Teachers thrive better with respect

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Teachers thrive better with respect

 

The article’s heading is “How do American Students compare to their International Peers”; it was published in the Atlantic on December 7 2016. According to its author Ms. Richmond, the results of the PISA 2015 show for the US little improvements, in math and science, over that of 2012. [1]  She says that: ‘U.S. students are stagnating in reading and science proficiency while their math performance declined slightly, based on new results from an international assessment’: that international assessment is PISA. She goes on to say, ‘Results were lower in math in 2015 compared with 2012, placing the U.S. near the bottom of 35 industrialized nations. Problem is that the US was low in 2012. Singapore in 2015 was the top performer in all three subjects.

With the intention of understanding our students’ performance let us now take a closer look at what Ms. Richmond is saying. Ms. Richmond refers to a ‘webinar’ which was held by Andreas Schleicher, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) director of education and skills. According to Schleicher (his first statement) U.S. students’ levels of proficiency appear to decline as kids advance to higher grades, contrary to the trend in many higher-performing countries. Ms. Richmond gives two significant statements made by Schleicher, the second one: “Students are often good at answering the first layer of a problem in the United States. But as soon as students have to go deeper and answer the more complex part of a problem, they have difficulties,” Schleicher said.

These are telling observations and deserve attention by our educators, at every level; indeed everyone should be made aware of them. They are critical to our understanding of the root of the problems facing our educators. The rate at which topics are covered is dictated by a pacing scheme; there have been many complaints but it continues the same. Covering the curriculum is required and so teachers do the best they can; they do in fact mostly finish the curriculum, which they are hounded to do, but at an incalculable cost; it is done at the cost of losing students in many topics, these accumulate and most likely lead to student disliking mathematics. The teaching of math involves constant checking, that is quizzes and tests, to ensure that students are acquiring the skills. Teachers  have to try and ensure, for instance, that in subjects like algebraic addition and subtraction that the student attains some level of automaticity. Rush it and students acquire weaknesses in one of the most fundamental area of mathematics. Yes you can give them calculators but the student skill set is still weak. This takes time, and since they have to rush through the curriculum, the deeper, thinking part of math goes without sufficient attention. It is simply impossible to rush through thinking problems for that is where the deeper leaning process takes place; the thinking part calls for class discussions, slowing down at times; it eats up time but they will be doing mathematics. At every stage of the students’ progress practice is required, but the almost obscene rush to complete a long syllabus results in inadequate practice and in particular not enough attention can be given to the more complex problems. Teacher judgment is essential at every stage, in establishing whether students have the skills to move on; that should never be taken out of the teachers hand and given over to some rule. Teacher autonomy, when they have it, includes the exercise of judgment over when to leave a topic; within reason of course; and it is not synonymous with independence from others. Thinking has to be woven into the fabric of math learning, but it can only be done if there is time. Every math teacher understands what needs to be done, but it can only be done if there are substantial changes in what teachers are allowed to do. There can be little solution to this without shortening the syllabus so that time is allowed for proper development of the topics.

Yet another reason is that teachers have far too much to do. Grading a student’s paper in math is time consuming when it is done properly. For a decent thinking problem the teacher makes a rubric to guide his apportioning of points; the neatness, diagrams, reasoning, logic, demonstrated logical statements all are considered. For a hundred students a set of thinking problems will take hours and cannot be completed within school time. This is in addition to finding time to call parents, and taking time out to speak to students about their performance. But when grading is finished the teacher also has to provide feedback to students as a group and often individually for certain persons who might require it. Quite frequently this cannot be done; the filling out of what must appear as senseless paperwork, just adds more work.

A Finnish teacher who works in America says, “I feel rushed, nothing gets done properly; there is very little joy, and no time for reflection or creative thinking (in order to create meaningful  activities for students).” [2]  It is my feeling that very many teachers are not satisfied with the quality of the work they get done but given the schedules they have and the regulations governing them, that is the best they can do. Let us take a second look at what she says, ‘nothing gets done properly;’ she is in pain. It bothers her that she is not able to do her work in the manner she needs to and it bothers her for she knows that the students are not prepared the way she would like them to be; she, of course, is not preparing them simply for PISA but for life and that is what pains her.  There is no way that the students will do well while their teachers are overworked and worn out with minutiae. Another teacher, Finnish, says “I have been very tired—more tired and confused than I have ever been in my life,” Kristiina Chartouni, a veteran Finnish educator who began teaching American high-school students this autumn, said in an email.

Another comment from this Finnish teacher is that she ‘sits in meetings where details are not discussed.’ She is unable to influence decisions taken at her school, and the sense of ownership of her job is severely lacking. No one is listening to anyone. Teacher problems are not listened to, much less given attention.

Blaming our teachers has resulted in a type of reasoning which says that if they are the cause then they will be compelled to work to correct the problem. It has resulted in threats, unendurable paper work, an atmosphere of fear in many schools, even firing whole faculty; after all they are at fault. But even sadder is the message which all this communicates to parents and, in particular, the young. In the lower grades the math consists of arithmetic which is not so complex. But in the higher grades they meet algebra where numbers are being replaced by symbols; they also encounter geometry where algebra is applied. Our student has been told that the teacher is responsible, and so during the earlier years, has not been acquiring the attitudes and habits necessary for adequate performance in the higher grades; this shows up clearly on PISA. It has not been made clear to him that his attitude to his work is of the greatest importance. While all the other nations which are presently leading the world in math, have, with moral justification, built into their education the need for students to shoulder more of the responsibility for their learning as they mature, our students are learning a completely different attitude. You see, mathematics requires practice, and even the good ones will do well with practice. Thinking does not come naturally but it is trained and honed when a person spends time working math, making mistakes and searching and looking for errors.

Whereas in the lower grades students are able to perfom well relying on the teacher and native ability, it becomes difficult to do so in the higher grades. When a student walks into any exam room she or he takes with him years of daily practice, in answering questions at many levels. Our student lacks this practice, which is highlighted by the PISA exams. Our teachers are worked to death and are being asked to shoulder a responsibility which morally is not theirs. It is in the higher grades that students need to take on more of their work load, but our students have been told for years that that it is the teachers’ responsibility: a dangerous message in any school system. PISA says that message is a falsehood. Many of the measures taken, such as evaluating teachers according to student performance on tests, merit pay, have been adopted with this one idea in mind, that teachers can and should make students perform well on tests. So where students in other parts of the world, including Europe and Asia, are going home and working, our students are not doing that. Consequently their performance drops off over time while that of the other nations rises. One of the important messages for each human is that he or she needs to shoulder some of the responsibility for his life. Blaming teachers has taken away this moral requirement and leaves our students academically weak, a weakness which shows up on international examinations requiring thinking. This along with overworked teachers and over wide math curriculum contributes to the poor performance of our students.

Quoting from ‘Hard Work and High Expectations’ [3]  we have this message: ‘But parents, teachers, and policymakers have to make the first move. They have to send students an unmistakable message that academic achievement is the students’ lumber-one priority, the most important thing in their young lives.’ Instead we have told them the teacher will do it for them. Note that the words were that an unmistakable message; nothing garbled, or vague. From day one it should be crystal clear that they are there to do work, an integral part of the leaning process. We do have some responsibility to our country and the upcoming generations. We are sending out student a terrible message. In a time when countries such as China, India, Japan, are pushing forward with everything we are bequeathing to our children a culture of mediocrity; it shows up at PISA.

Common sense should tell us that our teachers are working on all cylinders. They are overworked and if we wish our students to do well we will have to address the problems our teachers have. That would involve speaking with them. They need less classes, for starters, having principals speaking with them, not evaluating them but to see what they need and are asking for. For decades many things have been tried so it is clear that the teachers have to be treated differently, with respect, thoughtfulness and care. That is a safe place to start. Teachers deserve much better and it can be said that until they are treated with fairness, and much more thoughtfulness, the situation cannot improve. At this point our teachers are paid comparatively well; the issues presently revolve around fostering an entirely different attitude towards teachers; fairness and being just to them is a requirement. They require more autonomy at schools, in curriculum, discipline, to name two. They need to be on boards which make decisions concerning education. We can begin there, and unleash teacher power.

 

 

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[1] taken from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/12/how-do-american-students-compare-to-their-international-peers/509834/

[2] Taken from taken from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/11/when-finnish-teachers-work-in-americas-public-schools/508685/

[3] “Hard Work and High Expectations’ p 5

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