Tales from the trenches

State mandates, rote reading lessons and test overload aren’t creating ‘accountability,’ they’re keeping teachers from helping children learn.

Jesus Cortez

Jesus Cortez

Photo by Tom Angel

Giving up: According to the magazine Education Week, 20 percent of new teachers quit within three years of joining the profession; half of them do so within five years. Low pay and even lower morale are often cited as the reasons.

Want to respond? Comments on this writing project may be sent to the following e-mail address: EDMA303@hotmail.com

In their quest for “accountability,” politicians have stuck their noses—and much more—into the classroom. The result: rote memorization, scripted reading classes, a culture built on narrow testing, and deepening teacher frustration. In this group of essays, seven local teachers address the problems—and call passionately for a return to “the art of teaching.”

The teachers returned to student status for a Spring 2002 graduate-level course called Foundations to Bilingual Education, in the Department of Professional Studies in Education at Chico State University. They initially wrote at the direction of Professor Jesus Cortez, who likes to tell his graduate students, “Teachers need to become activists.” These teacher-writers are frustrated that the creativity of their profession—its very art—is being sacrificed in the name of the scores on some arbitrary test.

“These teachers’ professional insights serve to stimulate dialogue on how best to create balance in a current educational climate in which schools face the perils of grim state budget cutbacks and at the same time spend millions of dollars on standardized testing and scripted reading instruction,” Cortez says. “These are schools where, too often, achievement is measured only through standardized tests and where aptitude is determined solely by test preparation and performance.”

He hopes his students never lose their passion for the art of teaching.

Shannon Rooney, who coordinated and edited this writing project, became a high school English teacher last year.

From eager readers to blank stares
by Toya Rain Wilson

I remember that first day. As I drove farther away from my house and closer to my new job, my terror and excitement grew. I was a teacher. I felt powerful. I knew that one year in my class could change children’s lives.

I drove for the hour that would take me from my small apartment in Chico into another world, a world of generational poverty. The families in the area where I would teach were some of the poorest in our state. Many didn’t speak English, and problems with alcohol, drugs and domestic violence were rampant. Several children lived with grandparents or great-grandparents because their parents were either in jail or dealing with drug addiction.

Shannon Rooney

Photo by Tom Angel

During that first year I was told that Children’s Services could no longer take cases of neglect in the area. They were too overburdened with cases and would accept only new cases of abuse, not neglect.

That first day I knew I would make a difference for the kids in my class. I had grown up poor; my mother had been on welfare. There had been problems with alcohol, drug abuse and domestic violence in my family. I had supported my own daughter on welfare while I attended college, and I had made it. I felt I had a key, and I knew how to pass it on to the kids who would be in my class. This key would let them out of the cycle of poverty.

Those first several years were great. The children in my class learned to love school, and they learned that education was their key to another life. I knew all of the children, their likes and dislikes, their hopes and dreams and their family situations. I loved my job.

Then things began to change in my school district. Proposition 227 (the “English only” proposition) passed, making it impossible for me to communicate effectively with most of the students in my class, even though I spoke their language. The children who spoke little or no English were expected to be left behind until they learned English. What had once been an array of interested eyes looking up at me had diminished. The few eyes still looking up at me became glazed with boredom.

Then my district, in a fight against low test scores, adopted a new scripted literacy program. I was told to read my part of the script from the teacher’s guide and to train my kids to respond with their scripted answers. Being a teacher, I was excited that this new program was going to help me raise student achievement. I happily went back to the kids and was one of the first teachers in our district to implement the new program.

It didn’t take long for me to realize it wasn’t working. I followed the script and tried and tried to train my children into the proper responses. Again and again, the children looked back up at me with blank stares. I continued on, thinking that once they got used to the program they would know how to respond. The children knew they were not getting it the way they were supposed to, and many began to give up.

Reading with the kids in my class became the worst part of the day. Reading changed from the stories the children loved to just sounding out words to practice a new sound. The children hated reading the books that came with our program. They would groan and complain when it was their turn to read with me, even when I bribed them with stickers and prizes. Now even fewer eyes looked up at me with excitement and interest.

Each day brings another heartbreak as I am forced to serve up injustice to the children in my class. I still love the kids, although I don’t know them as well anymore. There just isn’t enough time, with all of our scripted programs, to get to know them. The key I used to have is still there; I am simply not allowed to use it. I want educational policy to change so I can use that key again!

Toya Rain Wilson has been teaching for five years as a bilingual kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Ella Elementary School in Olivehurst.

Toya Rain Wilson

Photo by Tom Angel

When you know how to teach but can’t
by Stacy Pearce

The push for better test scores has increasingly made the teaching profession more and more akin to an endless expanse of arid land. Teaching—and learning—should be an oasis.

As a teacher, parent and reading specialist, I am concerned with what I see happening in education today. I have been teaching for eight years and have witnessed some serious changes in public schools education—changes I believe are having and will continue to have a detrimental effect upon our children.

The adoption of scripted programs and the exclusion of teachers from the selection process for curriculum, textbooks and professional development have led to much teacher frustration. This lack of teacher participation with regard to key issues has led many good teachers to abandon the classroom, undoubtedly in search of greener pastures.

Consider the following: 2002 is an adoption year for the reading/language arts curriculum, and at the elementary level most states have at least six or seven programs from which to choose. The California Board of Education, however, has adopted only two scripted phonics-based reading programs—Houghton Mifflin’s A Legacy of Literacy and McGraw-Hill’s Open Court Reading—for the entire state to use for grades K-6, starting in September.

The state does not require schools to choose either of these programs, but they are the only programs for which the state will pay. Schools do not have the money to buy an alternative reading/language arts program, so, in essence, they are forced to choose from the two programs adopted by the state. [Ed.: The Chico Unified School District will begin implementing A Legacy of Literacy in the 2002-03 school year.]

These scripted programs provide no variety in the curriculum or in the instructional methods used to teach it. The teachers’ books specify exactly what the teacher is supposed to say, exactly how the students are supposed to respond, and exactly how much time should be spent on each component. These programs allow little hands-on learning and absolutely no integration of other curricula, and they assume that teachers do not know how to teach and that all students learn in the same manner.

Those students who need a variety of instructional techniques to succeed will fall through the cracks, and those students who read well, yet are forced into the same boring routine every day, will begin to hate reading. Imagine what it would be like to eat pizza every day for six years. Eventually, you would hate pizza!

Stacey Pearce

Photo by Tom Angel

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this situation is that teachers’ hands are tied. Teachers are asked to serve on textbook selection committees, yet their opinions and expertise are often ignored. Teachers know their students’ needs, yet they are unable to meet those needs—because if they deviate from the scripted reading programs at all, they get into trouble.

Teachers are no longer allowed to discuss curriculum or strategies for teaching, because doing so is often viewed as an attempt to undermine the current program. Teachers are being held accountable for their students’ test scores, yet they have no control over what they are teaching. It is a crime when the people who are closest to the students—the teachers—know and understand the individual needs and interests of the students and have been trained in and understand teaching strategies, and yet are left out of the loop when major decisions are being made that affect those same students.

Politicians need to step back and let the people who know what is best for students take charge. Teaching and learning need to become an oasis once again.

Stacy Pearce is a reading specialist and G.A.T.E. (Gifted and Talented Education) coordinator and teacher who has taught for eight years. She currently teaches at Antelope Elementary School in Red Bluff.

Low pay will turn off new teaching force
by Marianne Hamilton

When I started teaching 30 years ago, the idea of women teaching just to earn a little extra income was starting to change. Nowadays, teaching is a profession that deserves a professional salary.

The market for new college graduates is growing, with salaries for graduates entering the computer science, engineering and math professions much higher than those for graduates entering the teaching profession. The longer teachers stay in the education field, the more the salary gap widens. It is not difficult to see why so many young people feel their professional goals can best be met in a field other than education.

During the 1990s, public education benefited from increased investment by states and the federal government, according to the National Education Association. But even as more money was invested in public education, teachers’ salaries remained stagnant—in spite of the period of economic expansion the United States was enjoying.

If we, as a society, are serious about promoting and upholding student achievement, we need to ensure we can attract and retain high-quality, well-prepared, dedicated teachers. “Nothing has a more profound effect on a child’s achievement than the quality of his or her teacher, and it is hard to convince someone to stay in the classroom when the salary is so low,” says NEA President Bob Chase.

Marianne Hamilton

Photo by Tom Angel

According to Education Week, which covers education issues, the earnings gap between teachers and other college graduates grew substantially during the late 1990s. By 1998, older teachers with graduate degrees earned an average of about $25,000 less than their peers. Low salaries discourage people from both entering and staying in the classroom. If professional salaries for teachers fail to materialize, how will we attract the 2.2 million people—the nation’s projected need—into the teaching profession?

Another contributing factor to the teacher shortage is the huge discrepancy in salaries among districts. In an area with several small- or medium-sized districts within a 20-mile radius, I have seen differences of as much as $14,000 per year on salary schedules for teachers at the top end of the scale.

Last year, my district lost several excellent young teachers to high-paying districts just a few miles away. These teachers did not want to leave their schools, but they felt they had no other option. Most teachers like to stay in the same district, but these teachers were looking to their futures and the futures of their families.

All of the wonderful programs in the world will not help children if qualified, dedicated teachers are not available. Connecticut has raised teachers’ salaries and equalized those salaries throughout the state, making it easier for poor districts to attract certified teachers. California would do well to follow suit.

Marianne Hamilton is a reading intervention coordinator at Luther Elementary School in Live Oak. She has taught at the primary level for more than 30 years.

Politicians should stay out of curriculum decisions
by Sara Garrett

Simply put, classroom teachers need to have a say.

In the public schools, there is an overwhelming lack of materials, programs and funding in general. But “raising the test scores” is always the goal. Does this really make sense? To an educator, it doesn’t, but the policymakers seem to think it does. If we want to raise test scores, we can raise test scores. But is that really teaching? Are the students actually learning? What are we proving and to whom?

Sara Garrett

Photo by Tom Angel

In the few years I’ve taught, I have witnessed many changes: A new program is adopted, a class is cut, a form is revised, a new law is implemented. With all the changes that occur, the most important aspect that should be considered—the student—is forgotten. The policymakers make these changes ostensibly to help the schools and benefit the students. In reality, this is not what happens.

A classic example of this “disconnect” between politics and education is the Unz Initiative, also known as Proposition 227. Two individuals proposed the Unz Initiative, a wealthy businessman from the Silicon Valley and a kindergarten teacher. Both portrayed themselves as doing what was in the best interests of learners, but they were really trying to gain political prominence for themselves.

The Unz Initiative says, “All children in California public schools shall be taught English as rapidly and effectively as possible.” The rhetoric within the lengthy document was so well crafted that voters were swayed into believing that an “English only” policy was best for children who are not native speakers of English.

According to the Unz Initiative, in California a child has but one year to acquire the English language. Ronald Unz, the man behind this crusade, is not a classroom teacher, nor did he do his research so he would know it takes the average child five to seven years to become English proficient and able to synthesize information taught at the highest level in English.

Unz apparently didn’t think enough was being done to help non-native speakers of English, and his way of “helping” them “easily acquire full [English] fluency” was to pass a law forcing teachers to teach students English in one school year. Those of us who are native speakers of English have had our whole lives to master the language. An immigrant child coming into this state gets only one year—not to mention that full English immersion strips students of their cultural identity, which is so directly linked with language.

This is the kind of insanity that takes place year after year when individuals with political power try to do (or at least “appear” to be doing) “what is best” for students in public schools. The only people the Unz Initiative benefited were its sponsors. The teachers who must teach English to non-native speakers of English have not benefited, the students themselves have not benefited, and the public schools have most certainly not benefited.

Our educational system is in desperate need of revision. Instead of politicians and powerful individuals making education-related decisions, the teachers need to make the decisions. Teachers are the ones who are most knowledgeable about education; they have gone to school to study education and are trained to do what is best for their students. It’s time to allow teachers to be the professionals they are. Educators, not politicians, should be making the decisions about student learning!

Sara Garrett is a middle-school special-education teacher who has been teaching for four years. She presently teaches at Bidwell Junior High School in Chico.

Jenny Motoya

Photo by Tom Angel

There will never be enough tests to appease critics
by Jenny Montoya

I am one of those people who would describe teaching as “a calling.” I always knew that whatever I dedicated my life to would have to make the world a better place.

From experience with a long-term substitute position in a combination seventh/eighth-grade class, to teaching beginning reading to kindergarteners, first-graders and second-graders, I soon realized that for a child to create success in life, he must know how to read.

A few years ago, the school district where I teach implemented a school-wide scripted reading program. It was awful. The thrill of learning to read was gone, and the spark in the children’s eyes began to dissipate. Yes, “test scores” were rising, but at what expense? That year I had my first- and second-graders write what they liked most about the school year and what they liked least. It broke my heart when 11 out of 20 wrote they liked going to reading group least of all.

That same year, the district made our kindergarten and first-grade students take the SAT9. It was, at best, grueling. Some of the children were crying, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few teachers were too. I began researching the effects high-stakes testing can have on students, teachers and curriculum. The following year I presented my findings to the administration. The administration determined that tests of this magnitude were not appropriate for kindergarteners and first-graders; therefore, we would not have to subject the younger students to the test in future years. Success, right? I suppose on a small scale, it was—but, in the broader view of things, not really.

Day and days of testing are a reality not only at my school, but at every other school in California, as well. By 2003, students in 28 states—including California—will not graduate from high school without first passing a statewide exit exam. Even if a student has a high grade point average and has never missed a day of school, he or she will have to pass the exam before receiving a diploma.

In accordance with the exit exams and various achievement tests increasingly used ostensibly to measure student achievement, schools now implement more and more programs that do little else than prepare students for taking these tests. Regardless of the diversity of learners, schools now often “dumb down” their curriculum and focus on rote memorization, since that is usually what the exams demand. Children learn to deal with multiple-choice questions that have one “right” or one “wrong” answer. Tests do not cover critical thinking and problem-solving skills; thus, these skills are being abandoned in the classroom.

Do we really want our schools turning into giant “test prep” centers? Having taught for six years, I see this happening.

We teachers are asking ourselves: What has happened to “the art of teaching"? With our new “accountability system,” what we used to call teachable moments have simply become annoyances. It is nearly impossible to take a month to do an interactive thematic unit that will engage students to think critically.

Kathy Dailey

Photo by Tom Angel

Our goal as educators formerly was to guide students to become active, independent thinkers and members of society. But the way education is headed, students will be “programmed” to think in a very narrow manner, where there is one right or wrong answer for everything. As a society, we are, in essence, creating very single-minded people who can’t think outside of the box or the bubble. Is this what we want for our children?

The relentless push toward high-stakes testing is leading some prospective teachers to rethink whether they want to go ahead with a career where the focus of their work will be “raising test scores” rather than providing good, sound, thought-provoking instruction and guidance to children.

Not only are teachers feeling the pressures of testing, but students are, too. Students report a great deal of stress in response to the successive days of all-day testing, the scores that seem to “mark” them as achievers or non-achievers, and the pressures the schools now places on students to “do well” on the tests.

Parents, administrators, teachers and students need to unite in taking schools back from testing-obsessed politicians. Certainly, tests do have a place in education; authentic assessments (assessments that teachers can use to guide instruction) are critical for finding out what a student knows and what needs to be taught. The problem arises when the tests used to assess knowledge are not aligned to the curriculum being taught, or when the tests put students at an unfair disadvantage (due to language barriers, cultural biases inherent in the construction of the tests, or other issues out of the students’ control), or when the test results alone are used to make serious and far-reaching decisions about education.

Two summers ago, a grass-roots coalition made up of parents in Wisconsin stopped a high-stakes graduation test in its tracks. In Michigan and Ohio, parents are organizing boycotts of the state exam. In Danvers, Newton, and Cambridge, Mass., students have courageously refused to take the tests, and in Harwich, Mass., a teacher decided he could not in good conscience hand out the exams. High-stakes testing is about politics; it is not at all about educating children. Here in California, we must re-focus our energies and efforts and uphold what is truly important in education: our students!

Jenny Montoya-Marr is a reading teacher at Gerber Elementary School in Gerber who has been teaching for six years.

I want my kids to love learning
by Kathy Dailey

When I was 9, I couldn’t wait to go to school each day. My third-grade teacher was different from other teachers. Sure, we learned all of the usual subjects—reading, spelling, math—but we also used these disciplines to explore other fascinating topics. Sometimes we were even allowed to vote on what we would study.

Tyrone Miles

Photo by Tom Angel

Although my third-grade teacher was definitely the best, I continued to have teachers throughout my elementary years who sparked my curiosity for knowledge. In this optimal learning atmosphere, I developed a lasting love for learning, and my positive experience in school is largely the reason I chose to become a teacher. I believe the classroom is a place of discovery, and I love sharing the excitement of learning with my students.

For a few years now, I have been away from teaching and have been at home raising two small children. I am now enrolled in a master’s program, and I am concerned and saddened as my classmates talk about the changes taking place in some school districts. I listen as teachers talk about the push for “accountability” and how it has given rise to a new standards-based curriculum that encompasses a very narrow view of the learning process.

State standards now strictly dictate what should be learned at each grade level, and the new scripted reading programs have been developed primarily to address these standards, not to encourage a love for reading within children.

The problem is that these programs are very unbalanced and rely mostly on worksheets and drills to prepare students for their standardized tests. Many teachers are under intense pressure to read directly from the teachers’ manuals and are not allowed to modify or enrich curriculum. Of course, students quickly become bored with worksheets and drills.

Thinking back to my experience as an elementary-school student, I can’t imagine being expected to succeed in this type of environment. When it comes to learning, motivation is everything!

As a teacher, I am worried about what the state of public education might be when I return to work in a few years. Will the preoccupation with high test scores suck all of the life out of the classroom? Will I be allowed to use techniques I know work well, or will I be required to adhere strictly to my “script"?

As a parent, I am also concerned for what my own children will encounter when they enter the public schools system. Certainly, creating standards and asking that teachers address these standards in their teaching is a good idea—but having teachers simply “teach to the test” is not!

Kathy Dailey is an elementary school teacher who previously taught for one and one-half years. She most recently taught kindergarten at Helen Wilcox Elementary School in Palermo.

Still hopeful about a career in teaching
by Tyrone Miles

Has anybody ever told you teachers have an easy job? If so, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but somebody lied to you.

I’m currently simultaneously enrolled in the teaching credential and education graduate programs at Chico State University, and I’m scared. You may ask, how can a 6-foot 4-inch, 235-pound guy be scared to teach children? But think about it: Teaching is similar to parenting—the things you say and do as a teacher can and will affect children either positively or negatively for the rest of their lives.

I’m 26 with very little teaching experience. Coming from an interracial family (African-American and Caucasian) and living in a predominantly Hispanic community have provided me with the necessary social skills to interact with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures.

In addition to my childhood experiences, the jobs I’ve had in the last three years will help shape me into the best teacher possible. As a United States Border Patrol agent, I’ve seen the lengths families will go to so they can provide a better life for their children. The possibility of sacrificing their lives and the lives of their loved ones is the chance they’re willing to take. In my experience as a Juvenile Hall counselor, I’ve seen what a lack of love, attention and education can do to a child. Sitting in a tiny jail cell, lonely, tired and hungry, is not an experience I want any child ever to have.

The classroom and the school demographics today are much different than they were 25 years ago. Teachers are challenged with educating students from many different cultures and with many different native languages—all together in one room. Teachers have less autonomy, and often they are directed to use scripted programs to accomplish their tasks. The SAT9 and other high-stakes tests that are administered in no way assess the students’ full academic abilities. Resources are scarce, funding is at an all-time low, and teachers’ salaries are at an abysmal level.

So you may want to ask me: Why do you want to be a teacher? The answer is easy: I want to be a teacher because I know I can make a difference. It’s not the secure paycheck involved or the weekends and summers off. For me, it’s about doing the one and only thing that can bring me true fulfillment in my life, and that’s teaching kids every day with the idea in mind that I can—and will—have a positive influence on the lives of my students.

Tyrone Miles is a teaching credential and graduate student at Chico State who plans to enter the teaching field in a couple of years. He wants to teach in an alternative-education setting.