Views on Education

To the Editor:

            A Preliminary Note: Before reading Letter #3, some clarifying points need to be considered. Letter #3 was written and submitted before the response to previous letters appeared in last week’s issue. The response seems not to have focused on the main point of my Letters #1 and #2; the primary point of those letters was that parents, students, teachers, taxpayers and community members need to become aware of some current local, state and national educational policies that are currently affecting decisions being made in the Old Rochester District – particularly the data-driven culture and its effects. No attempt was made to discredit the high school. In fact, many points in my first two letters focus on the excellent and even stellar education the high school has provided so many of its students. My concerns emerge from my very recent experiences with the data-driven, especially AYP-driven changes that result in a district focus that is based on assessment and scores and not on authentic instruction, true learning and skill building. Several of the retired teachers whose names were on the response have not taught in the district for many years and have no firsthand knowledge of current policies. They once experienced the district and the learning environment that was the very excellence that I fear is giving way to testing and data.

What do I mean by learning and achievement? What does true proficiency mean? How has the focus on AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) changed ORR? What does work effectively for students in the classroom? Since my first letter appeared, I have had enthusiastic positive feedback from parents, former students and interested community members. Each response has expressed appreciation for my bringing the concerns to light, as well as a desire to understand further what those concerns mean. I will try now to lay out further specifics, which come from the knowledge and sense of accomplishment that my teaching experiences at ORR, ranging from grades 9 through 12 and in courses at every level – B Level through Advanced Placement and everything in between, offered me. Additionally, I had been Coordinator of the English Department for grades 7 through12, and thereby had many experiences in curriculum planning and the personal and professional observation of teachers and instruction.

What am I looking for as the result of my letters? The answer is simple. To raise awareness and to encourage others to ask questions. We can all agree that little kids love to learn new things and to be able to do new tasks – until school chases that enthusiasm and curiosity right out of them. Observe some three and four-year-olds; they love to learn and use new big words, to count, to examine insects and leaves and try to identify them, to create architectural masterpieces from blocks – no matter how much effort it takes. Why? Because they see what they are learning and doing as useful and as steps toward personal growth; not that they could articulate that, but it is evident to any observer. By contrast, in today’s frenzy over data and standardized testing, the individual child often feels that his or her investment in learning is being stripped away by the emphasis on preparation for standardized testing. Administrators and politicians will insist that progress in reaching proficiency indicates success. What, in fact, is happening is that teachers are being encouraged and directed to teach to the tests and to decrease time spent on subjects and creative activities that will not be tested. Hence, the students we now see in the high school are often less motivated and often lacking in a personal investment in their education.

This raises the topic of proficiency. The stated aim in all of this data gathering and reporting and the clear teaching-to-the-test approach to raising scores is the need to have all students reach “proficiency.” Proficiency by what definition? What the test advocates and test-makers mean by proficiency is a certain minimum score on a standardized test; at present, the MCAS in our state and, soon to be, the national test. The truth is that the tests have become easier; and assessment, not instruction, has become the focus of the district. What is created is a false sense of proficiency; an illusion – merely a measure on a standardized test. When those who are obsessed with data speak of proficiency and the strides made, it is a misleading proficiency – proficiency on a narrow scale – that which is measured by a narrow measure – the standardized test. True proficiency comes from excellent instruction, excitement in learning; i.e., good teachers working hard at planning lessons that engage students and challenge students at their level offering each student a personal sense of purpose and accomplishment – that which comes from learning – gaining knowledge and skills to move each student toward success in their further education, their careers and their lives. Education is personal; not a vehicle through which drill will lead toward higher scores for the school to improve its and the administrators’ ratings.

If you have followed my previous letters, you may want to know more specifically how what I have described as detrimental to the standards of true learning affects students. What are many students missing and why? I cannot cover this entire topic in one letter, but I plan to offer further scenarios in future letters.

First, I will share some success stories that have nothing to do with test scores, but everything to do with good teaching, motivating students, authentic skill building and encouraging students to recognize their own potential. In my last letter, I briefly mentioned the Tech Prep program, which ORR no longer offers. That program, with its focus on authentically taking each student forward, was just one of the ways Old Rochester had, in wiser and better times, prepared students.

For about ten years or so, some of my colleagues in various departments and I had the opportunity to teach classes in the Tech Prep program. Students in Tech Prep were usually students who had had a difficult time in elementary school and who had lost confidence in themselves as good thinkers and good students. They had been in lower level classes, but in the Tech Prep classes the potential that these students had was nurtured, and a vigorous skill building program in English, mathematics, science, pre-engineering and technology was created. These students came to find in themselves a new confidence and a new joy in learning.

Now many of these students have Bachelor of Science degrees in Nursing or in Engineering – both very demanding programs. How did this happen? Through our curriculum taking the students from where they were, working deliberately and incrementally on skills, and showing them that they could be successful students and could be excited to continue to put forth effort and enjoy learning. They took courses in pre-engineering and in other hands-on technology and those of us teaching them math and English worked on their skills. A fellow English department member and I taught them junior and senior English; we used our college prep A Level curriculum but went more slowly and with a greater sense of catching up on skills that were lacking in reading and writing – skills absolutely essential for future success. Success breeds success; and each time the Tech Prep students recognized their own progress, they were gaining confidence. Each year I worked with the students on reading Shakespeare’s Othello in the original Shakespearean language – something difficult and challenging for them; and each year, they were sure they couldn’t do it, and each year they celebrated when I congratulated them on having read every word. The discussion and writing that followed captured their excitement and understanding and prepared them for future challenges.

Within this program, we engaged in many interdisciplinary projects; some were in conjunction with Bristol Community College. The projects had tangible products of which the students were very proud – again leading to the confidence and the awareness of their own abilities, which the students had lacked when we got them. Effort and skills and nurturing teachers worked magic. I often run into some of my former Tech Prep students, and they are excited to tell me of the jobs they have and their current successes.

Sadly, our school no longer has the Tech Prep program. Through illogical administrative decisions aimed at greater uniformity and consistency, the amazing success of the program aside, nothing as hands-on and as focused on skill and confidence building exists today. The awareness that education is different for every child, and not a one-size-fits-all endeavor, is today ignored. State standards and AYP take precedence.

Most of the students graduating (nearly 100 percent of the Tech Prep students did graduate) went on to community college either right away or after working for a while, and, as stated above, many went on to four-year degrees. I am convinced that this would not have been their path without Tech Prep. Especially significant was the development of skills in reading and in writing – without which a student cannot succeed in college studies.

So often today, the individual skill building is neglected, as all march together to prepare for the ever-so-important standardized tests. Important to whom? Not to students, but to the administrators and politicians and AYP.

The Tech Prep program is just one example of reaching students as individual learners. Conformity and consistency have taken the place of innovation and inspiration. Next time, I will write about other success stories.

What ORR currently offers as one of its solutions for some students is NovaNet – no substitute for true learning and skill building and the classroom experience. What does a student miss when he or she is taken out of the classroom and completes courses and gains credits through NovaNet?  What is lost?  Classroom discussion, challenging reading, board work, cooperative learning, accountability, and getting along in the classroom with teachers and with other learners are lost. On NovaNet, a student is taken out of his or her classroom and away from classmates and works on a course in modules on a computer answering multiple choice questions in a self-paced program until he or she gets enough answers right to complete it. Some students on NovaNet are taking courses for credit recovery and some are taking whole English, mathematics, science or social studies courses. In some instances, students have been moved out of teachers’ classrooms without those teachers having been part of the decision. Assigning students to NovaNet is done by committee. Students are then not held accountable for poor classroom performance or behavior and thereby miss out on the lifelong skills and values of dealing with personal consequences and responsibility.

Students’ repeating of courses, retaining students in a grade, students coming to high school for a fifth year are all negatives for the ever-revered AYP score. Where are learning and the good of the student? Some teachers and even students see this as “giving away diplomas.” Students themselves have expressed how the academic culture and standards have been reduced for all of them, even those in upper level classes.

An example: “Student A” does not like coming to school, has erratic attendance, has fallen behind, and does not invest time or effort in any assignments. “Student A” does not feel school has much to offer him or her. Administrators and guidance counselors become concerned about a possible dropout – a big negative for AYP. So “Student A” is taken out of some classes, given a diminished schedule that allows him or her to come to school only every other day, which, with our rotating schedule, means only two days in some weeks. “Student A” does credit recovery on NovaNet and graduates with his class – diploma in hand, but few of the skills acquired.

ORR, in fact, has not had a dropout problem in all the years I taught there; the dropout rate was miniscule because teachers, guidance counselors and administrators worked to motivate, inspire and remediate while encouraging each reluctant student to value what the school and teachers had to offer him or her.

Students need to be personally invested in their own learning. Why? Because learning is important and ideally creative and inspiring; not because their teachers and schools are judged by scores from once-a-year tests.

I do not claim to have all the answers in education. I know that some schools in our cities need to meet the needs of their students more effectively. I don’t claim to have those solutions. I wish I did. I do, however, know the schools in the Old Rochester Regional District and how they have met student needs in many creative ways. Dismantling that excellence for narrow standards and meaningless test scores rather than learning is to neglect our true responsibility to the ORR families and communities.

The current obsession with data and the belief that anything worthwhile should be measurable in numbers have little application to education. Any reasonable person knows that what contributed to his or her learning was not measurable in numbers, but was rather the expertise, the energy, the competency in subject matter, the passion, the caring, and the encouragement of good teachers. Measuring the bottom line in numbers is absolutely necessary if your business is manufacturing or sales, but not for education. Our students should be proud learners; not numbers for data-driven ratings.

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” ― Albert Einstein

More topics to cover next time. I have peaked the interest of some readers and will share more specifics so that further understanding and awareness can be raised.

Thank you for reading.

Teresa R. Dall



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