Between Bullets and Bubble Sheets
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Late last summer, the legislature in the state I teach in finalized some changes to my retirement system. Due to one of those changes (pertaining to a new five year wait for retirees to see an increase in their cost of living allowance), I have been telling people I plan on retiring after the end of this school year. While it's true that I have a financial incentive to get out, it's not really the reason I'm walking away from a job I've loved for 30 years. The truth is I am a coward. This is not an easy admission to make publicly, but I am no longer comfortable in the school district where I have made my work life – the same district where my father once taught, and the same district where I graduated high school.
Truth be told, my financial excuse to retire is just a smokescreen; when I told my superintendent that I would be retiring at the end of the year in order to avoid the deadline decreed by the retirement system changes, he did not hesitate to say that he would hire me back. So as far as the money goes, I really could have my cake and eat it too; I could take a retirement, get my cost of living increases, and pick right back up with the same job next year. The truth, then, as to why I feel the need to move on is that I don't have the guts to stick around any more.
Now given the amount of media that has been devoted to school violence in recent weeks, your first guess about why teaching school now fills me with dread and apprehension might be that I'm afraid that the madness that killed students and teachers in Connecticut might somehow show up where I work. If that was your first guess, then you probably are not a public school teacher. The school teachers I know and work with are not much afraid of crazy guys with bullets, but we are having nightmares about crazy guys with bubble sheets.
In the small rural district where I teach, many people consider guns as much a part of their everyday life as country music on their radios. Where I teach, the district always schedules a day off for the first day of deer season, and back at the beginning of my career, students thought nothing of displaying their rifles in the gun racks that hung in the windows of their pickup trucks. While students no longer display their weaponry in the parking lot, it would be ridiculous to assume they don't own it or can't get their hands on it. For at least some of my students, they consider buying and selling guns a hobby no more dangerous or delinquent than trading baseball cards. More often than not, these students started their gun collection through a gift from a relative as a birthday or Christmas present.
While I would rather live in a culture that did not offer my students such easy access to such lethal devices, I am not really concerned about it either. Right or wrong, I mentally categorize school shootings in the same psychic file drawer I put deadly lightening strikes, peanut allergies, and bee stings. I am not saying these are not matters of real concern; I am saying as a teacher, my life is already filled with too many other things to worry about. While all deaths are serious, and my heart goes out to every parent who has lost a child, of all the students I have lost to tragic circumstance, none has died at the end of a gun; they have died while riding four-wheelers, falling out of boats, or driving too fast on rural highways.
My district's response to the recent tragedy in Connecticut was to lock the school's front door and keep an adult posted by the door to let people in. I don't even care if this is a good idea or not; other people can debate the marginal increase of security we gain by paying people with college degrees to devote part of their day to opening doors on the outside chance that some crazy person with a gun might think shooting the glass door apart is too much effort. The danger to my students lives that I'm concerned about – the fear that is driving me to another line of work – is not some loud, random, sensational violence that barges in from the outside; it's the quiet, systemic, corporate violence that is slowly killing us from the inside.
I'll tell you what I'm afraid of. I'm afraid for the future survival of my students and my colleagues, and I do not want to be around to watch the carnage that I know is coming. Soon, because of bureaucratic decisions made regarding how students are to be tested and how teachers are to be evaluated, there is going to be some serious destruction to the lives of people I care deeply about, and I am not willing to hang around and be one more martyr to the cause. On this let me be perfectly clear, there is nothing hyperbolic or fantastic about my comparison of the dangers of bubble sheets to bullets. The difference between the two in terms of lives destroyed is merely in how long it takes for the destruction to set in.
In case you do think I'm exaggerating, then let me lay it out for you. In Ohio, where I teach, the degree of difficultly of the standardized tests and the impact on the lives of students and teachers has gradually been ratcheted up for the past two decades. We started nearly twenty years ago with a “proficiency” test that students needed to pass in order to graduate high school; that initial test was based (supposedly) on what a student should know entering the ninth grade. From there, about a decade ago, the state moved to “the Ohio Graduation Tests,” a series of five tests given at the end of the sophomore year and (supposedly) based on what students were supposed to know by the end of their 10th grade. The big difference between the OGTs and its predecessor is that the newer test covered two more years of material and students had fewer chances to pass them. This fall, the state released its new plan for standardized testings; starting next year school year (or the year following if the details of the funding have not been worked out by the legislature), students will be expected to pass 10 “end of course” exams and an additional “ACT/SAT” style test in order to graduate from high school. If you hear a gurgling sound, it's the future of many well intentioned students and their teachers going down a drain.
With “end of the course” exams, students who fail these particular tests will not only face the humiliation of retaking an exam, but the entire class it was based upon as well. What this realistically means is that a significant percentage of students who would have otherwise graduated high school, will drop out of school because of either their inability to pass these more difficult exams or their unwillingness to spend extra years in high school trying to earn all of their necessary graduation credits. In the past few years, I can count on one hand the number of students who didn't graduate from my high school because they either couldn't pass the OGTs or quit trying, and let me tell you folks, nothing is more gut-wrenching than seeing the principal tell a student in May of their senior year that they will not be walking on graduation night with their peers. How many more students will now quit school because instead of having two years and half years to pass five exams, they will need to pass three or four a year for their first three years of high school? You want to talk about school violence? Let's talk about the economic bomb that blows apart a student's future every time one of them is faced with finding working for the rest of their life without a high school diploma. With the OGTs, Ohio's current graduation rate is 74% (and much, much lower if you are a minority student or come from a family of poverty). How low do you think the graduation rate fall after we have instituted the newer “more difficult” yearly exams? I don't want to be around to find out.
The new state required teacher evaluations are just as draconian. Now, as matter of Ohio law, 50 % of all teacher evaluations are to be based on their students' standardized test scores. Setting aside the argument that a whole host of social and cultural factors have a greater impact on student scores than the efforts of individual teachers, setting aside the argument that these tests can only pretend to assess what they are supposed to measure (I have a Ph.D in composition, and I don't have the foggiest idea how anyone can delineate the difference between what a high school freshman, sophomore, or junior should know at the end of their subsequent English classes), setting aside the sheer waste of instructional time and resources we will will spend on remediating students who will be merely waiting until they reach the age that will legally allow them to dropout; the other 50% of the evaluations come from a newly prescribed rubric that principals must follow that has been designed to document teacher flaws rather than report upon their strengths. This means that even teachers with relatively good student test scores can expect to receive poor evaluations because of the design of their evaluation rubric.
Call me a coward. I do not want to see it as it unfolds. Already I am hearing from first year colleagues who are overwhelmed and disheartened at the sheer inanity of the new procedures we are being asked to follow in anticipation of the coming storm. Veteran teachers have not only been given the financial retirement incentive to leave the profession, but we are seeing our ability to engage students crippled by redundant and meaningless assessments that we are being forced by our administrators to design and score.
This week my principal sent an email to the staff telling us that we were expected to have a “bell-ringer” assessment and a “exit-slip” assessment for every class, every day. Now, a little quick math: suppose I see roughly 120 students a day. That's two pieces of paper per student per class. If I could manage to file, read, score, and record all of these pieces of paper in just 30 seconds per page, it would only add roughly two hours to my daily workload. This, of course, comes on top of all the other data I'm supposed to be collecting to show evidence that I'm doing my job.
Call me a coward. I need to go. The evidence of my teaching used to be the lifelong intellectual and financial success of my students. With the new testing requirements and the new teacher evaluation rubric, my worth as a teacher is being reduced to some statistical analysis based on some arcane logarithm that no one actually believes in. Soon, as a required offshoot of all of this, The State of Ohio (along with many other states) will be positing teachers' names and evaluation scores on an easily accessible public website. Whatever happened to the dignity that came with being a teacher? There is no humanity in being a dot on graph, and given a choice, I'd rather face the bullets than the bubble sheets.