Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Standards, Collaboration, Best Practices

My favorite author, Frederick Buechner--a Presbyterian minister, once wrote about the language of Christianity as a dying language, often overused and watered down. Lately, I feel the same way about education language. The words are creating a barrier. The Science Goddess posted about what teachers need. In her post, she brings up teaching to standards, something I loathe.
I came into teaching just as standards based grading became the great buzzword. Theorists around the country convinced teachers that the old grading system was not really showing what kids could do. The old system punished, the new system reflected. So districts and schools began writing standards, rubrics for rubrics, and began judging students according to their ability.
But wait, I thought, can't my interpretation of a standard be different from my colleague's interpretation. I mean, hey, if one Supreme Court justice can interpret the constitution as supporting troubling topic X, and another interprets the constitution as disallowing troubling topic X, then isn't the same true for troubling standard X? Those who opposed the incoming use of standards were called dinosaurs and relics. Best practices indicated that standards were the way to go. The cutting edge teachers all used standards. Do you really see a difference, though, in whether students are learning? Show me the true data, not the WASL scores or whatever state mandated test you use. Standardized tests don't demonstrate student learning. Not when we are teaching them what types of questions they will be asked, and how to answer those questions.

The research shows, according to a video my principal showed the staff today, that collaboration between teachers is best for students. But seriously, are we that naive to believe that if teachers get together, create tremendous lessons, map out the curriculum, and develop cutting edge assessments that look just like the state's standardized test, that every student will then magically choose to participate, complete assignments, and stay focused on that test? Here's my research, after my whopping two years of teaching: No teacher can make a student learn or perform to their capabilities on a test if that student does not want to. This isn't an excuse, but I haven't heard any research to refute that, or acknowledge it.

Best practices is my favorite of the buzzwords. I can be honest, some teachers are better at teaching than others. Some teachers fit nicely into a certain niche, where their best practices work quite well. But if you pull that best practice out of the AP and put it into the average classroom, filled with students who don't care, and parents who don't support, that practice becomes as useful as a dust-jacket from a lost book.

Don't get me wrong, I believe we should be teaching all of the skills that many of the Standardized tests cover. I believe that working together with colleagues is in the best interest of students and teachers alike. I believe that we all should find out what works best in our subject and in our grade level and in our classrooms. But for the sake of individuality, you know, that concept that makes us America in all of its glory, could we please stop with the tired religious use of educational jargon?


At 3:54 PM , Blogger graycie said...

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." Well, I'm tired of drowning horses.

You are absolutely right.

Today we got the analysis of our first report card grades. We're supposed to consider the number of failures in our classes as a reflection of our own use of best practices.


At 7:40 PM , Blogger The Science Goddess said...

I agree that the education-ese can be a major turnoff. Most of it is a way to "tag" a particular concept.

Up until recently, teaching has been a very isolated kind of activity---close the classroom door and do your thing (or not...because ain't nobody gonna know). Now that there is more conversation, we at least need a few terms to use.

Great post!

At 1:45 PM , Blogger Andrea Z said...

I am currently attending the annual meeting of National Council of the Teachers of English with National Writing Project as piece of my own growth as an educator. As I am sitting in the lobby, I was discussing with a colleague the five-paragraph essay format: the bane of my existence. Unfortunately, now that my state has gone to giving the ACT as our assessment for AYP, we are being told to hammer this home. I wonder about what I am supposed to teach: students or a test?
Why does it seem that I am always choosing one over the other? I am finding it difficult to believe that the skills assessed on Standardized Tests translate into anything marketable. What do you all think?

At 1:51 PM , Blogger David said...

The first comment reminded me of something the great Stan Laurel said, "You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead". (It works better if you say it out loud!)

I'm not convinced that particular techniques or technologies is the answer. A lot comes down to the teacher. If you are a good teacher, you'll be a good teacher in a hut in the middle of nowhere with no resources and no buzzwords. If you're a bad teacher you can use as many of the latest techniques as you like, but you'll still be a bad teacher.

I worry that some people are trying to turn teachers into technicians who deliver a package because some "expert" says it will work rather than creative professionals who reflect on and adapt their practice to what is best for their classes and their teaching style. However, I think that for most teachers, just thinking about new methods and discussing and reflecting on the latest in-thing can be helpful - even when you reject the ideas as stuff and nonsense.

Finally, I think it is odd that teachers can spend forty years in the classroom and yet count on their fingers the number of times they have watched someone else teach. It's something I did when I was learning to teach, but I think I get a lot more out of it now than I did when I was a student teacher. So collaboration may be good, but even simple observation can be helpful.

{On re-reading before sending I'm not sure I said what I meant to say when I started to type this comment. Decided to send it anyway, but wanted to add that I'm glad there are teachers like you that are questioning and challenging what is being pushed in schools. Nobody like the classroom cynic who greets every new idea with "It'll never work", but I don't think that's what you are doing. I enjoy reading your blog - learning from you as you think about your classes and your own learning.}


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