Hello fellow educators and all those interested in the public education conversation. After enduring several years of a painful family health crisis, I am back and ready to share my personal insights into public education and bring all sides of this institution to task for their often illogical handling of a cherished service that is so important to our country.

I will reintroduce myself so that everyone understands what my background and experience is, and what my general opinion and outlook for education is currently. I am currently teaching my 10th year in secondary mathematics, a subject I really enjoy teaching, and view myself as both a rebel and a leader within my organization. I do not stagnate in my instruction or easily comply with ridiculous policies designed to satisfy politicians without regard to helping students. Students are my top priority, period.

After high school, I enlisted in the military after becoming disillusioned about what I would take in college. Early experience in my original area of study quickly soured me, and I was left to wonder what I would do. The military provided me an escape from my rut in the hopes I would find my interests while seeing the world. Both of these came true as engineering became a new interest while stationed in Europe. My work with communications equipment and the new computers rising in prominence led me to an engineering program and subsequent bachelors degree.

I worked in the technology industry for fifteen years working for some of the larger companies this great country has produced. I learned a great deal about corporate America and what makes companies work and profitable. As an active investor in stocks and options, I still keep myself knowledgeable about American business. While working in the industry, I worked with many individuals from a wide variety of  foreign countries. This appealed to me personally, but became an obviously necessary aspect of corporate America to succeed in a competitive world landscape.

At one point in my life I was a registered Republican, but that party alienated me over the years as their priorities differed tremendously from my own. I believe people and community should be our top priority, not the military and American business. While I love American business and the military, they should not be put above the American citizen. I am not a registered Democrat because that party views federal oversight of everything a top priority. I disagree and believe power should reside with the people at the state level. This all makes me an unaffiliated voter who votes his conscience,  not a party line. I have voted for both Democrats and Republicans alike.

My view of the American public education system is that it falls short of its intended target because those who have  the most stake in it have the least say in it. Like so much in the American political landscape, the individual citizen doesn’t often have much say other than to exercise their vote. After that, they are dependent upon whoever they put in office. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in our democracy wholeheartedly, but it has some quirks and problems that steal away much of the power of the people.

The current conversation around public education today is that it should somehow become a factory to crank out as many math and science students as possible. However, if you canvas the public in this country, math and science would never come up as their top priority. So where does this come from? Again, the people in power are not following the people of this country. I will talk about this in more detail in a subsequent blog. Education should reflect the values of the people it serves with a single purpose:  to create high quality American citizens.

After teaching for a decade, I have come to appreciate many aspects of the educational process. However, I see a great deal wrong with it from both inside and outside the hallowed halls. In this blog, I will try to outline many of the illogical things currently in education to educate the people of this country about what is happening inside their schools, not just what the politicians and news media feed them. But more importantly, my engineering background will also come out as I strive to offer solutions to the delicate and complex problems within education.

I don’t have all the answers, but I believe my experience in and out of education give me a unique perspective. Couple that with being a parent, and my opinion hopefully carries some weight within the public conversation. As a side note, I am not, and never have been, in or associated with a union in or out of education. My opinion of unions are they have a noble purpose that often gets twisted by politics to the detriment of the people it purports to serve. They serve a great purpose in our society, but can be inflexible in a world that requires flexibility. Enough said.

One final thing I would like to mention is my anonymity. In an age of retribution against teachers it would be foolhardy for me to be public in this forum as I intend to talk openly about the ridiculous things the federal government, state governments, school districts, schools, teachers, parents and students do. This may upset all those parties and I don’t want that coming back on me. I apologize and hope you’ll understand this need to stay in the shadows.

Please check back monthly for a new blog on whatever topic is currently interesting me. Thanks for your support!

In the ever changing landscape of education, a new push is coming from on high. It was inevitable, and even welcome, especially for those in struggling schools. Growth! Isn’t that what we all want? Sure, we want children to grow, evolve, and mature into American citizens ready to tackle the global world we are so enmeshed in. Why not? Who could argue growth is a bad thing?

Yes, I, too, agree in growth. We must foster it, plan it, measure it, and praise those who achieve it. So where is the downside? Can there be unlimited growth for all? Let’s step back and look at this from the perspective of those purporting to back it. States are looking at how growth can be measured, and some have decided looking at how a student fares on standardized tests over time compared to their cohorts is the correct way to measure growth. With this basic statement, I aree. However, if we peer deeper into this tenet, we find flaws.

Growth is not unlimited! In other words, to assume that all students will grow at the same pace is a bit absurd. Would you plant two different trees next to each other and expect them to grow at exactly the same rate? Okay, maybe you would, but it is unrealistic. Children are not a nursery of tender sprouts waiting to bloom into their fullest potential. First of all, not all children are given the same nutrients (free and reduced), not all children are given the same care (single parent homes, sickness, disabilities), and not all children are given the same environment (poor neighborhoods, affluence, multi-cultural). About the only thing we can say about their growth is hopefully they are provided the same schooling.

Ultimately, those that crafted the growth models were looking only at the schools. As a teacher, I am pleased we are beginning to look more at the individuals and less at the population. Like another buzz word, RtI (Reponse to Intervention), we must start looking at what each individual needs. With this sharper focus, school wide and district wide initiatives might be curbed in favor of actions that make sense for an individual. After all, children are not created in factories called schools, nor are they grown in nurseries like plants. We create citizens by nurturing, guiding, and providing the things they need to be successful, every student growing at their own pace.

So where does the growth model go astray. First, they are comparing apples to oranges. We already know the difference between children in this country (poverty, broken families, violence, drugs), so we cannot say a student in a disadvantaged setting should grow at the same rate as a student in a more advantageous setting. I agree, this should be the target goal, but it is unrealistic.

Second, we definitely want to reward steep growth curves, but not necessarily punish low growth curves. If a student starts low and finishes high, we should honor that achievement for that student. They have obviously worked hard and have accomplished a great deal. However, if a student starts high, then are we expecting them to show the same growth as a student who starts low? Growth is not a simple linear relationship where all students should be expected to perform on the same slope as their peers. In fact, I would argue that growth is a limited exponential growth curve where the curve flattens out near the top of our expectations for a particular age group.

I can hear critics now: “That is crazy, if they flatten out, move them onward and upward!” This implies students are nothing more than automatons that we can program at any rate we desire. This is both false and dangerous. Don’t get me wrong, I believe some students can absorb and assimilate great quantities of information at speeds that leave the rest of us scratching our heads. In school, we call them honor students. But even in that vaulted group of students, learning curves are not identical, and we should never expect them to be.

It is early in our use of growth models, and until we have many years of data indicating what curve a particular demographic should grow at, we must be careful when we judge students or schools based on this. If a top student reaches the pinnacle of knowledge for their grade level, but started out higher than their peers, we should not punish them or their schools for this flattened growth curve. We are fooling ourselves to believe we understand childhood growth so well that we can draw a single line and say all students should grow like this. Ultimately, we must look at their growth over larger periods of time to assess whether we have created a good citizen or not.

I suggest we use growth models as tools to help us meet individual needs of students as opposed to measurements of how effective a school is. When I plot a student’s growth over time on a particular set of learning targets, I get positive feedback from that student. They begin to see how they are growing and it feeds their desire to improve. This is a much better method than simply giving a student an F and telling them they are not cutting it. A graph is much more powerful because not we can say you are doing great even if you did finish with a D because you have worked very hard to achieve that D. It is a more sound way to measure students, and I agree with those who use it.

For my classes, I am using common assessments to measure student learning over time. I have three exams that are nearly identical, one that I use to pre-test them, one used to assess progress in the middle of the learning, and one that measures their final growth at the end of the unit. The assessments are based on logical learning targets, and attempt to measure different aspects of the students learning (skills, concepts, vocabulary, prior knowledge).

I start a unit by giving the students a pre-test. This serves as the baseline for that student going into the new material, provides me with feedback with what areas students are already strong in versus what areas they know nothing about. Students chart their pre-test scores on a graph where I have placed a target growth line based on longitudinal averages for that exam. It gives them a target slope, but is not the definitive statement of success or not. I talk to them about how growth is not linear, but how they can use the target line to assess their own learning. It is a powerful model to help motivate low learners and high achievers alike.

The pre-test becomes the study guide for them to use throughout the unit since it highlighted what areas they are weak in. They fill this out throughout the learning, and hand it in at the end of a unit as a ticket to the test. Mid way through the unit, we take another exam to measure how much they have grown during the initial material covered. This is where the feedback becomes very powerful. They see how they are progressing and become motivated if their curve is flattening slightly or if it is steep. We don’t focus so much on the letter grade as we do on the growth over time, and this is powerful to them.

Finally, we finish the unit and students hand in the pre-test, fully filled out, hopefully with correct answers after learning the material. They take the exit exam for that unit and plot their score to see how they did overall in that unit. The communication between a teacher and a student using these charts is phenomenal, and the ability to readily show parents how their child is growing is something missing in today’s grading schemes. For this, I am grateful for growth models.

So, we can use growth models as powerful tools to help guide children in their growth, but we must be careful when we say all children must grow the same way. Each will be different, and we cannot judge based only on a single curve or a single measurement. We must measure over long periods of time and see trends and patterns which we can use in the future to refine our use of growth models. Perhaps a day will come when we can definitively say this curve is what your child is capable of, but today, we don’t have enough information to make that kind of judgment. Encourage growth models in classrooms, but don’t judge schools based on the curves their students grow. Maybe the only thing we can say is starting low and finishing low is probably not a good thing, but then who is to say if the child has learning disabilities? Remember, growth is not linear and it is certainly not unlimited!

Summer is upon us and being a teacher and parent, I feel compelled to take a break from the blogging and spend some quality time reacquainting myself with what it is like to be a kid. For sure, I will still be working on some projects over the summer, but I intend to take some time to show my children the wonders of this great time of the year. I hope you will also spend some time finding your inner child this summer.

I will return in September a renewed and revitalized person ready to take on the educational challenges facing us. Things to look forward to our commentary on RtI, common assessments, standards, parenting, and educational leadership (or the lack thereof).

Before I leave you, I must make a few comments about this great American past-time called summer. We often see parents signing their children up for all sorts of activities to fill this spare time which many view as a waste of time. I caution you to take this time of the year for what it truly is: a chance to dream. Some of my most fondest memories as a child are during the summer months when I spent time at the pool, chasing frogs and snakes, walking with friends to the candy shop, sleep overs, camp outs, baseball, and bike riding.

Summer is a chance for kids to be kids and we if take this away from them, we are taking away their childhood. Sure, sign them up for the swim team, summer soccer, camp, or other great things, but make sure to leave some time for them to dream. Life is stressful, and we are constantly driven to succeed. Everyone needs that downtime to reinvigorate them. The Europeans often take a month off during the summer just for that purpose. While we may not change the American work ethic, we should at least afford our children the opportunity.

I, for one, have purchased educational activities and crafts to do with my children this summer alongside squirt guns, sprinklers, and bicycles. We will enjoy these few short months to bond, have fun, and dream. I want my children to enjoy their childhood because soon we will beat it out of them as we try to make them conform to our societal norms.

As Americans, we are often driven to perform at top levels at all times, and while it is important to continue to maintain our creative and intellectual dominance on the planet, we must never forget why we are doing it. If we don’t stop to smell the roses, then why plant them at all? Fire up the barbecue, pull out the hose, and get that slip-and-slide going!

Have a great summer!

Mastery is a wonderful word. It implies a level of expertise we expect from all professionals regardless of their field. Unfortunately, this word seems to be elusive when we discuss mathematics in education. We don’t teach to mastery at any level, unless you are fortunate to have achieved the highest level of non-AP mathematics (pre-calculus). Instead, we teach to “proficiency”, which means students are lacking as they move forward in the curriculum.

 

The real question this surfaces is why don’t we teach to mastery? Do we believe anyone under the age of eighteen is unable to master anything like mathematics? Have you seen how kids master very difficult video games that most adults would be dumbfounded by? Perhaps we believe mastery is something we build over time, so whatever isn’t mastered this year will be mastered next year. Perhaps, but then why are my students unable to perform basic fraction operations in High School?

 

Mastery does come over time, but we seem determined to pile on as much math as we can without any attempt at mastery of each individual skill. I am a firm believer in mastery of the basics before you pile on more advanced concepts and applications. Without mastery of the fundamentals, students face a steep slope to find success in mathematics. So why not mastery?

 

I can’t speak for the past, but currently in present, we are under fire to cover all the various math standards in each year to some level of proficiency as determined by the states standards. Our state has no less than six standards with multitudes of benchmarks within each standard. It is a large body of material a student must cover, and teachers are being coerced into covering most of it each year. This definitely does not lead to mastery of any of it.

 

Perhaps we are taking the shotgun approach to teaching math. You know, fire a wide spray of shot and you are sure to hit something! The problems in mathematics education will never be solved with that approach. Instead, we must delve back to basic mastery of the fundamentals in mathematics. I don’t mean to say throw out all standards, no, I mean to say these standards are based on what we would like them to know before they graduate High School, not what they should know each year!

 

In many ways, we are lucky when it comes to mathematics, because the study is so sequential. Learn Step A then go to Step B. Continue this pattern until you reach Calculus. The problem is we seem hell-bent on learning all the steps before we have mastered any of them. This is not only wrong, it is almost negligent. We call this the mile wide inches deep phenomenon.

 

Most would agree that mastery of any skill comes from learning the skill, and then practicing it until you have achieved mastery. This would imply inches wide and miles deep. We use the same techniques in sports, but then we throw that notion aside in education and try to teach everything. When I was a diver in my youth, I started diving on the one meter board. I started with basic dives (front, back, etc.) eventually moving on to more complex dives after I had mastered the fundamentals. By the end of my six year diving career, I was diving from the three meter board with complex dives like a triple flip, double reverse, and two and a half pike. But none of that would have been possible if I had not mastered the fundamentals first.

 

I have often wondered why we lose so many kids in mathematics. I am beginning to believe it is because we never let them master a skill before we move on to a new one. We overwhelm many students with the sheer volume of complex knowledge, operations, symbols, and measurements they must learn to meet all the standards. Rarely are they afforded the opportunity to master one skill before they move onto another. From this lack of mastery, a lack of confidence in their abilities begins to erode their performance and desire to succeed in mathematics. Not all students learn at the same pace, but we expect them to in mathematics.

 

I have a different approach. Why not teach to mastery, where every student is provided the opportunity to master a skill before they move on. To support this endeavor, we will scale back the standards to encompass all the necessary skills that should be mastered in Elementary School, Middle School, and High School. Then, each student would work to master each skill at a pace that is comfortable for them. Students who fall behind are provided interventions, and students who zoom ahead are provided additional enrichment. This way, all students master skills and develop confidence in their math prowess.

 

Of course, tell some politicians and some administrators that each student will master two to four skills this year, and you will find yourself out on the street. “What?” They would ask. “Is this all you can teach them in a year?” So what is to be done? If politicians provide the standards that put pressure on the school boards that put pressure on the principals that put pressures on the teachers, then where do you address this problem?

 

It’s obvious. The standards must be modified, and the expectations must be changed to reflect a belief in mastery rather than a Jack of all trades approach. It must start at the top and filter down to the classrooms. How will this occur with NCLB over everyone’s heads? Perhaps the Final Report as delivered by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel (http://www.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/mathpanel/index.html) will spur the changes.

 

In this interesting, and I suspect controversial report, there is a general disdain for the lack of mastery in today’s public mathematics education. They site other nations around the world that teach to mastery as role models for our public education system to emulate. Perhaps they are right? They claim these other nations reach conclusion on any skill or subject area before moving on. This is the inches wide, miles deep approach. It must be working, they are beating us hands-down in mathematics.

 

So where does this take us? It actually takes us back to the beginnings of mathematics instruction where the fundamentals were drilled into our heads until we could add, subtract, multiply, and divide without thinking about it. And fractions? Hey, I had them mastered before I started Algebra. With such a strong push for Algebra instruction in the Middle Schools, it is even more important we begin teaching to mastery. The fundamentals are critical to later success, so we must begin to teach students to master them before moving into higher levels of mathematics.

 

If a student is given the opportunity to master a skill before moving on, they will begin to see mathematics as not only possible, but perhaps even enjoyable. Okay, maybe that is going too far, but I would love to stop losing them in the wild thickets of massive sets of standards, and begin to bring them forward, one skill at a time. Maybe by high school they, too, might be able to do a triple forward somersault from the high dive!

If you have worked in the American Corporate world, then you understand the concept of staff development. In the high-tech fields, this usually entails learning a new technology that may or may not prove useful to your particular group or projects, but might still be useful sometime in the future. Of course, one of the easiest things to cut costs on is staff development.

 

Well, in education it isn’t much different. Researchers, special interest groups, and teacher unions all proselytize the virtues of staff development on increasing student success. To this statement, I do not have a qualm. However, there is another area of development that can have a much bigger bang for the buck, but is much overlooked when talking about increasing student achievement. That area is curriculum development.

 

Unfortunately, whenever we talk about education, we talk about teachers. As a teacher, I would love to think I am the most important aspect of my student’s success. While I am important, I am only part of a package. That package consists of administration, environment, textbooks, lesson plans, assessments, and me. As you can see, no small part of this package is curricular material. Textbooks, lesson plans, and assessments are all part of the curricular material needed to ensure a student’s success.

 

While many schools or districts undergo textbook selection processes every five years or so, that is only one piece of the puzzle. Unfortunately, not every curriculum package purchased as part of that selection is either effective or complete. The companies try to meet all the needs, but it is a moving target with too many special interests. Because of this, they settle for the requirements specified by their biggest markets: Texas and California.

 

If a teacher relies solely on the material provided, they will find that it always comes up short. That is why teacher planning is such an integral, and important aspect in educational success. While we usually dedicate a period a day to teacher planning, I rarely find this is adequate to actually create powerful and effective lessons. There are two reasons for this.

 

First, not all my planning periods are actually free to do planning. There is administrative overhead, special education meetings, parent contact, and grading. If you are an English teacher, grading will take almost all of your planning periods. The second reason is the period is too short to actually have enough focus and time to reflect while creating an effective lesson. I have spent many hours on some of my best lessons. Unfortunately, this means they are often spread out over a long period of time, thus ensuring I only complete two or three a year.

 

Thus, we discover why senior teachers are some of the best. They have created a bulk of curricular materials over their careers which have been proven through trial and error. So, why can’t we just share them and be done with it? Sounds simple, but it never is. Assuming you have these kinds of teachers, then they should share what they have created. However, in that sharing, there should also be an observational component. Watch how it is taught by an expert before you teach it. That is what is usually missing in these situations.

 

One of the problems with reusing existing plans is curriculum changes as much as the current political climate in education, so previously developed curricular material may not fit into the new curriculum. Also, new “buzzwords” such as differentiation, content literacy, or standards based instruction may not be integrated into existing lesson plans. Education evolves over time, so must the curricular material.

 

Herein lies the fundamental issue the title of this blog poses. We focus on staff development, but we rarely focus on curricular development. We assume it will occur, but it is rarely purposeful, organized, observed, measured, funded, or collaborative. Of all the staff development I have undergone, I use only about 25% of it in my classes. No offense to those fine people who have offered it to me, but that seems like a poor use of resources. For all the curricular development I have done, I use 100% of it in my classes.

 

Which is giving my school the biggest bang for the buck? Yet, here we are on the eve of staff development days, and what am I doing? Sifting through more presentations about stuff I won’t use in my classroom. Yikes! You see, I am a strong believer in the litmus test “How will this help my kids?”

 

Okay, so what am I really talking about? I am talking about creating pre/post tests that measure student learning, modifying subject scope and sequence to align with standards, test data, and student success, collaborating on lesson plans with peers, observing lessons being taught, collecting data, analyzing data, creating materials, creating Powerpoints, integrating technology, integrating content literacy, differentiating lessons, targeting lessons based on test data, etc.

 

It goes like this, it is not useful to train me on new technology if I am never given the time to integrate it into my curriculum. This is only one piece of the overall pie, but you get the idea. So, where does this leave us? Do we just complain about it and hope someone will come to the rescue? NO! We propose solutions and then press our administration, our districts, and our school boards to adopt those solutions.

 

Here are a few of my suggestions:

 

  1. Time should be set aside each month for every department to do nothing but curricular development for at least one full day. It should be organized, targeted, measured, and aligned to school and district goals.
  2. Each department should form subject area groups with a head guru who will lead the efforts for that particular subject.
  3. Each group should collaboratively create at least two lessons per year targeted to the hardest lessons in that subject area as determined through assessments. Time should be set aside for teachers to observe the co-developed lessons and then reflect on its effectiveness.
  4. Each department should define an assessment plan that would show commensurate student growth and identify areas where students are not finding success. Then, curricular development can target those specific areas.
  5. When districts embark on staff development days, it should not be a smorgasbord of presentations teachers choose from. Instead, each department should identify what training is targeted to their needs, go through the training, and then immediately integrate it into their curriculum. In this fashion, instead of only 25% of your dollars being used, you ensure 100% of the dollars are used in the classroom.

 

This can work, but it takes a new view on what is important in education, and then applying the resources to address it. I cannot lie, for some teachers, this will be a radical departure from the “I am my own island” mentality that still permeates many schools. However, make the change now, and the payoffs will be huge later. Administrators take heed, this is an effective approach that needs strong leaders to make it happen.

 

So, the answer to the question in the title of this blog is both! You should never undergo staff development without commensurate curricular development to integrate what has been learned. It cannot be something we hope happens, but must be something we make happen. Since it directly impacts the classroom and student success, it measures up to any scrutiny you can throw at it. It is effective, necessary, and should become the standard by which public education operates.

In this era of high stakes education, it is difficult to tell the difference. What is important, that we teach the students or that we verify they have learned? How much should you devote to each endeavor? My school district isn’t the only one who finds themselves asking these same questions. However, when does testing overtake teaching and how does that truly impact a student’s education? 

When I entered the field, everyone kept stating they would never teach to the tests, but that is exactly what is happening all over the country. It makes sense. If your job is dependent on the results of the testing, then why not teach so that each student will be successful on the test? Does that mean each student has not been left behind? Are the tests really what we want our children to learn? Are the tests missing components of education that are being cast aside in favor of the current flavor of the day? 

Powerful questions without readily accessible answers. Testing is important. After all, everyone who teaches or has been taught is familiar with quizzes and tests over the material they have covered. Final examinations are an integral part of the educational process both in High School and College. So what is the problem with testing?  

First, we can all agree that testing has been the standard by which students are judged academically. It is a fundamental part of the system. However, prior to NCLB, most testing was conducted by the teachers over the material they cover in their classes. We placed the responsibility of judging the students in the hands of those who teach them. It makes sense, since who would know the students better than those working with them every day. 

Recently, that judging has been placed in the hands of politicians who have prescribed tests to measure growth over time. The theory is, if your school is effective, then all students can score high on the standardized tests. If all students cannot (less than 95%), then obviously your school is failing and needs remediation. After all, who knows about your student’s progress better than a politician? In essence, the politicians are saying that teachers are not adequate judges of student progress, and worse, will lie about it to keep their jobs. Why else would you need standardized tests? Ouch, so much for professional dignity! 

Testing is intended to measure progress or mastery of particular units of material. As a course is taught during the year, regular testing is required to ensure students understand and are ready to move forward with the curriculum. As a teacher, I regularly test students with a variety of formats to achieve this goal. In instances where the students demonstrate poor performance on a particular test, I am able to take remedial action to assist students in meeting those goals and continuing their education. It is a common practice used by all teachers across the world. 

However, changes in the political climate have forced testing on students that is not aligned with the units they are learning throughout the school year. The tests are designed to be comprehensive based on a set of standards that all students must meet for each particular grade level. The problem is a simple, not everyone is learning the same materials at the same grade level. 

In our district, even the middle schools have different levels of mathematics instruction for each particular grade level. For example, many students now enter sixth grade taking pre-algebra, moving to algebra I in seventh grade and ending middle school with geometry in eighth grade. This is a remarkable feat that indicates we have many students who are advancing in mathematics at an early age.  

For other students who have difficulty with mathematics, grade level math curriculums are designed to help them master the fundamentals that the other students already know and understand. But like the traditional curricular track, these new grade level curriculums are not fully designed based on the standardized tests given to each student each year. In fact, most are designed to focus on particular subject areas building on previous year’s material. At the end of the sequence, students will have achieved the middle school fundamentals that make them ready for High School.  

But again, this does not align with the standardized tests being given. These standardized tests are based on the assumption that all the standards are taught every year to a desired level of mastery. This is simply not the case, and schools struggle to deal with the backlash from this discrepancy. In essence, the tests are based on the assumption that the students learn exactly the same material each year until mastery has been achieved. Everyone knows this is not how the curriculum is taught. 

If you are a school blessed with talented students, you can ignore the tests and focus on your curriculum, but if you are not blessed with talented students, then you face a pivotal point in your school’s path to the future. Ultimately, you end up giving in, whether you believe it is right or wrong, and teach to the test. 

Do these standardized tests really prepare our children for their future? In our state, the test was designed with little University and College input. Therefore, it is, by design, not intended to test whether students are ready for post-secondary education. Is this what we really intended, a test not designed to measure student’s readiness for college? To bridge this obvious gap, our state has mandated all Juniors must take the ACT each year. Great, but why two tests? 

Well, the pundits will tell you that the state standards were defined using experts in the appropriate fields. Okay, but why weren’t the Universities and Colleges invited since they are considered the best experts in education? Why are the tests comprehensive and disconnected from the currently accepted curriculum? Teachers do not create their own curriculum, they typically purchase it from companies who design it based on what Texas and California dictate. Are we saying the curriculum is crap and should all be scrapped? 

Fine, assuming teachers had time (they don’t) to create their own curriculum which matches their state’s standardized tests, would that improve education? Maybe, but no one has proven that it will. Does anyone really know? In other words, we have defined a bar that all students and schools must reach, but no one has proven it can be achieved for all students and schools. Think about the high achieving schools in your areas, are they wealthy districts with higher percentages of parents that have completed post-secondary education? Most likely a resounding YES. 

Even NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) has recently changed its stance on mathematics standards saying that a broad width and shallow depth are not the way to prepare students. Instead, we should focus on a smaller set of standards each year and ensure a greater depth of knowledge on those standards. Hey, you mean like teach only algebra one year, then geometry the next? Wait a minute, we already do that. Why this disconnect? 

Politicians. I don’t want to put down our political system too much, but we must try to rationalize why they have been the ones to determine what constitutes a school’s success or failure? Isn’t that why we have school boards and PTAs? Isn’t it the school boards role to oversee operations and remediate any school failing to educate students? Then why is there Federal oversight? If the Federal government wants a role in local education, they should take it over completely and fund fully. If not, stay out of the way of the people who are directly impacted by your decisions. You know, the ones who voted you into office? 

School boards around the country are saddling their districts with additional testing and measures of growth in an effort to satisfy the mandates of NCLB. For every day of testing, you lose at least a day of teaching. In our district, High School students are tested with mandated exams eight to ten days a year. This upsets the normal teaching process, and the tests are disconnected from the student’s curriculum. If that wasn’t confusing enough, the tests are not tied to a student’s grade, so there is no motivation for them to perform well.  

What are we really measuring here? If it doesn’t tie to their curriculum and it doesn’t tie to their grade, then what is the meaning of the score? Pundits say it is a way for teacher’s to see where their students are and where they need to be. Excuse me? I already know that based on my own exams covering the material I teach that is tied directly to the student’s grade. Hmmm, I guess that is too logical an approach. Silly me! Oh wait, I forgot, I am an educated professional who cannot be trusted to do my job.

Look, I agree we need to measure student progress over time, but it must be done in line with a student’s curriculum and tied to their performance. Without that, you end up with data that is a strange snapshot of a kid who may or may not have been motivated on a particular day. I have had many students admit they simply guessed because they got bored during the test. Great, we really measured their progress that day! Maybe we should design a standardized, one size fit all curriculum first, then the test can be tied directly to it? 

Creating a test and making everyone adapt their curriculum to it is absurd, damages perfectly working curriculums, and is not a fair measure of student progress. Every teacher knows that Jimmy will struggle a little in Algebra II after taking Geometry the year before because he has not seen Algebra in over a year. So what? That is a natural part of the educational process and not a reason to scrap the curriculum in favor of a set of standards. I regularly have students who fail one exam in a semester but still perform well on the final exam. Is my course flawed because Jimmy failed one of the exams but passed the final? Should testing drive teaching, or should teaching drive testing? It’s a chicken and egg question, but as a chicken, I think teaching should come first!

The title of this blog really packs a lot of philosophy and ideology into it. We often forget the human part of the equation in relation to education. With politicians, school boards, and administrators breathing down teacher’s necks, many are led to believe there is some great formula, technology, or curricular material to instruct children. But the truth is the human part of the equation is far more important than any trendy strategy, nifty technology, or killer curriculum. I am fortunate to teach at a school that understands this basic tenet. 

Let me explain what this means. Every day, a student has the choice to learn or not learn. Learning is an active process that a student must participate in for it to be successful. As I have mentioned before, we can’t just open their heads and pour the knowledge in. The reasons why a student chooses to actively participate are varied and often complex. Parents, environment, teachers, and peers all have an influence on the student’s choice. Some students are intrinsically motivated while others require extrinsic motivation to participate. 

Intrinsic motivation is often instilled through the family. If education is deemed important by the parents, then this is often, though not always, reflected in the intrinsic motivation of the child. However, if education is not touted at home as an important element in life, then many of those children lack the intrinsic motivation to actively participate. These children often need extrinsic motivation before they will actively participate in the learning process. 

Extrinsic motivation can take many forms and can be doled out through parents, teachers, and administrators. Sometimes it is as simple as grounding the child until their grades improve.  Or sometimes a well placed offer of reward can motivate. I am always surprised how many students can get excited about learning through the simple offer of candy for completion. Sometimes, the failure to actively participate leads students to become behavioral problems. In these instances, the extrinsic motivation can take the form of detentions, suspensions, or expulsions. 

The primary premise here is that a student will actively participate in the learning process with proper motivation. The trick, for a teacher, is to find out what motivates a student and then find ways to exploit that. For my honors classes, most students are intrinsically motivated to be successful as a way to get into top colleges or universities. Based on that, I often relate many of the lessons to classes I took in college, or to other careers in which I had to use that material. This further ties what we do to their motivation, thus increasing their active participation. 

With non-honor students, finding their motivation is not always a simple process. Most students who meet a teacher for the first time are generally leery about that person until after some time frame in which they get to know the teacher or vice versa. For many students, that process may never fully develop, and they may find themselves uncomfortable in the classroom leading to a degradation in their active participation. For others, the teacher and the student may find common ground where they can understand and exchange ideas about school, life, relationships, or things they enjoy. 

There is no set timeframe for when this occurs. I have had students who bond with me right off the bat, while others may take years before a relationship is established. And of course, some may never establish a relationship at all. The key is to try and establish a relationship. Obviously, with large class sizes, this is a difficult process, thus why smaller class sizes often lead to greater student success. Everyone who has been to college remembers that freshman class of five hundred students where you never actually met your professor versus that senior class where all fifteen of you had great discussions with the professor both in and out of class. You get the idea. 

Every teacher bonds with students in different ways, but once that bond is established, teachers find it far easier to instill that intrinsic motivation that may have been missing or forgotten. This leads directly to student success. If you can’t reach them, then you can teach them! The question is how do you establish that relationship? 

I wish I had a pill or process that I could patent to assist in that endeavor. Each teacher approaches it in a very different way. Teachers that coach often establish relationships with students who are athletes, while others may bond with students who like similar areas of learning or hobbies. I hear many of my art teachers talk animatedly and fondly about students who perform poorly in my classes but shine in the art classes. They bond on the artistic pursuits and will do almost anything for their art teachers. I have a strong interest in technology, computers, and gaming, so I naturally bond with many young men who like these same areas. 

However, sports, activities, and hobbies are not the only way to bond with students. I actually have been very successful at bonding with troubled teen girls. My upbringing with nothing but sisters may play a factor in this success, but I rather think it is because teen girls are reaching their rebellious stage where they begin the often painful separation from their mothers. My own wife talks about the horrible arguments she and her mother had when she was in High School. They find themselves gravitating towards strong male figures during this timeframe, and it opens up the possibility to reach them through this relationship. I have had many freshman girls on the path to dropping out that I have turned around through our relationship. Many are on their way to college when many would have written them off as failures. 

Now, I am not here to tout my own horn, I have just as many failures as I do successes. It is the successes that keep me teaching and the failures that keep me trying to perfect my craft. Because it is very difficult to teach someone how to establish relationships, teachers who struggle with this are often labeled as “bad” or “not effective”. I must admit, if you are not a teacher who can form these bonds, I honestly believe you are in the wrong profession and should consider another line of work. 

However, I am willing to pass on my philosophical advice for those who find it difficult to relate to their kids. Here is a list of do’s and don’ts:

 1.       Do not make fun, demean, or criticize how a student dresses. Compliments aren’t necessary, but keep negativity out. Students define themselves through trying on many types of clothes both real and metaphorical. I for one still have pictures of me wearing black leather pants from the eighties.

2.       Do not make fun, demean, or criticize what a student does outside of school, even if that activity is not healthy for them. Build the relationship first, then you can talk to them as a mentor about why certain behaviors are bad for them. Don’t preach!

3.       Choose your battles. I see many teachers struggle with classroom management because they choose to battle over every single misdeed students invariably commit. For some students, they thrive on this reaction and will persist in the bad behavior to continue the battle. I have found that not reacting or simply giving them a disapproving look without comment can be sufficient. Again, establish the relationship and they won’t want to be bad in your class.

4.       Ask how they are doing, what they did, or what they are going to do outside of class. Amazingly, many people love to have others take an interest in what they do in their lives. I have many students recount vacations, concerts, sports, or other outside events and activities that they do outside of class. People love to talk about themselves, so exploit that.

5.       When a student is having a bad day, don’t confront them and demand work when it is obvious they are dealing with personal issues outside your class. I generally let them be, and even let them go to counseling or another teacher if they desire. If they want to, I will even discuss their issues with them and try to help them through it. Know thy students and you will know when they are having a bad day.

6.       Don’t build a professional wall around yourself. Open up. Let kids see who you are and what you like or don’t like. Show them that you are also human and suffer the same frailties as the rest of humanity. If we set ourselves on a pedestal, we will never establish a relationship from such a height.

7.       Maintain fair, honest, and consistent professionalism. Do not treat others specially even if they are your “top” student. Others will see this and be turned off by this obvious double standard. I still reprimand my “best” or “buddy” students just like the rest. I hold all to the same standard and don’t let that down no matter how much I like them. Yes, students will try to exploit the relationship for their gain as well.

8.      Encourage fun in your classroom. I often tease and joke with my students throughout a lesson. Don’t push it too far, but don’t discourage laughing or joking as long as it is kept appropriate. 

I am sure I could come up with more, but I rather think this is a good list to start with. If you are new to teaching, keep this advice in mind when dealing with your classes. It will never be perfect, you won’t reach them all, but the ones you do reach will be a rewarding experience well worth the effort. I can truly say I enjoy going to school and interacting with my students. I have established hundreds of relationships with students over the years and I truly believe that has had a strong, positive impact on their lives. If you cannot say that about your teaching career, perhaps teaching isn’t for you. Keep repeating the mantra: If you can’t reach them, then you can’t teach them!