Saturday, September 15, 2012

How Standards are Reprofessionalizing Teaching

and Why Teachers Hate Them.

   Mentioning state standards, or common core standards, in a room full of teachers is sure to bring forth a varied response. However, the variance usually ranges from general displeasure to raw hatred. I'm not talking about the legendary teachers of the Michelle Rhee firing sprees that are filling the seat only to collect a paycheck. I'll be honest, I don't know any of those. I'm talking about good, dedicated teachers with creative styles and numerous effective ways to engage students. Standards have left a bad taste in their mouth.
  I can assure you this isn't because teachers don't feel that it makes sense to set some sort of expectations on what students will learn in certain grades. I have no doubt that every teacher has expectations of what their students should have known before they entered their classroom and expectations about what they will know when they leave. It also isn't because teachers are lazy, illiterate bumpkins that just want to use last year's worksheets. Of the many colorful words I can use to describe my worst teachers in my own education, lazy simply isn't one of them. I think we have to give teachers the benefit of the doubt that there really is something wrong with standards that is riling them up.

  One of the first issues teachers run into with standards is that they are absurdly general. Take the following example from 6th grade Social Studies in the Washington State ELARs "Understands the role of government in the world’s economies through the creation of money, taxation, and spending in the past or present." I've taught 6th grade Social Studies and I'm not sure I understand the role of government in the world's economies. The lack of clarity is daunting. To what level must they understand the role of government, by creation of money are we talking printing money or propelling economies through government debt, and most of all does any one out there actually understand the world's economies? Let's not forget, this is a 6th grade standard. We're talking 12 year olds here. Most of them struggle to remember to bring in 25 cents on Friday for popcorn and seem surprised that I won't give them my money because they forgot theirs.
  If the standards aren't difficult enough to comprehend and apply to every day teaching there is always the fluid nature of them to consider. Since 1989 there have be no less than ten different sets mathematics standards that have crossed math teacher's desks. At best a long running set of standards could stick around for 3 or 4 years before being eclipled by a new set. A timeline can be found HERE which details the numerous state and national standards and changes that have been implemented to them. Sometimes new sets didn't supersede the old sets, they just applied on top of them giving teachers more to cover within the same timeframe but without adding school days in which to get it
done. With Common Core around the corner there has been a number of online resources put up to "aid teachers" in professional development. However, most teachers have not received any professional development hours from their district to make this change. New sets of standards often times mean teachers must independently make the shift to a new set of expectations that will probably fall to the wayside before they get fully realized in the classroom.
  The final piece that really gets teachers fired up is that standardized test scores on these standards are now threatening to be used to judge a good teacher versus a bad teacher. If I'm teaching a class in which I have a student that for reasons out of my control misses class at least once a week, I'm now being judged based on what I can teach them in 140 out of sequence days of a set of standards that I could never fit into 180 days to begin with. This same set of standards that I can't actually figure out what they actually mean, I've never been trained on, and seem to change on a 2.5 year cycle. And if kids that came into my class three grades behind the expected place leave at one year behind, I'm still considered a failure. Yeah, standards kind of suck the big one.


  Oddly enough, teacher's hatred of standards and everything that gets balled up with them misses the good that they have done our profession. Anyone reading through the endless lists of standards quickly begins to realize that they are so wonderfully general, vague, and unclear, that it actually allows teachers to do what we entered the profession to do -- reach students. After so many years of very bad scripted curriculum (these years aren't over by the way, there's just now ways to fight back against them) teachers are beginning to enter their classroom armed with knowledge of the standards and the burning desire to reach students at any cost.
  When all you have is a curriculum book and you're told to teach, you're hamstrung before you even get into the class. You have to follow that book through thick or thin. Admittedly this is still the case in many districts. However, for those willing to fight for it, the standards provide excellent protection for those interested in real teaching. Rather than being bound by stale curriculum, a teacher can find a method they feel will reach students and tie it to standards with many interesting results.
   Take the zombie based learning curriculum which meets a number of Washington State Standards and I'm sure will also be adapted to meet common core standards as well when they come out. This is something that would be totally unimaginable in a prestandards teaching environment. But when you look at the web of social studies standards that David Hunter created, you can't argue that the teaching is irrelevent simply because you don't like it. It has official support in the form of goals that were created by the state to say what students need to learn. In short, teachers are empowered by standards because they only say what students should learn, not how to teach them.
  When a teacher builds an activity and ties it to standards, the pressure is removed from the teacher to prove that their teaching effective. They have a clear list of the standards that the activity is aimed for and this presents clear goals for the students. It places the burden of proof on the district and administration's to show that the lesson is not actually successfully teaching those standards. This is a much harder argument to make and one that most districts simply won't pursue. Considering that the teachers that are going out of their way to develop specialized curriculum that meets their student's needs as individuals are going to be the teachers taking the hard route for the good of their students, there is little concern that these teachers will be trying to support substandard curriculum with standards. It is for those teachers who are fighting for the academic freedom to actually teach the students in their room that the standards can be a fantastic tool.

  When so much energy is being put into deprofessionalizing teaching through scripted curriculum, standardized testing, automated testing, and distance learning, Having a solid group of standards to base your own projects and lessons around gives teachers the edge they need to show how vital their work really is. If standards could be consistent, comprehensible, fair, and trained, they could allow teachers to create the classrooms that they entered the profession to have. Ones full of creativity, activity, and fun.

A few examples below are some Washington state standards and potential out side of the box curriculum teachers.

6th grade social studies - Constructs and analyzes maps using scale, direction, symbols, legends and projections to gather information.

 Possible Curriculum: StarEdit (starcraft's map editing tool), Civilization, treasure hunts, Geocashing

8th grade social studies - Analyzes how the forces of supply and demand have affected the production, distribution, and consumption of goods, services, and resources in the United States

in the past or present.

Possible Curriculum: Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Any Tycoon Game

6th grade mathematics - Determine the experimental probability of a simple event using data collected in an experiment.

Possible Curriculum: Any survey, board game, RPG, dice game or gambling game, ever.