John Meeks: The ills of education reform

By John Louis Meeks,

I have
become the teacher they have warned me about. 
When I began
teaching, I remember being praised by an administrator for being new to the
field of education and being able to view our system from a fresh set of
eyes.  The administrator warned me that the veterans were cynical and wary
of the work that needed to be done to improve our schools.
On the other
hand, I did hear from experienced teachers who indeed viewed every round of
change with a jaundiced eye.  They were, after all, in the system long
enough to see old ideas dumped and replaced by new ones only to see the past
return with new names.  They were at the mercy of the latest research and
reports of the day that were going to save us from bad teachers who were at
fault for our failing schools.
Now that a
decade has passed since I was that bright-eyed rookie, I can honestly agree
with the old school teachers who threw up their hands when a new round of
trainers and consultants walked into our district with a new set of fads and
follies that were meant to stay but ended up as fleeting as the
New Math that was
pushed on me when I was in sixth grade.
hindsight, I can see a few programs that were intensely drilled into me but
disappeared as fast as the fervor for them rose.
Firstly, I
recall the Character Counts initiative that I was asked to incorporate into my
social studies classes.  We sought to find ways to teach virtues and
connect them to ancient civilizations.  As a Sunday school teacher in my
spare time, I did not really find issue with the need for building better
citizens, but I believed that it was a poor fit for educators who were bound to
teaching the most basic of standards, let alone playing the role of spiritual
leaders to their students.  Sooner or later, it all went away. 
Although the
Character Counts was from the district, the state was not immune to believing
that education reform meant throwing spaghetti at the wall to see if it
stuck.  I was around when middle school students were being forced into
choosing majors years in advance of actually attending college in an effort to
focus their minds on a goal.  The problem is, after hours of time and
money were spent on turning educators into college and career counselors,
cajoling seventh and eighth grade students into making choices that many
college underclassmen have yet to grasp was finally deemed to be doomed. 
Trial and
error is no way to treat a profession of men and women who are working hard to
teach children in our public schools.  Take a look at how we evaluate and
pay our teachers.  After years of praising Duval County
s performance pay system, the state decided to tinker with
rewarding good teachers.  Acronyms came and went from STAR to MAP to CAST
and we are still struggling to understand an assessment system that even the
Florida Department of Education has expressed dismay and disappointment with.
To an
extreme, many seventh grade teachers were asked to create new lessons and tests
for geography classes by education leaders with the full knowledge that this
work would be tossed out in favor of civics in the following school year. 
Pop quiz: how much thanks or appreciation did these educators get for changing
gears from one subject to another and undergoing months of training to prepare
for the new curriculum?  The answer is simple: no.
It is no
wonder that Florida
s teachers are unsure of the
latest programs that come down from Tallahassee and from our local school
districts.  It is not for lack of trying to get someone to listen. 
We have tried and failed to have a fair hearing in helping to design plans that
actually make sense for the people who work in our classrooms every day.
This is not
to say that all I have to offer is complaining.  I am pleased to know that
our new superintendent of schools is taking an active interest in hearing what
we have to say about an education system that seems to have valued window
dressing and gotcha walk-throughs that did more harm than good.
For example,
I like having a pretty word wall as much as the next teacher.  As much as
I tend to be a conformist, it was a real challenge for me to teach three grade
levels and to break my neck putting up three sets of weeks at a glance, three
sets of word walls, three sets of essential questions and everything else in
triplicate with only a finite amount of time for one teacher to do.  It
did not matter to the powers that be that I voluntarily took on duties that
demanded that I clone myself or burn the midnight oil to get the work
done.  I know that these demands were also made of many other teachers who
taught multiple preparations for the good of their respective
communities.  And, not once in my career, did our education leaders find a
way to alleviate the stress of maintaining records and data for so many
different classes.
The new
superintendent is giving us a lifeline by asking that we focus on the true goal
of teaching
to ask the right questions of
our students to help them find the right answers.  Thanks to recent
progress in higher order thinking skills and questioning, we can see the
benefits of rigor without falling into rigor mortis for teacher and student
aspect of change that I support is the move away from killing trees for the
sake of looking busy.  Thank goodness, we are moving away from the
unwieldy data notebooks that we compiled individually and could not keep up
with even if we tried.  And I am also glad that the new superintendent has
done away with testing and assessing our lives away and forgetting that we also
had to teach and in the process missing days or even weeks of doing what we
were originally hired to do.  This was especially irksome to non-FCAT
classes that gave up their class time to full or partial school days set aside
for reading and math testing.
My biggest
grievance is with something that appears as if it is an eternal part of our
education system.  The adversarial relationship between administration and
faculty is the result of an evaluation and observation system that seems to be
designed to catch us at our worst.  Chris Guerrieri, a good friend of
mine, has pointed out in The Florida Times-Union, Folio Weekly and other media
that we are subject to a reign of terror in which administrators will walk into
a classroom and hunt for ways to demoralize and denigrate teachers who
otherwise are doing their best to serve our students.  I do not care what
the evaluation system is, if teachers treated their students in such an
unconstructive way, they would be drummed out of the system.
I liken this
current approach to the freelance photographer who took pictures while a subway
barreled down on an innocent man who was shoved on the tracks.  If there
is change that needs to be made, why can
administrators offer to assist teachers instead of watching the disasters
unfold?  It does little good for Monday morning quarterbacking after the
fact simply to point out that the teacher failed at handling issues that need
more mentorship and less malice.
With a new
school superintendent and four new school board members, we can make real
progress in creating a new school system that works for all.  Our work,
however, cannot be complete without consensus from the community and our other
elected officials to work with us instead of against us.

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