Sunday, September 11, 2005

Teaching Teachers

The school year has begun. But that's old news. Before we returned to our classes in my district, we teachers were treated to a two and a half day inservice on the brand newest-latest-and-greatest-improved-can't-miss method for teaching students how to write. There were some good ideas that I will incorporate into my teaching, but for the most part I wasn't impressed.

Basicly it was older methods repackaged with a few cosmetic changes. This is a scam that's been going on in education since long before I started. Seventeen years ago, at the beginning of my teaching career, I was taught a language arts method called "Essential Elements of Effective Instruction". I was describing it to a colleague who was nearing the end of her teaching career. She commented that she had learned the same thing years before when she began teaching, but it was called something different. We both laughed. Since that conversation, I've been taught or been exposed to (in no particular order): Cooperative Learning, Process Writing, Q.A.R., K.W.L., The Three Block Plan, The Four Block Plan, S.P.Q.R.R., Constructivism, Authentic Instruction, and now the latest; Writing Workshop. I would explain what all of those initials stand for, but I don't remember, nor is it worth the effort to try and remember. None of these methods worked as advertised, but there is always a new method being developed by a group of educational "experts" somewhere. For a great overview of this education establishment scam I highly recommend THE SCHOOLS WE NEED, AND WHY WE DON'T HAVE THEM, by E. D. Hirsch. Reading it will make you either laugh or cry. Or both.

In addition to all of these brilliant, research-based (new favorite eduspeak buzzword) programs, we also have oodles of new tests, or as we now refer to them: "assessment tools." We have DRA, MLPP, DIBBLES, running records, and probably many others that haven't yet been inflicted upon me. The reason we have all of these new tests is becuase of the rising chorus damning standardized testing. Here, they have a point. Standardized testing is one of the banes of education. The only things worse are these new tests. Here's why.

Standardized test scores have been declining for years. Rather than improve education though, the powers-that-be decided that it would be more practical to change the tests; fix them so that maybe more kids would pass. They've been dumbed down to take into account the declining abilities of our students after too many generations of failed reading programs and lowered standards. They've also made them more subjective so that the right scorer with the right student could raise the grade a bit . . . not that I'm suggesting that anyone cheats (horrors!) but some of these tests are a bit subjective. There is room for interpretation. They are also expensive since there is now a writing portion (at least in Michigan) that has to be checked and graded by at least two human beings . . . since they are subjective . . . and open to a bit of interpretation.

There are also new tests that are done in the classroom. These new tests are done one-on-one and can take up to an hour per student. Who's teaching the class while the teacher works with one student at a time?

So now we have a continuous flow of new reading and writing programs, and many new "assessment tools", none of which have done anything to improve education in America, and many of which have actually damaged education - think "invented spelling", one of the biggest loads of educational rubbish ever foisted on an unsuspecting and undereducated legion of teachers. And we have all of these counterproductive programs because of the refusal of the educational establishment to begin at the beginning, that is with a good, solid, intelligent phonics program. Instead of using one method that works teachers have to learn program after program that does nothing to actually teach students how to read. They keep searching for that method that will allow teachers to begin in the middle instead of at the beginning. And with every failed attempt, they declare that "if only teachers didn't put so much emphasis on phonics", forgetting the fact that teachers aren't taught how to teach phonics.

So, not only are they recycling old failed programs, they are doing the same with old excuses. When will it end?

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