield better results, along with better funding for things like school meals for needy students and pre-school. Addressing the systemic problems in America that lead to 1/5 of our children living in poverty would also be swell.
UPDATE: Just saw this article on my Facebook feed, talking about the negative effects of poverty on brain development in children. Worth a read.
I always do this, and I always regret it.