In which I force myself to complain

tumblr_lbwyf8TfKe1qzkrg9Perhaps the clearest sign that I am utterly burned out as an educator is the fact that tomorrow is the last day of the first round of ISTEP testing and I haven’t even been able to muster up the energy to complain about it.  Today was impressively rough; our principal is out of town, and literally the first words the AP said to me were “Get in here, we’ve got a problem.”

We’d just gotten a call from transportation that they were going to be two hours late picking up some of our kids– kids who had already been waiting at their bus stops for up to half an hour, and some of whom had apparently called the school to tell us that they didn’t have keys to their houses and couldn’t get back in.

This is a fuck-up of astronomical proportions before you get to the part where we’re out fifty or sixty kids on a testing day.  At that point we start looking around to figure out who’s getting fired.  It’s incompetence on a staggering scale, and the worst part is that it’s not terribly surprising, because transportation has been run by morons for literally the entire time I’ve worked in Indiana.

That aside, though: based on rumblings I’ve been hearing from downstate and the insane difficulty level of the “readiness” test they made our kids take twice leading up to the ISTEP, I was concerned that the thing was going to be impossible.  There’s still plenty of time for them to make the multiple-choice portion a huge pain in the ass, but this test looked no different to me in terms of difficulty level than any other ISTEP I’ve administered.  Which is to say: the math was too difficult for most of my kids, but it’s always too difficult for most of my kids, and this particular test was not more too difficult than it has always been.


On counting and what counts

alex-countingSale note: SKYLIGHTS is currently at the highest sales rank it’s seen since the day it was released.  I’d still love to see it crack into the top 10K, though; none of my books have ever gone that high on paid sales ranks.  It’s still 99 cents until late tomorrow, but buying now helps more with rankings.  Pleeeeease?

I promise I won’t mention it again until tomorrow unless something awesome happens. 🙂

(Seriously 45 minutes later, as life intervenes)

Today was Count Day in Indiana, or technically yesterday was; the widespread school closings across the northern part of the state meant that we had to postpone everything until today.  Count Day is more complicated than it ought to be; we basically just make sure that we’ve accounted for all the kids that the computers tell us we’re supposed to have and then take the count downtown so that they can verify it.  It sounds simple, but with hundreds of kids in even a small building, that’s a lot of moving parts, and then you get kids on half-days and alternate schedules of some sort, and kids who “withdrew” but never actually withdrew, or kids who registered and haven’t actually shown up yet, and then there’s the occasional honest-to-god mistake, like the 7th grader who took me an hour to locate because she just plain didn’t have a first hour class in the computer, meaning that all the teachers’ count sheets added up to one less than the number of 7th graders that the computer said we had.

Anyway, the point of all this is that the numbers get submitted to the state and the state uses them to determine our funding levels for the rest of the year.  It also marks the day that the local charter and/or private schools start expelling the hell out of everyone that they don’t want around for ISTEP, loading the public schools up with behavior problems and/or students with special education needs that we won’t get funding for.

It’s wonderful.  I’ll bet money we get ten new kids in the next two weeks.


Ugh, pt. 2

exhausted_zpsa4303e7bWell, it’s not as if I didn’t know it while it was happening, but it’s now confirmed: last year did not go well.  I have official state growth numbers on all my kids, and there’s no way to sugarcoat it: they suck.  Indiana breaks kids into three growth categories, conveniently labeled Low Growth, Medium Growth, and High Growth.  In the two previous years that the growth model has existed, I’ve had over half of my kids in High Growth and between ten and twenty percent (well, okay, 10% one year and 20% the next) as Low Growth kids.  The rest, obviously, were in the middle.  These numbers either had me with the best numbers in my building one year or tied for second or third, depending on how you measured, the second year.

Last year I only managed to get a quarter of my kids into the High Growth category, with fully forty-five fucking percent of them low growth.  Even if I throw out a few of the kids who I don’t think it’s fair to count against me (in particular, the blind kid who transferred into my class in the third quarter and the handful of kids who spent large chunks of the year in jail or suspended) I’m still probably at a third low growth, which is way too fucking many.  I had a brief theory that I was in trouble because I’d jumped up a grade and I was effectively competing against myself; I haven’t formally run the numbers but looking closely convinced me that that was not the case.  Some of my highest-growth kids are kids I had two years in a row; some of my lowest-growth kids were kids I only had the one year.

I don’t have data on other teachers to compare myself to because I’m no longer in the same building; for whatever it’s worth, I can also see their language arts scores and by and large my students had better growth in math than LA.  However, someone else doing worse doesn’t really make me feel better for having sucked last year.  Even my honors kids didn’t really do that great on growth; I feel slightly okay with that because since it was the Algebra class, I didn’t fully concentrate on the 8th grade standards, and I don’t know that I can expect high ISTEP growth when I wasn’t concentrating on ISTEP skills over the course of the year.  But that doesn’t exactly make me look better either, although they did quite well on the ECAs at the end of the year, which is something.

The more I think about it, the less interested I am in potentially going back into the classroom after the expiration date on this job runs out.  I’m still most of a school year away at minimum (and may be four years away if I get lucky with a couple of things this year) but I still need to start thinking seriously about what is going to come next.  Because right now I don’t miss teaching.  I just don’t.  And I really need to figure out what The Next Thing might be.

I will be in Indianapolis tomorrow and Thursday, speaking of the new job, so it may be quiet around here.  I’m hoping to have a Big Thing to announce this weekend, so with a bit of luck I’ll make up for it.


A quick note

To whoever just found my blog by Googling the question “What if my child fails ISTEP science?”: 


Absolutely nothing happens, anywhere, to anyone.

No one cares.

The end.

On honors classes

dr20120709So let’s imagine that you’re in charge of a school.  Or, hell, an entire school district, since for the purposes of this conversation I’d prefer that there be some notion of a wider community that has to be served by your school.

Which is more important: serving the needs of each individual student, or serving the needs of your community as a whole?  And what happens if those needs conflict with one another?  What if you literally cannot serve the best needs of the individual student if you’re going to focus on serving the needs of your community?

Think about that while I provide some background and tell a couple of stories.  Also be aware that I still have an intense goddamn headache and probably should not be staring at a screen or trying to think straight right now, so if this seems incoherent I apologize in advance.  🙂

When I was in fifth and sixth grade my school corporation piloted a new honors program.  (Incidentally, I work for this district now.)  High achieving students from across the corporation were pulled out of their home schools and put into two classrooms in the same building.  That building, as it turned out, had previously featured some of the lowest, if not the lowest, test scores in the corporation.  A year later, having literally imported the fifty or sixty smartest fifth and sixth graders available to them (and, presumably, displaced some of their other students to make room for us, although we were stuck in a portable classroom in the parking lot for sixth grade) the corporation made much hay about how the building had been turned around.

The building hadn’t been turned around.  They’d just played with the numbers a bit.  The classes were supposed to be educationally innovative, piloting all sorts of new ways to teach.  I do not recall learning much in fifth and sixth grade.  I do recall my mother constantly struggling with the principal– who, incidentally, is one of my district-level supervisors now.  For whatever it’s worth, she appears to have positive memories of me.

This was an early lesson for me on 1) how to lie with statistics, and 2) the cynicism embedded into standardized tests.  Note that this was in the mid eighties and thus way predates our current obsession with standardized testing.

Note also that my parents enthusiastically registered me for this program when the opportunity became available and that I, furthermore, was super psyched about being in it, despite having just had what was probably the best year of my school career in a school I loved in fourth grade.  Nobody had to talk anybody into anything here.

Fast forward to now: my corporation has an honors academy at the middle school level.  This is the program I was in in fifth and sixth grade writ large.  Note also that the “honors academy” is the largest middle school in the corporation, with, I believe, nearly twice the students that my building has.  Note that again, since these kids are all at the honors academy, that means that they’re not in my building or any of the other schools.

I could complain about this building quite a lot, if I wanted to.  As an educator, I hate them.  They win virtually every corporation-level competition that exists; it turns out that if you pack a building with high-functioning kids with active, engaged, and generally wealthy parents, you get things like great sports programs as a side effect.  Nobody else can compete.  The entire rest of the corporation is basically competing for second place.

Now reflect upon the fact that my building (and every other building in the corporation) is still expected to pass the same number of kids on the ISTEP as every other school in Indiana, despite the fact that, give or take, 20% of my highest-functioning, highest-scoring kids are taken from my building and sent to this other school, and that furthermore we lose additional kids to this school every year.  Last year, for example, nineteen kids from my school with passing or high-passing ISTEP scores transferred to this other building.

We are, effectively, expected to achieve average results– but with the top 20% of our distribution sliced off and sent somewhere else.  And it happens every single year.  And they are expanding this other school, adding new classrooms every year for the next three or four years– so it’s only going to get worse.

Note that I cannot challenge the decisions of any of the individual kids or the individual parents.  My parents, and I, made the exact same decision when I was in fifth and sixth grade, and frankly would probably do so again.

Note that this individual decision, made enough times, basically means that achieving “average” results becomes mathematically impossible.

(One of the solutions to this is to work with a growth model rather than caring about pass rates.  I’ve talked about this before; I don’t think the ISTEP should even have a passing score.  But that’s not the world I live in at the moment.)

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve gotten both my ECA (End of Course Assessment) results and my ISTEP scores back.  I was initially a little depressed with my ECA scores– a high school graduation test that is given to my honors 8th graders– until I looked at previous scores for my building and realized that I’d managed the highest pass rate the school has ever had.  I literally passed three times as many kids as a couple of years ago.

My ECA scores, in other words, make me look like a genius.

I got my ISTEP scores back yesterday.  ISTEP scores are tricky; an essential part of the scores (the growth model part) don’t get released until a bit after the raw scores, and the raw scores can be a bit misleading if you’re not careful about how you look at them.

My honors kids– the same kids that had the record-setting ECA scores– did great, and were more or less in line with the improvement numbers I’ve seen in years past.  Keep in mind that in the last two years I had the best improvement numbers in the building one year and either took second definitively or tied for second, depending on the metric you’re using, in the second year.

My regular ed kids did terrible.  My seventh graders barely moved at all.  I have a couple of pockets of success here and there– I had four kids who I was really hoping for passing scores out of, who have never passed before– and I got two out of the four and the third kid held on to what was frankly a staggering score increase from last year, but still didn’t quite pass.  But on average my seventh graders were basically exactly where they were last year.  (This phenomenon doesn’t appear to be limited to me, by the way– everyone I’ve talked to is shocked by how the 7th graders did.)

So, I’m gonna be evaluated on these test results, right?  Do we look at the honors kids, and conclude that I’m a stellar educator?  Do we look at the seventh graders, and conclude that I’m terrible?  Or do we look at an average of both, and conclude that I’m merely mediocre?

Here’s the problem with honors classes:  by concentrating the kids who do best into individual classrooms, you by definition take them out of regular ed classrooms.  Which has the effect of concentrating special ed students, low-functioning but not quite special ed students, kids who could do well if they wanted but simply don’t give a shit, and– worst of all– behavior problems into all of your other classrooms.  Which means that the kids who either don’t care or are actively invested in being destructive have a much easier time of taking over and destroying your class for the kids who do care.

I had two different results with these two classes.  My first and second hour, while the kids are mostly bright (although some of them clearly don’t want to be) is overrun with behavior problems and has been all year.  My third and fourth hour kids are mostly– understand that this is not an exaggeration– either special education kids or criminals.  Fully 20% of third and fourth hour spent some time this year either expelled from school or wearing ankle monitors.  I have four different students in that class with sub-60 IQs.  My best students in that room wouldn’t even qualify as average in my other class.

It turns out that I’m a much better teacher when I get to, y’know, actually teach.  My third and fourth hour cratered on the ISTEP.  It turns out it’s really goddamn difficult to get math concepts through to kids when half of them don’t give a shit and the other half require individual attention.  That class had other adults in it for the entire school year but even with three people in the room there are simply too many kids who need help for us to be able to actually do our jobs adequately with all of the kids– particularly when there are three or four at any given time who will literally do nothing if an adult is not standing next to them monitoring them at all times.

Now, none of these kids change if I introduce our honors kids back into the classroom with them.  But you know what happens?  They actually see success.  I can ask questions of the classroom and have somebody who is going to answer.  The number of times I’ve asked 3rd and 4th hour simple shit this year and gotten nothing but blank stares because half of them don’t know, half of them don’t care, and 2/3 of them are waiting for someone else to answer beggars belief.  And, furthermore, it increases the resources available to the kids who need help– if you can ask TJ how to do a problem and expect to receive a coherent answer, rather than him just saying “it’s 3” (and honors kids generally want to be helpful to other students rather than just letting them copy) then you don’t have to ask me.  I can concentrate my efforts on fewer kids, which means that more of them actually get educated on any given day.  Which means that, overall, my building looks better and more of our kids are getting the educations they deserve.

What I can’t do as well in those circumstances– and maybe this means I’m just not good enough at differentiating my instruction; don’t get the idea that I’m trying to put all the blame on the kids here– is push the honors kids.  See the problem?  Getting rid of honors classes requires a collectivist mindset from both the parents of those honors kids and the students themselves.  If I don’t have that honors Algebra class, well, I can’t teach anybody honors Algebra, now, can I?  I can do individual enrichment but that’s not remotely the same as an entire directed class.

Which means that those parents and those kids have to decide that the education for everybody is more important than their own education.  And I cannot criticize anyone for not being willing to make that decision.

After all, I didn’t make it myself, did I?