Location: Texas, United States

I am a teacher with 33 years experience in public education. The purpose of this web log is to critically examine the present state of education in our great country and, particularly, in Texas.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

A beginning

I retired from teaching in the spring of 2004. I have told many friends that this is my first retirement. I did not leave teaching. I have only changed my direction for a time. I may go back next year. Who knows. The important thing for me to say is that I needed a break after the worst years of my career.

What happened in the final years before my retirement completely destroyed my confidence in my profession. If you are a parent who happens for some reason to read this blog, you need to understand one thing and only one thing; believe your child. At the very least, investigate anything your child says about his or her school day.

I left a school that was in disaster mode. I do not blame our students for this in any way. Our students were as good as any in America. Most were not rich. In fact, my school had something like 50 to 60% on free and reduced lunch. The ethnic makeup in the school was approximately 1/3 caucasion, 1/3 Hispanic, and 1/3 African-American. The kids were wonderful. They just needed to be taught. I place the blame for my schools failure, at the time, on the system and practices of the district administration.

Test scores were plummeting. Discipline was becoming a real problem. The halls had become so bad that I was actually knocked down by two students running and horseplaying in the hallway in front of my classroom. I am not a small guy. I weighed at that time about 280 pounds. I landed down the hallway about 6 feet from where I was standing. I was not injured. But, far worse, was what the kids were going through.

At that time we were getting kids in the seventh grade who did not read at any functional level. Many of the students had few to no math skills. Unless things change a great deal in the future, those children will experience little or no academic success. My school had attempted to address low test scores on the TAKS test and low general academic achievement by attempting to analyze the standardized test itself. The upper administration imposed policies on the administrators in my building that were questionable at best. We took to giving practice tests at the end of each grading period that were practice TAKS tests. These tests took one week each time they were given. One test was given on each day of the practice testing week. Students were required to sit silently from approximately 8:30 in the morning until dismissal at 2:50 in the afternoon. During that time students were required to take one subject area test that consisted of approximately 40 questions. After the students were finished they were required to sit still and quietly for the next several hours. They were only allowed to read or sleep. However, they could not read material that was subject matter. They were given a one gallon jug of room temperature water and a small paper cup that they were required to keep track of during the testing periods. Generally, they were allowed only one restroom break in the morning and one in the afternoon. I was extremely fortunate in that I was allowed to test in the library. I taught Pre-AP science and regular program science. In that role I taught in a lab. Because of that I was allowed to take my students to the library to test.

Students were walked to lunch where they were forbidden to talk about the test with other students. I can assure you that the test is the last thing they wanted to talk about. The lunch provided was generally a cold sandwich. Students were given a shorter period of time to eat the lunch. Then they had to go back to the testing room and remain silent the rest of the day. Most of my students and many of the students in the school finished in the first hour. After two years of this kind of routine, students in the eighth grade became extremely resentful of this routine. The test scores on the benchmarks were consistently low. Many students got into the habit of simply marking randomly. Low test scores resulted in more of the same - much more.

Teachers were then asked to analyze the "data" gained from these tests. We were asked to make reports on every student by taking data off the computer screen and writing it on copied data forms which we then turned in to the dean of instruction. She would then check off our compliance with the program.

Generally, the program that followed was a regimen of "warm-ups" aimed at improving performance on the benchmark tests - and the TAKS itself - by attempting to pinpoint material that the students had missed on the test. We used TAKS formatted questions in these warmups that were presented at the beginning of the period. This consisted of one question a day. Each question was intended to remedy or teach a particular TAKS objective.

The students in our school were bored senseless. School had become something to be endured. The time of all my students was simply wasted. Students who had mastered the material were not challenged. Those who had not mastered the material were simply not taught. The situation was terrible for everyone concerned.

All this was done at the expense of teaching a rich, varied and challenging curriculum. Our upper administration persisted in responding to low test scores by intensifying the practice testing. Teachers who protested and questioned were shut down. The administration did not allow any criticism of its orthodoxy. Our local building administration was simply told what to do. We were a district that made a great deal of noise about the value of building representation. But, the opinions of the representative counsel in the school and the faculty in general were simply discounted. Those who voiced opposition to the benchmark testing, questioned the academic value of the warmups, or objected to the time spent in test prep were labeled bad team players.

Consequently, our building was remarkably unsuccessful. Kids were unmotivated. Teachers were demoralized. The response to the problem by the superintendent could not have been worse. The most brilliant solution to a pernicious lack of curriculum development skill in the district was answered by simply arranging a whole cloth restaffing of the district. If I remember correctly, every principal and assistant principal changed position. No consideration to quality was considered. One of the most brilliant assistant principals I had ever worked for was transferred to another building "for the good of the district". Nothing was done to the upper administration staff who had presided over this travesty. Nothing was done to the curriculum practices of the district as a whole. These actions took and already demoralized staff and devastated them. The school board bought the whole package without question. As any typical school administrative body, they placed the wagons in a circle and assumed that reasoned, albeit sometimes emotional, criticism was attack.

Unfortunately, this school is not a terrible place. In fact, it is dead average. The school from which retired is unfortunately very much like many, many schools across Texas and across our great country. This is the source of my concern. I will continue in future posts to outline other practices teachers are familiar with that are as common as dirt. Among the problems that exist in our schools are pernicious and devastating zero-tolerance policies that are just destroying many, many children.

So, what is my goal in creating this web log? What I intend to do is describe to you the problems as I see them, the good things I want to congratulate, and the things that I believe you as parents and students need to know. Generally, the media does not tell the public the real problems that exist in schools. Nor do they tell you the great things that are going on in schools. Certainly, they do not showcase independent learners such as home schooling parents who often do such an excellent job of educating their children. Rather, the media tends to frame home schoolers as eccentric recluses who should be looked at with caution. In fact, most home schoolers have decided to remove their children from situations that they deem dangerous to their childrens' intellectual growth, cultural growth or spiritual growth. They are to be congratulated for the innovative people they are instead of being condemned as zealots who want to withdraw from society.

There are many great schools doing a wonderful job for most of their kids. But, if you are a parent of a child in any school environment, you should not assume that all the strange things your child may tell you about their day is constructed from whole cloth. You should question everything, examine everything and be in your childs school at unexpected times. You should look at your districts practices with a critical eye. Remember, it is your child. Their future is actually in your hands, not in the hands of the school.

More to come.

John McGeough


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