On Nov. 12, Metro columnist Robert McCartney wrote about the growing paperwork burden for public school teachers. McCartney pointed out that many spend several hours a week on data input and other tasks not directly related to planning lessons or grading homework and tests. His column drew an outpouring from readers, many of them teachers. Here is a sample from online public comments and e-mail sent to McCartney.
Teaching used to be considered an “art,” and we, as teachers, “delivered a performance” much like actors. But teaching is not only an art — it is also science. Data collection is a way of viewing the effectiveness of our work. If what we are doing is not supporting student achievement for all students — do something differently. From many teachers’ perspectives, it is not data that is the enemy, it is time.
Unmentioned in the column: our long-standing national mistake of countenancing widespread contempt for our teachers, whom too many of us define as bumbling, automaton implementers of rote policy rather than as cherished, respected, imagination-exercising professionals entrusted with what’s most precious — namely, our kids.
We’ve been complaining about this in [D.C. public schools] ever since Rhee/Henderson [the former and current chancellors] came onboard. It’s all about data these days, and our professional development days are all about crunching numbers, looking at data and sifting through scores. NEVER is there any talk about how to create engaging and effective and interesting lessons.
Lost in all this insanity of being driven by the data (data that is misunderstood by administrators who themselves can’t do math) is the teacher’s cry in the wilderness: Where is the responsibility for the student to learn?
As a teacher in Fairfax County, I appreciate attention being drawn to this issue, and I admire the teachers who called your attention to it. You concluded with: “Of course, nobody wants to hurt student achievement.”
I would argue that in order to improve student achievement, teachers need time to actually instruct children. Instead, too much time has been spent this last quarter on . . . assessing students.
Not only is the data collection overwhelming and time-consuming, in many cases it isn’t even a legitimate basis for guided improvement. . . . We have reached the point where we are spending more time assessing (and directing the results of those assessments) than we are instructing. Our schools are very REactive instead of PROactive.
I am in my 19th year as a teacher of elementary students in Fairfax County schools. In the last two years, I have seen a large increase of noninstructional requirements and the time it takes to complete them. It is becoming more the norm that I am spending nine to 10 hours in the building working, plus one to two in the evening working at home just to keep my head above water for the next day. Meetings fill planning times. Data collection and the planning on how we are going to accomplish the data collection are overwhelming.
When my daughter entered Kilmer Middle School this fall, I was pleasantly surprised to find an e-mail report from each of her teachers every two weeks. I was also grateful to receive e-mail responses to my queries about these reports within a relatively short period of time. This feedback has greatly assisted my wife and me to help our daughter adjust to the considerable demands of middle school.
Still, I recognize that these biweekly reports, though computerized, must entail a considerable investment of time by teachers, some (many?) of whom have more than 30 students in their classes. (At least two of my daughter’s classes have 33 students.) And even if there is time to generate them during the workday, the e-mail responses I have received from teachers were generated at all hours of the day and night, including weekends. The paperwork burden thus cannot help but impinge on class preparation time.
How does one resolve the positive and negative aspects of the paperwork burden? One way is to hire more teachers and build more classrooms. Obviously, this requires more money. And you well know the issues involved in either reducing other education and county government expenses or raising taxes.
— Ted Hochstadt
One reader copied McCartney on a letter sent to Fairfax County Superintendent Jack D. Dale and other school officials.
Fairfax is only one of thousands of school districts nationwide that have been forced to create complex reporting systems to measure student progress. I hope you won’t simply respond to the issues raised by Mr. McCartney in his article by saying, “The federal government made us do it.” Since you are in the Washington area, I hope you can work with Education Secretary [Arne] Duncan to simplify the procedures and reporting requirements that No Child Left Behind has mandated.
— Michael Burrill
The Fairfax County superintendent, in an e-mail to The Post, replied:
What should be our policy direction for the future? First and foremost, revise federal and state policy to set common-sense standards of performance, with flexibility to achieve those standards.
Recognize the dramatically changed teaching profession: Make it full time, with commensurate pay, and allow for school and work calendars much more like countries that score higher than the U.S. on international assessments. (We began such a conversion in Fairfax, but budget constraints and calendar constraints prevent full implementation.)
Teachers must be given additional time to work with colleagues to continue to perfect the art and craft of teaching. We don’t give teachers and principals sufficient time to do so currently.
We have a choice to make necessary changes to the profession or to continue to frustrate the educators who are doing exceptional work with limited time and resources. The only other option is to regress to the past. We know which path to take, but we need the collective courage to do so.
— Jack D. Dale