Sunday, September 11, 2011

Controlling my own work...

Lately I've been making a mental list of the number of variables that are out of my control when it comes to creating a learning environment for my students.

Next year the state of Virginia will base forty percent of a teacher's evaluation on measures of student growth.  Though it is not clear yet what those measures will be, the state board of education has already said that 20% of the student growth measure must come from the high stakes tests.  Since I teach two courses that have high stakes tests at the end--the end of course reading and writing tests students must pass to get a valid diploma and the Advanced Placement Literature and Composition test students sit for to earn college credit--I know those scores will factor in.

Here are the things within the school year and school day that teachers have no control over, and yet are very important to how well or poorly we are able to teach.

Time:  The biggest factor.  Here are the ways in which the time spent with students can impact instruction.

  • What time of day the class will be offered. (End of the day classes are very different from first-thing in the morning classes.)
  • How much time we have together.  Though I should have my students for 90 minutes and 90 days that is never true.  Students are frequently released early for sporting events, cutting into the last class of the day. There are assemblies/picture-day/pull-outs for various reasons.  Weather events: snow, storm, electrical failure.  (Two years ago we lost nine consecutive instructional days to snow.  The AP test was still held on the same day.  Thankfully, the state test was moved back.)
  • My time:  Many duties and expectations cut in to the time to plan, evaluate work, or confer with students.  For example, since the start of the year, weekends have been spent catching up on duties that are not instructional in nature: learning new software, collecting data, or preparing required reports.
Class make-up:
  • The number of students who sit in a class is not selected by the instructor.  Nearly every teacher in the nation faces larger classes than in past years due to staff cuts.  This impacts teacher time (see above) because it simply takes longer to evaluate student work.  That means less time for planning, conferring (sleeping, eating...).  Even though classes are swelling, no one has taken any work away from the classroom teacher (see above non-instructional duties.)
  • The teacher's schedule is set by others.  This can mean multiple courses to prepare for ("preps")--or only one course taught repeatedly (one "prep").  Again, this can stretch a teacher or not.
  • Mix of students.  Teachers do not control scheduling so must play the hand they are dealt.   That may mean students who do not interact well together for a variety of reasons, or a large load of high needs students.
  • The yearly schedule.  Those of us who teach in semester blocks only have students for a little over three months.  Will we be expected to show a year's growth in this amount of time?  After fourteen years of working with ninth-graders, I know they are very different people in September than the more mature people they grow into by April. The second semester AP class gets five less weeks of instruction prior to the test.  This factor is not in the teacher's control.
  • No matter the ability of the student, the curriculum is the same.  Though we strive to differentiate in the classroom, the tests are the same for everyone.  So....?  
  • Out in four: Another gem of the NCLB law that is in effect, all students must graduate "on time" ready or not.  This pressures schools and teachers to pass students along.  Their readiness to meet the standards and curriculum means teachers may be starting out far behind.  There is no apparent irony in expecting teachers to differentiate while expecting students to cross the finish line at the same time?
This list does not include any of the variables that a student brings into the classroom.  These are just the work-related ones that occur within a building.  Is it any wonder teachers are crying foul?

Accountability for student growth should be borne by an entire system and community.

Whatever happened to "it takes a village?"