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The Paradox of Education Reform

I work in a school district that is highly supportive of teachers as we muddle through the changes wrought by President Obama’s ill-conceived Race to the Top. However, long before pre-assessments, Student Learning Objectives (SLO’s), growth targets, and the endless list of new acronyms brought about by the president’s political reform agenda, the learning community of Williamsville consistently reflected an urgency to do better for our students. Consequently, Obama’s education reform has punished us and other successful school districts with a heavy, multi-layered paradox. Precious taxpayer dollars and resources that could be directed to helping students are dedicated to meeting RTTT mandates. I feel as though I am a less effective teacher today than when I started thirteen years ago.

In the world governed by RTTT and the closely linked APPR (the new appraisal process for teachers), team meetings focus upon how to write student learning objectives (SLOs) and understanding how to ensure we show all of the evidence needed to satisfy the state approved evaluation rubric from which the service provider, more than students and teachers, profits in this age of education reform. Another vendor that manages the teacher evaluations also profits from education reform even when my district ensured that all teachers received regular evaluations through a process already managed internally.

Staff Development Days are dedicated to navigating the new evaluation rubric and working through volumes of “unpacked” Common Core Learning Standards. My word choice is correct – education reform has heralded the “unpacking” of standards. To do this, teachers were taken out of the classroom and substitutes paid with the hope that RTTT funds will compensate school districts for this expense. I recognize that the Common Core Learning Standards do remind teachers to deepen instruction of certain concepts. But at what cost? The CCLS largely focus upon attaining high levels of reading comprehension and writing based upon developed textual analysis. These are the only ways I learned to read and write, and they are the only ways I teach my students to read and write.

Over the past few years, my teaching of Macbeth has involved student performances. The students bring in their bubble swords and witch paraphernalia and often make the sword dangle before Macbeth during his soliloquy before he kills King Duncan. This year, amidst RTTT, APPR, and SLOs, I was concerned that Macbeth performances might not be seen as “deepening learning”, a criterion on the APPR rubric. Then I remembered how many students make Macbeth analysis part of their final exam synthesis paper. Unfortunately, this final exam does not fit with the standardized final assessments dictated by education reform. It doesn’t call for students to read a story about a talking pineapple and answer multiple choice questions as they had to on the New York State eighth grade English Language Arts assessment in 2012. My ninth and tenth graders compose a thesis paper supported with analysis of three texts, direct quotes cited properly, and a Works Cited page.

However, a student from last year walking by my classroom, this year, reminded me that my approach is correct when she called, “Mrs. Goergen, it must be Macbeth time. I loved being one of the Weird Sisters. ‘Double, double, toil and trouble.’ That was the best.”

Teachers know that work with students is never finished. Sadly, RTTT, APPR, CCLS, SLOs, and education reform fail to honor this greatest principle of good, reflective educators. I can also assure you that “paradox” is a part of my students’ literary term vocabulary even without the volume of “unpacked” Common Core Learning Standards.

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