Jane Be Nimble

By Jane Weinkrantz  


           Truly this has been a school year like no other. I feel completely justified in saying that even though it’s only February. It’s not every year that APPR, the Marshall Rubric, state-mandated unannounced observations, SLO testing, state tests becoming tied to teacher evaluation and the Common Core converge, creating a perfect storm in a year when an actual perfect storm has already disrupted instruction enough.

            Frankly, I barely recognize my job. I knew I was in trouble when I found myself working this fall to create an SLO pre-test in which the goal was to quantify what the students did not know by writing test questions on entirely uncharted territory. (In case you weren’t sure, kids---especially high school kids---love being asked questions you know they don’t know. They don’t think it’s a waste of time at all.) Because the SLO process got off to a slow start, the tests weren’t administered until halfway into the first quarter.  This meant that unless I consciously withheld instruction for the month of September, I inevitably taught some of the information on the test, thus decreasing my students’ overall annual progress and, therefore, my value in the eyes of the education system. But, hey, it’s only my job that’s riding on that measurement.

            Well, that’s not exactly so.  My job is also hinging on the Marshall Rubric, an evaluation tool that allows administrators to evaluate my tenacity, my reflection and my “nimbleness.”  Earlier this year, teachers worked themselves into frenzies as they tried to figure out how to “actively inculcate a ‘growth’ mindset,” get all students to be self-disciplined, take responsibility for their actions, and have a strong sense of efficacy,” and ”make sure that the students who need specialized diagnosis and help receive appropriate services immediately,” to say nothing of the other 57 skills in the rubric. Though Central Administration has made it abundantly clear that no sane administrator expects to see all teaching skills in every lesson, many of us feared those observing us would view the Marshall rubric as the world’s most comprehensive Chinese menu, one that encourages a sort of pedagogical gluttony: let’s see some teaching from domain A, some from domain B, some from domain C and make it snappy. All out of domain D today? I’ll have to stop back some other time. 

            The Marshall rubric clearly specifies that instruction be based on “high standards” and “external assessments.” In New York , this means the Common Core and the New York State assessments for grades 3-12. Last year, in preparation for the Common Core curriculum, we were asked to design a “close reading” unit in which students read and discussed the same short essay five different times.  I can tell you that “engagement” (“Designs highly relevant lessons that will motivate all students and engage them in active learning.”) plummeted in a hurry during that lesson. This year, as we plan for total implementation of the Common Core in 2014, I am hoping the standards will have more to offer than units that end with students asking, “Why are you doing this to us?” and “Again?”

            Then, there’s preparation for the New York State exams. “Drill, baby, drill,” isn’t only a Sarah Palin catchphrase. It’s how most teachers prepare for standardized tests. With more and more riding on the state exams, isn’t it likely that we will be doing more test prep than ever? I wish I could say that high level, dynamic instruction would automatically lead to good test scores, but often the tasks New York’s tests require are so unique to the tests themselves that they have to be taught as steps a student needs to master in order to pass the test, not skills an educated person and critical thinker should possess. (If you don’t believe me, ask any 11th grader about the Critical Lens, a literary essay with all the grace and fluidity of someone first learning to drive a manual transmission.) To what extent will we have to choose between planning exciting, motivating lessons and just making sure everyone can perform for the Test That Determines Our Fate? Whatever choice we make may reflect poorly on us.

            Finally, there’s the new unannounced observation. Some teachers are afraid to try any new lessons until the unannounced observation is out of the way. Who can afford to take a risk with an unfamiliar technique or new material when a chairperson or principal may pop in at any time? Think of the obvious dilemma this poses as we try to familiarize ourselves with the Common Core and hope to plan instruction with new lessons that incorporate it.

Look at any group of teachers this year and you will be able to identify those who have had their unannounced observation and those who have not. Those who’ve already been observed are more or less themselves while those who still await their fate have a certain anxious and hyper-vigilant look as they anticipate their expected unexpected guest. Teachers wonder “What if I’m giving a test the day of the unannounced observation?” or “What if I’m showing a film?” It seems reasonable to presume that an administrator who wants to see actual instruction would just come back another day. But, the implied “gotcha” that accompanies the unannounced observation prevents teachers from feeling confident that the same administrators we previously believed were fair and logical human beings aren’t now involuntarily possessed by the APPR demons and forced to do their bidding, no matter what.

How will all this heightened tension affect children? I imagine that the politicians who put these working conditions in place anticipated a jump in test scores and, therefore, an increase in knowledge in general. But, I foresee an environment in which it is harder to do something extra for a student because of the demands of our burgeoning educational bureaucracy. How many of us will have to decrease our time with students in order to get APPR paperwork or data entry accomplished? Will we have less time to spend on the whole child as we focus on standardized tests, an elaborate evaluation process and a new set of standards?

            I still love my work and the children of Plainview-Old Bethpage, but every day I hear a little more discussion of retirement from teachers who never mentioned it before. Sometimes, it comes from people who still have at least a decade or two ahead of them. I’ve heard great teachers from our district and other districts say that they wouldn’t encourage their students or their own children to become educators in this climate, which seeks to measure work that can’t be quantified and creates a mood of suspicion, distrust and doubt. Is a toxic atmosphere for teachers really what’s best for kids?

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