Okay: so my job, teaching? It involves a lot of shit. I get a lot of shit from students, both bullshit (“I was sick when you assigned this essay. Can I get more time?”) and insulting shit (“You ever think that you shouldn’t have been a teacher? You’re not very good at it.”), I return quite a bit of shit to them (“Of course I like all of my classes equally. I don’t believe in playing favorites. Though if I did have favorites, it wouldn’t be you.”), and the administration and I have a shit-full relationship, though there the shit-flow is only of one type: they give me more shit to do, and I talk shit about them.
Okay, I’ll stop saying shit. Though there is a reason, and it isn’t just because I have to control my language during the school day.
This week there has been a plethora of poop. A cornucopia of crap. First and foremost, we had our accreditation visit. Accreditation, for those who don’t know, is how schools prove that they are in fact doing what they are supposed to do, namely educating students, rather than using them as sweatshop labor or housing them in cubicles like rental shoes at a bowling alley. It’s a fine idea, as education does not have a terrible lot of oversight, but it does have a terrible number of ways to abuse or neglect the system, which can limp along for quite a long time before it breaks down. That is to say: if a teacher is thoroughly incompetent, students will still be able to learn something from each other, from the textbook, from the extra resources that some usually have, like tutors and older siblings and the internet, and so it may not be clear right away, or at all, that the teacher is truly incompetent. Teachers get observed on some kind of regular basis, but the three districts in which I have worked have observed me twice a year, once every two years, and once every four years; and in every case, with every observation, the person doing the observing has never been an English teacher: so while they are certainly qualified to say that I am not blowing snot rockets on my students during class, they can’t really say that I’m doing a good job helping my students become better readers or writers. The problem gets better and worse according to the subject: mine is pretty straightforward and well-understood by most educated people, but my wife, who teaches art to high school students, has been told directly that the administrators observing her had no idea what she was talking about when she spoke to her students about perspective and value and the like. An advanced mathematics teacher I know never heard the open admission, but was perfectly aware that the administrators did not understand what he was teaching, and so could not rationally judge if he was doing a good job.
That is not to say that all administrators are incompetent to judge teachers, nor that they are all incapable of understanding what is being taught. But I couldn’t follow an advanced math lesson any more than my administrators could; the difference is that they are expected to do so, and I’m not. Their ability to understand what I do is most of the oversight that I work with, other than the possibility of student and parent complaints about me – which, so long as I make my students laugh and give them good grades, are minimal or nonexistent. Even if I wasn’t funny or generous, the truth is that nobody knows what I do in my classroom other than a bunch of teenagers, and, twice a year (or once every two years, or once every four years) between one and three administrators, none of whom understand what I do. (No, that’s not true: three of the administrators I have worked with have been past LA teachers. But the rest of them go: PE, PE, social studies, religious studies, science, PE, kindergarten, biology, elementary school, science and PE, and nothing – meaning they never taught in a classroom. I’m missing a few, but that’s the trend. Also: schools have even more administrators than they do poop, and administrators usually come and go faster than poop does, too.) That’s not a lot of oversight.
So accreditation, in which a group of inspectors come and do an exhaustive review of how the school functions and how it doesn’t, is a really good idea. Except guess who makes up that group of inspectors?
Right. Administrators. Administrators from other schools, but that doesn’t make them any more competent than the ones from my school.
The larger problem than competence (Though really, that’s enough to sink the whole endeavor) is the obvious impetus for quid pro quo. The inspectors in a given area are from that area; the chances that a principal will inspect the school run by the same principal who inspected the first guy’s school are quite high. When I ask my students to critique and grade each other’s work, they pretty much all get A’s, pretty much all the time, even from students who don’t like each other: because no kid wants to be the one who gives out bad grades, for fear of retribution. Same problem here. There isn’t a profit motive, so the intensity of corruption isn’t the same as with lobbyists in Washington; but the system here is as flawed as how our government asks major industries to regulate themselves; or hires regulators straight from the ranks of industry executives, who go right back into the industry once they finish their stint as a check and balance against abuses in that industry. It’s okay: they’re on a break, so it doesn’t count. Right? Just like Ross and Rachel.
School administrators are taught and trained to look for certain things. They want maximum attendance, minimum disruption in the form of behavior referrals and suspensions, maximum test scores, and maximum awards and recognitions. They love checklists, especially ones with impossibly vague categories and subjective descriptions of the achievement levels in those categories. (The accreditation system we went through has these: student is tasked with activities and learning that are challenging but attainable and student is actively engaged in the learning activities. The marks are: Very Evident, Evident, Somewhat Evident, and Not Observed. Pop quiz, hotshot: you watch a calculus class for 20 minutes, with 20 students in it: if the kid in the second row is facing the board and blinking at an appropriate rate, is their active engagement Evident or Somewhat Evident?) Because our current public school system is so unbelievably diverse, and so varied in its methods and results, the largest and scariest bugaboo for administrators this decade is standardization. They want everyone to be on the same page: to know the same things, at the same time, in the same order, to the same degree. They want teachers to all do the same things in all classes, using the same materials, and hopefully achieving the same results. That way, no child gets left behind (Because they’re all in lockstep, like one of those one-guy-with-five-mannequins-attached-to-him-with-broomsticks Halloween costumes), and all teachers are disposable and replaceable, like any other machine-produced standardized cog in a well-tooled machine. Because they are taught and trained to look for these things, these things are all they look for. They do not look for – Teacher knows what the hell he is talking about, and can answer a student’s random question. Teacher knows how to write a good multiple choice question, and how to score a test fairly. Teacher knows when to let a student go to the bathroom and when to say, “Why don’t you wait a couple of minutes?” The things they see may be important – may – but they don’t see everything that’s important. They’re looking somewhere else, entirely.
Observations in classrooms are something of a joke for another reason that I didn’t mention, which is: we know about them in advance. Which means, of course, that the administrators don’t see us going about our regular routine; they see us trot out the dog-and-pony show. My current school, which is the one that has observations twice every year, has one scheduled observation, for which I choose the day and the class when they come to watch me; and one unscheduled observation – for which they give me a window of two weeks when they may come observe any class on any day. In which case I am left predicting their likely choice based on past choices, such as: they prefer older students; they prefer smaller classes. They like coming in the morning more than the afternoon. So far I’m two-for-four predicting which class they will randomly select. Like the TSA and random searches at airports: look for the dark-skinned passengers, and you know who will be “randomly” selected. Even when I don’t half-expect them, I have still been able to adjust my lesson plans on the spot in order to make them reflect what I know the administrators are looking for; I know they want to see me assess the students’ learning, so I have made up a quiz question for the lesson, projected it on my whiteboard, and had students write a response: boom, instant assessment. Go me. Never mind that I usually don’t have my students do that: the observation went great. This is nothing compared to what many teachers do for their scheduled observations: it is not merely an urban legend, that gag about teachers telling the class, “If you know the answer, raise your right hand; if you don’t, raise your left.” I mean, observations determine whether or not we keep our jobs, and in some cases, our performance bonuses. Wouldn’t you work the system?
So do schools when the accreditors come by.
So in this specific case, we knew a month ahead of time when the inspector would be coming, and we had the observation system he would be using, which tells us what he will be looking for. The teachers were coached by the administrators as to what we should present, if the inspector came into our classroom, and also what we should say if we were interviewed personally about the school’s workings and its culture. The students weren’t coached, but there is a certain select group of students who are somehow always chosen (“Randomly” selected — and yes, one of them is dark-skinned.) to be the spokespersons for visiting dignitaries; they always know what to say. We have trained them well. I mean, maybe not for their future careers or the next stage of their education – but they know what to say to make it seem as though we have trained them for those things. And that’s sort of the same thing, right?
In my case, even though I was asked to join the teachers’ group interview with the accreditor, I avoided it. I didn’t want to be asked what I thought of the school or the administrators. Because what I think of them is this:
The problems with this school are the same problems with public education across this country: it is designed in entirely the wrong way. We take kids too young, and we keep them too long; we don’t allow them enough freedom, and we don’t know how to work to their strengths, instead forcing them to play to ours, or fail. We try to standardize everything, for no good reason that anyone can name other than the absurd “That’s fair.” It’s not. It’s not fair, nor efficient, nor even sane, and yet that idea – that every student and every teacher and every person have the same outcome from the same set of experiences – is the driving force behind almost every aspect of education. Probably because: when everything is the same, it’s easier to talk about. Harder to understand, of course, but so what? Then, we politicize this thing that we don’t even understand, and then make changes to solve problems we don’t understand, with consequences we don’t understand and don’t even pay attention to – because taking the action in response to the apparent problem is good enough for the politicians. In fact, that’s how we treat everything in education: just do something. Anything. As long as you can show that you are doing something (Preferably the same thing that’s been done everywhere else – that’s what we call evidence-based solutions!), then that’s good enough. We don’t recognize the people who are actually doing the good work, because we don’t recognize the good work, and we don’t reward those people for doing good work; instead we reward those people – both educators and students – who create the most convincing façade of achievement. This school is, in fact, no better or worse than any other: some of the students are wonderful, and some of the teachers are wonderful, and one of the administrators is wonderful; and a lot of the rest are – well, I did say I wouldn’t say “shit” any more, didn’t I? Let’s say “Somewhat evident.”
That was Tuesday, when the accreditor came. On Wednesday, we had a staff meeting, in which it took us – a room full of professional educators, mind, several with advanced degrees – thirty minutes to complete a conversation about the differences between two grading systems we have used, last year’s and this year’s. (Here’s the difference: last year each specific score was weighted the same as every other score, based on the percentages; this year a specific score’s total number of possible points is factored in. So last year a 75% on a 10-point quiz and a 75% on a 20-point quiz were the same; this year the 75% on the 20-point quiz is counted twice as much as the 10-point quiz, and has twice the effect on the final grade. Thirty minutes to say that. With diagrams on the whiteboard.) We also talked about how well the accreditation visit had gone, and how impressed the accreditor was with our school spirit and the commonality of our vision (We were coached on our vision statement, since it is different from our mission statement, and both are important. I mean, not to the actual work of education; but they’re important to the administrators who write those things, and then inspect and accredit other schools.).
And then we talked about – poop. Specifically, about how one of our students, or more than one, had intentionally defecated and urinated outside of the toilets in the boys’ room. Somebody soaked a roll of toilet paper in the dispenser, and on another occasion, someone left a pile of feces on the floor. We talked about whether we should have a hygiene class to teach students that this is not acceptable. We talked about whether we should put this story on our school newscast. We talked about whether teachers should check the restrooms regularly, or whether we should hire a new security guard. (That one was easy: security guards cost money. Asking teachers to perform tasks that have nothing to do with teaching is free. Stopping my discussion of rhetoric and syntax in order to try to catch somebody crapping on the floor: priceless.)
If only the accreditor had stopped in to visit that bathroom on that day. I wonder where that . . . piece of evidence would fall on the rubric.
Though the real question is: would he even see the actual shit on the floor? Or would he be looking somewhere else, entirely?