Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Don't Fire the Teachers - Retrain the Kids' Learning Abilities

Teachers are in a hotbed now. Not only are salaries and teaching positions frozen, but many are being fired due to budget constraints. School Districts and Schools, not knowing how to get a handle on whom to show the door, have tied standardized testing classroom scores to teacher worthiness and instructional excellence.

Teachers are being asked to “re-teach” what children have not learned: like basic math facts, generally taught in the third grade. With specific curriculum requirements for each grade level, it is difficult to go back and continually review, and then have enough time to teach the necessary basic skills for that particular grade level.

To top it all off, teachers, grades four and up, are forced to spend several hours daily, four days a week, to teach the standardized test mechanisms. This is not subject matter-content instruction; it is merely test-taking mechanics on how to choose a multiple choice answer and move through the exam in a certain amount of time. Struggling students often sit with a higher-ability level peer and mimic test-taking actions, not understanding the concept.

What is not taken into consideration is that classroom student ability level composition varies from room to room. One class may have more “struggling” students than another, placing that teacher at a disadvantage compared to another class of higher ability students.

What is missing here is that each student’s ability level should be pre-tested in the early elementary grades, and carefully followed by the parents and teachers. That way, learning progress can be tracked.

Private assessment consultants can be identified for parents’ engagement, and brief group cognitive skills standardized test batteries can be administered by the school in early elementary years. Listening and visual deficiencies can be pinpointed as to severity. Classrooms can then have a fair distribution of ability levels dispersed between classes.

Any teacher should not be unlucky enough to inherit a classroom full of low performers, and then be fired because they were tough to teach and failed to obtain immediate test results.

My own research demonstrated that a classroom of low performing fourth graders did not obtain a change in standardized test scores immediately following a strong intervention. The results appeared a year later, when the students’ scores were reconfigured, and it was discovered there was sometimes a latency effect with slow learners. Two years’ later these two low-achieving classes passed up a group of gifted students, achievement score-wise because of my intervention.

Moreover, should we fire the unlucky teacher who had to wait a full year to see results from her own excellent teaching? And, ironically, the subsequent teacher receives applause and a bonus for the work the former teacher conducted?

Concurrently, students’ learning abilities are not predetermined, and the myriad of drill and practice subject matter computerized programs while they do some good, do not remedy the information processing shortcomings. That is why we are caught up in this academic achievement dilemma.

We spend time practicing the mechanics for standardized tests, do not learn the subject matter, nor are we retraining cognitive abilities so every child can be an efficient learner. With systematic early student ability retraining, teachers would be able to teach, students would learn what they are taught, achievement test scores would systematically raise, and teachers will not have to be fired.