Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Teacher’s World Is “Not All Flowers and Sausages”

We picture elementary school as a bastion of learning, teeming with the creativity and inspiration that flows from the collective energies of the dedicated faculty. But “It’s Not All Flowers and Sausages,” according to “Mrs. Mimi,” who depicts in her new book a reality where devoted teachers struggle to engage and enlighten their students amid a suffocating environment. The book is based on the popular blog by “Mrs. Mimi,” the pseudonym assumed by second grade teacher Jennifer Scoggin.

It’s Not All Flowers and Sausages: My Adventures in Second Grade (Kaplan Publishing) is highly amusing and thoroughly entertaining due to Ms. Scoggin’s breezy narrative style, sharp wit and biting sarcasm. Although she relates her story with humor and aplomb, the underlying message comes across loud and clear. Dedicated, talented teachers are constantly encumbered by administrative hassles, unnecessary distractions, and counterproductive colleagues.

While the book recounts the frustrating obstacles Ms. Scoggin faces daily, her passion for teaching and rapport with her students is palpable and touching.

In the book, Ms. Scoggin takes us inside her New York City classroom, where we meet her students (she calls them her friends), colleagues and administrators. She candidly discusses her interactions and observations. Time and again we see how her efforts to impart knowledge and skills to her students are hamstrung by a raft of assessment tests, mountains of paperwork, time-wasting policies, and intrusive meetings and assemblies.

And then there are the constant disruptions, such as inconsiderate visitors and irritating phone calls. Ms. Scoggin talks about the morning three plumbers barged into her classroom and started turning the faucets on and off while talking loudly, distracting the students. One engaged in a personal conversation on his cell phone. The men returned to the classroom in the afternoon to change a light bulb. One of them actually stood on a student’s desk while the child was working at the desk.

Detractors who dismiss Ms. Scoggin as a complainer are missing the point. It’s Not All Flowers and Sausages offers administrators, taxpayers, parents and the governmental powers that be valuable insight into the real problems facing our school systems—problems that threaten to impede our teachers and hamper the success of their students.

Drowning in a Sea of Tests

Ms. Scoggin is currently taking some time off from teaching to pursue her doctorate in education. I had the opportunity to speak with her recently about the issues she raised in her book. She cited the crush of assessment tests as one of the biggest challenges she faced as a teacher.

“When they start mandating a prescriptive curriculum, and all the paperwork that comes with that, these are all things that eat away at a teacher’s time and creativity,” she says. “There’s so much pressure around it, you end up having to cater all your instruction to the tests rather than the students’ needs and interests.”

Every year she was required to add a new test to the schedule, and some duplicated existing tests.

“Elementary school is about having magical, creative experiences, and that’s just gone, and that’s a huge loss,” she says. “Those experiences are the most powerful ones, the ones people remember into adulthood. There’s so much learning happening.”

Administering the tests cuts into instruction time, as does preparing students to take the tests. They have to learn the tricky language on the tests and engage in practice drills.

“I believe if you have good teaching and non-scripted curriculum, and you teach really well and deeply, that’s your test prep,” Ms. Scoggin says. But that’s not enough at many schools, which are under pressure to deliver acceptable test scores. Teachers are often required to focus on test preparation, limiting the time they can spend on valuable lessons and activities. “Because that pressure is so high, I question whether or not the kids are prepared to do anything.”

Ms. Scoggin agrees with the many educators who warn that standardized tests are not a valid measure of a child’s aptitude.

“It’s a very narrow way of looking at intelligence and a very narrow way of looking at how we’re doing,” she says.

Schools often mandate the teacher’s curriculum, such as the reading program used in the class. “They don’t give you any control, and then they judge you on the results. That’s a scary scenario,” Scoggin says.

Shackled by Bureaucratic Red Tape

Ms. Scoggin was also stymied by a lack of support from some administrators, staff members and parents.

“When you’re working with people who are not as invested as you are, it makes it more difficult than it needs to be,” she says.

The unrealistic demands on her time, including paperwork and filing procedures, were also frustrating, she says.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘Do an hour of math, an hour of this, an hour of that,’ and it adds up to 15 hours. They put things on you that are physically impossible, and then they say, ‘You work it out.’”

Reaching Out to Parents

Ms. Scoggin’s persistent efforts to involve parents eventually yielded positive results. Only a couple of parents would show up for parent-teacher conference night or volunteer to chaperone field trips when she first started. Later they were lined up outside her door for conferences, and she had to compile a waiting list for field trips.

To keep parents informed, she sent out a monthly newsletter recapping what the students learned in the previous month. She also provided advance notice of upcoming events, such as concerts, field trips and writing celebrations, and welcomed parents to attend.

She sent home packets that complemented her lessons, including games and activities parents could do with their children at home. She also sent home bags of school supplies to ensure parents and students had the necessary materials to work at home. She paid for a lot of the supplies herself, but she also accumulated them from a variety of sources, such as the website, donations from generous friends, and contributions from parents.

To involve parents in the class, she found out whether they had a special talent, such as art or cooking, and invited them in to share their expertise with the students. Parents who came into the class received a thank you note from her and from one of the children, who wrote the note on behalf of the class.

If she was unable to reach a parent to discuss an issue their child was facing, she kept detailed records reflecting every attempt to make contact.

Ms. Scoggin says parents may avoid their child’s teacher if they think the teacher communicates only when their child is struggling with a problem. To counter this perception, she sent positive notes home periodically.

In the beginning of the year, she and her students would write a positive note about each student together. The activity served as a shared-writing exercise and allowed the students to get to know one another. It also reinforced positive behavior because the students enjoyed the recognition from their peers.

Learning from “Mrs. Mimi”

When asked what teachers need to be successful, Ms. Scoggin cited the following:

* More freedom and control over their time. The interaction between the student and the teacher is the most important factor in determining a student’s success, based on Ms. Scoggin’s research for her doctoral degree. “The more demands they put on teachers, the less time we have to develop that interaction and become experts at that part of our job,” she says.

* Access to the proper supplies and materials. “It’s important that they ask us what we need,” she says. “I would get a handful of googley eyes and rubber bands. I need pencils.”

* Input into policy decisions. “Teachers need to feel more invested in the school as a whole,” she says. Federal and state governments should also gather input from teachers when formulating education policies. “Decisions are coming from the top, which doesn’t make sense when the most important interaction is happening at the bottom.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Low Marks for Obama’s Education Reform Plan

“A race to the top has begun in our schools,” President Obama declared in a speech about education reform at James C. Wright Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin, last week. The President acknowledged that the strength of our education system will “determine the quality of our future as a nation.” I agree with his assessment, and I applaud his efforts to invest in education.

However, the reform plan he outlined has the following basic flaws:

* Turns education into a political football.

* Advocates performance pay for teachers.

* Renews the inappropriate focus on testing.

* Neglects to incorporate parental involvement.

Playing Politics With Education

Since the Obama administration first announced the $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” fund in July, state governments have been scrambling to position themselves as worthy recipients of grant money. It makes you wonder whether it will all come down to politics. The states that somehow demonstrate they’re the most committed to the Obama administration’s policies will be rewarded.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to give schools, teachers and students the resources they need to succeed before we question their abilities? We know that many schools, particularly those in low-income areas, lack basic instructional supplies and materials. I’ve heard too many stories about teachers purchasing their own classroom supplies, such as readers, textbooks and paper. They also buy school supplies for students who can’t afford them.

Many schools are also under-staffed. Let’s hire more teachers, teaching assistants, special education instructors and support staff so that we can reduce class size and give students the attention they deserve.

But before schools, teachers and students can receive the funds they need to operate effectively, state governments will have to prove they’re making an effort to reform based on the government’s criteria. This likely means teachers will have to devote more time to onerous, unnecessary and distracting bureaucratic red tape and less time to lesson preparation and instruction.

The Trouble With Performance Pay

To be eligible to apply for grant money, states have to repeal laws that prevent schools from evaluating teachers based on student performance. While linking student performance to teacher quality seems logical, it’s not that simple:

* Even the most dedicated and talented teachers may miss the mark if they are faced with unmotivated students, uncooperative parents or unsupportive administrators—all of which create obstacles to success.

* Many educators contend that standardized test scores are not a valid measure of student knowledge.

* A merit pay program launched in Texas in 2006 failed to generate the academic improvements anticipated, according to a recent study.

* The recent focus on testing, driven by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), has led to significant growth in spending on materials used for test preparation and assessments. Spending on testing and assessment has increased faster than spending on basal or supplemental instructional materials for the last five years.

* Teachers are forced to devote too much time to test preparation.

NCLB Reincarnated

Basically, the President’s education reform plan consists of four goals that our school system is already striving to meet: setting high standards, hiring good teachers, tracking student performance, and improving low-performing schools. There’s really nothing new here. In fact, the plan seems to reflect the NCLB’s emphasis on testing. But the new plan goes a step farther: we won’t just be evaluating students based on standardized tests, we’ll be evaluating teachers as well.

Following are the four measures states will have to meet:

* Setting high standards and creating better assessments.

Although president Obama said, “This is not just about more tests” and he doesn’t want “young people being taught to the test,” this component of the reform plan rejuvenates the focus on testing.

* Hiring effective teachers and principals.

The president said this means doing a better job of recruiting and preparing new teachers, rewarding outstanding teachers, and removing bad teachers. But how are we going to distinguish the outstanding teachers from the bad teachers? Again, the Obama administration seems to value student test scores as a key measure.

* Tracking the progress of students and teachers.

This means collecting information about each student’s performance during the year and over the course of the student’s academic career, and providing it to teachers “so they can use it to improve the way they teach.” I was surprised at this component of the plan because I thought this effort was already taking place.

* Transforming low-performing schools.

For states to meet this requirement, they have to be willing to replace a school’s leadership and at least half its staff. But new administrators and teachers will likely face the same challenges and obstacles to success the previous staff faced, such as a lack of resources and parent support.

Parent Involvement Is Key

I wholeheartedly agree with one thing the President said toward the end of his speech: to improve America’s education system, parents need to get more involved in their child’s education.

I believe this is the key to success, not a focus on testing and assessments. We need to concentrate more on encouraging parents to communicate high expectations to their children and to support their children’s teachers. Teachers must also reach out to parents in an effective and positive way, and view parents as resources and partners.

Although the President acknowledged the importance of parent involvement, parent outreach is not officially part of the reform plan.

If we’re engaged in a “Race to the Top,” each student needs his or her own team, consisting of the child’s parent (or another supportive adult) and the child’s teacher or teachers. For any team to operate effectively, every member must make a commitment. But they need the proper equipment to truly succeed.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Sad State of Affairs

Is anyone happy with our education system?

* Teachers aren’t. A new study by Public Agenda and Learning Point Assoc. revealed 40% of teachers are “disheartened.”

* Students aren’t. When Highlights magazine asked kids, “What is your biggest problem right now,” more than 23% said schoolwork. Survey participants cited schoolwork most often, surpassing sibling issues (8.7%), parental issues (8.1%), friendship issues (7.3%), illness/physical problems (5.6%), and bullies (4.3%).

* President Obama isn’t. Education reform is high on the President’s agenda.

The Public Agenda study identified three groups of teachers: disheartened (40%), contented (37%), and idealists (23%). According to an article in Education Week, “The view that teaching is ‘so demanding, it’s a wonder that more people don’t burn out’ is remarkably pervasive, particularly among the disheartened, who are twice as likely as other teachers to agree strongly with that view.”

Interestingly, disheartened teachers expressed frustration with students (“disorder in the classroom”) and the bureaucracy (“an undue focus on testing”)—the two other groups that are dissatisfied.

The Obama administration seems to be dissatisfied with teachers. The administration’s “Race to the Top” plan promotes a merit pay system, which would hold teachers solely accountable for student achievement (see my July 29 blog post on this issue). And U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently stated that the nation’s teacher colleges “are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st century classroom,” according to an Education Dept. press release.

Media outlets were quick to agree. An editorial in The Philadelphia Inquirer stated that Duncan’s assessment “confirms what lackluster student performance on standardized tests has shown for years. Reforming public education and boosting student achievement must begin with better teacher training - mediocrity is unacceptable.” And an editorial in the Ft. Worth Star Telegram stated, “Most of the criticism I hear about teachers colleges — from education professors, student teachers and teachers in the classroom — centers on the idea that teachers are being shortchanged.”

So I guess the media is also unhappy.

In the Highlights study, “Respondents said they struggled with completing homework on time, finishing projects and/or studying for tests.” (This finding seems to support my Oct. 16 post, “The 9 to 5 School Day?”)

I haven’t seen any studies or reports recently on the attitude of parents, who are integral to the education process. I did read that the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District introduced a plan that would allow parents to initiate major reforms at low-performing schools. I’m all for parent involvement, but if schools are low-performing, shouldn’t the school board and district administrators be aware of the problem and take steps to address it? They’re the education experts.

But it’s not all gloom-and-doom in our nation’s schools. Most of the “contented” group of teachers strongly agree that “teaching is exactly what I wanted to do,” and the “idealists” believe “their students’ test scores have increased a lot because of their teaching,” according to Education Week.

Another positive revelation: a lot of kids like their teachers. When Highlights asked kids who they admire and respect, aside from family members, 17.2% said teachers, which ranked second to friends (28.4%).

There are a lot of successful teachers, motivated students and satisfied parents out there. Unfortunately, they’re rarely acknowledged.


“The State of the Kid,” Highlights, 2009.

“State of Mind,” Education Week, October 19, 2009.

“U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan Says Colleges of Education Must Improve for Reforms to Succeed,” U.S. Dept. of Education, Oct. 22, 2009. Department of Education.

“Editorial: Teaching the Teachers,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 30, 2009.

“An Apple for the Education Secretary,” Ft. Worth Star Telegram, Oct. 27, 2009.

“L.A. Unified to Allow Parents to Initiate School Reforms,” Los Angeles Times, Oct, 28, 2009.,0,1211739.story