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The American Version of the Cultural Revolution?

August 20, 2010

Teachers were forced to wear dunce caps in China's Cultural Revolution

On August 14, 2010 parents from all over Los Angeles woke up to discover that everything they knew and believed about their children’s education was wrong.

A well-rounded curriculum with Art projects, Music, Dance, Social Studies and Science?  Insignificant.

A safe classroom where bullies are neutralized, shy kids empowered, shrinking violets taught to be strong?  Nice, but that’s not on the test.

Teaching students to think critically, to pose questions instead of answering them?  Not as important as drilling them on vocabulary.

The Los Angeles Times published an article, the first in a series, in which the reporters concluded that teacher effectiveness could be determined by a mathematical formula.  Further, they concluded that teaching experience did not correlate to stronger academic achievement.

“Years of experience, credentials, the type of student they taught — none of it reliably predicted which teachers were most effective.”

Reporters Jason Felch and Jason Song, the latter a reporter with a large body of work that focuses on the most egregious cases of aberrant teachers , highlighting the 1% of teachers whose work in the classroom has been atrocious now have presented their pièce de résistance that has stoked the flames of anger against teachers and unions and been praised by New Reformers and Arne Duncan.  Noted education historian and NYU professor Diane Ravitch compares this movement to China’s Cultural Revolution, tweeting “If firing 80% of new teachers improves schools, why not fire 100%? Then fire experienced ones too. Cultural revolution.”

Reaction from teachers has been one of outrage; it feels like a sucker punch, especially to those who have chosen to work with the most academically challenged populations who do not always make neat and tidy progress on test scores from year to year.  Now, these teachers and others have been labeled with a giant scarlet number, and their names will soon be published in an online database as a part of the series on “teacher effectiveness.”  But adults can cope; we can regroup and move forward, strengthen our resilience in the era of teacher-bashing.  It’s the students we are concerned about.  What will happen to public school education when teachers feel coerced into teaching to the test? I will tell you what will happen.

State tests are aligned to the California State Standards.  A blueprint of the standards is released each year indicating the weight of the probability of that standards being tested on the exam, A being the highest, then B, then C, then the negligible asterisk standard–*.  It gets tested every several years.

Teachers who feel pressured to increase scores and are not supported to do so in a creative and innovative manner will simply eliminate the teaching of the C and asterisk standards.  It’s more “efficient” to dedicate more time to what will be covered on the test.

Elementary teachers have already drastically reduced their time teaching Science and Social Studies.  I see this every year as a middle school teacher when my students enter my class and are unable to name the seven continents and four oceans in our planet.  One year, a student wrote in a pre-test that the name of our state was Jamaica.  They do not know whether California is a state, city, or country, and don’t even ask them who our governor is.   Latitude and longitude?  Never heard of them.  What is a society?  Blank stares.

It gets worse.  My school is located in South Central Los Angeles, with a predominantly Latino and African-American population.  West Africa is taught in the seventh grade, but it is a low priority unit with only two questions on the state exam.  Teachers frequently feel compelled to skip this unit in order to cover the more tested units of Western Europe.  In their K-12 schooling, Californian African-American students only have three opportunities to learn about their rich culture and history:  in elementary school if the school allows African-American history month to take place, 7th grade Medieval World History, and 10th grade Modern World History.  But in the 10th grade, students get to choose which world region to study.  So if elementary teachers feel compelled to cut Social Studies in elementary school, 7th grade teachers skip the low stakes West Africa, and 10th grade students don’t know they can assert their choice of region, it very likely African-American students will never learn about their valuable and important history. This is the tragedy that no one is talking about and the same can and will happen to Science and the Arts.  Teaching to the test will result in gut-wrenching choices for dedicated teachers and may result in a higher value added score.  But did the students learn?  Not just memorize for a test, but actually gain knowledge that will help them become a successful and participatory citizen in our society?  The outlook is bleak.

School starts back up for most schools in California in the next several weeks.  Teachers will have to make choices akin to selling their souls.  Will they change their methodology just to keep the media hounds off of their back?  Will they believe in the definition that the young and ambitious LA Times reporters have created about teacher effectiveness and try to disprove it?

Or have the reporters awakened a sleeping giant?  I have seen more participation by teachers in news forums in the last two weeks than in the past two years.  It could be the tipping point Anthony Cody wrote about last week, or it could be the breaking point for a profession who is used to resolving problems through discourse and reason.  Teachers are starting to feel indignant, defensive and compelled to action.  It’s either that or go the way of the Chinese intellectuals who were defamed and disappeared from society.  We will not go quietly.

image from fredoshpere.com

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Peter D. Ford III permalink
    August 21, 2010 10:16 pm

    The best response from teachers to the various tempests stirred up this summer is to teach our students as best we can. Whatever questions or derision hurled upon us we can brush off as if unscathed by executing our craft with the utmost commitment, enthusiasm, professionalism, and pride. When that bell rings in a few weeks, reacting to all the noise surrounding us would only distract us from our obligations.

    As my father told me, “focus on the students, not the adults.”

    • August 22, 2010 8:58 am

      Thanks, Peter , for your thoughts.

      Intuitively, members of our profession automatically default to solutions based on intellect and reason, such as yours. It has been a difficult journey to travel from believing that if I do my best in the classroom with students that everything will be alright. I have come to believe that it will not be alright and that in fact, the notorious teacher isolationism is coming back to haunt our profession. When colleagues share news articles about the ed-reform debates, many teachers react in shock, as if they have never heard of such things. That’s because they haven’t. They are busy teaching, raising their own kids, grading papers, planning lessons. They are not on Twitter or on blogs and will be caught by surprise when their schools get shut down and they are fired.

      LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer recognized that the reactions of teachers are in response to the escalating language of war used by the New Reformers. In an interview with The Argonaut newspaper on February 17,2010, he states “When you declare war on people, you have to expect them to act like combatants.” While I do not believe we have entered a state of war, I do believe we are entering the state of action and response. We will articulate reasoned responses to those who put out false or misleading information, those who continue to attempt to demean the profession. And this is truly done to preserve public education, and by extension, our fragile republic.

      Thanks again for reading our blog.

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