An Arizona teacher who teaches in a very urban, high-needs schools writes about the realities of teaching in her school, under the pressures that come along with high-stakes accountability and a teacher workforce working under an administration, both of which are operating in chaos. This is a must read, as she also talks about two unintended consequences of educational reform in her school about which I’ve never heard before: splits and rotations. Both seem to occur at all costs simply to stay afloat during “rough” times, but both also likely have deleterious effects on students in such schools, as well as teachers being held accountable for the students “they” teach.
Last academic year (2012-2013) a new system for evaluating teachers was introduced into my school district. And it was rough. Teachers were dropping like flies. Some were stressed to the point of requiring medical leave. Others were labeled ineffective based on a couple classroom observations and were asked to leave. By mid-year, the school was down five teachers. And there were a handful of others who felt it was just a matter of time before they were labeled ineffective and asked to leave, too.
The situation became even worse when the long-term substitutes who had been brought in to cover those teacher-less classrooms began to leave also. Those students with no contracted teacher and no substitute began getting “split”. “Splitting” is what the administration of a school does in a desperate effort to put kids somewhere. And where the students go doesn’t seem to matter. A class roster is printed, and the first five students on the roster go to teacher A. The second five students go to teacher B, and so on. Grade-level isn’t even much of a consideration. Fourth graders get split to fifth grade classrooms. Sixth graders get split to 5th and 7th grade classrooms. And yes, even 7th and 8th graders get split to 5th grade classrooms. Was it difficult to have another five students in my class? Yes. Was it made more difficult that they weren’t even of the same grade level I was teaching? Yes. This went on for weeks…
And then the situation became even worse. As it became more apparent that the revolving door of long-term substitutes was out of control, the administration began “The Rotation.” “The Rotation” was a plan that used the contracted teachers (who remained!) as substitutes in those teacher-less classrooms. And so once or twice a week, I (and others) would get an email from the administration alerting me that it was my turn to substitute during prep time. Was it difficult to sacrifice 20-40 % of weekly prep time (that is used to do essential work like plan lessons, gather materials, grade, call parents, etc…) Yes. Was it difficult to teach in a classroom that had a different teacher, literally, every hour without coordinated lessons? Yes.
Despite this absurd scenario, in October 2013, I received a letter from my school district indicating how I fared in this inaugural year of the teacher evaluation system. It wasn’t good. Fifty percent of my performance label was based on school test scores (not on the test scores of my homeroom students). How well can students perform on tests when they don’t have a consistent teacher?
So when I think about accountability, I wonder now what it is I was actually held accountable for? An ailing, urban school? An ineffective leadership team who couldn’t keep a workforce together? Or was I just held accountable for not walking away from a no-win situation?
Coincidentally, this 2013-2014 academic year has, in many ways, mirrored the 2012-2013. The upside is that this year, only 10% of my evaluation is based on school-wide test scores (the other 40% will be my homeroom students’ test scores). This year, I have a fighting chance to receive a good label. One more year of an unfavorable performance label and the district will have to, by law, do something about me. Ironically, if it comes to that point, the district can replace me with a long-term substitute, who is not subject to the same evaluation system that I am. Moreover, that long-term substitute doesn’t have to hold a teaching certificate. Further, that long-term substitute will cost the district a lot less money in benefits (i.e. healthcare, retirement system contributions).
I should probably start looking for a job—maybe as a long-term substitute.