Saturday, May 7, 2011

The "Readiness Myth" - Why We Don't Want Students Who Are "Ready" Already

completely prepared or in fit condition for immediate action or use
duly equipped, completed, adjusted, or arranged, as for an occasion or purpose

When is a student "ready" for the next phase of their lives? Students are "ready" when they are "completely prepared...for immediate action" and "duly equipped... for an occasion or purpose." We talk about "readiness" all the time in schools, but I don't think we are using the word "ready" in the sense. We use "ready" instead to label students for placement in grades, courses, and college. We determine whether students are "ready" to go to the next grade or "ready" to take that AP class or "ready" to enter college. We have made "readiness" a high-stakes enterprise. Students who are "ready" are allowed to matriculate and take that AP class and enter college without taking remedial courses. Students who are not "ready" are held back and denied entry into advanced coursework and charged hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to take extra courses that don't count toward a degree.

In my opinion, our use of "readiness" to determine whether students can move on to the next phase of life is broken. We use "readiness" as a key that opens doors for students who are deemed "ready," and we withhold the key from students who are not. Lack of "readiness" has become code for "stupid" or "lazy" or "falling short of potential." Education reformers are now using "readiness" to grade teachers and school as well as students. If teachers and schools are not getting students "ready" for the next test or grade or graduation, then those teachers and schools are failures, just like their students. "Readiness" now has the highest of stakes attached to it.

Jay Mathews' Class Struggle column in the Washington Post recently addressed community college placement tests. The College Board, who authors the ACCUPLACER test for many community colleges, encourages students in their instructions for the test by saying that it is not possible to "fail" a placement test. Yet, community colleges use the scores from this test to determine placement in remedial classes. So, in essence, students can "fail" the placement test, as Mathews points out. These students end up spending money and time taking remedial courses because they are not "ready" for "real" college work.

Here is the flaw in our logic of "readiness" - if students are already "ready" already for the next phase of their lives, what do we have left to teach them? If students are "ready" already for AP classes, what does the teacher have to offer these students? If students are "ready" already for college work, why should they go through with college work? I believe that if we only teach "ready" students, we really aren't teaching. We are merely babysitting.

I've taught many AP students over the years, and there were several who really didn't need me. They were the poster children for "readiness." All they really needed was the course textbook and perhaps an encouraging email from me now and then, and they would have passed the AP test with flying colors. These students were very "ready" for AP and for college work. I had little to offer but some tricks of the trade for writing free-response questions and tips for remembering often-confused concepts. I didn't have to do much teaching for these "ready" students.

Now, my non-"ready" students were those who really needed me. They needed me to work with them to develop the skills they needed to be "ready" for that test in May. They weren't as independent as my "ready" students. They could read the textbook and still not understand everything they read. They needed me to critique their essays extensively and repeatedly before they were able to write a coherent, cohesive response to a prompt. Some days, my non-"ready" students battled with me over each and every teaching point. Other days, they trusted that what I was teaching them would make a difference in their lives. We enjoyed a dynamic give-and-take relationship in the classroom that I truly enjoyed. I loved seeing the light come on with these non-"ready" students. I felt like I was accomplishing my ultimate teaching goal - to make a difference in the lives of my students.

I've had many colleagues over the years who did not want students who weren't "ready" for advanced coursework. When course selection time came around, these teachers would demand that students complete applications or take placement tests to enter their classes. They would meet with teachers in feeder classes to talk about which students were "ready" and which were not. They would complain about teachers in feeder classes who were too generous in recommending students for advanced courses. They would make students and their parents sign forms saying they were aware that the student was overreaching their potential by taking advanced coursework over the objections of their teachers or their placement test score.

For the most part, I think these teachers are well meaning. They don't want to set students up for failure. They don't want to see students frustrated when the course gets tough. But I think these teachers are missing the real point of schooling - to teach students how to overcome failure and frustration. They were missing the point because they were afraid that their students' failures would reflect badly on their teaching. Students who are "ready" already are not likely to encounter failure in our schools. They will rarely be frustrated with our classes. And they will rarely be challenged. And they will make us look good as teachers. We will look good when they do well on our tests, but I don't think they will ever really learn anything from us.

In today's climate of data worship and high-stakes accountability, we have become afraid of students who are not "ready." Students who are not "ready" will be frustrated with us and our course expectations. Students who are not "ready" will fail sometimes, if not entirely. These students may not give us the data we need to make AYP or to be deemed "effective." They may make our AP pass rates fall. Or they may make us look really, really good. The risks of teaching non-"ready" students are great, but so are the rewards. So instead of using the data we generate to create appropriate learning goals for our students so we can help them become "ready" and ultimately succeed, we are using the data we generate to punish students for not being "ready" already.

Real school reform will happen when we embrace non-"ready" students and get on with the business of school, helping them to become "completely prepared" and "duly equipped" for whatever life has for them. Teaching them how to overcome failure and how to deal with frustration will do more to make our students "ready" for the real world and the 21st century than any amount of test prep or data worship. Our new evaluation systems for students, teachers, and schools should focus more on non-"readiness" than "readiness." "Readiness" is a prize we should always pursue but never achieve. For by achieving "readiness," we then have nothing left to learn.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Teacher Appreciation - What We Can Control and What We Can't

Note: I have changed the blog address to update the new title and focus. If you have bookmarked this blog, please update!

As I celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week, I've been reflecting on what teachers contribute to students, schools, and the community at large. I've also been reflecting on what teachers can't contribute to students, schools, and the community at large. I am typically what some folks (like my husband) would call a "control freak," wanting to be "in charge" and controlling what goes on around me. My sisters would confirm that I've been bossy since childhood (ah, the joys of being first born!), and because of these traits of mine, I've become somewhat of an expert in determining what I can control and what I can't.

Figuring out what we can control and what we can't control is important to mental health. I can control how prepared I am for an emergency, but I can't control how extensively I am affected by that emergency. The recent tornadoes in my home state of Alabama show this. Many people hid out in their "places of safety" during the storms, which was the right thing to do, but the sheer power and magnitude of the storms made most preparations futile. Does that mean we should not go to places of safety for future storms? No. The lesser magnitude of future storms may make our planning and preparations crucial to our survival. We can only do what we can do and hope our preparations are enough to meet the power and magnitude of what we face.

Teachers face circumstances that vary in power and magnitude every day. Some of those circumstances can be faced with creativity and planning. Other circumstances can only be faced with patience and flexibility. Figuring out when you need to plan and when you need to be flexible can be the key to a healthier approach to teaching and learning. To me, there is one main circumstance teachers can control, and one main circumstance that they can't control.

Teachers can control what goes on each day in the classroom. Lesson planning is essential to a successful school day. Students need to be busy and engaged throughout the day in order for learning to happen. The work students do needs to be all things to all students - interesting, important, and appropriately challenging. A well planned lesson can address both learning needs and potential discipline problems that may arise.

Teachers can't control what students bring into the classroom each day. Even the most well planned lesson can be sabotaged by students who are belligerent and defiant. The real question then becomes why the student is belligerent and defiant. To me, this is where teaching and learning become truly complicated. Each student is bringing a different issue to the classroom each day, and how much those issues affect their learning (and your teaching) determines what remedies you might try. Some students are upset with parents or friends. Others may be dealing with poverty or abuse or substance abuse at home. Still others may be upset with you or another teacher in the building about their grades or the amount of work you assign. And yet others just may be insecure or immature and want attention at inappropriate times.

The task of teachers in these instances is not to "fix" what's wrong with the students, which is what you can't control, but to create an environment in which these issues become minimized, which is what you can control. You cannot make a student's home life better or correct immaturity (at least in the short term!). But you can create a classroom environment that is safe, structured, flexible, and engaging so students can leave their personal issues at the door and work on the tasks at hand while they are with you. You can leave your own personal issues at the door as well, not bringing to your classroom your home issues or insecurities or personal biases. You can explain students' behavior as the result of situations they are in rather than personal flaws they cannot change.

Some teachers work in environments in which poverty, abuse, illiteracy, and behavior problems abound. In these environments, it may seem as though no amount of planning or creativity will ameliorate the issues students bring into the classroom. In fact, teachers in these environments often feel like those folks who lost everything in the storms. They prepared, they planned, they did all the right things, but in the end, it was all for nothing. They only escaped with their lives, and in many cases, some didn't even escape with that. Teachers in high-risk schools often feel beaten up by the storms of their circumstances. They may learn to be helpless in these environments, which can lead to their lack of motivation to do the creative planning necessary to make learning happen successfully.

Other teachers work in environments in which students are generally well prepared for learning, but who at times may be immature or uninterested in learning. In these environments, instead of feeling helpless and defeated, teachers typically feel pretty confident about what they do and how they do it. These teachers tend to plan well and are creative with most of their lessons. Most of their students are compliant and even thriving under their tutelage. But these teachers can be blind to the reasons why some students are not successful. They may hold so tightly to their procedures and plans that they cannot imagine why some students aren't engaged or even enthralled by their teaching. These teachers need more patience and flexibility than planning and creativity. These teachers are like those who weather less severe storms. They plan and prepare and protect themselves from the winds and rain, and they usually escape with little to no damage. But some damage can happen, and instead of raging against the existence of storms, we simply clean up the mess and consider how we can avoid the types of damage we faced in the future.

Resilience is not cultivated in an environment free of conflict and adversity. Ultimately, resilient teaching is not about being in a school that is without problems or working with students who are without problems. These schools and students do not exist anyway. Resilient teaching is about preparing for the best while expecting the worst. Resilient teaching is about creativity and planning, patience and flexibility all at the same time.

So to all the teachers who exemplify resilient teaching every day, kudos to you! Let's do all we can to help both our students and our colleagues be more resilient every day.