Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Yeah. It is a Rant.

A few years ago in the state of Oregon, a law was passed that essentially said that school grades had to be tied to actually learning skills and demonstrating knowledge. The bill, in part, reads as follows:

The bill said, "Each district shall adopt a grading system ... that shall ... be based on the student's progress toward becoming proficient in a continuum of knowledge and skills."

The purpose was to a) help encourage districts to stop allowing teachers to give grades based on things like: extra credit that was totally unrelated to the class; allowing students to still pass grades (and even earn A's) without ever having to pass a test, when many of those point heavy class projects and homework assignments were completed by somebody else; never missing class all semester and getting 100 bonus points, etc. 

The second purpose was to allow districts already strictly adopting a proficiency-style grade system (in other words, you have to really prove what you know) the leeway and backing to do so without people raising a stink.

The bill was meant to be interpreted very narrowly.

Then it was sent to the Oregon Department of Education, where it was interpreted very broadly.

The ODE handed down new rules to the district three years ago regarding grading practices. Teachers were forbidden for giving points related to behavior. Oh, and homework was regarded as behavior. In fact, no more than 10% of any students grade could be related to anything that was considered "proof" of learning. Daily assignments became called "practice" and lumped into that 10%. Quizzes generally too. Some lab work. All homework. If the work is not done independently (by, by group work for points), in class and after sufficient practice, it cannot be given points. In addition, students may continue to retake-rewrite-redo this scored work indefinitely with an eye to continually improving their learning and therefore their scores.

I am all for a high school diploma meaning something. Absolutely. I think it is ludicrous for a teacher-coach to award 50 bonus points in a math class to students who come help at games. I think students should get second chances to demonstrate learning, particularly on things like writing assignments. I think schools should be more demonstrated-skills based than rote memorization. Absolutely.

But there are realities, too. And students see points as currency in the classroom. If you can't "pay" students, then there are very few (particularly among young teenagers) that are motivated to do the work required to pass the tests. By not awarding the process, you inadvertently downplay it as well. I may take hours to carefully craft a test that adequately reflects all that we learned in class . . . students doing retakes need a test that is different. And so I might spend hours writing that one too.

In the first year after implementation, teachers balked at all these things: the time commitment (so much of which is never paid for); the pounds of re-grading; our inability to reward the process as a valuable part of learning; the scorn for any question that isn't a written answer or a hands-on type of task despite what those types of tests mean for grading load; the very expensive administrative position added to our district staff to oversee implementation; the edicts coming time and again from people who have never had boots on the ground in a classroom.

Proficiency practice expectations have coincided with huge increases in class sizes. I teach five classes. Twenty years ago, this meant 100 students. A decade ago it meant 150. In 2014 it means 180 . . . though I'm supposed to bite my tongue and be grateful it isn't 200. Proficiency practice has also coincided with the adoption of the Common Core which will result in vast changes to our classes, much of which is good, but all of which is very, very new. This year it also coinciding with new professional standards that are causing lots and lots of extra work, but cannot possibly set out to prove what they think they can.

After tens of millions to implement these proficiency rules--money from the districts, not the state-- not to mention tens of thousands of frustrated parents and teachers, the Oregonian released this report last spring:

Oregon Schools' Big Switch is Kaput

The politician who passed the bill, and the nearly 100% majority who agreed with, realized what the ODE was doing and said, "WAIT!! THAT ISN'T WHAT WE MEANT!!!"

And yet, in spite of everything, our district decided to go ahead because they are so ridiculously invested at this point. And they aren't just going ahead, they are expanding--even to the point of introducing an even more rigorous grading standard that puts everything on a 5-point scale. This whole post is the result of, six weeks into the school year, is that my middle school-er has a C in history based on one assignment that he got 3/5 on. He has no math grade, just a test tomorrow that will also be worth 5 points. His English grade is a B based on the fact that he seems to be earning more 4's than 5's on his assignments. At the high school our heads exploded over the 5-point scale when we pointed out that our grading program will ONLY do total points; that a 3/5 cannot in any way be a C, but only a D-. On a five point scale, in fact, there is no way to earn a C at all. 

They have also taken alignment (horizontal and vertical) so far that they are not only going to specify what should be taught in each grade, but mandate that we teach it on nearly precisely the same schedule. In other words, not only do I need to be teaching the same things that the teacher next door to me teachers, but we need to be within two days of one another when we do it. This is nearly impossible, and it looks a helluva lot like Texas: the place I left teaching in order to get more freedom.

I love kids. I have moments of perfect clarity when I love my job and know I'm in exactly the right place. But I will say it, flat out, the expectations and paperwork and the constant changing of systems and approaches and on and on and on is sucking the joy out of what I do. And, there is no way around it, it is hindering my ability to do it well and to focus on my students' needs. At this fledgling end of my career I can honestly say that I don't see how I could survive 20 or 30 years as a classroom teacher.

Education is a trendy field. Today's proficiency is tomorrow's debunked idea. Legislators pass laws and throw money around like it is no big deal. But everything they do affects my job in real ways that are painful. All of this legislated and mandated pain is happily coinciding with our district digging in its heels over a modest raise despite running a huge surplus this year. Not only are we expected to do a better job under worse conditions than ever, they expect us to do it on a food stamp budget. 

So while I hate the big government stupidity that handed down these enormous problems, I'm still going to gladly march with my union. How is that for being a conflicted democrat with five weeks until election day?


Kimberly Bluestocking said...

Geez. X(

Good luck. [BIG, BIG HUG]

Karin said...

This seems all but impossible for most teachers. Of course, they don't pay for lesson planning time. :-( is there any way to work as a team in your department to spread the work and stay "together"? We had to do this in a pedagogy internship I did. We all taught differently, but the syllabus was developed and fleshed out by all of us which kept at least a modicum of uniformity. And then there is always the plagiarizing that is rampant in university teaching where teachers who teach online are just taking each others' class shell and offering it as their own...that should make everyone happy, right?