I get lots of mail from both my district and my union (the Fresno Teacher's Association, or FTA), and a lot of it is about what they feel the other is doing wrong. I try to take all of this stuff with a grain of salt, recognizing that from time to time parties on either side tend to exaggerate for rhetorical effect.

However, a recent informational flier from FTA contains a few sentences from its President that just ring so true with me based on recent experience:

"In an era of one-size-fits-all curriculum, we are told by (the district) to individualize the material to fit our students' diverse needs. This is extremely difficult since we work in a district that doesn't provide any materials past what the grade level child would need. Many teachers have 5 or 6 different student ability levels in their class and must rely on their ingenuity to create supplemental materials to fill the curriculum void. This takes a huge amount of prep time; something that is seemingly overlooked by District administrators who feel the path to succes lies in the endless studying of data. However, no time is given to do anything with the information gleaned from the data. When the meetings are over, teachers are often assigned menial assessment tasks, or "homework". The combination of the meetings and "homework" interfere with the time to prepare good lessons."

This is painfully true for me. The district requires all Biology teachers to use the same text. Ostensibly the reasons for this are costs and equity issues, as when a student transfers from one school within the district to another. Now, I have no desire to use another text. I think our text is excellent. I just don't believe the district's main interest in these matters is equity for the students. It's about pushing for equality of outcome instead. A uniform text makes standardized assessments within the district more significant statistically, or at least easier to justify in the public square. It is well-known that the district would like to see the pacing guides already inplemented be used not merely to guide, but to direct the pace of instruction. Again, a 'one-size-serves-all' mentality not only at odds with the best practice of instructors, but on a potential collision course when issues of equity are raised.

Now, negotiating between two values with competing claims is a part of life. Think, for example, about the difference between 'fairness' and 'justice'. But, in a better world, administration and labor would share the risks and opportunities where these things are concerned. Instead, management wants standardization of curriculum and equality of outcomes and they'll attempt to hold the teacher responsible no matter what the result. If I depart from the district script in an attempt to better teach or re-teach a core concept to struggling students, I get flak. On the other hand, if I plow ahead regardless of what's in the student's best interests--which inevitably raises the failure rate---I get flak.

More comically, for the last several years the pressure to ratchet up benchmark performances to prepare for standardized tests has become all-consuming, the number one thing we hear from administration. Teach the standards! Take the benchmarks! Evaluate the data! Follow the pacing guide! The mere suggestion that I would like a little more time before I administer the test led to anonymous 'hints' in my mailbox and a supposed 'non-evaluative' visit from an administrator. But just last week, that same administrator approached me about the staggering increase in student failure rates last semester, which I blogged about previously. Again, this was an informal meeting, but the message was pretty clear: administration is worried that I might be failing too many kids and they want me to justify my practice---even though the way I'm teaching hasn't changed. It's the expectations of students that have become increasingly unrealistic.

As this article demonstrates, it is precisely the practice of the public schools that feeds these unrealistic expectations. Teachers, administrators and school districts are threatened with 'real-world' consequences for failure on standardized tests, and so we have responded by increasingly making those tests the primary focus of education. Yet these tests have virtually no effect on most student's grades, which paradoxically emphasize effort over outcome precisely because of the difficulty we have in defending any sort of objective standard for achievement. All new teachers are not very subtly advised to make sure that it is possible for students of below-average ability to earn an above-average grade based on effort.

Yes, that's irony for you: teachers are evaluated largely on the outcome of a standardized test, while the students themselves largely get through not on the basis of any sort of objective, standardized outcome, but by whether they come to class regularly and do the work. But that is a minimal standard for participation, not meeting any bar for excellence! No one would say that a teacher is excellent simply because they never took sick days and put in their forty hours every week. Why would we want students to believe that constitutes any sort of real-world performance standard?

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