Public school teacher says hasta la vista

Public school teacher says "hasta la vista"
by Donna Garner

What forces a Texas public school teacher like me to leave the high school where she has spent the better part of a 27-year teaching career? Why would I leave a school district in which I have invested huge amounts of time and energy?

Why would I decide to teach in a private school for much less pay? The answer can be summed up in one phrase loss of local control. At my high school next year, every English teacher is to follow a syllabus that is aligned with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), a standards document replete with performance-based projects (e.g., "create, present, test, and revise a project and analyze a response, using data-gathering techniques such as questionnaires, group discussions, and feedback forms...create media products to include a billboard, cereal box, short editorial, and a three-minute documentary or print ad to engage specific audiences.")

At my school, we English teachers sign an affidavit-like statement which forces us to teach exactly what is on the syllabus at exactly the same time - even using the same tests.

I have written and produced my own grammar packets ( Thanks to the Internet, people all over the world are now able to access my free packets; even missionaries are using them to teach their children English grammar. My packets require at least six months of intense study; the verb packet alone takes 10 weeks. The other English I teachers at my high school have decided that next year prepositions, verbs, nouns, pronouns, and subject/verb agreement must all be taught in 4 ½ weeks. If I were to stay at my high school, I would be forced to discard my grammar packets and teach in lockstep with the others.

I am not being critical of my fellow English teachers. In order to make room for all the 99 TEKS elements - many of which require students to spend huge chunks of time producing performance-based projects - Texas teachers are being forced to quit teaching the basics of grammar, spelling, and composition.

To make room for all the burdensome TEKS requirements, teachers must flit through the numerous elements without sufficient time to bring their students to the mastery level. Mastering basic skills takes time; it simply cannot be rushed.

If I thought that my ninth-grade students knew basic grammar and could write well, I would love nothing better than to teach more literature. However, each year students' writing and speaking skills grow weaker. I also teach Spanish I, and my classes are full of students who do not know a verb from a noun. I have to spend hours teaching English grammar before my students can begin to learn Spanish.

Public schools are captivated by the idea of using technology, the Internet, and web sites. The idea of a common English I syllabus posted on the school web site sounds good, but in reality the document is going to bring terrible pressure to teachers.

Say a teacher needed to spend more time on verbs instead of teaching what was on the syllabus; a lone parent could undermine her effort by complaining to the administrator "Why is Mrs. Garner teaching verbs when the syllabus says she is supposed to be teaching mythology?" A curriculum document and technology are going to drive the curriculum instead of the individual academic needs of students.

Back in July, 1997, a group of us teachers, ably assisted by qualified reading experts, wrote the Texas Alternative Document (TAD - for English/Language Arts/Reading. We deliberately avoided mandating methodology, and we wrote into our document those elements we believed could be taught in a year, with time left over for teachers to teach their own favorite units.

We did not prescribe the order for introducing elements. Only in the area of direct, systematic reading instruction did we direct a certain sequence. We based our document on empirical, peer-reviewed reading research. Thus we required that phonemic awareness be taught first. Through the rest of the TAD, we left presentation order to the discretion of teachers, who, in the course of a school year, could decide on the sequence of course content based upon individual student needs.

With the intrusion of the TEKS and TAAS, Texas teachers are unable to consider students' academic needs. Many Texas schools have survived the education fads because experienced teachers ("dinosaurs") resisted the push toward outcomes-based education, block scheduling, year-round schools, integrated curriculum, etc.

Unfortunately, many of the dinosaurs have decided to quit resisting. They have decided to teach the top 10 to 15 percent of students - those in the Advanced Placement program. The dinosaurs prefer to spend their time targeting the explicit AP standards, rather than trying to hit a moving target, the TEKS.

A large number of the dinosaurs seem willing to wash their forelegs of the 85 to 90 percent of students. These will be left with an inferior school-to-work (STW) experience instead of a well-rounded, classical, liberal arts education.

Dinosaurs know that AP students typically do not have serious discipline problems and are usually motivated to learn. Someone ought to ask the dinosaurs, "Just how supportive of the school-to-work plan would you be if you were required to teach the lower-level students? Just how supportive of STW would you be if your own child were to be educated as a 'worker bee'?"

Ideally a school would require the dinosaur teachers - supposedly the best - to teach the hardest-to-teach students; but that is not what usually happens. Many veteran teachers are backing STW because it gets the hard-to-teach students completely out of their way. Meanwhile, the lower-level students will have their curriculum "dumbed down;" this will - temporarily - make them much happier and easier to discipline.

Wait until these students have to face the real world without the foundational knowledge necessary to face life's problems. At that point, I doubt that the "worker bees" will be very thrilled with their public school education.

I have spent the better part of my life trying to reform the public schools, and I am grieved at what I see happening to them. I have done my best, but my best does not appear to be good enough.

The current attitude in the public schools seems to be "If you can't play on the team, you need to get off the team." Though I have decided to get off, that does not stop my heart from grieving over the damage being done to Texas students.

The reality is that most American students go to public schools. It is in the public schools that real education reform must take place if we are going to see our country remain a world leader. O Donna Garner is resigning from the faculty of Waco Midway High School. She will begin teaching English and Spanish at a private school in the fall.


June 21st, 2000

Donna Garner

Education Policy Commentator

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