Saturday, January 30, 2010

When Goals and Practices Collide: Part III

In Part I: When Goals and Practices Collide, I described a practice at my school where kids get recognized for achieving a score of "proficient" or "advanced" on district benchmark tests. I asked some questions about the impact of this practice on students.  I also asked readers about their impressions of such a practice and I thank those who responded.
In Part II, When Goals and Practices Collide I examined some of the practices and strategies my school is using to address and reduce our achievement gap. I wanted to hear what readers thought I should do before I shared what I have done thus far to address the issue. Thank you to those who responded and helped me think more critically about the issue.
In this post I will share about the actions I have taken thus far and ask for your input on what to do next. I do not want to be silent, yet I must also keep my job. And yes, I do have tenure.
Last year, I voiced my concerns when I heard we would be having "awards assemblies" for 2nd-5th grade, based on district benchmark tests. My principal's response: Don’t worry, we will work out the kinks next year and everyone will end up getting an award. Those who don't meet the advanced or proficient category will get a "rising star" award when they show growth. My thought: Won't everyone know that rising star means  "proficient wannabe "? I let the issue go when I realized that I would need to do some research behind this practice and see if I was totally off-base. Besides, it was the last quarter of the school year and no one else seemed to be upset about the issue.
 Fast forward to this year: As pictures of classes were added to the “achievement wall”  and I scanned the pictures, counting the kids, I realized that only the “award winners” were pictured with their teachers. Since I don’t attend these ceremonies ( as  a K teacher we don’t get invited) I can only imagine the looks on the faces of the kids who are left out. I have also asked some teachers who are present and they all say the same thing: the kids left out are disheartened and marginalized by this practice. Do they say anything or stand up for the kids? Everyone seems afraid to speak. ( and that is me making a generous conclusion as I am angered by the lack of courage and authenticity among my peers. It bothers many, yet no one speaks?!)
I took some time to reflect on my anger and frustration with this practice and decided to ask my principal for a meeting. I emailed him asking for a time so that I would not "chicken out" and remain a quiet objector. I decided to begin my questioning with something administrators love to talk about: research and data.
  I asked about the research behind awarding kids medals for reaching a certain number score on a test. He mumbled something about how the practice of  recognizing kids increases motivation.
I then asked about the pictures.
His response: The pictures just happened. A parent was there taking pictures and suddenly there were class pictures and they were up on the wall.
My response:  I could feel my blood pressure rise and my mind begin to race as I hammered him with questions. Do you know the impact of kids walking through that cafeteria, realizing that they are not in the pictures with their teachers? Do you know the impact on their younger siblings who now think that their older brother and sister is not smart? Inside me, a little voice was telling me to "shut up" but I couldn't. The words just shot out of my mouth.
His answer: I really hadn’t even thought about the impact. You make a good point, but it’s done now and we will have to consider it for next year.
My response: NEXT YEAR?  I must say that my inner voice was screaming obscenities at him for being so mindless and allowing a practice to impact kids in such a big way but " not thinking" about the consequence. Being in total shock at his revelation of ignorance, I mumbled something about it not being too late to change for this year. I told him that I hoped I would still have my job after voicing concerns and he laughed, saying that he needs teachers who question.
Really?  If he really wants teachers to question him, then why must I write this blog anonymously, venting here instead of making meaningful change by mobilizing fellow teachers and parents.  If he really wants us to work together to solve this issue of the achievement gap, then why does he rarely open the dialogue in staff meetings so that we can question decisions and come up with solutions?
I have spoken with a few parents of my former students who are upset about the practice, though a bit reluctant to speak out. I assure them that administrators often listen to them more than they listen to us. If enough parents object, will my principal take the pictures down at least? Or insist that ALL students are in the picture? There are students, including special ed students, whose name will never make it on that wall. If that is the case, then how are we promoting equity at our school?
I ask a lot of questions. I wonder if I am just in the wrong school for me. Are there other schools out there using similar practices and kids are growing and thriving at school?
Thanks for taking the time to read and I hope you share your pearls of wisdom.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Part ll: When Goals and Practices Collide

In Part I of "When Goals and Practices Collide" I shared a scenario at my school. We have a quarterly benchmark assembly where kids receive medallions for scoring "advanced" or "proficient" on district benchmark tests in math and English Language Arts.  Then student names and class pictures with only the "competent students" and their teachers are posted on a cafeteria wall.
Here are some of my questions as I struggle to see how this practice will help my school reduce the achievement gap.

So how do our practices support this goal?

Data chats: Yes, I agree that students should be aware of their scores, set goals together and brainstorm the paths to achieving those goals. Teachers meet with students after every benchmark to discuss the results.

My question: Have teachers been trained how to engage kids in a discussion that motivates them and doesn’t give them the idea that they will never “catch up?”  Wouldn’t it be better to meet with kids, discover how they learn, brainstorm times they have been successful in learning something new, and train them how to generalize this way of learning to other subjects? Then they can find strategies to help them learn and set “meaningful” and attainable goals for themselves!  Isn’t it about the kids becoming engaged and responsible for their learning? I think we need to help kids learn the reflective skill of meta-cognition. I am not sure all teachers at my school even know what that means.

Awards:  My principal alleges that giving awards motivates students because when they see their peers receiving an award, they will want one too and thus, will begin working hard.

My question: How does seeing your best friend  ( if you are even friends with such smart kids) get an award give you the tools, skills and mindset that will help you get there too? If I see a peer get an award, I might just think: Well he is smarter than I am. He always gets good grades. Those awards aren’t for me.  I am the kid sent to the office every day because I have checked out. Look at me! I know I won’t be proficient .. I am smart enough to know that my 55% score is beyond hope. My teacher tells me my score and sets a goal for me, but how do I know how to reach it. I think next time we have one of those assemblies, I will be “sick” that day. Better yet, I will be sick the next time we have a benchmark test. AND the day of the assembly.

Supposedly, according to the rhetoric I hear in staff meetings, we are also trying to raise the scores of kids at the top. Really? By giving medallions for making it to the status quo?
What if  we gave kids who made significant growth the opportunity to meaningfully engage with a kid who was struggling. What if we modeled and truly believed that each learner in a class had something to contribute? What if we gave that student who is “below basic” an opportunity to share a skill and talent that he possesses?
 Perhaps then we might be on our way to provide the environment where true learning occurs.

Safe environment for learning and taking risks
:  If we want kids to challenge themselves and grow, rewarding them for doing well on a test gives them great reason to play it safe and not really venture out in learning. If they have been "on track" since the lower grades, they usually keep their advanced or proficient status. Do they even know how to challenge themselves when the test is "easy" for them. Do we want to give them the message that they have arrived?  They want to keep their reputations as the “advanced” kids , so why even try to learn anything? It's much safer to be the big fish in the little pond.

If you have made it this far and can relate to any of this, please leave a comment below! In my next post, I will tell you what happened when I spoke up about this practice at my school. Stay tuned!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

When Goals and Practices Collide

 Before I begin, let me set the stage. My school: a 600+ student school with a mixed population of students; Hispanic English Language Learners, African American students and low socioeconomic students are identified as our "achievement gap."  Our school  is on a mission to reduce this gap, but seems to be utilizing practices that many teachers and parents disagree with, yet are afraid to speak about.

So, where do I begin? With the floor to ceiling bulletin board that adorns our cafeteria framed by the words: GO GREEN? (Green is the color of proficient at my school and if you aren’t green, we pretty much don’t want you included in our results!)  Or do I share the scene that left an indelible image in my mind the other day: a former student, struggling since she was in my kindergarten class, staring at the "achievement" wall realizing that her name will likely not ever be listed under the labels : Proficient or Advanced.  Or maybe it’s the pictures of the smiling teachers, surrounded by only those kids deemed worthy enough to be in the picture with their “medals” validating their presence in the classroom. I am glad that I am not present at such an assembly where the "non" winners  sit on benches looking defeated as they realize they have not been invited to the "picture party."

I am appalled and heartbroken that I work at such a place: a school where equity is the new buzzword and I, on the Leadership Equity Team, am supposed to help my fellow teachers embark on a new journey where students needs are met and all students achieve.  Our mission: to close the achievement gap. Our  equity team steps thus far: writing a mission statement that charges us with the following:

Our Equity work at ****  is about always being mindful and reflective educators. We maintain a clear focus in everything we do and ensure that the students understand our objectives.  We are focused and direct, aware of what our students’ lives are like outside of school. On a daily basis, we implement purposeful and deliberate strategies aimed at the individual needs of our unique student population. We work to promote achievement for all!

Before I reveal the actions I took to try and speak up about this practice of posting student names, I ask you: What do you think about posting student names under the labels "Advanced" and "Proficient" based on quarterly benchmark tests. Do you think it inspires motivation? Do you know of any research supporting such practice? How does your school address the achievement gap? I think it's important to seek information from others when a practice incites our anger or ignites our passion.  In sharing with others we can think critically and  clarify our own perspectives.

Stay tuned for Part II of When Goals and Practices Collide. I hope to hear feedback before sharing the rest of my story.

It's About Time..

I tweet on Twitter, blog about teaching and share on Facebook under my true name.  I often worry about speaking too candidly about the practices in my school. I am starting this blog so that I can speak up and speak out about school practices and work to make changes in my school, while also keeping my job! I value the wisdom of a PLN and have found great support with my colleagues online.
I am a full-time Kindergarten teacher as well as an academic coach/tutor. I believe in helping kids to mine their unique strengths and talents as well as develop the critical thinking skills they need in a rapidly changing world.  I am a parent of two wonderful grown kids, an educator, a former social worker and a die hard advocate for all kids, from high functioning kids to those with learning challenges, emotional issues, or issues of motivation.  I believe that educating and raising happy healthy kids is a shared responsibility.  When parents, educators and administrators work together, advocating and pushing for legislation that supports true education, we will have at least a chance for meaningful change. Please join me as we work together to reflect on our practices, challenge the institution, and raise our voices.  Our kids need us to speak up for them.