I am tired.
As the end of the first semester approaches, I find myself barraged with correspondence from parents and students concerned about their grades. Fewer than ten instructional days are left before finals and the sense of urgency has hit. All of a sudden grades matter (teachers call this awakening “finding Jesus in a foxhole”).
Parents are stressed. This semester I have heard of quite a few of my student’s parents who have lost jobs, who face the threat of job loss or had their homes foreclosed. This adds to their concerns that their students get the best education possible so they can somehow avoid the effects of a jobless economic recovery.
I had a parent remark that the B her student was receiving in US History was going to keep the student from getting into Harvard. (Perhaps I should have mentioned that by doing so, I would save the family thousands of dollars in tuition.)
These issues are not new to my profession, nor are they different from past teaching experiences. But what exacerbates them are the budget cuts we endure this year. Ten percent fewer adults in my school has increased my duty time, cut back on support personnel in the classroom, limited the dean support for teachers in dealing with behavior issues, and it has made finding time to communicate with parents difficult. On top of this we are preparing for more budget cuts, from $15 to $30 million next year.
With all of this going on, you can imagine the response teachers are giving to current reform measures being presented by our district. I know this firsthand because I am involved with one of the proposed reforms. Standards Based Grading (SBG) has received increased media attention over the past few weeks. The Poudre School District is rolling out its version to the community with some inevitable push back.
The New York Times just ran a story about a Minnesota school district and their SBG roll-out. SBG is about changing the culture of grading and moving towards a more accurate and efficient system. It means that we rethink the role and purpose of grade reporting. Not only is there pushback from some community members, but from teachers as well. If SBG is going to take place in our district, it is going to require time, support, and hard work on the part of all stakeholders, especially teachers. So it was no surprise when I, along with other members of our district SBG committee, presented our ideas to over 100 teachers last week. We were looking for some feedback and we got it.
In addition to the expected philosophical objections we received, we also got the message that teachers have too much on their plates already. To invest time into something that hits at the core beliefs of some teachers is too much. I hear them. But that said, I am troubled by the prospect of not moving forward with reform proposals. I get that the reality of budgets limits the amount of resources we can put towards reforms.
But this does not mean that we should not shift and change some of our priorities, including reorganizing our district personnel to better support reform movements. And it does not mean we should placate ourselves to the increasing political message that we have to cut more government spending. It is time to talk about raising revenues.
It is going to take some politicians with intestinal fortitude to buck the “cut government spending” cry and articulate why we need to raise revenues. I do not see much hope for success in raising taxes with our current state legislative makeup. But I do have some hope about changing the structure of district organizations to support reform at the school level.
The Wallace Foundation has published a series of reports entailing how some major urban districts have reorganized their personnel to better support change in schools. Since I am so tired, I am not going to get into specifics of the reports. But here are two observations in the report that caught my attention:
The district central office had placed priority on assisting school principals in becoming strong instructional leaders, while also helping the principal attend to other aspects of the management of the school.
The district reform plan granted the principal significant discretion (and some additional discretionary resources) to define and deploy staff in ways that optimally support instruction and to access resources for professional development. The principal had made use of this discretion to configure her leadership team and engage several external partners to address particular instructional improvement issues.
These ideas seem like no-brainers but when you look at how current districts are organized, it means major changes and shifts in the responsibilities of district personnel. But it does not necessitate an increase in expenses. In other words, it would not take money to make these changes. Just the will of all involved.
The end of the semester will inevitably come around. I’ll stop having daily meetings with parents who are concerned about their student’s grades. Students will stop asking me “How can I get my grade up?” (Standards based grading would certainly inhibit this question). I will be done grading 120 constructed responses and finish semester grades and we will move on to the next semester.
That is the ebb and flow of a teacher’s school life. This too shall pass. But what should not pass us by is the opportunity to reorganize how we do business at the district level; to empower principals to become instructional leaders and free them up from managerial duties.
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