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On Teaching: An Open Letter to Marc Tucker

January 24, 2014

Marc, I have read your article, On Writing, and I am wondering about a couple of issues that I address in this post. The first issue is pronoun-centered– who “we” are. The second involves your discourse on “lower ranking” teachers.

I end by offering my own suggestions.

Who Are “We”?

One of the striking quotes in your article is

First, we stopped demanding that students read anything very challenging in school, and then we stopped holding our teachers or students accountable for the quality of student writing.

Since I require my public school students to read “very challenging” fiction and nonfiction, I am wondering if I am “we.” Now, I might just be “we” because I must use my professional judgment to guide students through some of those “very challenging” texts– and perhaps in your estimation such qualifies as my having “stopped demanding.” I know my students, and I know when turning a text like Julius Caesar or To Kill a Mockingbird over to them will result in frustration and discipline problems. However, based upon the class discussions during my guided reading, I know that they are challenged.

Of course, I realize that my professional judgment may not satisfy the “we.” Based upon my such judgment, I know that I must meet my students where they are with their reading and writing abilities and move forward. I cannot “demand” that they be anywhere other than where they are in their literacy.

As for the quality of my students’ writing, I am afraid that the mysterious “we” will again be disappointed. Yes, I have my students write. During the course of our writing, we discuss nuances of grammar, of word meaning, of word history, of differences in word meaning across languages and cultures. However, the process whereby discussion and practice evolve into intuitive and habitual correct usage is a slow train moving.

A very slow train.

Thus, I believe that the “we” would find me wanting in the “student writing ability” department.

Now, I also realize that you “have no idea whether ‘our’ teachers are themselves good writers, never mind good editors.” As for this teacher, I think you have an idea. Regarding editing, I have held formal positions as editor. However, in the past, I have also held the informal position as an editor for my administrators and bosses.

Some of my administrators and bosses had me proofread their correspondence because they knew that they were terrible writers.

Good bosses can be terrible writers.

I happen to have the fortune to operate well on both sides of my brain. I hold degrees in language and in math.

I wrote my dissertation on a statistical procedure known as descriptive discriminant analysis.

One lesson I learned from fellow statistics graduate students is that math-minded people often are terrible writers. Lots of grammatical and spelling errors. Little sentence variety. And dry. Statistics is already dry. Imagine adding a dull writing style to the mix.

Gifted statisticians. Terrible writers.

“Demanding” that teachers “produce” good writers becomes complicated when one realizes that not all people have a penchant for writing.

“We” do not expect all individuals to be able to sing well, or dance well, or play team sports well. In fact, “we” appear to have no problem with the fact that some people are terrible singers, or terrible dancers, or terrible at team sports.

I know it might be a stretch–but– can “we” admit that some people are terrible writers?

And while “we’re” admitting–can “we” admit that there might be forces interfering with the development of “good” writing– forces beyond teacher control?

You see, I have been a public school teacher long enough to know that I am not God.

I cannot “demand” my students to write well, Marc. And no matter how much you 1) make sure I read extensively and write well (which I do); no matter how you 2) organize the school in order to give me time to teach writing (which would be nice), and no matter how you 3) change my incentives and tie to student work (which is a dated reformer idea), some of my students– perhaps many of my students– will not become “good” writers in “we’s” estimation.

If “we” wants to count their deficit as my failure, so be it.

Let us now shift our focus from “we” to those “lower ranking” teachers and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

Teachers: “Lower” at the “Core”?

In your article, you add that “many [teachers] come from the lower ranks of high school graduates,” which I find curious for a couple of reasons. First, how is it that these “lower ranking” high school graduates were admitted into college? Someone must have botched the admissions criteria. Did no one test the writing of these “lower ranking” college admits?

Second, as our nation finds itself in the throes of the “making all students college and career ready” CCSS, isn’t the “goal” to send all high school graduates to college? If so, then “all” includes the “lower ranking.” (The nature of ranking is such that someone must always be “lower”– unless, of course, one resides in Lake Woebegone.)

This CCSS inclusiveness poses a dilemma: If all high school graduates are admitted into college, will that day be cause for celebration, or will the powers that be simply find another “brokenness” to American education in that some college graduates are the “bottom of some barrel”?

Perhaps our 100% college graduation rate will allow for no such comparisons. Perhaps America will have other issues to face, such as a 40% college graduate unemployment rate similar to that of South Korea. (US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is keen on South Korea. However, he doesn’t appear to be aware of the South Korean heights of unemployment.)

Third, you offer a single-sentence summary of CCSS and add, “Sounds like good writing to me.” Perhaps you do not realize that wedding CCSS to its high-stakes assessments will invariably include standardized grading of student writing.

CCSS assessments will lead not to open, engaging, critical thought but to teaching to the test. In the case of CCSS writing, students will learn to master the CCSS essay-grading algorithm, whatever that may be.

And since teachers are pressured to produce good test scores, students will “learn” to master the CCSS-related, high-stakes testing format.

So much for “good writing.”

Schneider’s Suggestions

Marc, if you want to lobby for smaller class sizes so that I am able to better teach writing (no need to be “unclear” about my “wanting to”), that would be wonderful. However, I wonder where the funding would come from. I am reminded of your idea to improve the teaching profession by drawing top college graduates and paying for them by cutting teacher pension and health benefits.

Tsk, tsk, tsk.

Bad idea. Better figure out another funding plan for those smaller classes.  And don’t ask Bill. I realize Gates has given your National Center on Education and the Economy $5 million since October 2009, but Arne Duncan is having a time denying Gates’ “seat at the table in terms of [education] policymaking.”

Furthermore, if you want to ensure that teachers are good writers and invested readers, you will likely have to alter the criteria for entrance into the profession, which might be difficult in this age of teacher devaluation and public school funding cuts. You see, in order to “demand” a higher quality teacher, you must also increase the attractiveness of the profession. Punitive measures do not make a profession appealing.

Respect for teachers as professionals– and therefore as individuals with a right to exercise professional judgment– is a must. To this end, it sure would be nice if you devoted some of your writing on what you value about “us”– today’s public school teachers.

I realize that this might be asking a lot since you clearly consider us to be the academic dregs. But do try, will you?

Finally, since I do view myself as a dedicated professional who cares about the well being of my students, you must recognize that you will never be able to “grade” me based upon my students’ writing.  I will continue to meet students where they are academically and move them forward– and “forward” might not often satisfy you.

No matter how much my work load might be lightened, I may not “achieve” your desired “success,” for I will always desire to help those students whose accomplishments are not obvious to the outside observer. And I will never turn students away based upon some wrong-minded determination that their accomplishments are “not enough” to make me “look good” to some undefined “we.”

(An aside informed by my stats expertise: No evaluating my performance based upon student outcomes unless you can control for all other possible interference upon those outcomes– which you cannot.)

The beauty of American public education is that for better or worse, we accept everybody. And until relatively recently in the history of American education, teachers were respected for doing so.

Never would I dream of placing the responsibility for any academic failure on the heads of my teachers.

Despite the corporate reform push otherwise, I am happy to note that my students regard me in like manner.

It makes me want to whistle.

12 Comments
  1. Standing and applauding.

    Especially that middle point. I watch every year as colleges, desperate to have a few more tuition checks to cash, enroll students who barely passed my class.

    “How could you send me such unprepared students?” ask the local college profs.

    “Look at the transcript,” I reply. “See that 75% in my non-college-prep English class? That’s me telling you he’s not ready for you. But your administration wanted to make a few more bucks, so you took him anyway!”

    If colleges want to be more inclusive and/or increase their revenue stream, they had better recognize that they can no longer have a system of academics based on taking only the cream of the crop.

  2. Thank you for writing this. It addresses the problems with education deform head-on, with clarity and wit!🙂

  3. As an award-winning author of YA fiction, adjunct professor in an MFA program for writing and instructor of creative writing for Writopia, who happens to have an MBA in Finance, I am standing and cheering. The current regime is being led by people who only use one side of their brain. Hence the nonstop emphasis on STEM and “data uber alles”. They are hailed on cover of Time magazine as visionaries, yet suffer from tunnel vision. Why can’t we appoint a polymath as Secretary as Education?

  4. Candyce Watsey permalink

    Can you hear me whistling? You made my year.

  5. Benoit permalink

    A word about teaching to the test as it concerns writing. I don’t teach a core subject but am subjected to the endless meetings discussing testing (testing is always the topic). Though it may not directly impact my classroom I do pay attention as I am part of the larger school culture and have school aged children of my own. In multiple meetings, science teachers have been reminded about a word count required for “the test.” On a student’s constructed response for science they can write a wonderful, well thought out paper but if it’s short of the arbitrary word count they will not receive credit for the response. NO CREDIT!! Now, if a student rambles about or near the topic for the prescribed number of words they will at least receive some credit. Computers are great at counting words. Longer words gain more points too, so now kids are elbows deep in thesaurus (not bad, but the motives are impure) to earn more writing points. Again, computers are excellent at counting. Keep in mind, this arbitrary word count will not be part of the instructions. It was an aside made during a webinar. (Those are always great aren’t they?) nearly everything in schools revolve around “the test.” EVERYTHING.

  6. My understanding is that the machine grading of student essays works. It seems impossible that it should work, but the claim is that the algorithms correlate in their scores with scores assigned by experienced essay graders. Mercedes, do you know whether that is true?

    • Benoit permalink

      According to the computer grading the science constructed response, a 50 word response I’d inherently better than a 49 word response. This is regardless of content. Computers are great at counting.

  7. Beyond Frustrated permalink

    Bravo!

  8. The algorithm is a formula. Thus, the grading must follow a set pattern that would penalize creative writers.

  9. Teresa Finn permalink

    How is it? How can it be? That your description of your experience, wherever you are, matches the beginnings of my experience here in Northern California? For now, CTA has helped protect us from evaluations based on test scores, but really, how much longer will they do that, having bought in to the whole CC thing — and I mean really bought in (or the reverse of that, accepting Gates money) — along w/ NCTE and the like. It’s sad and crazy making and outrageous. Is there any hope?

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