dianne salerni author
dianne salerni author

This will be the final post in a series of Why I Had to Leave Education … for now. (Until something else sets me off.)

When my nephew started third grade at my former school this past fall, my brother-in-law asked me, “What’s this ‘content class’ Joe keeps talking about?”

And I groaned. Because the dismissive term administrators used to refer to science and social studies had finally trickled down through the teachers and is being used with students. That was something I always refused to do. I always called the class science or social studies in spite of what it said on my schedule. (Social studies was a term that confused kids enough, since it included history, geography, civics, and economics). Calling any part of a student’s day “Content” is like — in my daughter’s words — offering a high school class called “Stuff.”

I can trace the use of the term “content” back to a philosophy of education that states: “Process is more important than content.” That is, teaching students strategies for learning was more important than what you were actually learning. The facts themselves didn’t matter. I disagree with this philosophy. Yes, it’s important to teach students how to find the main idea and supporting details in a non-fiction text. It’s important to teach them how to research, how to summarize, how to analyze — how to learn.

But the content matters! Elementary students should be learning the classification of animals (mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians), the continents and oceans of the world, the difference between climate and weather, the geography of the U.S., the water cycle, etc. These facts produce a wealth of background knowledge that American children should have – and that actually improves their reading comprehension! (Something administrators tend to overlook.) It may be true that in today’s modern world, we can Google anything we want to know, but that does not replace the benefit of having a wealth of information already inside our heads!

I saw this for myself every year when I used a released item from the PSSA as a reading assessment. The story was called Running from the Sun, and it was about two space cadets trying to survive on an asteroid after their shelter explodes. A rescue ship is hours away, and the cadets are in danger of being boiled alive in their space suits when the sun rises. So, they decide to run across the surface of the asteroid – using the low gravity to help them – keeping just ahead of the sunrise until the rescue ship can arrive. It’s a great short story, one of the very few reading tests from the PSSA that was worth reading on its own (exciting, with themes of friendship, perseverance, and bravery) as well as an excellent reading assessment.

Over the years, I saw reading comprehension greatly decline on this test. Why? When I started using it, I could count on fifth grade students knowing what an asteroid was and some facts about space. In my final year of teaching, most students did not know even the most basic concepts necessary to understand the story.

The final blow for me, as a teacher, came last year when the 60 minute Content class was slashed back to barely 30 minutes to make room for RTII – Response to Instruction Intervention. What the heck is that? It’s a Pennsylvania mandate requiring reading intervention for 100% of students, based on data from diagnostic tests. For RTII, each teacher in my building was assigned 2 or more different groups for reading intervention, including a “core” group that didn’t really need intervention but was going to get it anyway. The groups ran for 6 weeks, and then we would have 2 weeks off to analyze the data and form new groups.

What did we do with the 2 weeks in between?  Here’s a quote from my former principal:

“Keep up with the reading strategy instruction. I don’t want to see you using those 2 weeks to sneak more content in.”

Sneak more content in. Remember: Content is science. Content is history. Not … you know, cigarettes.

This was yet another nail in the coffin for me: Why I Had to Leave.

 

If you want a funny and yet completely on-the-mark and disturbing look at standardized testing in our country, you should skip my post and watch this John Oliver clip instead. It’s long, but worth watching all the same. (Hey, my post is long too.)

 

I’m going to tell you my personal experience with standardized testing, specifically the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment).

The test is constantly changing, so for teachers and students, it’s a moving target. We get a list of “eligible content” and a few “sample questions,” but we never know what our students will be asked to do from year to year. The teachers never see the test unless we sneak peeks over our students’ shoulders while they take it.

From the moment the test booklets enter our building, we go into high-security lockdown. In my building, teachers are recruited to put barcode labels on the test booklets, but there are always administrators in the room watching to make sure no teacher opens a booklet to see the questions inside.

Proctors for the test are required to watch a training video, pass a test, and sign a security document. One of my favorite parts of the video were the DO and DON’T scenarios.

DON’T: A teacher stands at a podium, monitoring students. A boy raises his hand. The teacher walks over and stands beside him.

The boy says, “I don’t understand what the question is asking.”

The teacher puts a hand on his shoulder. “Do you remember the strategies we used in class?” He nods. “Try one of those.” She pats him on the back and returns to the podium.

DO: A teacher stands at a podium, monitoring students. A boy raises his hand. The teacher walks over and stands a distance away, so she doesn’t have a view of the test.

The boy says, “I don’t understand what the question is asking.”

The teacher says, “I can’t help you,” and returns to the podium.

I always wondered why she didn’t just stay at her podium and give him the finger when he raised his hand. The attitude was pretty much the same, and it would’ve saved her some steps.

The state testing agency sent agents out for surprise security inspections. They might peer at you through the window or walk in, sit down, and watch you for the entire test period. One of the things they would be looking for is any deviation from the test instructions.

We had to read from a script. For many years, the first section of the PSSA consisted of a Math test with a multiple-answer section and TWO open-ended questions. The directions called for the teacher to have the students open their test booklets to see the multiple-answer section and the FIRST open-ended problem. In the directions, we read that there were TWO open-ended problems, but since each one was two pages long with multiple parts, many students incorrectly assumed that both problems were contained on the facing pages they were looking at. The directions did not allow us to tell them to turn the page and see that there were more questions.

As you can imagine, many, many students accidentally skipped the second open-ended problem. After years of teachers complaining to the state, the PSSA directions finally changed. In my last year of teaching, we weren’t allowed to show the students any of the pages. We just wrote the page numbers on the board (pages 6-9) and left the kids to find the problems on their own.

If we saw a student accidentally skip part of the test, we were not allowed to tell them. Whenever they indicated they were finished, we had to take the test. Even if they’d only spent 15 minutes on a test that was meant to take an hour. (And there’s always one of those kids in every class.)

Students are instructed NOT to talk about the test questions to each other, to their teachers, or to their parents. As John Oliver says in the video, the test has all the transparency of Fight Club. As teachers, we tried to prepare the students as best we could, based on the stated eligible content. We taught fifth graders both climax and turning point, because we never knew which term would be on the test. We made them distinguish between third person limited and third person omniscient, even though some adult writers can’t tell the difference. (Seriously, I’ve seen Big 5 published books making mistakes in that area.) The PA Common Core mistakenly uses the term Point of View both in its correct sense (1st person, 2nd person, 3rd person) and also as a synonym for Author’s Perspective, so that’s what we teach them, even though it is wrong and confusing to the students. And when a math open-ended question says they can either show or explain their work – we’ve never got a straight answer out of the state whether points are taken off if they don’t do both.

So that’s the test. School funding rides on it. Teacher evaluations and salaries are hinged on it. And now kids in my school district will be getting less physical education, music, art, computers, science, history, and geography so they can work harder to prepare for it because their scores have been trending down.

I’ll ask my daughter’s question again: “Do you think it might be the test that’s to blame?”

I haven’t written much on my blog about why I left teaching last year. I meant to. I even have a document in my blog file labeled Why I Had to Leave with a long list of topics to write about. I was furious about being driven out of my profession by the choices made by my school district. After I was gone, however, and facing my new career as a full time writer, I decided it would be better not to burn any bridges.

This week, however, I learned from my former co-workers that my school district (still my district because I live in it and my daughters attend school there) is making some changes to personnel and student schedules.

You know what? See that bridge? Burn, baby, burn.

burning bridge

photo credit: burning via photopin (license)

I didn’t think our district could sink much lower than they did last year when they fired all the custodians (members of our community, some of whom had worked in our schools for decades), outsourced the cleaning, and used the saved money to create a new administrative position and promote a principal into it.  In other words, they put their lowest paid employees out of work and gave a raise to one of their highest paid employees.

But yes, they can go lower.

Last week – during Teacher Appreciation Week – they announced that they will be eliminating 6-8 positions for physical education teachers and drastically reducing the elementary P.E. program. They are also eliminating the intermediate science lab positions and slashing the music, art, and computer programs. All this so they can devote more of the school day to preparing students for the state tests.

You see, test scores have been trending downward in our elementary and middle schools. Over the past several years, our district has done a lot of things to improve test scores, such as:

  • Institute MAP testing 3x per year to track student progress
  • Analyze students by their scores on various assessments
  • Adopt the Common Core Curriculum
  • Standardize all assessments given to students in reading and math
  • Reduce instruction in science, history, and geography to provide more instructional time for state-tested subjects

Since student scores continue to decline, our district has decided we need more test prep. My fourteen-year-old daughter’s response to this decision was: “You mean, since all the test prep didn’t work, they’re going to do more of it? Doesn’t it occur to them that kids did better on the tests when they did less test prep and, you know, taught stuff?”

Again, she’s fourteen. And she saw this. Immediately.

Then she went on to say: “Does it ever occur to them that the problem is the test?”

Yeah, about that test … I have a lot to say on that subject. But that’s going to have to wait until Wednesday when I tell you about the test – the test teachers never get to see – the test students aren’t allowed to talk about – the test that changes every year – that drives our entire education system.

But today, I’d like to finish up by defending the teaching staff at my former school — they are dedicated, hard-working individuals who put in countless hours working under stressful conditions while going above and beyond for their students — and our PTA, who have always, always supported teachers and students and generously provided us with anything we asked for.

It’s the leadership in our district and the leadership in our state government that I’m pointing the finger at here. The people who view students as data points.

Why did I have to leave? Because 26 years ago, I became a teacher to teach students — not plot data points.

 

 

1. It’s only a week and a day until The Eighth Day releases, and some book stores have already received their stock and put the books out on the shelves. If you see one, send me a picture by Tweet or FB! If you actually buy one and want the temporary tattoos that go with it, I’ll be happy to mail you a set!

2. I received my author copies, which is always a thrill. In this case, they were a bright spot in an otherwise stressful week.

3. I experienced several “LASTS” in my teaching career last week: The last time I will do parent-teacher conferences on the teacher side of the table.  The last time I ever have to administer the state standardized tests.

4. I hated the tests more than ever this year. I really need to wait until I am officially retired before I start venting. I don’t want anything I say to be linked to my current students. But on behalf of all my colleagues who will still be in the trenches next year, I need to state LOUDLY AND CLEARLY why test scores are NOT a measure of teacher effectiveness.

5. I’m almost ready to send my manuscript of Book 3 to my editor for her first look. Last week, I read the manuscript on my Kindle, took notes, and made changes in the document. I need to let it rest a couple days — read somebody else’s books, kind of like cleansing the palate — and then repeat that process one more time. Then it will be time to send it to the person who will help me take it to the next level.

6. I am not entirely thrilled with my Kindle Paperwhite. I needed a new Kindle, because my 2nd generation model was dying, and I thought the Paperwhite was going to be a good choice. But although the visual look of the page is superior to my old model, I’m not crazy about the way the home screen is organized. The highlighting function is awkward. (A dictionary screen keeps popping up instead of the highlighting function.) The method for viewing your notes — and deleting them when you’re through with them — is also very clunky.

7. The weather is finally pleasant in Pennsylvania. The crocuses have come and gone, the daffodils are in full bloom, tulips and hyacinths are not far behind.I enjoyed my first bike ride of the season this past weekend.

8. Gabbey got invited to both the Junior and Senior prom. When I mentioned she was going to need two dresses, Gina suggested we get her a reversible dress. The husband Googled “reversible prom dress”, and would you believe he not only found one, Gabbey fell in love with it and my husband managed to buy it on clearance! You can see pics HERE and HERE.

9. This is the week formerly known as Spring Break, but I will be teaching until Wednesday. We had our “spring break” back in February when the ice storm closed school for several days. (Lucky for me, I actually got my first draft written on those days.)

10. After I turn in Book 3 — and given time for a Brain Break — I am going to play with my Shiny New Idea. Step 1 is learning a little more about string theory. (I do worry it’s too hard for me to understand, if even Dr. Sheldon Cooper recently gave up on it!!)


Last week, I read about POISON by Bridget Zinn, on Lydia Kang’s blog. And I promptly bought it – not just because I was touched by the story of how Hyperion managed to get this book to publication after the author’s untimely death and how the writing community has stepped up to promote it on Bridget’s behalf, but because it truly looked like a story my students would enjoy.  “Princesses, poisoners, perfumers, and pigs.” What’s not to like?
I was right, as it turns out. POISON is already in demand among my students, with more than one reader lining up for it.
In other events last week, I was required to take a test to see if I’m qualified to administer the same standardized test I’ve been giving for the last dozen years. (More than a dozen, actually. I’ve lost count.) The state of Pennsylvania has produced an online tutorial on Test Security, and I was required to pass the tutorial before giving the Reading and Math PSSA tests next month.
(I know what you’re thinking, and no … If teachers fail the test, they don’t get to go have coffee in the teacher’s lounge during the PSSAs. They have to re-take the tutorial on their own time.)

I won’t even discuss how ridiculous it is that testing elementary students has practically become a matter of Homeland Security. But as a taxpayer in a state that has already slashed the education budget to the bone, I wonder how much money it took to produce this tutorial. I am especially angry because the tutorial didn’t contain any information not already printed in the Teacher’s Test Manual. I suppose the assumption is teachers can’t read? Or that we’re too dumb to absorb the information unless it’s presented in a visual and auditory format?
Anyway, I passed. Phew.
I don’t teach to the PSSA, although I do have to teach students how to take it. Testing the teacher on the administration of the test seems like going over the top to me. Supposedly, the testing frenzy of No Child Left Behind is on its way out, but I have yet to see any indication of that. As far as I can tell, Obama has been just as bad as Bush when it comes to education.

Today I give you a choice of blog posts.  If you want something light-hearted and humorous, check out the guest post on first drafts I wrote for my agent, Sara Crowe, last week.
If you’d rather have the Dark Post, continue reading here for my yearly diatribe on government-mandated standardized testing.
The 2012 PSSA tests were rolled out this year with a whole new set of security measures designed to make sure teachers don’t cheat.  That’s right – they’re not worried about students cheating. They’re worried about teachers cheating. Because increasingly, teachers’ jobs depend on students passing this test.
Every item in my classroom that could possibly influence a test question had to be covered.  Yes, I had to take down the poster defining similes and metaphors – that only makes sense.  But I also had to cover the alphabet. And the calendar. And the weekly agenda that lists the days of the week.  We didn’t have to cover the clock, but I’m sure that oversight will be addressed in 2013.
There was a big change in proctoring instructions this year: Teachers are no longer allowed to inform a student if he or she forgets to complete a section of the test.  This is a bigger problem than you might think. The PSSA consists of two different books – a test booklet and an answer booklet – and students switch between multiple-choice and open-ended questions located in two different places. For years, schools have complained to the state that the directions we read aloud to the students are confusing and often result in students missing some of the open-ended responses.  The state hasn’t changed the wording of their directions by a single word, as near as I can see, but they have instituted the new rule forbidding me to point out a blank section to a student.
A cynical person might wonder if the state wanted students (and teachers) to fail the test.
More and more, this test assesses not what students know so much as whether they can follow directions.  (Again, insert cynicism here about what kind of citizens the government wants to create.)
Three students raised their hands during the math test on the first day to ask me the same question:  “It says for me to explain my answer. Am I supposed to give the answer, too?”  An adult might think that’s a silly question – how can you explain the answer if you haven’t identified it?  But this is a serious question from a fifth grade student who is trying very hard to follow the directions.  And as I said, THREE kids asked me the same thing.
Thanks to test security measures, I was unable to tell them what to do.  “I’m sorry,” I said each time. “I can’t help you.”
I’m only your teacher, after all. I’m not supposed to help you …