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Subversive Teaching

No Teacher Left Standing
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Teaching Well is the Best Revenge

In 1996 a study was published which conclusively isolated the factor responsible for the superiority of math test results in Japan, compared to America's dismal results. Researchers looked at all kinds of factors to explain the fact that despite much larger class sizes, Japanese kids just beat the socks off ours. What they came up with was this: the Japanese focused on many fewer objectives per grade level, and gave students many opportunities to study those in depth, through exploration and discovery. The kids enjoyed it, too. Their math text books were little soft-cover pamphlets. Kids learned and mastered concepts at a deep level, and retained them.


In comparison, our math textbooks are tomes crammed with so many objectives that is is laughable to expect all or even most children to master them all. Because they have time only to learn things at a superficial level, they usually forget them by the beginning of the next school year, and have little foundation to build on. Teachers have to just assume that most kids have to start over each year almost from square one.


I was glad to see this study, because, being naive, I thought it might prompt someone in a position of authority, someone with the ear of the Texas Education Agency, would bring to their attention the good news that if we simply teach fewer concepts at a deeper level, we will get much better results. What a relief to teachers, who know that the number of objectives children are expected to master long ago reached the point of absurdity. Yes, we can train them to pass the TAKS, but we know that it will be at the expense of the deep understanding that we would so love our students to have and retain.

I have never heard an explanation of why this well-known study has been ignored in favor of including yet more objectives to be tested. There is a movement these days that acknowledges the problem, and suggests that teachers distinguish between the essential concepts that must be learned and retained for a lifetime, the important things that should be learned in order to support the formation of essential concepts, and the rest, which is helpful to learn. However, TEA has not made the distinction, so everything gets tested.

This is a letter to the editor I once wrote, addressing the madness that testing has become.


"Our very successful system of school accountability has made Texas a model for other states beginning to implement standards. Every year our children have shown progress. There’s no question that we’ve become more effective teachers because of testing. This year teachers are preparing students to take a tougher test (TAKS) with a higher passing score. However, as principal Benjamin Kramer recently wrote in the Statesman, educators are beginning to wonder whether “the time as come to question whether the system we designed years ago to guarantee children a brigher future has ...[reduced] public schooing to a fear-driven exercise in test preparation.” This is not what most of us had in mind when we decided to become teachers. This is not what we wanted to do for and with children.

About half of new teachers leave the profession within five years. Some of us, however, stay put because there’s no other work we enjoy as much as teaching children. But teaching is not what it was 10 years ago, when one felt free to seize the “teachable moment” when it arose, even if it wasn’t in the lesson plan. A lot of the spontanaeity that allowed for those magical moments of learning has been supplanted by a high-pressure nose-to-the grindstone concentration on test preparation. There seems to be little time for anything but that -- if, in fact, there is time for that.

TEA is asking us to teach different, more complex skills that will take children longer to learn. At the same time we are instructed to “Leave no child behind.” My question is, has TEA calculated how much time it takes to leave no child behind -- for the very slowest learners to learn all the skills and knowledge needed to pass the TAKS? Has TEA factored in the time necessary for planning, preparation, conferences, meetings, and the many non-instructional duties we must perform? I need to know if what I am expected to do is within the realm of possibility within a 50 hour week. If so, I’d like to see a breakdown, so I can manage my time effectively. If not, I’d like triage guidelines: what duties do I jettison in order to assume the new ones? What happens to the other kids when the state holds us accountable for making sure the slowest kids pass?

Teachers have about 1 1/2 hours per day for planning and preparation, which is often taken up with meetings, training, and conferences. Teachers often stay at school ten hours a day, haul work home, and/or work weekends at school or home. One teacher I know regularly gets up at 3 am to grade papers so she’ll have time with her family. Behavior problems which already take enormous amounts time and energy to deal with now require many more hours of documentation before consequences can be implemented, according to new TEA guidelines. When do teachers have time for inspiration to germinate?

Administrators are in a bind. In the past, they asked us for the moon, and we delivered; it is difficult for them to come back and ask for the stars as well. They know we will either deliver at great cost, to both ourselves and our students, or burn out trying. All administrators can do is train us to use ever more effective methods and integrate subject areas to kill multiple birds with one stone, but at some point the law of diminishing returns kicks in: there are not that many more ways to save time.

The rewards of teaching are still tremendous. But teaching has become so stressful that some are forced to leave in order to preserve either their physical or mental health. Our salaries languish well below the national average, and our benefits are thousands of dollars below average. In few schools today will you not find at least one teacher near tears by the end of the day. The costs of teaching are reaching levels that many of our best teachers can no longer afford to pay.