What was the point of our educational policy class this semester? I think the goal of the course was to educate students about the complex history of education policy in the United States. Not only do I feel like I have learned a lot about education policy this semester, I think that I have gotten a lot more out of this course. 

This course brought together students from many different disciplines. There were not just education minors in the class, there were people who studied many different subjects. I think that this offered a unique learning experience because it allowed me to hear opinions on policy from outside the educational perspective. Teachers definitely have a certain opinion about educational policy, however, this does not necessarily ring true for those outside the discipline. 

This course also made us think critically about policies. It is one thing to learn about policies, but it is another to analyze them and see their strengths and weaknesses. I also liked that this class also let us step into policy maker’s shoes and decide how we would change things. I felt like our ideas were valued and there was not just one right way to do things, but a lot of give and take to find a solution. 

I think a lot of classes at Gettysburg end up being very abstract and theory based. I liked that this class brought us out of the clouds and to a more realistic level. It allowed us to develop our own ideas and decide how we would implement them. I think this is a great class for any upperclassman interested in policy or education because it asks us to complete very practical tasks. We are responsible for putting our ideas out there after graduation and most classes do not teach you how to do that in a way other than writing a paper. This class forced us to share our ideas on blogs and write policy briefs or create our own schools. These are real ways to share our ideas and make an impact on educational policy. 

This class will help me grow as a teacher because it allowed me to learn more about the policy that dictates classroom practice. It also helped me form my own opinions of education policies both as it pertains to teaching and the country on a larger level. I will definitely read more critically about education policy and other subjects after taking this course. 

I liked Kirp’s portrayal of Union City in his book Improbable Scholars. He offered an optimistic view of school reform. Not only was the system Union City school district put into place effective, it was also realistic. I feel like too often school reform is portrayed as the action of one enthusiastic teacher giving up everything to help their students. 

Kirp offers an alternative. The district seriously changes the curriculum and supports and trains effective teachers. Yes, the teachers portrayed in the book worked hard, but they were never seen as giving their entire lives to their students. There was room to be flexible within this system and it was ok to fail, as long as you were able to learn and grow from your mistakes. 

It is important to show this side of school reform because it is encouraging to young teachers joining the field. It shows teachers that they do not have to give up their whole lives to be good teachers only to burn out in a few years. Teacher turnover and drop out rates are incredibly high, especially in low-income areas. There needs to be more districts like Union City who offer strong support systems to their teachers, especially when they are young teachers. 

If more schools create a support system and clear, attainable goals for young teachers enter in the profession would not be as intimidating as it is now. Most new teachers are pushed into a classroom and expected to be effective teachers. In reality they need much more guidance. In Union City teachers worked as teams and shared information with other teachers in their grade. Alina Bossbaly also taught writing seminars to her fellow teachers in order to improve how they taught writing. These are great ways to support and encourage young teachers. Finally, the teachers in Union City wanted each other to succeed, which is the most important piece of the puzzle. They were a real team. 

If more districts were to really commit themselves to education reform, like Union City, I think education would greatly improve. However, it will be a lot of work because there is no magic bullet to fix schools. Every district needs to tailor reform to their students and their unique situation. There are some improvements that would be almost universally beneficial, like having more resources, but there are many reforms that would benefit only specific areas such as a bilingual education program. 

Overall, I think Kirp’s book is a must read for teachers and administrators across the country looking to make a change in their school district.

This past weekend I took the PRAXIS II for social studies certification. It consisted of 130 multiple choice questions over the span of several disciplines. Throughout my preparation for the test, I couldn’t help but wonder: what is the point? 

Is it supposed to test my content knowledge? I cannot say it tested this particularly well. It boiled down all of history, government, social sciences, and economics to 130 questions. I don’t really believe that based on a mere 130 multiple choice questions a test can predict that I know enough social studies content to teach it. The questions could also be pretty specific, something I do not think most social studies teachers know off the top of their heads. Not to fear though, you could get the right answer to post questions simply by using common sense to eliminate answers. I felt that anyone with a rudimentary understanding of social studies and good test taking skills could have passed this test with little or no preparation. 

Is it supposed to test my ability to teach? I felt like this test does not measure whether or not you would be a good teacher. There were several test questions which were obviously teaching to the social studies narrative taught in the United States. The test was obviously America-centric, which I do not find to be best practice. Also, just because you can pass this test does not mean that you would make a good social studies teacher. 

I think this test proves very little about either social studies knowledge or teaching ability. Tests like these either need to be more rigorous to truly prove social studies content knowledge or changed to test teaching ability. However, in all honesty I do not think that this test will ever amount to anything meaningful. There is a better way to prove content knowledge and teaching ability through classroom observation. 

The United States is frequently guilty of ignoring the successes of other countries, especially when it comes to other nations. I always wondered if other countries were performing better than us, why not adopt some of their teaching strategies? Finland and South Korea always seem to be on the tip of everyone’s tongues when talking about educational excellence. However, after reading The Smartest Kids in the World, I question if adopting these strategies is realistic for Americans. 

The Korean system emphasizes hard work and rigor, but if students are constantly falling asleep in class are they really getting a quality education. I do not think being number one in the world is worth that kind of stress for children. They spend all of their time doing school work and very little time enjoying themselves, or even sleeping. There is also more to learning than knowing facts, which is a lot of what the Korean educational system seems to be based around. It is important for students to have a well rounded education full of critical thinking skills. 

I also think it would be difficult to institute Finland’s system in America. I think part of the reason Finland is so successful is that they are small and homogeneous. The United States is the exact opposite. We have many different types of people and a much larger country to regulate. I do agree with Finland’s view on teaching. They respect teachers very highly and expect their best and brightest to go into education. Which is not at all the case in America.

In order for America to climb back to the top of the educational ladder, we need to continue to do our own thing, but adapt some of the programs from other high performing countries. We can not take the system of another country and use it to replace our own, places are too different. It would be beneficial however to integrate parts of those systems that seem to be doing well for example, Korea’s rigor and Finland’s respect of teachers. This help to vastly improve American education. 

If I could change one thing about the American educational system it would be to replace standardized testing with a portfolio based system. Standardized testing has caused a myriad of problems such as “teaching to the test.” The high-stakes testing model shows a very one dimensional picture of our students. How did they perform on this specific test at one particular moment in time? It is time to get rid of standardized testing in favor of a more well-rounded approach. I would suggest creating a portfolio system with a heavy emphasis on project based learning.
First we would need a solid set of national standards for all subjects, not just math and reading. I believe these standards should be internationally benchmarked like the Common Core, and include knowledge based and skill based standards. These standards would set a foundation for evaluating students and holding schools accountable. How can we hold schools accountable if there is no testing, you may ask.

That is where the student portfolio comes in. Throughout the year students will create a portfolio of work which will have to meed certain standards. The portfolio will include assessments and projects assigned by the teacher, but it will also be focused on individual projects. Students will explore different topics within the curriculum and create projects demonstrating the skills and content they learned throughout the year. At the end of the year, a panel comprised of teachers and administrators will assess the students’ portfolios to determine whether they will advance to the next grade based on how well the student displays the benchmarks for their grade. Ideally this panel discussion would include the student and parents. Students should be able to help determine their strengths, weaknesses and achievement over the course of the year.

The portfolio method creates a holistic view of the student’s work throughout the year, not just on one specific date. It also shows student achievement in more than reading and math. This holds students accountable for their own work, they can actually see what they have accomplished rather than just a score on a paper. I also believe that this method would not take much more time than the previous method. The panels could meet when tests were previously held and time spent on test prep could now be spend on individualized projects.

Having a portfolio for every student also offers a better view of the student when applying to college. Rather than solely relying on GPA or SAT scores, the college can see works that the student has created and how they have chosen to express what they have learned. Colleges will also be able to see very clearly how the student has grown and changes throughout high school. This gives the college a good idea if that student is a fit for the college or not.

We need to stop looking at our students like they are one-dimensional beings. Not all students are good at the same things, especially not taking tests. Every student should be able to express what they have learned in a way that makes sense to them. It is also important to include art, music, science and history in our assessments of education. While math and reading are the foundations to other subjects, they are not the whole picture, other subjects are needed to create a dynamic education.

Confessions of a Bad Teacher was really shocking. I knew there are many frustrating things about being a public school teacher, especially in low-income schools, however I never pictured anything this severe. At first I couldn’t believe that this school was real, I felt like John Owens had to be exaggerating about the conditions in his school. The regulations about what he wrote on the white board and how he prepared a bulletin board seemed absurd. How could teachers be expected to do these things and write engaging and educational lesson plans? There was also a lack of resources. It would be nearly impossible to prepare for class if you were not sure if the smart board would work or if you would have a computer you could use. Dealing with these issues gets you off to a bad start that will just lead the class towards chaos. 

 The expectations the principal had for her teachers were absurd. They were being set up for failure. I feel like it would be impossible to be a good teacher at the Latinate Institute. I imagine this setting would be incredibly difficult for new teachers. Constantly being told you are a bad teacher would be hard to deal with. After reading this book, it is no wonder young teachers are leaving the profession at such high rates. If I were treated this way during my first year teaching, I don’t think I could continue teaching. I think that young teachers need to be supported rather than bullied. 

I believe that this is an extreme case, however, after talking to my peers in class I think it is more realistic than I originally thought. I think that it is obvious that American children are suffering due to our need to find data for everything. The administration needs to check off boxes and have numbers to show the government which causes good teachers and good students to fall through the cracks. In our effort to leave no child behind, I found after reading this book that more are being left behind than before. 

 Students who are actually trying are being disrupted by students with behavior problems. Students causing trouble are doing so because they are struggling to learn the content and in many cases they are struggling because they have a learning difference and they are not getting the support they deserve. Teachers are not adequately trained to deal with these issues and special education teachers are not as present as they should be. 

After reading this book, it has become obvious that the public education system needs a huge over haul. We need to stop obsessing over data and start focusing on the students and teachers. Education should be about the people, not the numbers. If teachers and students had the support they need our educational system would be a lot better for everyone. Teachers need a strong teacher education as well as time in the classroom with mentorship from an experienced teacher. Students need to have an adequate number of resources as well as a plan to deal with behavioral and learning problems. There is a lot that needs to be changed and unfortunately no one know this because no one asks the teachers what could be improved. I think Confessions of a Bad Teacher is a shocking eye-opener and I hope it leads to change in public schools. 

 

The past week, the news came out about changes to the SAT. The test will go back to 1600 point format, and the essay section will now become optional. They will also eliminate the quarter point penalty on guessing.

Many people are outraged at the changes making claims like “Great, they made the SAT easier now that I’ve already taken it.” Many believe it is giving an unfair advantage, or lowering standards for future college goers. This is the great injustice of the SATs. 

But it isn’t, the real great injustice is that every student who has wanted to attend college for the last 50 years has had to pay the College Board to take this test. It doesn’t matter that the SATs are not a measure of how well you know content, or how well you do in school. It is simply a measure of how well you know how to take the SAT. 

The new SAT also makes some changes to the types of questions that will be asked. Students will no longer be able to focus on tricks and elimination to solve the problems. Students will need to cite evidence to support their answers in the reading section and the math section will focus more on problem solving and real world applications. 

 The SAT, like many other standardized tests, is severely biased towards white, middle-class students. Also the tests are expensive and even if you managed to get a fee waiver, the prep books and courses needed to do well are often out of reach of those living in poverty. The new changes to the SAT also include a partnership with Khan Academy to provide free test preparation materials to those who can’t afford it. Is that really enough to level the playing field? 

I believe, that these changes are too little too late. While these measures may level the playing field and increase the tests validity, it does not change the fundamental structure of the test. Truthfully, these changes aren’t even meant to increase how good the test is, it is meant to help the SAT compete with its ACT counterpart. These standardized tests do not care about how well they are representing students, they are interested in making money. The College Board is a business that is looking out for number one.  

If colleges want a real, holistic view of their potential students they should focus on high school academics, portfolios, extra-curricular activities and interviews. These are student’s real achievements, not some number on a test that doesn’t really test much at all. Colleges should stop looking at standardized tests all together, they do not tell you how well a student will perform in college and regardless of the changes they make, they never will.

Everyone remembers taking standardized tests. You would start out with a line of number two pencils on your desk. What if those pencils never existed? How could  you possibly take a standardized test, pens maybe? Well pens as we know them don’t exist either. There was a time when students didn’t have pens and pencils. 

Pens and pencils were not mass produced until the late 1800s, before that students used either a quill pen or a slate and chalk (Miyamoto 2008). Neither of these were conducive to taking written tests, so oral tests were significantly more popular. Oral tests were “not impartial or objective in measuring achievement, but teachers could judge ability, based on their observation of pupils in their daily work” (Miyamoto 2008).  Students were judged on what they actually learned rather than arbitrary written exams. While oral exams were typically based on rote memorization, they allowed individual teachers to judge student achievement. 

After pencils and metal pens began being mass produced, written tests became the norm. Tests became more objective. Students were expected to meet certain criteria to move on to the next grade level, and now tests could be kept on record as proof of student achievement (Miyamoto 2008). This was essentially the birth of the modern day standards and accountability movement. 

While this is an incredibly simplistic view, and certainly not the only thing that led to America’s fascination with standards and accountability, it is an interesting way to look at it. If pens and pencils as we know them today never existed what would our educational system be like? Perhaps students would still be given oral tests to check their knowledge, and with no record of the tests achievement would be decided by the teacher that worked with the students for the whole year. Students might be accepted to college based on recommendations rather than SAT scores. It is even possible that instead of test prep, students would be focusing on content. 

I’m not saying that life without pencils would be a utopia, far from it. However, I do think its a good idea to put the pencils down once and a while and focus on more on meaningful learning and less on achievement. 

 

Miyamoto, Kenichiro. “The Origins of the Standards Movement in the United States: Adoption of the Written Test and its Influence on Class Work.” Educational Studies in Japan: International Yearbook 3.December (2008): 27-40.

“Students who do well in such a system recognize they are being judged largely on their command of the rules of the game, which reward aptitude rather than sustained effort in the pursuit of clear expectations. All systems have a code; the job of the student is to break it. Some do, some don’t.”

 -Richard Elmore

When I was reading the article by Richard Elmore, the above quotation stood out to me as an astute observation of the United States educational system. The system of accountability and standardized test make education a game to be won, and as long as you know the rules you stand a pretty good chance. Students are succeeding because they know how to take standardized tests, not because they are engaged in learning.

Standardized tests very rarely test content knowledge well. They test your ability to read a question and eliminate the choices that do not make sense. Frequently you are able to get the right answer with rudimentary understanding of the concept as long as you have good test taking skills. More and more often, teachers are taking time out of their day to teach test taking strategies. This is really beneficial to those who grasp these concepts. What about the students who do not understand these strategies? Well they are out of luck.

Teachers are taking time away from the meat of the curriculum in order to cater to a test. A test that is typically biased towards middle class white Americans. These standardized tests give a strong disadvantage to ELL, minorities, and the lower class. Learning the rules is much harder for these groups of students, because the rules entail knowing cultural norms to understand the questions.

The standards movement was created to give everyone an equal playing field, but this is not what ended up happening. In fact, the playing field might be more unequal than ever, and the stakes of the game are through the roof. Students are playing for funding, for teachers jobs, and for a spot in a top university —how else are you supposed to get a job in this economy? This is a lot of pressure to put on students who may already be struggling to begin with. If they do not pass then the whole school goes down with them.

While some students are starting from behind, others have mastered the art of test taking by the third grade. At this point they never have to really learn anything ever again. They pick out the main points they need to know for the test and scrap the rest. They use the process of elimination during the multiple choice section and fill their essays full of buzz words. Then, as soon as they put their pencils down they forget everything they have learned. This is not a sustainable method of education. Students are not making meaningful connections to what they are learning and they are not learning any thing of substance.

The real problem in America is not that teachers are teaching to the test, but that students are learning to the test.

Teachers unions are portrayed as monsters that are haunting the educational system. They act as a barrier to the free market of education. They keep bad teachers employed, they get teachers more pay than they deserve, they protect the interests of teachers and not the students. I think after reading about the NEA and their intense (to say the least) lobby to create the Department of Education, many would believe that teachers unions are really as power hungry as they are portrayed. 

As a future teacher, I think that teachers unions are a necessary evil. Yes, maybe some of the above is true, however without unions how would teachers in America be treated? I believe in our country the profession of teaching is not as professionalized or respected as in many other countries. Teachers bear a lot of the burden and critique for educational failures that they cannot control. I believe that unions act as a safe guard for teachers. Yes, occasionally they keep a bad teacher in a position but more frequently they are protecting good teachers. They also help teachers to negotiate contracts that they would never be able to get otherwise because teachers are seen as expendable. If teachers were paid more competitively like many other professional position, I believe that unions would have less strength in the American educational system. 

Originally, the NEA was an organization that existed to help professionalize teaching. They became a teachers union because the group transitioned from being a mix of teachers and administration to being almost entirely teachers who were interested in teachers rights. It is interesting to consider if the NEA had remained a professional group, would this have let to the professionalization of teaching? If teaching was more of a professional career where teachers were trusted to have autonomy and were respected for their knowledge, would unions even be necessary today? I think that the transition the NEA faced was inevitable with its changing demographic. They could not remain a professional organization and aggressively lobby for teacher’s rights at the same time. 

While there have been several attempts to professionalize teaching, it has never been truly successful in America. I think that this has a lot to do with the fear of giving teachers a lot of power and autonomy in the classroom. There is also the desire to standardize our educational system. It is easier to treat teachers like robots than to train competent teachers that have their own power in the classroom. However, I think that as long as this is the way America views its teachers, teachers unions will be necessary to protect teachers. So, are teacher’s unions good or bad? The answer is more complex than that, they have aspects of both good and bad. More importantly they are rooted in our educational system and as long as the way we view teachers stays the same, teachers unions will remain for better or for worse.