There will be another Proficiency-Based Education Workshop sometime this summer (either in late June or closer to the fall). And that got me thinking about who should be there. Answer: Everyone. Especially the teachers.
In starting this site and looking into education more every day, I kept coming back to something that was in the periphery, and brought up by others, but something I hadn’t quite focused on with this whole debate about proficiency-based education and the attempt at overhauling the grading system.
Where are the teachers? I know they’re busy. Often overworked and underpaid. But, I wonder, are they also fearful of speaking out? Or wondering if they’ll be heard?
As parents, we get a summary (that someone else has compiled), or results from questionable surveys, telling us what the teachers think. But in the short time I’ve been following things here, I haven’t heard much directly from teachers. This worries me.
People become teachers not for the big bucks or the stardom. Teaching, especially in the public sector and for those never wanting to become administrators, attracts people to its ranks not by the lure of a lucrative career or short days. They’re doing it for the love of the subject, the love of the kids, and, overall, the love of teaching. Sure, that can vary by individual, but becoming a teacher can hardly be called a selfish act. So, if teachers aren’t in it for the fame or for the big bucks, and are seemingly in it for the satisfaction and joy of teaching the next generation(s), why don’t we ask them what they see every day and what works in their classroom? We hire them because they are supposed to be the experts at this. We have additional requirements to become a teacher. We expect them to sacrifice (pay and time). But we don’t always give them as much say in what they’re doing. They have hundreds of bosses (parents, legislators, administrators, board members) making sure to jump in with feedback if they deem there’s something that they’re doing “wrong,” and only occasionally praising them for the big things that go right. But when there’s huge talk of policy changes and what works, it all seems to come from the outside and get thrust upon them. It comes from people who aren’t in the classrooms and don’t always know what works best. And often, I’m guessing, there is not one “best” way to do pretty much anything in education. Not every kid is the same or learns the same way. Not every teacher approaches things the same way. So, to make changes that affect how our teachers teach, wouldn’t it make sense to hear from those teachers?
When it comes to policy, I don’t feel that those pushing a full package approach (systems like those created by Great Schools Partnership and the like) are listening to teachers. They’re blaming teachers and the system. And many aspects of proficiency-based education come from other teaching methods that have been used for decades — but just not labeled that way or rebranded with a catchy name. Why are we treating this as all or nothing? Why not ask the teachers what aspects work in their classroom and what don’t? Or ask them if some work with some kids and others with others. Give them the flexibility and the tools and the autonomy to teach? If they feel some of the “new” methods work, then by all means, support that. But if the grading schema doesn’t work as well, whether because they feel their class needs to focus more on the prep work and therefore that formative work should count more than a summative assessment, or because they feel they need the ability to give students more motivation to improve by letting kids see their score increase from an 89 to a 93 on a test, then why are we insisting the new way is always, completely better? Teacher collaboration is great. Making sure our kids understand the fundamentals is great. But how that gets done — shouldn’t we listen to the experts… the teachers?
And for the grading scheme… what if most of the world isn’t ready for the new way? Sure, colleges can say they won’t treat kids receiving a pseudo-GPA differently in the admissions process. But really? Do we think that they’d announce that anyone applying from a school that gives out GPAs calculated from a proficiency-based score will be at a disadvantage? Not only would that show they have bias for/against a system, it would also hit them in the pocketbook. Brown (an oft-cited example that is bandied about in meetings), had over 32,000 applicants last year. At a relatively modest $75 fee per application, that’s $2.4 MILLION they could rake in just in people applying (though, I’m sure it’s less as they waive the fee for many). They, and I assume most other colleges, have zero desire in discouraging people from applying. More applicants for fewer spots? That means their institution looks more exclusive when the acceptance rate is so low. And it’s money in the bank for a good chunk of the applications that never get more than a passing glance. With that many applicants, during a typical 5-month application window, that comes out to just under 300 applications that need to get processed in a day. Brown has roughly 20 admissions counselors (per their site). That’s about 15 applicants a day that each counselor reviews — IF they only review each application once. If they don’t have meetings or vacations, or group review sessions, or other duties during those 5 months. That’s assuming they only review applications from those who are accepted one time. How long do you think they actually spend looking at each application to learn the intricacies of that school’s grading system? Each counselor is looking at approximately 1600 applicants during this whole process. Of those, on average, only 150 will be accepted. How much more of a burden are we putting on admissions counselors, students, high school counselors, etc. to adopt a system that isn’t fully understood — in our state, and certainly not nationwide? How many admissions counselors want to spend time on a phone or via email, trying to figure out what a school’s system really is and what the kid’s score really means? I don’t care if the argument is that the admissions counselors see all sorts of systems and can figure it out — my concern is: are we adding additional hurdles for our kids? And to what end? Who really benefits from this change? The people designing and supporting the change? Some of the top high schools in the state incorporate proficiency-based teaching methods without overhauling their grading system for their high school. Just ask Falmouth, Greely, Cape Elizabeth, and Yarmouth. Despite what we keep hearing, the 1-4 scale is not required. Not by the state, and not in order to incorporate some of the new methods that both teachers and administrators tout as a move in the right direction.
Until someone can show some unbiased, evidence-based studies that aren’t financed, backed or written by an organization that lives or dies by their implementation, I won’t make the assumption that new inherently equals better. And even then, what works in some situations, won’t work in others. So, maybe new can equal better — in some cases. But not necessarily all. So, why do we keep treating this as an all or nothing situation?
Below are some articles about teaching. In general and in Maine. The common theme? Teaching in Maine is a tough gig. And filling those positions and keeping the teachers we have — it’s just going to get more difficult. Just ask the administrators who used to teach. Ask them why they got out of the classrooms. And then ask if we should get more input from teachers about what they see working in their classrooms. They aren’t still there for the money or the glory. And if we keep taking away their say and their autonomy, and keep making things harder for them, many are going to decide that there are easier jobs out there for them.
The Fight Over Teacher Salaries – A look at the numbers — Maine comes in 50th when controlling for the cost of living
Best and Worst states for Teachers — Maine comes in 41st in this assessment