The Onus on Us

Teachers have many things to fear in the course of their career. For most teachers, their administration will enter their classrooms about six times for the dreaded observation. They enter the room looking for student work, writing folders, binders, note-taking, engagement, differentiation, and too many other things to list. Once a year, the pressure increases during the quality review, under which all that we do as teachers comes under the scrutiny of a microscope. Some middle schools already are experimenting with the “added value” system, which will likely be implemented in high schools next year, which could pave the way for merit pay. All this adds up to extreme pressure. As teachers, we face one of the most stressful jobs as we have the two-fold responsibility of educating children and meeting the expectations of policy makers.

In the new wave of education reform the focus of responsibility seems to have shifted heavily from students to teachers. If I remember correctly, when a student failed even when I was in high school, it was that students fault and it was their responsibility to rectify the situation. In the school I teach at, I’ve seen several teachers raked over the coals because of their passing rates. These teachers have had to review their grades and see which students they can “get to pass” so that they have better statistics. As a result, little Timmy who has a 44% test average ends up passing the class even though he has no evidence of actually mastering any of the skills that he should have during that year. Anyone who has been in a room grading regents knows the effect of this responsibility. No student will ever fail a test with a 54 or 64. Utilizing creative rubric interpretation points suddenly materialize and passing rates suddenly soar. When students approach graduation, suddenly an “independent study” takes the place of a required credit. So in a few hours of work, a student is able to get the credit that required an entire semester of work from others.

Our policy makers and educational researchers like to talk extensively about accountability and high standards. But in reality, who do we hold to these standards? At the end of the day, students will give you the correct answer. Teachers must meet these standards or face the wrath of the higher ups. Last year while teaching a group of seniors, I went on a great rant about why they need to complete homework. It was supposed to be a compelling, respectful discourse which informed them how these habits will prepare them for college. At the end of the rant a student quietly said, “Yeah, but it doesn’t matter because the principal will make you accept any work that we do just so we can pass”. I couldn’t say anything, because she essentially paraphrased our principal’s policy on late work. Students know that we have to meet our mark, or face the consequences. They also know that they benefit from this, and when it comes down to it, really have very little accountability.

By placing the accountability almost entirely on teachers and administrators we’ve removed it from the students and incentivized cheating the system. Because we care so much about our students and helping them achieve a high school diploma, we’ve set up standards for passing rates and graduation rates. If schools fail to meet those goals, then they receive low grades on the quality review and progress reports and people lose jobs. Those students may find another place to go where they will get their diploma, regardless of how far away they are from the standards. Teachers now will do anything they can to improve their passing rates for promotion and standardized tests, including cheating. We all like to believe that teachers are above this kind of behavior, but anyone who has been in the system long enough knows that teachers cheat, grades are fabricated, scores are conjured, and acceptable evidence is tweaked.

The new added value system looms in our future as educators. Under this system, teachers receive a point value for their promotion rates and their state test passing rates. Those teachers with high passing rates receive high values, and those with low rates receive low values. In many ways, this is the beginning of merit pay. Many proponents of merit pay say that there is no problem with this because you are simply rewarding good teachers. Nothing is ever that simple. When a child enters a teacher’s classroom, they enter with different abilities, impediments, and attitudes. No matter how amazing a teacher is there is only so much that they can do to change those attitudes.

My current teaching situation highlights this problem. At our school we have created a “pre-AP” U.S. History class in addition to our CTT U.S. History class. My co-worker has each of those classes and I’m left with the “normal” U.S. History classes. Under the added value system, I’m hosed. While my co-worker will receive bonus points for every special education student she gets to pass and will benefit from the highly skilled students in her pre-AP class, I’m left with students who have skills roughly on par with the CTT students in larger classes without the added support. My passing rates will be much lower and I will not have the benefit of the special education bonus. Now, I’m fairly confident in my ability to help my students pass the regents and my class, but it will require a much higher degree of effort for me to achieve the same value that my co-worker can attain with minimal effort.

The Union has consistently opposed merit pay for this reason. While they support rewarding good teachers, this can not be the way. In a results oriented system such as this where we place the responsibility on the teachers, you punish teachers in difficult situations and place an incentive for that teacher to lie about grades and scores. Personally, I am shocked that the Union and teachers as a whole have not been more united on this issue.

As a matter of principle, I would never lie about grades and I would never go beyond attempting to interpret the rubric in a different way to achieve higher regents grades. In the system that we are heading towards, this may place a target on my back. Unfortunately what it doesn’t do is place a target on my students back. Students need to be held responsible for their actions. If they do not have the necessary skills to advance academically, they need to be aware of that and face those consequences. If consistent disruptive behavior impedes a students learning, the student should be accountable for that behavior and it should not be chalked up to “classroom management”.

Advertising is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States. In some cases, they are trying to get people to buy products that are trendy, addictive, and accessible. Teachers attempt to sell students an empty box. We tell them that if they work hard now, in the future they will have the opportunity to do great things. Advertisers ultimately have to sell their product, but if they don’t, the product fails, not the advertiser. Teachers have a good product that will never fail. We all are professionals and experts about selling this product. Aside from incompetence, why should we blame a teacher for a student who refuses to buy into their own education even the slightest bit? I’m not advocating for the complete removal of accountability on teachers, but please, place some responsibility on the backs of the students. We all know that once they leave high school, nobody else will be accountable for them.

–John Harlow



Filed under John Harlow

3 responses to “The Onus on Us

  1. aranoff

    Excellent points. We teachers are selling. Bottom line: we have to understand how students think. See “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better” on amazon.

  2. Pingback: How Much does Inspiration Cost? « The Unbearable Lightness of Teaching

  3. Pingback: Telling it Like it Is « The Unbearable Lightness of Teaching

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