Saturday, April 28, 2001

Buried by Paperwork

Guest column: Fads, paperwork bury teachers and students

By AL MARKISH, For The Capital
The writer, an Odenton resident, taught at Arundel High School.
Published April 22, 2001, The Capital, Annapolis, Md.
Copyright © 2001 The Capital, Annapolis, Md

Retirement last June, after 31 years of teaching, has left me with a smile only a surgeon could remove. Why the joy, you ask?

It's simple: I've seen a job that is at best difficult and demanding gradually become a masochistic exercise. With no power to fix it, I've felt like Kafka's beetle, stuck hopelessly on my back.

I'm not alone. Most teachers I know express similar sentiments.

Everyone knows that you can't teach if no one is listening. Discipline in schools is abysmal.

Administrators argue that their use of progressive discipline -- a series of measured responses to recalcitrant conduct -- modifies undesirable behavior. In reality, it means that nothing of any consequence happens until the kid has drawn blood. While a paper trail of teacher referrals
documenting the child's misdeeds accumulates, the child continues to disrupt.

School reformers pontificate unendingly about raising standards. That's bull. If teachers set high standards and grade accordingly, large numbers of children fail -- and then the teachers' competence is questioned.

The basic problem is that many students won't study or do homework because they're too busy doing "real work" -- flipping burgers at McDonald's to pay for their cars.

(And why do they need cars, you might ask? So they can get to work, of course. You see, we've failed at teaching logic as well.)

But why worry? If they fail they can always take the class at night or summer school or with some other teacher who sets "fairer" standards. The last person blamed is the person most responsible -- the student himself.

Each year schools and teachers are asked to do more -- often with less. Drug and sex education, conflict resolution, technology training, mentoring troubled students -- the list goes on.

The mission to educate is being crushed by a tidal wave of tangential mandates that often have little bearing on whether Johnny can read and write.

What does matter is the amount of time teachers have to prepare to teach, to be creative, to plan with colleagues. Good teachers, like fine wines, need to mature. But it's a maturation process born out of thousands of hours of hard work and experience. The end result is great, but it takes time.

That time is being stolen by useless meetings, administrative duties, conferences and phone calls. Some of it is necessary; a lot of it is not. Responsibilities have changed; the number of hours in the day has not.

How can we prevent the system from collapsing under its own weight? If I were the education guru for the state, I would recommend that we:

End tenure for teachers as it currently exists. It breeds incompetence.

Recycle administrators. Every five years, we should put administrators back in the classroom for a limited stint of teaching.

Require that all observations of teachers be unannounced.

Give teachers a role in evaluating other teachers.

Reduce the role of administrators. Their primary responsibility should be enforcing school discipline.

Ensure that a pencil is in one hand, if a computer mouse is in the other. It's ludicrous to lavish computers on the schools when high school students can't read or write a sentence.

Redefine disability. Special treatment should be reserved for the truly disabled.

Give teachers input in evaluating administrators.

Streamline the bureaucracy. There are a lot of people in education who draw a paycheck and teach not a single child.

Cut teachers' clerical responsibilities.

Raise the standards for summer school and night school. Has anyone ever failed a summer school class?

Get behavior problems out of the schools. It shouldn't require a two-or three-year paper trail to rid the school of a student who spoils it for others.

Scrap the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. It's a waste of time and resources.

There are children in high schools who can't write a coherent sentence because they haven't been taught the rules of grammar or proper sentence structure. Effective writing has been sacrificed in the interest of creative writing. The mantra has been, "Make the child feel good about himself." It doesn't seem to matter that Johnny's essay is in Neanderthal-speak.

The same is true in mathematics. The focus is not on whether Johnny can make correct change, but on whether Johnny feels good about making correct change.

Good teaching is a fine art, not a science. It is a combination of intensive planning, experience, personality, pride in one's work, and character. It is a delicate balance of personalities, backgrounds and viewpoints.

Teaching is difficult to quantify or validate by test results, and it is often impacted by influences beyond the teacher's control. Many students do well in spite of poor teachers and badly despite great ones.

Under the right conditions the right people make it happen, but it's never easy. Teaching is an honorable profession and, like the people it serves, must be nurtured. I believe to do otherwise is to gamble with our children's future, not merely their academic eligibility.

Teacher Apathy?

This was a posting responding to seeming apathy of teachers in posting a response to a thought provoking posting on the University of Maryland listserv:

-----Original Message-----
From: Harry Banks
Sent: Tuesday, April 24, 2001 9:09 PM
Subject: Re: [MDK-12] Column about why so many teachers are leaving thepublic schools

But what is really remarkable is that you are the only one to respond! Absolutely amazing, the amount of silence! Harry

This was my response about our "apparent" apathy:

From: “Bonnie Schupp”
Sent: Tuesday, April 24, 2001 9:37 PM
Subject: Re: [MDK-12] Column about why so many teachers are leaving the public schools

Maybe we’re just all burned out, especially at this time of the year. Maybe we have barely enough energy for survival. If I dwell on negatives right now, I won’t make it. One thing for sure, though. I won’t be in teaching much longer and am now working on a degree which will lead me to another career. It’s a shame because I love teaching, but I am not such a masochist that I enjoy being beaten by a system that doesn’t understand reality in the same way teachers in the trenches do.
Bonnie Schupp

This was the response to my posting:

Bonnie, sorry to hear that you might be leaving. I and probably 600 others on this list know exactly what those feelings are, and that they are strongest now in April, May and June. Unfortunately I know only one person who has left who regretted not interacting with kids, and she only regretted that for the first year. Now she makes more money than my wife and I put together and feels quite productive with her company which very much appreciates the ex-math teacher. Wouldn’t it be a dream to have a society of teachers who left the profession to march on the state or local government the way the Viet Nam veterans (who paid their dues big time) demonstrated against the waste of that war. The republicans think it is about a new test for accountability, and the dems keep saying more money more money. Not too many people outside the classroom are concerned about discipline and absolutely stopping class disruption with the use of law as a top priority. I work (after 30 years of combat) with kids I enjoy and parents come in to apologize for mis-behavior. My only regret is the overwhelming majority of kids who went by my charge and did not get 100% of my time. The emotionally and behaviorally “needy” got the largest percentage, as the teacher gets administrative kudos for handling THOSE kids so well. I would be right there with you, leaving, had I not gone to a school that struggles to face the tough problems and supports teachers the way they should. But will those administrators be invited to speak as the university to the next crop of innocents? I hope you stay! Harry ----- Original Message -----

Smoky Mirrors

Posted 4/28/01 by Jim Morrow
University of Maryland Listserv

Does anyone else hope the smoke will clear and the mirrors will crack so people can see and recognize that teaching and learning is a cooperative enterprise; that giving students what they want is not necessarily what they need; that just berating teachers and their methods without addressing students and parents and their responsibilities in the cooperative process amounts to abuse?

Some thoughts of education today about why so many teachers are leaving the public schools....

I have noticed lately, in my 30 years of doing this wonderful thing I called teaching, what I call the “Lake Wobegon Effect.” That- all the children are now above average. When I was a child my father used to take me when we bought steamed crabs to Gordons of Orleans Street... Up on the wall were three crabs... the sign said “small—“medium”—“large”.., The other day I saw those same three crabs, -- listed now as.. “#1Large”, “Jumbo” and Texas Jumbo”

At my schoolð Our crabs now read..(oops I mean our courses of study) are scheduled to become..—instead of B course and A course .. we are now “TA DA”--- “College Preparatory and Advanced Studies (AP or IB”). We ve gone through calling it “Special” College Prepèthen that “EVERY” student at City was an HONORS student, rename after rename to make OUR students appear to be the best in Baltimore City.. Now we are no longer offering honors coursesðOur “Honors” courses are being disbanded since the EOC (BCPSS “End Of Course” exams) and HSA’s (High School Assessments) do not distinguish between honors and regularð So why should we? We will be offering Pre-AP and Pre-IB coursesðto 9th and 10th grades.. Could it just
be to force students to take AP or IB. and enlarge our new “ADVANCED STUDIES PROGRAM”?

Statistics and data are now manipulated to make the results say anything we want. For example... over the past 5 ç(FIVE) years we have had (whoa) 35 total students take the AP calculus exam (AB). In 96- 0/15 passed (3 or higher) or 0%..., 97 -1 out of 7 passed or 14 %, 98-1 out of 12 passed or 8%,---- BUT in 1999- 1/1 passed.. That’s 100%. A chart of this was created stating our 5 year trend was 100%. .... the people at the State and City must be impressed!. Our percentage passing went from 0% passing to 100% passing in just 5 years. We are a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence and a MD State School of Excellence.. Nancy came by personally to help raise the flag and join in the celebration.

But a recent Brookings Foundation Report suggests “that the 18çyr old program is too often an award for impressive paper work and fashionable teaching methods and too infrequently a measure of academic achievement” (çJay Matthews, Washington Post, Sept 6, 2000)

Of course OUR average SAT scores are in the 800’s.. We’re Blue Ribbon (with the flag to prove it.), but this allows the powers that be to claim the fame, and the Abell Foundation to give and additional $30,000 grant to PROMOTE our new excellent curriculum. (the AP-IB Advanced studies program), on top of who knows how many $100,000”s (seriously) to fund the “International Baccalaureate Program, for 50-60 kids out of close to 1300.

Isn’t education wonderful?

Our principal has never taught in a public high school. He has his doctorate, and is a lawyer. Most definitely, he, Ms. Grazmick and other powers that be need to go back (or for the first time) to the classroom and teach. NOT to the Montgomery Blairs, and the Centennials, but the everyday High Schools, Teach a full load for one full year, with Portfolios and MSPAP and all the other Bureaucratic @#$%. Only then will their suggestions have meaning or relevance. (Did you ever want to be the Principal at a school that was marked for “STATE TAKEOVER”? To ask our State superintendent to bring herself and her “staff” and demonstrate how it’s to be done..? Let them take over the school for a year, WITHOUT additional funding, outside intervention, privatization, additional staffing, etc, and implement THEIR policies of “how WE should do it”.

I doubt they would last for 3 months let alone a year, My students are wonderful kids.. but typical kids.. bright, lazy, energetic, happy, angry. good days-bad.. I love teaching them.. I feel bad, dirty about the immorality of inflating them to believe that mediocrity is excellence. I get angry that people who haven’t, don t or no longer teach, just change the names of courses to make them sound better, more advanced, more elite. Ashamed that it does such a disservice to them as future adults and will never address the roots of the problems they face, we face.. (but it does make the upper powers look good, feel better about who they are and justifies their job and salaries I guess)

But alas like you and others.. I am cast aside as a lowly veteran, who’s not up to date with the latest jargon and statistics data trends and practices of which none address the parent or student's accountability for their on actions or inactions.

As long as our “Lake Wobegon” society ans system wants no failures and all excellents.. and no one seems to remember or understand about the Bell Curve of normal distribution, theywill continue to just change the names, and manipulate statistics to prove that mediocre is excellent.

Hang in there sports-fans. We’ve done (DO) a good job, fought (FIGHT) the good fight, and have taught and provided students the skills and abilities to accomplish great things.. (even though we never bothered to count and manipulate the data, correlate and extrapolate future trends, shamelessly self-promote or rename ourselves to look better.

Friday, April 20, 2001



The end of the week! Why do teachers live for the end of the week?

1. It's a chance to get caught up with laundry and everything else you've put off until the weekend because you haven't had time or energy to deal with it during the week.

2. It's a chance to get caught up with grading.

3. It's a chance to organize and work on lessons.

4. It's a chance to sleep!

5. It's a chance to gather energy you will need to face the coming week.

Tell me what is wrong with the list above.

Tuesday, April 17, 2001



I should have started this log at the beginning of the school year but who has time to record details and impressions with all the STUFF that is hurled your way beginning the first hour of returning to school. Since next year will be my last year teaching before another big life transition, maybe I will use this convenient blog to quickly add comments.

Today I'm home sick. Actually I was sick almost the entire spring break. I feel cheated. Not only was I sick but I didn't feel much like getting caught up on grading and planning for school. On the home front, the environment is in chaos and I had hoped to make some sense out of my daily disorder. And for my grad class, I had hoped to get a lot done also. But, alas, it wasn't meant to be. So here I am, hacking (coughing) away and hurting in the chest.

I sent David in with updated seating charts and lesson plans. I hope everything eventually lands in the hands of the substitute, whoever it winds up being.

I was just reminded of an e-mail that I received from Katie's mother. I had worked with Katie for two years before the enrichment program was pulled from the schools. She told me she had been cleaning out some old e-mail files and discovered Katie had completed an on-line survey about who she wanted to be like when she grew up. This poem comes from that communication:


A simple survey

A cliche question

Who do you want to be like

when you grow up?"

My name goes in the answer space.