Tag Archives: standardized testing

(Don’t) Give it Away for Free: A Teacher’s Conundrum

I’ve been struggling with something lately, and have been meaning to find the time to write about it here. It all began with a friend’s blog post, followed by a bar conversation, followed by a 23-message email chain with a teacher in my district, but before I get to all that, I want to rewind a little further.

Crafting lessons, assignments, and units has always been fun for me. I get to be creative, to design an experience for my students around the goals I’ve set for their learning, to imagine my plans in action — it’s downright fun. So naturally, it is also fun for me to share these plans with my colleagues, whether in the teacher’s lounge or in the form of a fully-developed unit plan carefully organized in a binder full of a unit’s scope-and-sequence, assignment sheets, lesson plan calendar, assessments, and examples of student work (I have a lot of these). I was always proud of the “stuff” of teaching that I had created, from that clever lesson on poetic rhythm using Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat to my favorite portfolio unit on gender and social justice for my 9th grade classroom. If someone wanted to use my materials, I handed them over, thrilled that someone wanted to adapt or share something I had crafted.

I always hoped and expected, of course, that anyone who used my materials would credit me, as I had been taught to do whenever I borrowed someone else’s lesson plans or unit concepts. But I have never hesitated to share curriculum that I developed and designed. Case in point: this very website showcases all of the college syllabi I developed during my time at Michigan, including assignments and examples of student work.

Then, about two weeks ago, a few things made me pause and wonder…

Should I Stop Giving it Away for Free?

First, an article, published my a close friend of mine on her blog, entitled “Teachers: Stop Giving it Away for Free.”  As you might expect from the title, she makes the argument that teachers have developed significant stores of knowledge based in experience, have crafted well-designed lessons, units, and other resources with inherent value, and they should not simply hand over these resources for no compensation. She writes:

We need to stop underselling ourselves. It’s not a matter of modesty: we’ve all seen too many bad instructional materials, known that we can do it better. Thus, we should. And we should attach some sort of value to what we do because if we don’t, people will keep taking it until we have nothing left. Know your worth.

And dammit, I agree with her. We’ve all read article after article about how the teaching profession is being perpetually devalued, arguably de-professionalized. Do teachers contribute to this deprofessionalization by handing over their materials and expertise for free? In the corporate world, this doesn’t happen — if you want someone’s professional expertise, their intellectual property, you have to pay them for it, right? My friend makes exactly this argument, saying:

The biggest oversight is that administrators and even other teachers don’t seem to realize that these experts are either next door to them or within their buildings. We sit through PDs that these folks could teach effectively and responsively, yet, they are never asked. On the off chance that they are finally asked to do something, there is often no compensation for the time invested for preparing an excellent PD.

This one struck a chord with me, because as a district-level non-administrator (I am a member of the teacher’s union, and I professionally identify as a teacher, even though I often need to remind people of this), I make a habit of asking teachers to share their expertise in the PD I create. I invite teachers as panelists in online PD to share examples of their practice, and I am actively working to increase my connections across the district so that I have more teacher expertise to draw from. I lean and rely on practicing teachers to develop PD, because they are the best resources.

The Sticky Wicket: Compensation

Here’s where I run into trouble: I can’t financially compensate every teacher expert we have on one of our panels or every teacher who submits a curricular resource to our archive.

Which brings me to the bar conversation. I have been back and forth with my counterpart in my department about how we can attain a budget to compensate teachers for contributing to our professional development, whether that be an example of student work, an hour of their time to talk about their practice, or a sample unit or lesson plan resource. The conversation circled around questions like: “are lesson plans intellectual property?” “if so, whose? the teacher’s or the district’s?” “should teachers be compensated for their intellectual property?” Long story short: we’re still talking about it.

The morning after the bar conversation, one of the digital rock stars in our district, who also happens to be friends with the above-quoted blogger and a blogger herself, called me on this compensation issue in response to an email asking a number of our teachers to contribute resources or ideas to our digital archive so that we could share them in an online library showcasing examples from our teachers’ classrooms.

My inability to compensate teachers for things like this is in part because I work in a broken system that doesn’t recognize teachers as the curricular experts of their profession, so money isn’t automatically allocated for this purpose. It is also partially because of my position within my department (I don’t have control over a budget) and partially because I’m still learning how to do things like write grants to get money so that I have the cash to compensate teachers every time they contribute their expertise. So I do what I can do: I thank teachers profusely, I CITE THEM to give them credit for their work, and I offer up my time to their schools for professional development.

But I don’t necessarily think teachers need to be compensated for their expertise every time they contribute a resource, lesson plan, or unit, or every time they serve on a panel.

There. I said it.

We live in a corporatized culture, and schooling becomes increasingly corporatized by the day. Ask just about any educator about it, and you’ll get a long diatribe about how textbook companies like Pearson are making fortunes on the backs of today’s overtested, undervalued students and teachers. It’s really quite disgusting.

A counterculture to this corporatization of American schooling exists in the Web 2.0 world: a culture characterized by free and open (and attributed) sharing of author-licensed content. A culture that values open-source software maintained by communities of developers who care about the programs that make our lives easier, and don’t code for profit. A culture that values makerspaces, hacking for the sake of knowledge and experimentation, and above all — free and open sharing of socially-developed expertise. This culture actively challenges copyright law, arguing for a change in the way we understand ideas as property while still upholding the rights of the individual creator.

This is a culture today’s adolescents have helped to shape and create, from teen FanFic sites to the videos students make, edit, and post on their blogs to game hackers, today’s teens live in a world where remixing, creating, and sharing (for free) are everyday activities.

How Does this Apply to Teachers?

Maybe it doesn’t. After all, teachers are professionals — unlike adolescents, they have worked hard and earned multiple degrees to gain the expertise that they are asked to share, often without extra compensation. Fundamentally, I agree that teachers should not be asked to give up significant time — an extremely valuable resource for any teacher — without being compensated in some way. Too many teachers sacrifice time with family for a stack of ungraded papers on a Sunday. Let’s not contribute to that nonsense.

However, I think if we are to challenge the corporate culture of American schooling in the 21st century, we also need to think about how and where we share our resources “for free,” when we do. And we do need to share our expertise “for free.” We need to publish in practitioner journals, attend conferences, and write about our practice on blogs and in newspapers. We need to make visible the work of teaching.

On those occasions when we are asked to showcase our work for little or no compensation, we should license it using Creative Commons attributions. We should post and publish it in webspaces created by people we trust and who we know will honor the knowledge and expertise of teachers as professionals. We should not always demand that the time we take to share our craft be compensated — instead, we should demand that the time we take to share our craft be respected and valued by society. I don’t think we should combat the deprofessionalization of teaching by keeping our professional resources under lock and key: we should combat it by making our craft easier to see and understand. It’s why teacher bloggers are some of my favorite writers — they open up the craft of teaching for the world to see, taking time out of their busy lives to share what they know.

So for now, I will leave my syllabi, class calendars, lesson plans, and assignments on my website for others to take, adapt, and attribute.

What say you, teachers? What should(n’t) we give away for free?

Going Gradeless

It’s a sexy thing to do right now, going gradeless.

At least, it is something a number of my colleagues — secondary and post-secondary — are experimenting with. Can we go completely gradeless? No. Something tells me that if I refused to submit grades at the end of the semester, I’d get into some trouble. I don’t think the university would take kindly to me saying “grades ruin my teaching, so I’m not giving them anymore.” But to some extent, that’s what I have decided. When we give grades on every assignment, students learn to associate success with numbers and letters, not with the extensive feedback we spend so much time crafting. When students associate “A” with “amazing” and “D” with “deficient,” teachers lose the power of meaningful evaluation. Furthermore, students often take those letters and their meaning to heart, believing that if they get an “A” it means they are amazing, not their work. And by extension, if they get a “D,” they are deficient. In the composition classroom this seems especially true, as students associate their writing with themselves — who they are, what they believe, what they hold dear. Assigning letters and numbers to that undermines my teaching and my attempts to challenge their ideas and arguments. So I quit.

When I say I’m “going gradeless,” I’m referring to a growing (in my circles) interest in “contract grading,” or grading that makes an agreement with students that meeting a certain set of criteria will earn them a certain grade. Billie Hara breaks it down further in an article on ProfHacker/Chronicle of Higher Ed. Her article outlines some of the history of contract grading, which (I think) was first introduced by Peter Elbow, famous in the composition world for developing institutional work-arounds that, in theory, make writing courses more meaningful. Hara also describes some of the drawbacks of contract grading, namely that it uses vague terminology that makes it difficult for students to understand what will actually get them the A (or B, or C) they so desire:

How can a student define “exceptional” writing? How does the faculty member define it? How can a contract help a student know how to achieve the “exceptional”? Additionally, …how do faculty evaluate “thoughtful peer feedback” or “sustained effort” on draft writing? For me, many of these items are still subjective, and because they are subjective, are open to grade complaints.

But that issue of vague language — “engaging,” “effective,” “exceptional” — is an inescapable one for writing teachers, is it not? Because what we teach is messy. Is vague. Changes based on rhetorical situation, goals of the writer, medium of composition… but I digress.

When I first decided to try contract grading with my 229 class this semester, I had a number of conversations with colleagues of mine who had tried the approach. One said “I simply can’t make this work.” She’s not sure if it’s the institution (Michigan students are particularly grade-motivated) or the way in which she’s implementing contract grading, but she has yet to be convinced that it’s the “way to go” for her students. Another colleague said it has its drawbacks, but can work well in Professional Writing (what I’m teaching now), because how does one “grade a resume?” I decided to give it a go.

We’re now working on our final assignment of the semester in my Professional Writing course. Students have analyzed genres from various professions and developed professional web portfolios and social media profiles on LinkedIn. They have explored the role of Twitter and Facebook in the professional world, and we are currently working on writing effective proposals and designing pitches. They have had crash courses on visual and textual composition in Photoshop, Illustrator, WordPress, Wix, Weebly, and a few other digital spaces. And I have yet to give anyone a grade — on anything.

And here’s what I’m learning:

  1. Students like it, in theory. On the first day, everyone was like “yeah ok. sounds good.” Signed the contract, walked out of the room. Peachy.
  2. I’m sort of “grading anyway.” I set up the contract such that students, instead of being given a grade, would either be “meeting, exceeding, or not meeting” (B, A, and C respectively) the standards for an assignment. For each assignment, I give them a set of criteria (usually three or four key things I’ll be looking for). For the first assignment, I told them whether they met/exceeded/didn’t meet each criteria. If they didn’t meet any of the criteria (i.e. “got a C”), I invited them to revise. So basically, I graded them anyway.
  3. If I don’t “grade anyway,” I get asked questions.  When I realized I was sort of grading anyway on the first assignment, I changed my approach for the second assignment and just gave narrative feedback in response to their reflections. This prompted some questions about whether or not they were supposed to get a grade, and whether or not they had succeeded at the assignment (regardless of whether or not I indicated in words that they had done well and/or had other things to think about). These questions are understandable. None of my students had encountered contract grading before my class, so I get it. But the contract grader should be ready to explain — multiple times — the reason and logic behind his or her approach to grading.
  4. Students forget to look back at the contract. I got the sneaking suspicion a few days ago that no one has really looked back at the contract since the start of the semester. Which means I think few of them still realize that the “bare minimum” only gets them a B. I got this feeling when a few students verified the number of blog entries they needed to complete. I will need to remind them in the next week or so to revisit the contract, reminding themselves what’s required of them for the grade they seek to earn.
  5. I’m no longer the primary audience (sort of). This is why I actually went gradeless, so I’m glad this aspect of my experiment is going well. Students are paying attention to my feedback, but they are also adjusting their compositional decisions to reflect their classmates’ input (not just mine), and generally asking more questions about how to make their writing more effective for their target audiences (not just me). Certainly, they are still submitting assignments to me, but I see them paying a lot more attention to those external audiences they hope to target in their future professional writing, which (I believe) is making the writing process more meaningful and motivating for them.

I’ll come back to recap at the end of the semester, but for now, I think I like my approach to contract grading. However, I can also see how in other settings and for different courses, my approach could backfire. In many ways, though we might like to shed the expectations of the institutions of which we are part and parcel, doing so is futile. Would I love to teach a class for which I never had to give a single grade? Definitely, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

And one last thing that’s been gnawing at me lately — I have begun to wonder whether or not it’s entirely fair for us to expect our students to be okay with not receiving grades. They are, after all, seeking their educations at institutions with high expectations, and the expectations of their future employers and graduate schools are that they do well in their classes. The way they’ve come to understand what it means to “do well” is through the evaluations — which include grades — that they receive on their work. As the semester has worn on, I have therefore undergone something of a crisis of conscience. I want my students to be compositionists who care about their work because it’s theirs, because they are writers who write for audiences and purposes of their choosing, who seek to make a difference in their world through the things they make and the causes to which they contribute. But my students are also students, and they crave concrete feedback and evaluation from me, their teacher. Academia has “concretized” feedback, and teacher/student roles, by creating grades. Unfortunate, perhaps. Biased, incredibly. But the rule of academia, nonetheless. Who am I to challenge it, even in my smallest of ways? And how fair is it for me to do so with these students?

Pressure’s On

Today, at least in the state of Michigan (and I’m pretty sure in many other states as well), is testing day.

How do I know this? I’m not currently teaching in a public high school, but somehow, the ACT and its conjoined twin, the MME (Michigan Merit Examination), are not only on my radar, they are having an impact on my research and my teaching.

Let’s begin with teaching. I’ve mentioned a few times here that I work with some local students, most of them “Gen 1.5” kids who speak a language other than English at home, giving them some extra English instruction and support. Yesterday, I went to see four students, two of whom are juniors this year. They are both taking the ACT for the first time. I’ve known it was coming up for some months now, because their mothers had alerted me to its date. Yesterday, they were worried (the kids, not the parents. well, in reality, probably the kids and the parents). Not crying, panicking, freaking out, anxiety attack worried, but worried. They asked what pronouns they “could use” on the essay, and they asked how many examples they should have. We talked about what a good thesis might include, and they asked how to improve their reading comprehension scores.

My plans had included talking to them about color imagery in The Handmaid’s Tale and the role of memories and remembering in Beloved, along with a rhetorical analysis of an editorial response to Beloved’s banning in a nearby city high school. So much for that.

These tests are also encroaching on my research plans. Since I’m doing research in a high school this year, I am “on their schedule,” which means while all my buddies at UM and MSU are on spring break, I’m still working. But that work is happening at home this week, because the teachers at my research site are busy proctoring these tests, which run from Tuesday through Thursday and thus eat up the entire week. I need to do full-day observations with my participating teachers soon, and was going to do that this week while my own classes and obligations on campus were cancelled. Momentary brain lapse — I forgot about testing.

So observations will have to wait. No worries. I’m just trying to make education better for students in our nation by learning from incredible teachers how they go about their important work. But we can put that on hold, along with students’ learning, to ascertain (or maybe not) whether they’ve actually learned anything with wildly outdated, culturally and racially biased, over-administered, ridiculous tests.

But what bothers me about this week isn’t the ways in which these tests are impacting my teaching and research life. I will be at the school next week, and it will not be the end of the world that I couldn’t do observations on my own schedule — that’s the life of a researcher. And my tutoring plans can go on hold for another week without these kids (who are all doing just fine in school and will likely do just fine on the ACT this week) suffering any grand consequences. If talking to them a little bit last night about what they can do in an ACT essay conclusion helps them out a little bit today (emotionally or otherwise), then I’m glad we took the time.

No, what frustrates me is that with each passing year, these tests get a little higher-stakes. I can see it in the eyes of my students, in the panicked tone of parents, and in the frustration of teachers, whose livelihoods get more tied to these tests in more states every year (see one teacher’s thoughts on that, among other things). The other day, a teacher was telling me about the standardized testing “police,” people who come in from the department of education to make sure everyone is at attention and no one is cheating with a rogue water bottle. A couple years ago, this teacher posted some comical suggestions of things one can do when proctoring these tests, which, though funny, points out just how ridiculous some of the testing conditions have become for all involved. For more on that, check out this (anonymous) teacher’s depiction of what proctoring these tests is like (read the whole post for the real effect):

The first day of testing is the longest, most physically and emotionally draining.  But days two and three get progressively worse as the voices in our heads start telling us to do crazy things like grab as many test booklets as we can manage and run up and down the hallways of the school, ripping them to shreds while screaming incoherently.

She tweeted from her classroom 20 minutes ago (must’ve been during a break, because I’m pretty sure the school becomes a wifi and 4G deadzone during the test), “Forget Guantanamo Bay. Just force enemies of the state to proctor the ACT for 4+ hours. That’ll drive an innocent person to confess to mass murder.”

Yesterday, a student told me she wasn’t allowed to bring her book in with her (do you remember when you were a kid and you would finish your test early and read, and it would be the best part of testing day — all the reading? Yeah. Those days are gone.) Kids would rather be reading and teachers would rather be teaching, folks.

Teachers and students aren’t the only ones whose nerves are being plucked like guitar strings, either. Every year, the pitch of my tutoring parents’ voices gets a little higher, a little more strained, a little more urgent, when they talk to me about their kids needing to do well on the SAT and ACT. And they want me to start preparing their kids sooner and sooner. They show me the ACT and SAT prep books they bought for their freshmen, or the SAT vocabulary book they want me to use with their 8th graders, and I try really really hard not to scream and run away forever. As someone who’s basically privately contracted, I feel some of the pressure — what if the kids don’t “correctly comprehend” the author of that dry passage’s meaning? Will their parents fire me?

Pressure’s on this week for many students, who must pass the MME to graduate with a diploma, and who want to do well on the ACT so that they can get into a good college. My thoughts go out to them, to their parents, and to their teachers, who are likely pacing up and down rows of desks wishing they were engaging students in a lively discussion about a novel, fractions, or the periodic table right about now.


(One More) NCTE Thought: the common core

I didn’t capitalize the second half of the title out of solidarity. As Mr. S from TPG points out, the common core don’t deserve the status nod of capital letters.

In the days since the convention, I’ve been desperately trying to catch up with my life, which left me behind for two weeks as I first went to NCTE and then came home to a turkey, stuffing, and a couple much-needed days off. Because I’ve been trying to grade unit calendars that my pre-service teachers just turned in, and because I need… need… NEED! to finish this memo so that I can be done with the prospectus, I haven’t been following my feeds or blogs besides an occasional check here and there to see what’s new. But today, it’s back to the normal routine, which means Monday lunch at home in front of my RSS feeds, which usually means a blog post. What I’m noticing today? A lot of frustration with the common core standards. If you don’t know about them… you should. Click here.

Note: as I’m writing this, an email came into my inbox from the NCTE teaching and learning forum entitled “Deadline for Commentaries on the Common Core Extended…” I can’t seem to escape these standards this week.

Mitch Nobis’s post on the ccss and their prevalence at the conference caught my attention, along with Mr. S’s post above. Mr. S came away with a slightly more upbeat take on the standards rhetoric from the conference, but I have to say, like Nobis, I was pretty startled by the prevalence of talk about the common core and the degree to which common core rhetoric is becoming so prevalent in conversations about English teaching. Nearly every third session at NCTE this year was about the common core. What is going on here, folks?

But, on the other hand, it sort of makes sense. This is what teachers are doing in their classrooms and departments right now, and those are the voices we hear at NCTE. And I regret to admit I’m part of the problem. I participated in a group here at UM that put together a common core book series, Supporting Students, with NCTE. I’ve given presentations at CEE and NCTE on working within and beyond the common core in the ELA classroom. When I struggle with my own demons, I usually end up concluding that things like standards and tests are (or at least appear to be) here to stay, so what else can I do but figure out how to work with (around?) them?

As soon as I think that (or worse — as soon as it come out of my mouth), I get angry. Nobis voiced his frustration with the thousands of people who keep saying “I know they’re standards, but they’re not that bad.” I’ve said that, and the fact that I’ve said it makes me mad. At myself. At textbook companies and corporate lobbyists who convinced the federal government that tying these standards to important funding was an ethical thing to do (see post from last week). At myself again. Because isn’t it my job to draw on research and what we know about teaching and learning in my work — not on the common core? Isn’t it my job to push the frontiers of education forward… isn’t that what research is for? By the time it’s all said and done, I’m just mad at everything. I sort of want to scream “WHY ISN’T ANYONE LISTENING TO US?”

So that’s where I am with things this Monday. Now on to this memo, which I really, really, REALLY! need to finish.

NCTE 2012 Reflections: The Corporatization of the American Classroom

I went to a session this morning that featured Linda Christensen (chair), Troy Hicks, Jory Brass, and Allen Webb, entitled “School TM: Teacher Decision Making in the Era of the (For-Profit) Corporate Classroom.” The conversation got heated and emotional very quickly, and I want to use this space to make the comments that I was going to make in the session (but we ran out of time).

Before I reflect, though, here is a link to a wiki the panelists set up describing the corporate invasion taking place in America’s schools. As one of the panelists noted today, if you enter at any point in the corporate network, you’re basically talking to the same group of people; Pearson meets Gates meets ETS… it’s all one big beast.

Click here to see their Wiki and learn more about the corporate culture of American schooling.

Click here to view the backchannel that the panelists set up on TodaysMeet.com.

Now for my two cents…

I wonder about the impact of this corporatization on teacher education and how we can fight back against it. It came up briefly during the discussion, but then fizzled. However, I see some of the effects of this corporatization, though delayed (as always), starting to trickle into our teacher education classrooms as students become concerned about whether or not they are going to be “good enough” at teaching. This pressing question isn’t problematic (it has haunted the minds of pre-service teachers for centuries, I’m sure)… at least, not until “good enough” comes to mean their students’ scores on standardized tests are “good enough” for them to keep their jobs. My pre-service students worry about test scores in the same way juniors in high school have increasingly worried about their scores on the SAT and ACT over the past few years. And I can’t blame them. These early career teachers are receiving very mixed messages about the role of tests and corporate-sponsored technologies and texts in their teaching.

At one point during the session, someone noted that it is the express goal of these corporate networks to decrease enrollment in teacher education in the coming years by something on the order of 30%. Well, it’s working; I’m starting to see the impact in my own school of education. Our last three cohorts have totaled 27 students (this is down from years when we would have multiple cohorts of 18+). This, I believe, is the compounded result of many factors, not least of which include negative portrayals of teaching in the media and the recent upswing in TFA recruits from our university. Each of these things are products of this corporatization of American schooling. Don’t believe me? Read the arguments on the panelists’ wiki.

I left this session fired up. Frustrated. Shaking a little bit (though that could’ve been the double-shot latte I downed beforehand). Which one participant argued was exactly what we should be feeling — angry. Angry that our system is so heavily influenced by people who know nothing about education or the important role of differentiation (not sameness) in educational equity.

But anger never got me very far, so here, I’m trying to consider ways in which to respond positively and productively to this discussion. I think step number one, at least as far as teacher education is concerned, is to make visible to our pre-service teachers the role that corporatization is likely to play in their professional lives such that they can resist it by relying on their (and others’) professional knowledge. Knowledge gained from working with kids, with other teachers, and with individuals who understand what is best for our nation’s schools.

More reflections to come, I’m sure, as I wrap up my weekend in Vegas.