(By Charles Rex Arbogast/ AP)

It is no secret that many teachers today are demoralized about the direction of modern school reform; in fact, a major poll taken earlier this year showed that their level of job  satisfaction has dropped 23 percentage points since 2008 and is at its lowest in 25 years. This e-mail, which I received from New York teacher Melissa McMullan helps to explain what changes in the teaching profession are driving that dissatisfaction. McMullan is a sixth-grade teacher at JFK Middle School in Port Jefferson Station, N.Y. She is not opposed to student testing, teacher assessment or the Common Core State Standards, but does reject the way they are being implemented and the lack of teacher input.

By Melissa McMullan

I changed careers 12 years ago to become a teacher. The profession I love, is being twisted into something it is not — a factory model where we believe that if all students receive equal “input” in the form of prepackaged curriculum, that we will get the same “outcome” from every student (assessment scores). It is just plain wrong.

Where did public education reform go awry?

It is easy to blame former president George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, President Obama’s Race to the Top or a political and economic push to privatize public education. But, looking more closely at any of these initiatives, they share a single common denominator. Teachers, those at the front lines with our children, have not been invited to the table.

We are entrusted with students with a wide gamut of challenges, from emotionally disturbed, Tourette’s, ADHD, schizophrenia and dyslexia to name a few. We work with students dealing with domestic violence, child abuse, sexual abuse, homelessness, divorce, etc… Through it all, we are entrusted to know and understand state standards, and develop curriculum that meet students’ needs.

In my classroom we have:

o       Met Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoon artist Walt Handelsman to help us understand and create editorial content, Dr. John Shea, a Paleolithic Anthropologist who helps us understand how our past is constructed by scientists, authors Ben Mattlin, Dan Gutman and Donna Gephart to inform our reading and writing.
o       Worked on a collaborative online project centered based on homelessness.
o       Helped purchase land in Haiti, build a school there, and contract with a satellite company to connect the school with the US and Canada.
o       Published our own books.

All of this enriched the learning experiences of my students. No one has questioned my classroom performance more than I have.

Enter 2006, the first year my sixth-grade students took the New York State English Language Arts standardized exam. The test  reflected some of the standards and seemed appropriate for a sixth grade student. However, it lacked reliability and validity measures required by most research instruments.

But while the exam was acceptable as a test of what students knew, what happened with the results was not. First, the state decided, after the assessment was administered, what would be considered passing and failing. The bulk of a child’s score was derived from the multiple-choice section, while most of a child’s time on the assessment was spent writing. The assessment did not provide data that could be used to inform instruction.

We’ve learned a lot about high-stakes standardized testing since our sixth graders starting taking them five years ago. First, the assessment provides no information we do not already have. We know who could read and who cannot.  Next, the state arbitrarily raises or lowers the passing bar each year after the assessment is given. One year there was a 12-point swing in what was considered “proficient.” We also know that the test measures a sliver of the state’s standards. In order to provide a rich and rigorous education, the assessment has to be ignored. If I “taught to the test” we would miss most of the curriculum. It cannot be used to drive instruction, nor be treated as a measurement of a year’s progress. We don’t get the results until students are long gone.

We reported our concerns to our administrators. They met with state education officials several times throughout the year. Each time they returned from a meeting, we heard the same response, “No one is listening.”

By 2009-2010, we were looking at the Common Core State Standards, and thinking that this time things would be set straight.  They were rigorous, but attainable. We would continue to use our professional knowledge and experience to get to know our students, identify their needs, and devise curriculum that would help our students meet and exceed those standards.

We were wrong.

Without any teachers or administrators, the state hired the education giant Pearson to write its first assessment based upon the Common Core State Standards. It was administered earlier this year, and, as the New York State Education Commissioner John King  predicted before the tests were sent to schools for administration, 70% of students essentially failed. This assessment:

o       Was inconsistent with Common Core Standards in that it did not permit students to spend time with text for close reading (there were far too many passages to read and respond to in the allotted time).
o       Included proprietary material from Pearson’s reading series, Reading Street. So districts that purchased Reading Street had an unfair advantage having worked with the material prior to the test.
o       Provided no data to parents or teachers that could be used to inform instruction.
o       Became a tool for teacher evaluation. My score was a 1 out of 20. No one is able to tell me how my score was derived, what I need to improve upon, etc.…

And still, no one at the state level is listening to teachers.

In New York, the answer to a 70% predetermined failure rate, is curriculum (via its own EngageNY) designed to help students meet the new Common Core Standards. Its first math unit for sixth grade is ratios. Teachers know that ratios require that students have an understanding of other concepts such as fractions, multiplication and division, Greatest Common Factor, etc… These come in a later unit. We are sitting with students who cry, because they believe their inability to understand is indicative of their inability to do math.

We have placed public education in the hands of political appointees and legislators who lack public teaching experience. While we argue over who is right or wrong, students are sitting in classes, where the entire curriculum has been turned upside down. We need to start this curriculum shift in kindergarten. We need to rely upon teachers, child development experts, parents AND political appointees to raise standards and design assessments that measure student and teacher progress in real time.

I speak for many teachers who believe in the integrity of our work and the needs of our students. We embrace high standards and evaluations that measure student and teacher progress. It is time to invite us to the table to devise a strategy to take three great ideas —   Common Core Standards, student assessment and teacher evaluations — and make them help students, not hurt them.