This Wednesday morning, I am sitting in a classroom acting as a co-proctor for a retest of the English assessment, one of a battery of tests which are a state graduation requirement. The students testing today are juniors and seniors who did not pass the test in their sophomore year. There are six testing rooms, each assigned 20-30 students. I was supposed to be proctoring 28 students, but only twelve of those chose to come to school today. The test contains three sections which take 50, 55, and 50 minutes respectively. The student does not have to complete the section to receive a passing score.
However, the majority of the students completed each section in less than 30 minutes and then put their heads down to go to sleep. Contrary to what you may think, the students’ speed does not indicate that the test is that simple, instead it indicates that the students are making little effort on the test. Each section contains several reading passages and, though I read at quite an accelerated speed, it took me 35 minutes to read through an entire section and answer the questions thoughtfully.
What is really discouraging to me is that I taught the majority of the juniors last year as sophomores, the year the English test is taken. Everything that was on the test was taught and retaught and practiced in my class, not because I was teaching to the test, but because I was teaching classic English skills and content. No student who did the work in my class last year with honest effort and who then put that same honest effort into the test could have failed. But they did, because too few choose to do one or the other or both. Those who did do both passed the test.
While my co-proctor took her turn monitoring the test, I become even more discouraged as I used the time to organize information on my freshman IEP and 504 students[i]. I currently have 120 students, 30 of whom have IEPs and 1 of whom has a 504. It is October 2nd and I still have not been provided all of the information I need for these students, but I am trying to set up a matrix in each class section so that I have a manageable way of providing and documenting each student’s needs.
The first student for whom I tried to create this matrix has so many needs that I cannot fit them all into the two page grid I was given. He needs a “human reader” for every test he is given. He needs spelling and grammar devices (which I do not have), visual organizers, graphic organizers, extended time, multiple or frequent breaks, reduced distraction to the student and from the student, checks for understanding, proofreading checklists, altered or modified assignments, “chunking” of texts, word banks, and a modified grading system. There is more, but I will not list them all here. Further examination of his IEP indicates that he is reading on a third grade level. It also indicates that he is not supposed to be in a general education classroom full time, but should be in a self-contained classroom with a special education teacher and a small class size.
Although I am supposed to have support in my classroom for IEP students, no one will arrive and there is no resource room where he can receive help. I have one year to prepare him for the assessment or my evaluation and pay may be affected. I do not have the skills or resources to help this student. He has three years left in a school system that is not providing him the support he needs to be even functionally literate in the future. It is a bleak future he is facing indeed.
I look at the next student who has a 504. Her paperwork indicates that she needs multiple or frequent breaks, extended time on assignments, preferential seating, repetition of directions, graphic organizers, rescheduling of formal tests, single task worksheets, and reduced distractions from and to other students.
The next student requires a human reader, visual cues, notes and outlines for every lesson ahead of time, a scribe to write down his answers, visual organizers, graphic organizers, extended time, frequent breaks, frequent changes in activity or opportunity for movement, reduced spelling expectations, and assignments broken down into smaller units.
Thirty-one students; thirty-one different sets of requirements; ninety “non-disabled” students who also need daily attention.
Each requirement must be met and documented daily or when applicable, as in the case of testing. AND each requirement must show differentiation from all other students’ requirements so as to prove it is individualized to that student; therefore, even though a graphic organizer is required for all three students and a graphic organizer is useful to the whole class, if I give it to the whole class, it no longer counts as differentiation.
In addition to the gargantuan and humanly impossible task of differentiating and documenting 300+ adaptations a day for those 31 students, I have five ESOL students (English for Speakers of Other Languages) from Napal and Yemen, some of whom speak little English, others functioning at various levels, and all of whom need their own culturally sensitive adaptation. I have no training or resources to help them either.
Furthermore, I am required to maintain documentation and file weekly reports on 13 of my students who are in a program sponsored by the court and the local law university for repeatedly absent and tardy students. For each of the 13 students I need to provide weekly absence and tardy reports, current grade averages, strengths and weaknesses, positive comments, and suggestions for improving the current grade.
At the same time, I must adapt for the various learning modalities of ALL of my students: visual, kinesthetic, or auditory. I must try to find the special interest of each child. I must create a positive and student centered learning environment. I must be prepared to recognize and report on abuse or neglect to any student (or go to jail if I fail to do so). I must document student failures, successes, behavior infractions, and anything else for which I may be held accountable in the future. I must recognize bullying and move to prevent it. I must refer a student who may be showing signs of depression, anxiety, anorexia, ADHD, or a multitude of emotional disorders. I must complete forms for the IEP department, for students’ doctors, for Social Services, and even the Social Security Administration. I must call parents for failures, infractions, and absences even though half of the phone numbers are invalid and I would need to make 10-20 phone calls a day. I must make sure that I do not call on one gender more than the other or hold one gender more responsible for behaviors than another or say anything that might be deemed politically incorrect. I must maintain cultural sensitivity throughout. Are you exhausted yet?
Let’s not forget that I must complete daily lesson plans covering reading, writing, speaking, listening, and critical thinking. In order to do this, I must create activities which connect to the new Common Core Standards and implement the new (and poorly planned) Common Core inspired curriculum which has ridiculously unrealistic expectations and for which I am lacking in resources and materials (such as paper which I mostly supply myself), but for which I will be held accountable. Don’t get me started on the time I spend grading at home.
I must deliver these lessons to a classroom full of students who have had a substandard education for the previous eight years of their schooling, who have not been held accountable for basic expectations of work standards or behavior, and who WILL not be held accountable by many of their parents and others in the system for this year either, students who believe that I owe them a passing grade, and for whom I will be blamed when they do not pass the test which they are sleeping through as I write this!
This is the reality of teachers across this once great nation, who are being vilified throughout society as the root cause of failure in our schools, while daily they struggle through the Sisyphean task of teaching in the twenty-first century. As tragic as this is for teachers, it is even more tragic for students who are provided with a substandard education because of the system, standards, paradigms, and policies in place, policies which have been promoted by politicians, academics, school boards, well-meaning but seriously misguided do-gooders, and not-so-well-meaning social engineers. Many of these jargon-wielding experts have had no direct classroom experience or their experience is completely inadequate. Too few people know or speak the truth about the problems in education, but the people who really know, the teachers, are seldom given a voice. It is time to hear from the teachers.
[i] IEP and 504 are terms applied to special education students. IEP stands for Individualized Educational Plan and 504 is an Americans with Disabilities Act which applies to students whose disabilities are not disruptive enough to a student’s education to qualify for an IEP, but still may have an impact on that student’s learning.
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Dana R. Casey is a veteran High School English teacher of more than two decades in an East-coast urban system. She is a life-long student of theology, philosophy, and politics, dedicated to the true Liberalism of the Enlightenment, as defined by our Founders and enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights.