To Teach or Not To Teach

With apologies to the Bard, but hey–Covid-19.
To teach or not to teach? That is the question--
Whether 'tis nobler in our profession to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous infection,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing them, be fired? To quarantine, to sleep--
No more--and by that sleep to say we end
The exposure to a thousand viral shocks
That flesh is heir to--'tis an isolation
Devoutly to be wished! Self-quarantine and sleep.
But sleep, a chance to dream--aye, there's the rub,
For in that sleep at home what dreams may come
When we don't shuffle into our place of employment,
Must give us pause. There's the disrespect
That makes calamity of so long a career.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of ed reform,
Th' oppressors' wrong, the proud oligarchs' condemnation,
The pangs of despised professionalism, the laws that hasten
From the insolence of office the spurns of educators
That their patient forbearance of th' unworthy takes,
When they themselves might their quietus make
With a simple resignation? But how would children learn,
But for the grunt and sweat of weary teachers,
Whose dread of something better after the schoolhouse,
The undiscovered careers from whose places
No teacher ever returns, confounds the will
And makes them rather bear the ills they have
Than fly to others that they know not of?
Thus dedication and the profession makes cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the fevered crown of virus,
And movements of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

New Feature: WTF

Time to have some fun with the 2020 version of the annual train wreck known as the Florida Legislative Session. WTF?

Grumpy Old Teacher found this pad today as he was cleaning up his work area at home. No, he would never dare to use it for feedback on student work. But, perhaps hilariously, it will work for commentary on the various education bills that make their way out of the 2020 Florida legislative session for the governor’s signature.

Jose Oliva, WTF did you mean by that amendment that would make a school board’s collective bargaining agreements with local teachers’ unions subject to approval by the Department of Education? Explain.

GOT gets it. He really does. The legislature intends to designate half a billion dollars for teacher salaries and it wants to be sure that money actually goes into teachers’ paychecks. After all, in the land of ‘shall’ means ‘may,’ one can never be sure that the minions get the memo about fidelity to purpose, a scenario that Florida’s legislators are well aware of since they have frustrated the restoration of voting rights to Florida’s ex-convicts, thwarted the class-size amendment that voters have approved three times, and diverted funding for the purchase of land conservation to the administrative budgets of agencies.

What do you do when you want to be sure that designated funds go to designated purposes?

Look, the concern of the legislature is real. More than anyone, they know they have also passed a requirement that school boards find an extra $233 million to make up for pension funding shortfalls, something they also created when they decided teachers should contribute 3% of their salary to their pension because school boards promptly said, “Thank you very much,” and reduced their contribution by the same amount, which was not intended by the state.

They know the optics would be bad if school boards, in a ‘shall’ means ‘may’ moment, declared that teacher pensions are part of compensation and so, in a way, if they use the funding for salary increases to undergird pension funding, that might count as salary.

They have to be sure. Thus, they want to put FLDOE’s Richard the III (“A charter school! A charter school! My state’s school districts for a charter school!”) in charge of making sure that salary dollars wind up in salaries.

A just concern, my lieges. But one subject to mischief as the fulfillment of the intended purpose still rides upon the integrity and good will of the designated authority. What if, in a moment of pillow talk, Richard’s wife expresses a concern that she wants that money to enhance staff compensation at the charter school she runs?

It’s a dangerous business to ignore the will of the governed. Or, in this case, the will of teachers who have said over and over: put the money in the base student allocation and let us bargain with our school boards.

That’s a solution too simple and elegant for the men and women who warm the seats in the Capitol buildings’ chambers.

WTF? Seriously, WTF? You are giving the Commissioner of Education veto power over collective bargaining in the state? What were you thinking? And is it constitutional?

Coronavirus

Most likely, it’s already among us. Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) is not talking about the known cases, the people in isolation or quarantine, the cases that can’t be traced to travel in high-risk areas; it’s the mundane incidents of persons who are advised to stay home and avoid contact with others.

Due to a lack of tests, doctors suspect but cannot confirm.

So they give the best advice they can: your kid has a touch of the ‘flu,’ keep your kid home, contact the school and advise that, upon medical advice, you won’t be sending your kid back to class for two weeks.

Most likely, it’s already among us.

Image result for coronavirus
Real-time data may be found at this website.

It’s not panic time. Unlike Ebola, which had a 100% fatality rate until the world’s medical authorities found treatments that turned a death sentence into something less, the coronavirus, more specifically Covid-19, has nothing near that.

Even the reported rate is skewed as it includes all deaths, including those from Wuhan, China, where the virus originated, during the time when China was in denial and treatments were not known. As medical authorities have gained experience with treatment, the death rate outside of China’s epicenter is much less.

And China, once awoken, having imposed strict regiments and quarantines, has seen its incidence rate peak, plateau, and begin to decline.

But as the virus spreads around the world, precautions are in order.

GOT’s school district provided this list of planned actions to prevent persons traveling in high-risk areas of the world from going to a school (telephone instead) to enroll until an appropriate period of time has gone by. Families and children will be supported by home education as an alternative.

International travel is banned. For previously planned and paid for trips, school officials will review the itineraries to determine if they should be canceled. High-risk areas will not be permitted. The same goes for out-of-state and out-of-county trips.

Students returning from high-risk areas should not return to school until their parents have contacted the school about how the students’ education will resume.

But the talk of the hallway was about the planned sanitizing of school facilities over the next week as we are taking our spring break. In particular, conversation centered on the provision of hand sanitizer and what the custodial staff would actually do with the cleaning supplies as they perform the directed sanitizing of schools.

Would the supplies of hand sanitizer be distributed to classrooms? It is an important issue because many children do not wash their hands when using the bathroom. They return to their classroom and ask for the hand sanitizer. (If you are wondering, GOT sends them back to the bathroom to wash their hands. Handwashing is far more effective than the use of an alcohol-based hand rub.)

Word has seeped through the ranks that the hand sanitizer would be available in common areas, but would not be placed in classrooms. Talk about a morale booster! Secondary teachers who do not move through common areas during class change will not have access to a means to protect their health, but at least the district is looking out for the children.

Then there is the maddeningly lack of detail over what the sanitization of facilities procedures will be. Listening to the radio, we hear that everything that is commonly touched by many people should be wiped down with an EPA-approved antiviral product. Examples include door knobs, coffee machines, and the like.

Exactly what is being done? Rumor suggested it would only be the common areas and the custodial staff would not cleanse the classrooms. Because children don’t spend most of their time in a classroom? Because children don’t touch everything with germy hands? Because children naturally do things they hate to do and don’t need an adult to supervise their health, diets, cleanliness, etc.?

It’s not really reassuring to say that schools will be sanitized with special products when we don’t know what that entails. This is not an issue to fob off the public with a show of doing something. Coronavirus is not a public relations problem. It is a real health concern.

And so, GOT devised a way to know. When he returns to his classroom in ten days, he will know whether anything was done.

The Three Seasons of the School Year

Fall, Spring, Summer.

It is said that there are three seasons in the year for those ensconced in our nation’s public schools: learning, test preparation, testing.

These roughly correlate to Autumn, the opening of school to the winter break; Winter, the return to school until spring break; Spring, when the ever-wearying, never-ceasing, onslaught of testing gets underway.

To corrupt Elizabeth Barrett Browning: How do we hate thee (testing), let us count the ways.

  • Annual state testing of reading and math for Grades 3 – 10. These tests everyone is familiar with and knows that they come in the Spring, much as The Iceman Cometh, an O’Neill play of despair and hope.
  • End of Course exams, known by different names, but doing the same thing, which is a summative evaluation of what a child has learned at the ‘end’ of a course. Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) has to put ‘end’ in quotes because the timing of these tests means that they often come before the actual end of the course.
  • English Language Learner exams, now underway, in which students identified as such must take tests to measure their progress in learning English.
  • Separate writing exams, which some states fold into their reading scores, that must take place early as they require human beings to score them, a process that is only less problematical when compared to having computers score the writing of human children.
  • SAT exams, which more and more colleges are now ignoring by either outright deleting them from admissions requirements or, more subtly, making optional. Yet the College Board is successful in repositioning the exams as something every high school student should take rather than something that college applicants should do.
  • Alternative tests for students who cannot take the regular test. This requires a trained administrator to test one-on-one and score the student response. In GOT’s particular state, known for its testing fetish, severely disabled students must be tested using an alternative test. If the kid sits and is unresponsive to the test, the administrator grabs the hand and moves it to the correct answer. If the kid does not resist, that gets a score above zero, not a full mark, but an indication of … something?
  • Specialized program tests like those for IB or AICE programs. Some of these have a verbal component, like foreign language courses, in which students record responses in the course language onto thumb drives or other devices. Those recordings are submitted to test authorities as part of the exam to be scored.
  • Infrastructure test events because many of the tests are taken online. Every year, instructional time is wasted as a student is put on every computer in a school in every district across the state at the same, exact time so the state can breathe easy that the testing system can handle the load.
  • Practice tests to familiarize students with the presentation of computer tests, the different types of questions they will encounter, and the helps available to them like reference sheets with formulas, calculators for math, and video tutorials about how to navigate the test.
  • AP testing. If a student chooses one pathway and can get early college credit through passing one or two tests in the subject area (as a senior), that’s okay as long as colleges accept it as an equivalent. But when students are taking ten to twelve AP exams, beginning in the 9th grade, no some AP courses are now taught in middle school (!), are the students really doing college level work. But the beat goes on …

… and so does testing.

Testing FAQ

Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) was able to score a full copy of the February 17, 2020 Frequently Asked Questions release by the Florida Department of Education regarding what they call with no sense of irony, “New Standardization Policies” regarding test administration.

What follows is the full release without commentary. GOT is sorry to have to resort to screen shots, but scans generate PDF files and he doesn’t have the big bucks to pay for a full copy of Adobe Acrobat to export to another format.

Page One.

This is what the Department of Education, Florida-style, has sent to districts regarding the manner in which this year’s testing may take place.

New Sheriff, New Rules

The Florida Department of Education has issued new restrictions about what a test proctor may do before, during, and after administering the FSA suite of test assessments, including grade level math and reading tests as well as End-of-Course exams.

Page 30 of the Spring 2020 manual.

Clear as mud according to social media chatter of the last three days. Exactly what do they mean by this? Time for a long read through the testing manual.

Here’s a gem for students and parents. Pay attention to the penultimate statement; FLDOE wants to be clear that their dire threats about discussing the test does not extend to a parent’s conversation with their child:

Why we do seating charts: flagged tests can be appealed
if the students were not sitting next to one another.

Here’s a tidbit worthy of pondering. Why do we have an Algebra 1 first-time test and a separate Algebra 1 retake test? Given the draconian consequences for a student who cannot pass the Algebra 1 test (no diploma), is the retake test ‘dumbed down,’ (apologies to struggling students, GOT is not disrespecting you but the phrase gets across the idea) to keep too many students from failing to graduate because the political pressure would be too much for Florida’s politicians to bear?

Accountabaloney, this one’s for you.
We kinda noticed.
Jail is no excuse for avoiding the test. We even force dying kids to undergo testing.
If you were wondering about whether Florida distinguishes between private and public school obligations, but maybe Jason Gabriel can help out here because he opined that sometimes ‘shall’ means ‘may.’ Maybe we can reverse that to say the ‘may’ means ‘shall.’
Sorry, Mom, but you had to teach your child yourself. Parking them in front of the computer to do virtual school? They gotta be tested.
The clock is ticking. About 10 days left except for FSA ELA. Writing is done in early April.
GOT would call this the Pam Stewart law.
And we were looking at page 30. What new mischief is this?
So some student encouragement is allowed because denying recess is not enough, let’s have them doing practice tests at home when they would rather socialize with their peers.
Why does a teacher need to do this if they are not allowed to encourage students to finish or wake them up if they stop testing? And how does a teacher comply with the last sentence if they comply with the first?
More permissible student encouragement. You can’t say, “Finish the test. I know you can do it.” But you can say, “Reread the item, you probably didn’t get it the first time.”

From this point, we move into the scripts for each test. Since they tend to be the same except for necessary customization (for example, ear bud tests for reading; calculator for math), GOT is skipping ahead to his particular script for Geometry EOC. If you want to read the manual for yourself, you can find it at fsassessments.org or click the embedded link.

Surprised districts haven’t picked up on this one.

How to provide accommodations is covered in detail. Here’s an example for when a student may have the directions read aloud:

Not a new requirement, but an explicit clarification.
Don’t do this.
But you can do this. Got it?
Math, we’re not leaving you out. But you’d better be sure you describe that graphic correctly and not tip off the answer.
What teachers have to sign.

That’s enough for now. GOT will post further results from his investigation such as new training videos or FLDOE statements. He would like to conclude with a popular song (well, in his day) about sheriffs, but is afraid someone would miss the joke and take it as a threat.

The Shifting Sands of Sunshine State Standards

David Lee Finkle, best known as the creator, writer, and artist of the comic strip “Mr. Fitz,” also pens a blog. With his permission, Grumpy Old Teacher is proud to present his latest post about the B.E.S.T. standards adopted February 12, 2020, by the Florida state board of education. He discusses what the changes will mean for English Language Arts.

The Standards Shift Again: Maybe Derek Zoolander Had It Right

In a feat of spontaneous irony (my irony is usually calculated and planned), this week I reposted blog posts from 2013 about my reactions to the Common Core Standards. I reposted them on Wednesday night – the very day those same standards were ousted here in Florida in favor of their new “B.E.S.T.” standards. So I was looking back at my reactions to the last set of standards as the new standards were bursting on the scene. (By the way, B.E.S.T. stands for Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking. Another acronym! Exactly what we needed.)

So I spent part of last night looking at the new standards for English in grade 9 – the grade I currently teach. I cannot speak to the math standards, which are apparently very much like Common Core, just reworded, but the ELA standards really struck me as a throw-back to the old Sunshine State Standards we had before Common Core (or Florida Standards, as they were officially called). 

Just a case in point – the writing standards, which say that students should write in three modes: narrative, informative, and persuasive. I’m not complaining – I’m just not impressed, either. Sure, these three modes were also in the Common Core standards, and yes they represent a vast oversimplification of writing forms and how they flow into one another and take on new forms depending on the audience and occasion. That’s always been the case. But at least we don’t seem to have the David Coleman nobody-cares-about-your-story-narrative-is-bad and cite-textual-evidence-instead-of-having-ideas-of-your-own baggage that the old Florida Standards/Common Core Standards had. 

I find the reading lists a bit heavy on the “classics” which are more public-domainy (cheaper) but also less diverse, and also a bit more Biblical in some cases, which I find suspect. The Bible can be read as literature, but I doubt that’s why it was included. 

The new standards offer some things to be positive about. The dropping of “writing to text” as a thing, and the fact that they appear to be getting rid of the 9th grade standardized literacy tests. But what matters more than the particular standards is how we view standards, and how they are used. 

If we view a set of standards as limiting, as the only things we should be teaching, then those standards instantly become problematic. No set of standards is going to cover everything we need to teach. But too often, administrators and teachers alike view standards as Holy Writ that we must not deviate from. When we view standards as the only things we are to teach, we are intellectually bankrupt because we are limiting thinking rather than encouraging it. For instance, the Florida Standards we just got rid of didn’t have any mention of irony in the 9th/10th grade standards. Should I just have ignored teaching irony to my 9th graders, even though irony is the key to so much literature and even non-fiction writing? Indeed, I find leaving irony out for two full years of high school… ironic. The Language Arts Florida Standards (unironically called LAFS) also failed to mention poetry at all. So is poetry forbidden in our classrooms? 

Specific skills or concepts can be neglected in other ways as well, because each standard we’re asked to teach comes with a whole set of hidden substandards that need to be taught. For instance, the LAFS said (grudgingly, I think) that students should write narratives. They did not note that students should know the difference between moment-by-moment narration where time slows down and list-of-event narration where time speeds up. They did not note that describing a person can involve describing both their personality and appearance, or that a setting such as a person’s living room can reveal as much about that character as the clothes they wear. These are concepts that a good writing teacher will know to teach that are probably not covered in the standards. 

Of course, you might argue that those things should be in the standards, but then the standards multiply and become more and more specific and nitpicky to try to cover all bases. This leads to madness. You can see a bit of this madness at work if you look at the conventions progression in the new B.E.S.T standards on page 197-198. It’s a lot to keep track of. 

If we view standards as Holy Writ, we delve into thought control. If we try hard to make them all-encompassing, they spiral out of control. But in addition to how we view standards, we must look at how we use them. Because no matter what anyone says, the only standards that actually matter are the tested standards. In the era of LAFS, writing has been tested year after year in Florida in one format: students read three texts and write an essay synthesizing their ideas. Because that’s the writing that is tested, that is the only type of writing taught in many classrooms. (My wife and I have had to teach seniors how to write narrative essays all over again for them to apply to college. They say things like “can I use the word I?”)

But if writing to text the only kind of writing that matters, there must be simple ways to get good scores on that test, right? We want good school grades and good VAM scores so we can get $51 bonuses at the start of the next school year, right? So we reduce writing to a formula: this many paragraphs, these types of sentences within the paragraphs, these specific transition words. We have taught them nothing about how writing actually works, but they will get those scores! 

This is what I have come to believe: no standard is so good that it can’t be reduced to a worksheet by a teacher who only cares about test scores. Tests it seems, narrow the very standards they are meant to measure.

So if making standards the unquestioned authority on what needs to be taught is intellectually bankrupt, and trying to make standards too specific makes them too cumbersome to handle, and testing basically eliminates any standard that isn’t on the test… what should we do about standards? 

Perhaps the ideal standards would be very broad and admit their own limitations. I agree with the U.S Commissioner of Education who when asked if there should be national education standards replied, “the vaguer, the better.” 

And that’s where Derek Zoolander comes in. In the movie Zoolander, the extremely dimwitted fashion model is opening a school called “The Derek Zoolander Center For Children Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too.” 

In the end, all the standards basically say very similar things. Be able to understand, interpret, analyze, and discuss what they read. Write in multiple modes for various purposes and audiences. Question and think instead of falling for anything. We all want our schools to be centers for “Children Who Want To Read Well, Write Well, And Do Other Stuff Well Too, Like Think Well and Not Make Really Dumb Mistakes In Their Writing.” 

Perhaps standards should be that vague. Perhaps every effort should be made to stop the insidious, and at one time un-ethical, practice of teaching to the test. Perhaps the biggest, most important standard of all is the simplest one: question everything.