Thursday, March 03, 2005

Cup 96: Where's Your Indignation?

Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
Where: from Orono to Pembroke
When: March 3, 2005
Who: me
Coffee: Port City Capone (ADC)
Mood: angry

I am on a bender. This blog will conclude on Tuesday, after the hundred-ish cup of coffee (actually, the hundredth would be tomorrow, but I'll be travelling, so I figure I'll just go until I'm back from vacation). So today I made a big pot of coffee in the ADCM and I'll be drinking as much as I can for the "grand finale" and then starting my next blog, Cold Turkey, where I pause from drinking coffee completely and write about withdrawal. It isn't going to be permanent, though. Long enough so that the caffiene starts effecting me again. So today I have a really gigantic mug of coffee sitting beside me on the drive in, oh, and that picture? That isn't a coffee mug. It is a soup bowl...

But anyway, there's something I need to rant about for a minute. Paula Smith, principal at Pembroke, is leaving. She's retiring early, which will mean about a 10% reduction in the amount she'll be making when she retires. This is bad. You know, I don't need to drive two hours to find a school to consult to. I can find places much closer, but I make the drive because Paula is principal in Pembroke. She is regretably unique among school administrators in that her priority is to create the best learning environment possible for the students, and to give the teachers the support they need to make that possible. With Paula, I can explain what technology the school needs and she'll find the money for it. Dealings with other administrators are not so productive. Typically, they'll say something like, "Thanks for bringing this to my attention. Do up a proposal and get me an invoice and I'll bring it up before the board..." and I'll do that and never hear about it again. In Pembroke, though, I can make things happen. Educational consultants are often hired by administrators to let them feel like they are doing something. It is sad, but my fees are the same whether my recommendations get implemented or not. But you know, I am in this because I want to make a positive difference, and in Pembroke I can see that happen. That is primarily because of Paula.

But Paula is leaving, and one of the reasons is that she's being forced to enforce State and National standards that actually prevent teachers from teaching. Students in Maine spend weeks out of the year taking standardized tests. This flies in the face of all recent research into education that shows that standardized tests are not an accurate assessment of what a student has learned. Only very shallow level thinking can be measured in a standardized test. There are many other flaws, but all that aside, ask yourself what you've observed in your own life. I'm operating on the assumption here that schools are supposed to be preparing kids for the real world. How many times in your life outside of school has your success on anything you've done been based on taking a standardized test? Other than a Cosmo quiz, that is? And yet schools are punished if their students don't perform well on these pointless tests. Schools are told "Don't teach to the tests" and then are punished if they don't. What do you think is going to happen? So educational time, instead of being spent preparing for life is being spent preparing for the tests. Meanwhile, veteran teachers are being asked to prove in more and more different ways that they've been doing what they've been doing for years. So much time is being spent proving that teaching and learning is happening that there's no time any real learning to happen. Innovation and creativity in teaching is being stifled. If it doesn't help students on the MEA or meet the Learning Results or No Child Left Behind it doesn't get taught.

As principal, Paula is being asked to make sure her teachers comply with all these new standards. She has to force her school to use educationally unsound practices, and to increase the amount of work and stress in her teacher's lives without giving them any more pay. For many administrators, this wouldn't be a problem. These are the administrators who don't know anything about education and who don't care about their teachers. But Paula cares and she knows what good education is. So she's getting out.

I'm sure she's not the first. She won't be the last. In Maine and in the rest of the country, public education is becoming a horrible place to be for any teacher who cares about their students and who knows anything about educational best practice. We're going to lose all our best teachers: those who care about their students and want what is best for them. What we'll be left with are teachers for whom teaching is just a job. Given that Maine ranks 47th in the nation in starting teacher salary, subtract those who are teaching because they are teaching out of love and a desire to create a positive change in the world, and you're left with those who can't get a job anywhere else. Just the kind of person you want teaching your children and influencing the future of the state!

It doesn't have to be this way. It got this way through the best of intentions. The legislature realized that Maine's schools needed to be improved and tried to do something about it. Unfortunately, their solution (increase testing, increase standards) is making things worse, and preventing other solutions from happening. These aren't bad people, though. Just uninformed. If we want something better for our kids and for the future of our state, though, we parents, teachers and students need to school them. The time to do that is now, though, before we lose all Paula Smiths from the school system and we're left with educators who are just going through the motions and collecting a paycheck.

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