Why Teaching in a ‘C’ School Doesn’t Mean You’re a ‘C’ Teacher

At the end of every school year, my district loooooves to take surveys. About everything. We’d send out surveys about our last survey if we could. And we survey everyone—teachers, students, parents, and community members. For context, I teach in a large-ish public high school in Arizona, and to say that we sometimes lack community support would be an understatement. Don’t get me wrong, there are tons of families who do support us, but there are a lot of families who don’t.

The culture and climate of public education in Arizona is tenuous, to say the least. Our state government believes in school choice and so do many of our families, and with a well-advertised, state-labeled A+ district a 20-minute bus ride up the road, well, let’s just say many of our families take advantage of that highly-performing district—and, if we’re being honest, who can blame them?

At the end of last school year, we sent out our final survey. And when the results came back, there was this one long comment that has stuck with me since. And, as we near the end of another school year, I have found myself thinking about this comment over and over again.

Basically, here is what it said:

‘The high school is average. The teachers are average. The academic programs are average. The athletic programs are average. Everyone does just as much as they must and no more. There is nothing special about the school.’

Now, who wrote this comment? Was it a parent? A student? A teacher? I do not know. But, what I do know is that they sound pretty invested in commenting on my school and my role within that school.

To say that I was disheartened by this comment wouldn’t do it justice, but I have to believe that I am not the only one who has read feedback similar to this. And, to flat out ignore this comment, to brush it off and say it has no merit, well, that would be a mistake because, although it is hard for me to hear, there has to be a grain of truth in it. If someone finds our school to be mediocre, they must have reasons, right? It’s an uncomfortable conversation, but it’s one schools have to have.

There are many reasons we need to have these conversations, but the biggest reason is that I know I can’t be the only one who sometimes leaves school at the end of the day feeling total despair and frustration. I know I can’t be the only one who works in a school where support/resources/time/money is lacking, and each day, you show up to work and do your thing and at the end of that day, you aren’t sure if you’ve made a difference or not.

If you work in a school like that, I want you to walk away from this feeling that even though someone may have arbitrarily slapped a ‘C’ or ‘D’ label on your school—and by extension, on you—if you pause for a moment, you will realize that label does not define you.

You are not a ‘C’ teacher.

Your actions define your impact and if you get out there and make yourself an ‘A’ teacher, that is when the conversations in your community begin to change.

Across the nation, education is a hot topic right now. There are many conversations happening about teacher pay, the conditions of school buildings, lost funding, and the impacts these factors have on student learning and student achievement. There are also many misconceptions about what it means to be a teacher and there is this perception in my community and in communities around Arizona that when a school has a bad grade, that immediately means all of the teachers in that school are bad teachers. I’m here to tell you that is simply not true, but, if you remain silently complacent in your ‘C’ status, the perception will remain the same.

As educators, we all know that good teachers matter and that a good teacher has the biggest impact on student achievement out of all factors that schools can control. And there is data to support this. So then, the argument that follows is: “If good teachers matter and good teachers impact student achievement, why then do schools have bad grades?” There are so many answers to that question that I cannot even begin to answer, so I’m not going to. What I am going to answer is this: “If my school has a bad grade and my community doesn’t support us, what can I do to change the narrative?”

Now, that’s a question I can answer. When you became a teacher, you may not have realized it at the time, but you were signing up to be an educational advocate. In our current climate, it is more important than ever that we get out of our classrooms and advocate for our students, our school, our profession, and the future of our schools.

When you, and the teachers around you, stop treating your school like a ‘C’ school and your teachers like ‘C’ teachers, only good things can happen! If you want that first push, check out the diffusion of innovations theory. Figure out your own sphere of influence, find people who will feed your soul and your work, pick one thing to impact, and then work on that thing. Then, when someone accuses you of being “average” or “mediocre,” you will be able to tell them about the good things you are working on and why you are, in fact, an ‘A’ teacher.

In the famous words of Taylor Mali, teachers “can make a C+ feel like a Congressional honor.” Your reality is dependent on your perspective, and so is that of your students, your parents, and your community. So, stop treating your school like a ‘C’ school and it will cease to be one.

 

Aidan Balt
Maricopa High School
Grades 9 & 12
@balt_ms

Ms. Aidan Balt has a B.A. in Secondary English Education from the University of Sioux Falls (South Dakota) and a M.Ed. in Educational Leadership, with distinction, from Northern Arizona University. She is currently pursuing National Board Certification in Language Arts and is a certified Arizona Master Teacher through the AZK12 Center. She is a Beginning Teacher Mentor and she spends half of her school day in her own classroom and half of her school day in the classrooms of the beginning teachers she supports. She is the English Department Chairperson and the MHS Gifted and Talented Teacher Liaison. She is currently teaching 12th grade Advanced Placement Literature and Composition and English 1 Honors, but she has taught grades 9-12 typical, honors, and advanced. This is her eighth year as a teacher at Maricopa High School. Before becoming a teacher, Aidan worked for Volunteers of America, Dakotas, and brought her years of experience in working with youths of diverse backgrounds, including young refugees, into her role as a classroom teacher.

4 Civil Rights Lessons Worth Teaching

Guest Post:

Here at Owl Eyes, we’ve recently been publishing and annotating primary source documents from American history. Some of the most illuminating texts to read and write about have been those from the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. The conflicts waged and resolutions struck in those years have done much to shape the United States as it stands today.

One of the most critical laws passed in the wake of the Civil War was the Civil Rights Act of 1866, a law that defined American citizenship and sought to protect African Americans from those who wished to take away their rights as citizens. Revisiting the Civil Rights Act of 1866 in 2018 reveals some fascinating and relevant lessons about civil rights, political change, and government in the United States. For educators interested in teaching the history of civil rights in the classroom, these lessons are well worth discussing.

1. Civil rights must be fought for and won.

The first century of American history tells us that civil rights are not merely granted. They must be fought for, delineated in painstaking detail, and carefully preserved for future generations. Rights require work. Because the founders set sail on the waters of nationhood in order to be free of the tyranny of the British crown, it is tempting to view “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” as the default condition of the American individual. Not so. The values set forth in the founding documents mark an ideal to strive toward, a national myth, not a description of American life.

In the century following the nation’s birth, one particular issue increasingly revealed the gulf between the dream of Jefferson’s “unalienable rights” and the stark realities of the young nation: slavery. Anyone wondering whether “all men are created equal” needed only survey the back-breaking slave labor that fueled the cotton plantations of the South to discover a resounding answer. The North noticed the problem. Cue the Civil War.

The scale of the war—its costs and casualties—revealed the split visions of American values. In the North, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” were seen as rights for all Americans, or at least all men. In the South, the phrase read like a list of privileges for wealthy white men, especially those who owned land and slaves. Even after the North defeated the South in war, the progressive politicians in Congress had to pass a bevy of laws, acts, and constitutional amendments in order to clarify that “all men are created equal.” These laws, which sought to give freedom, citizenship, voting rights, and safety to African Americans, received pushback at every step. The basic tenets of civil rights needed to be refreshed in the mid-20th century and remain debated to this day. Civil rights always need to be fought for.

Discussion Questions for Teachers and Students:

What do Jefferson’s “unalienable rights” to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” mean to you?
What are the similarities and differences between the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-60s and the progress made by Congress during Reconstruction?
Which civil rights issues do you find most relevant and pressing today?

Recommended Reading:

The Declaration of Independence
Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution

2. Government is an evolving process.

The other political issue that dominated American politics in the 19th century was states’ rights. The issue of states’ rights—which persists to this day—refers to the struggle between the federal government and the state governments over which level of government should have the power to pass and enforce laws. While the founders of the United States sought to lay out in clear terms the systems of government, one question arose and, unanswered, began to hover like a storm cloud over American politics: How much power should the federal government possess?

The dispute over this exact question defined the Civil War and Reconstruction. In many ways, this clash mirrored the clash over slavery and civil rights. Put simply, the North wanted to end slavery and expand civil rights and therefore wished to arm the federal government with the powers to do so; the South wanted to maintain slavery and limit civil rights and therefore wished to keep the federal government too weak to change anything.

It is no surprise, then, that the push for freedom, equality, and civil rights in the 1860s also empowered the federal government. That trend began with the Civil War. The Union’s victory over the Confederacy was, in itself, a victory for the federal government over the autonomy of the states. Much of the progressive legislation of the time explicitly declares, along with each new law, the federal government’s authority to enforce the law across the states. The Fourteenth Amendment included a critical clause that allowed the entire Bill of Rights to be incorporated into the state legislatures. Revisiting this historical period reveals how the federal government itself is an ever-evolving process rather than a fixed reality.

Discussion Questions for Teachers and Students:

Over the course of American history, how has the relationship between the federal government and state governments changed? Do you think the federal government has become more or less powerful? Explain your reasoning.
Some politicians and historians have argued that the Civil War was more about the issue of states’ rights than slavery. How valid is this claim, and why?
To what extent is a strong central government needed to instate and enforce civil rights? Is it possible to institute civil rights at the state or local level? Why or why not?

Recommended Reading:

The Bill of Rights
The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and 1868
The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution

3. There have always been progressives and conservatives.

If the current political landscape appears to be a staged clash between progressive and conservative sides, it has always been so. During the American Revolution, there were the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists; today there are the Democrats and the Republicans. The times change, as do the names of the political parties, but this central polarity does not. Progressives are more egalitarian, pushing social reforms and large government programs. Conservatives are more independent, seeking to minimize the government’s involvement in human affairs. Progressives want change; conservatives want tradition.

In a reversal of today’s parties, the progressives of the Reconstruction era were known as Republicans; the conservatives, Democrats. The push for civil rights in the United States has always been a progressive agenda, and so it was the Republicans of the 1860s—known as the “Radical Republicans”—who emancipated the slaves, abolished slavery, created the Freedmen’s Bureau, and gave African Americans citizenship and the right to vote. The 1860s represent an example of when progressive lawmakers took enormous—and often hard-won—strides in the ethically correct direction.

Discussion Questions for Teachers and Students:

Describe the party politics of the 1860s between the Radical Republicans and Southern Democrats. In what ways do today’s progressive and conservative parties reflect those of the 1860s? In what ways do they differ?
Do the opposing forces of progress and tradition—which can be found throughout world history—represent a conflict or a balance or both? Explain your answer.
What are other historical examples of conflicts between progressive and conservative sides? Consider other places and periods in history.

Recommended Reading:

The Federalist Papers
The Emancipation Proclamation
The Freedmen’s Bureau Bill

4. Presidents can be overpowered and overruled.

Following the end of the Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, Andrew Johnson took the presidential office. Unlike Lincoln, Johnson was a Southern Democrat and brought with him a highly conservative agenda. He attempted to reinstate the Southern state governments and resurrect the crushed postwar South. Furthermore, he tried to block, veto, and argue against the progressive laws passed by the predominantly Republican Congress.

Despite Johnson’s desire to return the United States to its prewar condition, the Republicans in Congress pushed for a better future, ignoring Johnson’s numerous vetoes in their march towards greater equality and civil rights. The best example of this trend is the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which Johnson had vetoed before the Senate and House of Representatives overrode the veto in a cascade of congressional votes. It was the first major veto override in American legislative history. Andrew Johnson’s term in office shows how American presidents can be overpowered and overruled, especially if they conflict with the stronger political forces of their time.

Discussion Questions for Teachers and Students:

How does a presidential veto work? Do you think the presidential veto is a proper tool in the system of checks and balances? Explain your answer.
What are some other times in American history when a president clashed with Congress? What happened?
Beyond American history, what are other examples of world leaders who tried to halt or slow the forces of change and progress? What happened?

Recommended Reading:

The Civil Rights Act of 1866, along with Johnson’s attempted veto of it
The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and 1868
Frederick Douglass’s essay “Reconstruction”

_____________

We hope you find American history as fascinating and valuable as we do. In particular, the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction offers key insights into the current landscape of the United States, revealing important lessons about the workings of the government and the attainment of civil rights.

— Zachary, @ Owl Eyes
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Zachary is an associate editor at OwlEyes.org, where he works with a talented team of fellow book nerds to make classic literature enriching and fun for teachers and students alike. Follow Owl Eyes on Twitter. 

Want Better Scores on the State Test? Bribe Your Students!

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Way back when “Return of the Mack” was on regular rotation in my off-campus apartment and Randy Quaid saved the planet from aliens, I first learned about Alfie Kohn. I was in an undergraduate teacher prep class and we read an article of Kohn’s (it might have been this one) where he argued that rewarding kids at school for things they did well wasn’t any better than punishing them for things they did poorly. Kohn expands on this idea in his book, Punished By Rewards, which made a big splash in the 90s because, while society had moved away from the draconian punishments of yesteryear and state laws now forbade corporal punishment, rewards were passed out like, well, candy. Or colorful pencils. Or those awesome scratch-and-sniff stickers. Or gold stars. Or promises of ice cream parties. Or erasers. Or, well, you get the point. And now here came Kohn scolding teachers all over again.

And so I started my teaching career as most naive, just-released-from-college kids do. With the proper amount of self-righteousness and arrogance, I marched into my classroom determined to offer no rewards. Students would learn for knowledge’s sake. We would build a community and have respect for each other. We would talk about our problems and address underlying causes of misbehavior.

Then the real world hit and doing all of those things was really, really hard.

Some kids were just plain jerks who needed to be taught a few hard lessons, if only so the rest of the class would see that you can’t go through life treating people like dirt and get nothing harsher than a counseling session, a behavior plan, and rewards for doing the very things every other kid in the class was doing as a matter of course. And so I started rewarding some kids, punishing others, and playing that whole game.

And not long after that, I learned first-hand what I had read in a boring old classroom. Alfie was right. Rewards don’t really work. They’re manipulative, frequently arbitrary, and basically no different than punishments (they just feel nicer).

Fast-forward to 2011 and Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, made many of the same arguments. Citing some of the same research as Kohn, Pink concluded that extrinsic rewards are usually a bad idea. Motivation is largely intrinsic and the way to tap into that motivation is through autonomy, a slow and steady march toward mastery, and by doing meaningful things in service to something larger than the self.

All of that is well and good. I accept that it’s generally a bad idea to reward students for their performance and to bribe them to behave better. Make the work interesting. Offer choice. Don’t be such a dictator. Provide feedback so students understand their progress toward mastery. Assign meaningful work. Do all that.

HOWEVER.

The testing window opened in my state this week. Over the next two months, students from third graders to high school juniors will take The Big Test. And big it is. Schools will be judged on the results. They’ll be labeled on some silly statewide reporting system. Some will face consequences. Teachers will be evaluated based on the results. Some may lose their jobs. The scores will influence public opinion of American education as a whole and either burnish or tarnish the reputations of districts, schools, and even entire state’s education systems and policies.

There are plenty of problems with The Big Test, (one of which might be the questionable timing of asking students to take it after they’ve just had 10 days off for spring break, as my wife’s students did this week) but perhaps none are bigger than this:

There is no reason students should try hard on it.

In my state, students get nothing for doing well (it’s kind of like being a teacher in that regard).

No scholarship money.
No name in the local paper.
Not even a pat on the back.

Students suffer no negative consequences for doing poorly.* Nothing will happen to a student who decides to treat the entire enterprise exactly how it deserves to be treated, as a joke. Their scores won’t be reflected on their report cards. Grade point averages will be unaffected. Graduation is not at risk. Students’ parents won’t even learn the results for a number of months after the test is over (and by then, most won’t care). Students won’t be retained or asked to leave school. The only thing they lose is time, and they lose more of it the harder they try.

Subjecting the exams to Pink’s criteria, the tests offer its takers no autonomy. Because it’s a one-time event for which they receive no useful feedback, students cannot progress toward mastery. As for meaning, there is no purpose that students give a hoot about. It is, for almost every student, the very definition of drudgery. It’s busy work. By the state’s own declared aims, it’s got nothing to do with them.  For students, it’s as low-stakes as you can get.

All of which is why you should unabashedly bribe your students to take their time and do their best.

In the adult world, we offer money. In the classroom, we offer pizza, ice cream,  a dance party, video game time, or anything that will make students think twice before just clicking on answers so they can be done with the thing. When there is no expectation of intrinsic motivation, we have to find other ways to get people to try.

And here’s the thing: Bribery works! I have proof!

Every three years, 15-year-olds from around the world take the PISA exam. The results of this test are reported breathlessly in education circles and often lead to huge policy changes in the countries of the students who struggle. A group of researchers wondered an obvious thing. Did kids actually try on these tests? They had reason to be skeptical. There are no stakes for students who take the PISA; they never even get to see their results. And student effort matters. As I tell a handful of parents every year, it’s hard to report on a student’s abilities when they don’t try on their work.

American students traditionally fall in the middle of the pack on the PISA, but perhaps they underperform because they just don’t see the point in doing their best. The researchers decided to test motivation by paying students for their performance. So they pulled 25 math questions off previous PISA exams and they split students into two groups. One group’s participants received $25 and then handed over a buck for every question they missed. Students in the other group got nothing. Here’s what researchers found:

  • Students from Shanghai, who ranked first on the 2012 PISA, did just as well whether they were paid or not.
  • With the exception of low-ability students, U.S. students did better if they were paid.
  • When paid, U.S. students attempted more questions in the second half of the test and were more likely to answer those which they did attempt correctly.
  • Researchers predicted that if the U.S. had used financial incentives during the 2012 PISA test, the country’s math ranking would have risen to 19th, from 36th. (And to 32nd if all other countries also paid their students.)

Here’s a graph:

And here’s more about the study if you want the dirty deets.

Steven Levitt, the economist famous for co-writing the Freakonomics books, performed similar experiments in three Chicago schools. Bribery worked there, too. While there was some variation, Levitt and colleagues concluded:

“The magnitude of the impact of the incentives on that day’s test are quite large: approximately 0.12−0.22 standard deviations, which is similar to effect sizes achieved through a one-standard deviation increase in teacher quality or 20% reductions in class size.”

“Overall, we conclude that both financial and non-financial incentives can serve as useful tools to increase student effort and motivation on otherwise low-stakes assessment tests.”

To bribe effectively, Levitt’s research suggests you do the following:

Offer immediate rewards

If students have to wait, bribery doesn’t work. So you won’t be able to bribe students for improved performance on the state test because the results take too long. But you can bribe them on their effort, and the research suggests that you should.

Have established credibility

Levitt had the most success bribing students at the school where he had done previous experiments. Students there believed him when he said they would get money for doing well. He had less success at less familiar schools. Levitt surmised that those students, having never been paid to perform in a school setting, probably didn’t believe he would deliver and so the proffered bribe had little impact on motivation.

Leverage the power of loss aversion

Bribery worked better when students were given the reward at the start and knew they would have to give it back if they failed. So if you really want to be effective (and yes, maybe a little cruel), buy your class donuts before the test, place one on the corner of each desk, and threaten to take it away if you think they aren’t trying their hardest. (Hey, quit looking at me like that. I’m just reporting the science.)

Consider the age of your students

Smaller awards work with smaller kids, but you’ll need better stuff for high schoolers. Cheap little trophies worked just as well with elementary students as did the promise of ten bucks. However, it took a larger dollar amount ($20) to get older kids to give a damn.

 

You can read the whole study here. But if you would rather not, I understand. And I’m not going to bribe you to do so.

I will, however, attempt to entice you to join my subscriber list. By signing on to the Teacher Habits blog, you will be the first to know about newly released books. You’ll get discounts on those books. You’ll also get new articles emailed directly to your inbox. And you’ll be the first people I ask for advice on book covers and titles. Now aren’t those things better than a trophy?

SUBSCRIBE ME UP

* I am aware that there are stakes for certain students. Those with third-grade reading laws that require retention (my state of Michigan joined that merry bandwagon last year) and students who have to pay to retake the SAT may have all the motivation they need to try hard.