Teachers Pay Teachers Is Not the Problem


(A few disclosures: I have a Teachers Pay Teachers account. I think I have two products for sale. Last month, I made 24 cents. So this isn’t something vital to my financial survival. Second, I don’t often buy things from Teachers Pay Teachers. I’ve probably downloaded five or six freebies and purchased two or three products in all my years of teaching. I disclose these things so you know I don’t really have a vested interest in TeachersPayTeachers. But I do have opinions.)


Teachers Pay Teachers is a divisive topic in education. On the one hand, millions of actual teachers use it, not only to find materials to use with students but to make money selling their own content. On the other hand, TpT receives a fair amount of criticism from a second group of teachers and those connected to education who aren’t teaching classrooms full of kids. The following popped up in my Twitter feed a couple of days ago and it represents the general sentiment of many critics:













TpT has been on the receiving end of growing criticism like this for the last few years. There are concerns about copyright infringement. Critics contend that the available materials are worksheet heavy (‘worksheets are bad’ being a relatively recent piece of conventional wisdom promulgated by a subset of vocal teachers). Some sellers have been accused of ripping off fellow teachers by copying their freely given content and selling it on TpT. Of course, there are also teachers who don’t like that their fellow educators are engaging in capitalism and hoping to make a buck. (I imagine a Venn diagram of people who feel this way and people who believe teachers should donate hours of their time every week to their employer would only have one circle.)

But perhaps the most persistent criticism, and the one reflected in the tweet above, is that TpT is a terrible source of instructional content. Like Mrs. Boyd, some hold this view with the same certainty that they believe cigarettes are bad for your health and Howard the Duck is a shit movie. The value judgment that wafts off of so many of these folks’ criticisms is that no good teacher would use anything from Teachers Pay Teachers.

Yet many teachers do. Why? For those who believe TpT is a heaping pile of steaming instructional garbage,  the only possible answer is that teachers lack access to quality curricula. And while that may be part of the answer, the more complete answer is that many teachers simply don’t share the opinion that TpT is an educational junkyard. For teachers in actual classrooms, there are a number of reasons why TpT is a valuable resource, and there are other reasons why critics’ disdain of TpT is misguided.

Why Teachers Use Teachers Pay Teachers

They Have No Curricula

Certainly, there are teachers who have no curriculum at all but are still expected to teach the standards. The recent report on Providence schools from Johns Hopkins makes this clear. Researchers wrote:

“Teachers, principals, and even students noted the lack of an established curricula as problematic. When asked about the fact that there were supposed to be just four curricula vetted by the district, we were told about multiple impediments: in one school, the new curriculum materials did not arrive until November and included no appropriate materials for IEP students. In other cases, it was clear that ambivalence about using a particular curriculum started at the top. In one school, the principal told us that the school had purchased Eureka [a math curriculum] but that s/he was “not a fan of programs” and so ‘considers Eureka more of a resource than a curriculum.’ Nevertheless, this principal intended to purchase three new ELA curricula next year.”

The report continues:

“In one school, the principal listed almost 20 different curricula, between math and ELA, that are in use.

“We use what we can find,” said an elementary school teacher in a group interview. Teachers in several schools told the team that they would “trade autonomy for a curriculum.”

This is what teachers do. They use what they can find. And it’s really easy to find things on Teachers Pay Teachers. Something is better than nothing, and TpT offers these teachers what their employers haven’t.

They Have Poor Curricula

Like the content on Teachers Pay Teachers, not all curriculum is created equal. Some of it stinks. And some districts purchase odiferous products. Teachers are the people who have to use the smelly lessons and they quickly learn just how offensive the emissions are. If teachers are stuck with stinky curriculum, they have two options: Keep using something that isn’t working or seek out better resources. That such a high percentage of teachers search for resources on Teachers Pay Teachers says less about these teachers’ unprofessionalism and more about how deficient they find the curricula they’ve been asked to use. If anything, the use of Teachers Pay Teachers indicates teachers’ earnest desire to find resources that engage and educate, not that they’re abdicating their instructional responsibilities. The graphic above could easily be seen as a good thing.

To Break the Monotony

While the above graphic was a lamentation for Mrs. Boyd, she ignored the stat on the top line: 83% of teachers use their district-adopted curriculum. My assumption about the 17% who don’t is that they may not even have a district-adopted curriculum. That means most teachers are willing to use the curriculum provided to them and do so regularly. That many of them also use Teachers Pay Teachers and Pinterest suggests that they sometimes find those curriculums lacking. How might they lack? In my experience, the programs can get monotonous over the course of a 180-day school year. Also, some lessons are boring. Sometimes, teachers feel the need to change things up and make lessons more engaging.

I teach bar graphs to my third graders. To understand them better, we create them. The way this is done in the Go Math! program is boring and it’s not a skill that students learn with one lesson. So I have a choice: Keep teaching students how to make bar graphs using the district-adopted curriculum, which is unengaging, or come up with something a little more exciting. If I’m feeling creative that day — a likelihood that becomes less and less so with each passing school day — I might come up with an original idea. More often, I google something like “Fun bar graph lesson for third graders.”

Guess which two websites show up at the top of the search results.

To Reteach or Extend

Some programs are good but don’t have enough. I may need to teach students how to create bar graphs three times but the program may only have one lesson and some remediation and enrichment ideas. Sometimes, students just need to do the same thing a few times in slightly different ways. Since my program doesn’t provide these additional opportunities, I have to look elsewhere. Twenty years ago, I would have made a trip down the hall and asked the old veteran in her swivel chair to check her file cabinet. These days, the Internet is faster and its file cabinet is larger.

To Have a Life

Some critics of Teachers Pay Teachers bemoan the fact that teachers aren’t designing their own lessons. They make the specious claim that teachers should be customizing lessons because each class is different and only a teacher who knows her students well can design an optimal lesson for those students’ particular needs. This argument is usually self-serving and detached from reality. People are far more alike than they are different. Third graders sitting in a Montana classroom are not different enough from third graders sitting in a Michigan classroom to justify the creation of customized lessons. Most teachers know this, which is why they’re perfectly fine using lessons created by other people, whether those people work for Pearson or are teachers in a neighboring state.

While I have argued that canned programs and easily available Common Core-aligned lessons have destroyed teacher motivation by removing autonomy from the classroom and robbing teachers of one of the more enjoyable aspects of the job (the creation of materials), I’m also a realist who knows that we would quickly accelerate the pace at which teachers are quitting if we expected them to still create all their own materials with all of the other expectations we’ve placed on them in the last 20 years. Most teachers have zero training in curriculum design, and for the sake of their own energy and mental health, they should take advantage of the fact that there are hundreds of lessons on nearly every topic at the click of a mouse. Chances are strong you’re not going to create the best bar graph lesson on the planet. Hundreds of better ones already exist; teachers should use them and save their time for the ridiculous number of other things they’re expected to do. 

Returning to the bar graph example, once I’ve decided I want to teach students how to make bar graphs in a more engaging way than that offered by my district-adopted curriculum, I now have a second choice:  I can create my own more exciting bar graph lesson or I can save my time for other things, especially since I know full well that there are probably hundreds of more exciting bar graph lessons on the Internet. I might even have an idea. I want students to graph the colors of Skittles in those little fun-size packets you get at Halloween. I could create my own bar graph template thing or I could click a few times, maybe spend a buck, and print out 25 of them in about two minutes. As someone who has to teach reading, writing, science, social studies, and math lessons every day, I can tell you that this is no choice at all. When I google “Skittles bar graph lesson,” guess which website shows up first? Why in the world would I spend my most precious resource making something that already exists and that’s probably better than anything I’m going to design? (And if you think you can make a better lesson than the hundreds already out there, then I invite you to read The IKEA Effect of Lesson Creation.)

Why Teachers Pay Teachers Is Not the Problem

It’s important to remember that Teachers Pay Teachers is a marketplace. As such, it’s no different from a Moroccan bazaar or a supermarket. Just like Amazon and your local Piggly Wiggly, there are some shady players operating within the marketplace and not everything available is of high quality. You can buy fresh fruit or a box of donuts. A good pillow or a flat P.O.S. A standards-aligned, high-engagement lesson on reducing fractions or a fluffy waste of time with lots of cutting and coloring. It’s up to the consumer to find what they need.  Any criticism of Teachers Pay Teachers is almost always a criticism of the buyers and sellers using Teachers Pay Teachers. The solution is not to remove all the junk but to educate consumers on junk’s identifying characteristics.

Some TpT and Pinterest critics lament that teachers are neglecting better resources for the ease of TpT. They point to excellent content on other websites. They share links and try to convince teachers that this site over here has excellent NGSS resources, and they’re free! This blog over here written by this high-performing math teacher is excellent and she shares free resources that align tightly with the standards. The state of Florida has links to standards-aligned content that’s been rated by some other website as high-quality.

But that’s the problem! TpT is like Amazon for many teachers: it’s the first place they check and it often shows up at the top of Google’s search results.

My local hardware store might be selling better nails at a lower price, but I’m still probably going to get my nails from Amazon because it’s faster, I’ve purchased other things from them before and been pleased with the results, and I don’t have to search high and low for the nails.

If there are people out there creating great stuff for teachers, they should be selling or giving away that stuff on Teachers Pay Teachers, just like brick and mortar stores list their products on Amazon. Content creators must go where the customers are, not expect the customers to find them, no matter how good (or inexpensive) their stuff is. That’s why my books are available on Amazon and I don’t sell them out of my garage. If Teachers Pay Teachers is where teachers are going to look for resources, then people who make excellent resources should offer their content there, not try to convince millions of people to visit thirty different websites which are always changing.

Inconsistent Arguments

Finally, every criticism of teachers who use Teachers Pay Teachers runs into a logical consistency problem.

If you think teachers should collaborate with colleagues in their building or via social media and share materials they’ve used successfully with students, then why would you have a problem with Teachers Pay Teachers, where teachers do the exact same thing but on a larger scale? Why would the size of the user pool change the quality of the lesson? Why would the fact that the products cost money negatively affect their quality?

If you believe teachers are, in fact, capable of creating excellent lessons, then why would you assume teachers are not offering excellent lessons on Teachers Pay Teachers?

If you think teachers are only buying garbage from Teachers Pay Teachers, then how can have any confidence that they will be able to distinguish garbage from high-quality materials outside of Teachers Pay Teachers?

If you believe teachers should create their own lessons instead of downloading them, then why would you have confidence that teachers who can’t recognize quality content on Teachers Pay Teachers would be able to create quality content on their own? That’s like expecting a person who doesn’t know how to assess the quality of a car to be able to build a good one on their own.


There are many problems with education today. Too many students receive low-quality instruction. We would be better off if districts ensured their teachers knew the standards, provided those teachers with high-quality, standards-aligned curricula, and trained their teachers in its effective use. But blaming Teachers Pay Teachers for providing a marketplace where well-meaning teachers do what they’ve been doing since the beginning of formal education is directing your ire in the wrong direction. Teachers, almost all of them, want their students to learn and they do what they can to provide the best education within limits that are usually beyond their ability to control. Teachers Pay Teachers does nothing more than provide these teachers with a place to find materials other teachers have used. That some of those materials are good and some are bad doesn’t make Teachers Pay Teachers a problem; it makes it the same as every other marketplace.




Are Phones Distracting Teachers Too?


Guest Writer: Frankie Wallace


It’s hard to find anyone without a smartphone nowadays. Adults and kids alike seem to be glued to these handheld devices around the clock. While smartphones are meant to keep us connected and help us access useful information and tools, they can also end up causing a lot of problems — especially in the classroom. 

In 2015, Apple sold 300 million devices, which equates to just under 1 million devices being sold each day. The smartphone trend hasn’t stopped from there. In 2019, the number of smartphone users is expected to increase to 2.5 billion. It’s not just adults using these devices, either; about 56% of kids ages 8-12 in the U.S. have a smartphone, and that number increases when it comes to teenagers. It’s no surprise that smartphones in the classroom have become a problem in recent years. 

Cell phones can obviously be a distraction to students in school with so many apps, social media, and the ability to text friends. They’ve become such a problem, in fact, that some schools have pushed to ban them from the classroom. But is it just students who are distracted by smartphones, or are teachers struggling too? 

What Are the Risks of Too Much Smartphone Use?

Smartphone addiction is real, and the risk of it affecting adults is dangerously high. Don’t think you have a problem? Consider this: On average, smartphone users look at their device 80 times a day. This includes checking it right before bed and right when you wake up.

Reaching for your phone so often can be triggered by a variety of things, including the need to feel connected to social media, games, shopping, or even checking on work. Any type of content you could want is in the palm of your hand. Teachers certainly aren’t immune to this problem, and it’s important to understand the risks involved with too much smartphone use. 

The physical and mental implications of too much smartphone use include higher stress levels, anxiety, and sleep deprivation. If you can’t stay away from your phone, you also run the risk of being easily distracted, which can have fatal consequences. Smartphone use is a common problem when it comes to distracted driving. Even a few seconds with your eyes off the road to read a text message or to check Facebook can lead to a car accident. 

If you’re a teacher, the temptation to check your phone regularly can be even stronger, especially if you see kids with their phones out all day. Maybe you have a few minutes of silence while your students complete a test. Or maybe you’re itching to see what your friends have posted on social media in the last few hours and it distracts you from your lesson. Keep some of these risk factors in mind if you start to feel overly connected to your mobile device. If you feel like you’re struggling to stay away from it, you may need a more drastic solution. 

Do You Need a Smartphone Detox? 

Whether you’re constantly using your smartphone to access school-related information outside of school hours or you’re frequently being distracted by using your phone for personal reasons while in the classroom, you may need to evaluate your relationship with technology — a key component of having a healthy work-life balance. If you feel like you have too much of an attachment and don’t want to develop some of the issues listed above, it could be time for a digital detox. 

Detoxing from your smartphone can take many forms. It probably won’t be easy, which can tell you just how “addicted” you really might be. Try some of the following tips to try to make the process feel less overwhelming:

  • Hide your phone away during school hours so it’s out of sight.
  • Turn it off when you’re in school.
  • Download an app to keep you off your phone.
  • Practice being more mindful and living in the moment.
  • Leave your phone at home during the workday.


If you’re really struggling with a smartphone addiction, you may benefit from simply not having one. If you feel as though your phone has taken over your life in a negative way and you need a long-term break, you might consider getting rid of your phone entirely. If you decide to take this route, consider destroying your phone to make sure no one else gets their hands on any of your private information. 

How Can Teachers Use Smartphones for Good? 

It’s important to understand that smartphones aren’t all bad. Some schools and teachers have embraced the fact that they can be beneficial tools in a learning environment. In fact, some have actually started giving their students smartphones so they can do everything from sending emails to teachers to keeping track of their schedules and homework. 

Teachers can also benefit from using smartphones. They can keep track of their own schedule, remain connected with students, and even discover digital learning resources like flashcards, tests, and games that they can show to their students. Because this generation is growing up surrounded by technology, kids may be more likely to show interest in something educational if it’s presented to them in a familiar way, such as through an app. 

Smartphones aren’t going anywhere, and they’ll likely continue to become an even bigger part of our everyday lives. While they are unavoidable, it doesn’t mean they have to cause problems. If you’re a teacher, keep your job and your students your top priority. As long as rules and boundaries are set in place with smartphone usage in a school, both teachers and students alike can use them for good.

How Teachers Can Manage Stress


Guest Writer: Anna Kucirkova

When your body reacts to a situation and causes mental, physical and emotional pain, we call that stress. Despite stress being a negative thing, it can also be a source of motivation leading to increased productivity. When stress affects a person severely, it’s called chronic stress. Chronic stress is not beneficial at all and it leads to some serious damage. The best way to deal with this type of stress is by learning how to manage it. Below are some methods to overcome stress and its effects.

Effects of Stress

Stress will manifest its self either physically, mentally, or emotionally. Stress will also affect communication.

physical issues

Some physical issues that result from stress include stomach upset, muscle pains, energy loss, headaches, nervousness, and insomnia, among others. Symptoms may vary from a person to another because the body responds differently when subjected to stress. Long term stress can lead to heart-related diseases and panic attacks which feel like a heart attack. Many people also experience eating disorders, which can lead to obesity, irregular menstrual cycles, hair loss, ulcers, acne, or diseases affecting your digestive system.

emotional effects

Stress has been known to cause depression and anxiety. Excessive worrying can lead to a person feeling overwhelmed and a loss of self-esteem, which can then lead to the avoidance of others. People affected by stress are normally moody and easily irritable, making them little fun to be around. According to mentalhelp.net, chronic stress can be a major cause of thinking problems(cognitive), bipolar disorders, personality, and behavior changes.


When it comes to communication, stress can manifest itself in a number of ways. Stress may lead to high emotions due to anger or frustration. It can also be a major reason a person isolates himself from other people. This cuts all communication and the person is unable to get the help that he/she needs.
A stressed person can easily misjudge someone trying to communicate with them. Stress can also be a reason why a person is unable to speak in public due to anxiety.

How to Curb Stress

know the cause of stress

The first step is actually establishing the cause of the stress. Since everyone has different stress triggers, it is better for one to know his or her own triggers and then try working on it.

increase communication

Most people experience stress because of hiding problems for themselves. For example, in the workplace, you can talk to your boss about a task you are finding difficult to accomplish. In academics, you can try to seek help in areas you don’t understand instead of stressing about it. Also in your relationship communicate early about things affecting you to avoid building tensions and having a meltdown. By expressing oneself, stress levels will go down. If you are experiencing long term stress, a professional therapist might help you feel better.

Other Ways to Reduce Stress


Exercise will help reduce tension, anxiety, depression and also relieve stress. Your overall life quality will improve generally if you work out.

Eating healthy

Overindulging in caffeine, alcohol, sugars, and nicotine increases the stress levels in your body. Foods rich in vitamins and magnesium help your body to have strength when you experience stress.

Meditating, praying, and getting enough sleep are some of the other actions you can take to manage stress. Also, indulge in a hobby and some fun activities.

Since stress is a part of our life, the best we can do is manage it. Following the above steps will help you manage stress, resulting in a real life change.


It’s Time to Kill High-Stakes Testing


Elizabeth Warren made some news in education circles this past week when she sat for an interview with NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia. Garcia read a question from a retired teacher who wanted to know what Warren would do to end high-stakes testing. Warren said, in part:

“This notion that it’s all about testing — that it’s all about what somebody far off in the state capital or far off in the national capital says, here’s what constitutes success and worse yet, here’s what constitutes failure — no, that’s not what education is about,” Warren said.

“Education is what goes on in the classroom; what a teacher has said is the goal. And when a kid gets there, it is a teacher who knows it. We do not need high-stakes testing.”

While I put almost zero stock in what Presidential candidates say while trying to woo voters with transparent pandering, there is the potential that sound clips like the one above can generate interesting conversations. Warren’s rhetorical stand against high-stakes testing certainly did that.

Peter Greene, who writes one of the best education policy blogs from the perspective of a public school supporter, wrote:

“Nothing in the last twenty years of education has done more far-reaching and pervasive damage than high stakes testing. If the candidates want a bandwagon to jump on, I recommend this one.”

As someone who will be starting his 20th year in the classroom this fall, I think Greene is right about the damage caused. But he’s probably wrong about this being a fruitful bandwagon, an opinion shared by USC School of Education Professor Morgan Polikoff:



Alas, he’s likely right.

No candidate is going to tilt the electability scale in their favor by opposing high-stakes testing. On the other hand, they probably won’t hurt their electability, either. As much as education people wish it wasn’t so, not many people care about education issues when it comes to picking a President. If you don’t believe me, go back and count the number of education questions asked of the Democratic candidates during the first debates.

It’s also interesting to ask why people support testing to such a degree. I think Jennifer Binis touches on the reason in this tweet:


Binis frames the persistent existence of testing as the result of demand, but I’m not so sure. I think the culprit is likely tradition and inertia. Every generation has indeed had some form of high-stakes testing, which serves to perpetuate high-stakes testing. People cannot separate testing from schooling; they go together like peanut butter and chocolate. But that doesn’t mean that people actually like testing, just that they’re too complacent to do much about it.

You can see this status quo bias everywhere you look. My dentist and doctor’s office still has a stack of magazines in the waiting room even though everyone who enters it has a phone with as much reading material as they could ever want at their fingertips. That doesn’t mean people want the magazines there; it means the people who put them there are just doing what dentists and doctors have done for a long time.  Class reunions still exist in spite of the existence of Facebook and the fact that hardly anyone gets excited about attending their class reunion. We still force kids to blow out candles on birthday cakes even though it means everyone will be ingesting the birthday boy’s germs, and why do we do it? So they can make a wish (which they must keep secret). Nonsense, clearly, and yet we persist.

Just because people continue to do things doesn’t mean it makes sense to keep doing those things. 

But even if the continued use of high-stakes tests does represent the sincere and intentional will of the people, the people regularly want stupid things like fast food, Walmart, and interest-only mortgages. We have, in our past, permitted slavery, opposed women’s right to vote, and favored a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays serving in the military. Just 15 years ago, 60% of Americans opposed gay marriage.   As Henry Ford once said:



It’s a leader’s job to lead, and sometimes that means ignoring the polls and doing the smart thing. The smart thing right now is to kill high-stakes testing.

Of course, there are some who think such a move is foolish:





The argument here seems to be that we need high-stakes testing because kids don’t know and can’t do what we want them to know and be able to do. But such an argument ignores the fact that we’ve had high-stakes testing since No Child Left Behind and standardized testing for much longer than that. Those who believe testing will lead to improved scores have had, at minimum, 17 years to prove their case.

Since critics of education so often believe schools would be better if they were run more like businesses, one has to wonder what they would make of a business that doubled down on a policy that had never, in at least 17 years, led to the kind of improvement it was designed to.

But even if testing hasn’t led to greatly improved academic outcomes for our students, it’s not like we were knocking the ball out of the park before all the high-stakes testing started. That’s what Fordham Institute’s senior fellow Robert Pondiscio appears to be saying here:



If that’s the best argument for testing then we should stop testing. That’s like defending Prohibition by saying, “Sure it’s an abject failure with a ton of awful unintended consequences, but what we were doing before wasn’t working. Let’s just stick with the obviously crappy policy.”

 As for the equity argument, high-stakes testing has had 17 years to help children in Providence and Detroit. So how’s that going?

 Some in the discussion staked out the middle ground. They argued that it’s not the testing that’s the problem; it’s how the tests are being used.





I’m sympathetic if for no other reason than finding the compromise position is usually my go-to move. But it’s wrong in this case.

Yes, the tests by themselves are not the problem; the way people use the tests are. But this is a little like saying it’s not the gun that kills people but the person holding it. Technically true, but guns are made to shoot things just as tests are made to compare things. And once people start comparing, there will be winners, losers, and people trying very hard to turn the losers into winners while other people try very hard to remain winners.

 In other words, the way some people use the tests is as inevitable as the way some people use guns.

 Here is what we know:


High-stakes testing has not given us what its proponents hoped it would give us. It’s had time to work and it just hasn’t.

High-stakes testing, while failing, has also given us lots of nasty unintended consequences, not the least of which includes fewer high-performing students wanting to become teachers. (For other consequences see here, here, here, and here.)

High-stakes testing will always be used to compare nations, communities, districts, schools, principals, teachers, parents, and students. There is no reason to think the tests will ever be de-weaponized. For this reason, we should take them away. It’s time to kill high-stakes testing.

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The Steaming Turd That is Michigan’s Third Grade Reading Law

In October of 2016, after about three years of debate, the then governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, signed a third grade reading bill into law that called for the retention of any third grader who scored more than one year behind grade level on the state test. The law required all K-3 students to be tested three times each year and students with reading deficiencies had to be given an Individual Reading Plan. Third grade students would not be retained until the 2019-2020 school year.

Which, in case you missed it, is next year.

Now that the time has come to implement the most objectionable part of the law and start actually forcing kids to repeat a grade, the state is getting cold feet. The new governor has publicly stated that she wants to get rid of the law. The Department of Education has approved new cut scores that will dramatically reduce the number of retained students from what observers first feared. While more than 55% of Michigan third graders fell short of the proficiency standard in 2018, the new scores are expected to identify just 5% of students for retention this coming year.

These are the actions of people who realize they’re dealing with a steaming turd.

You can avoid most steaming turns. If you’re out for a walk, you cross to the other side of the street should you see one in your path. More problematic is when the turd is incontrovertibly your problem, like when your dog has an accident on the living room rug or the neighbor’s mutt makes a deposit on your front lawn. In these cases, you throw the turd away.

But when the state legislature passes a law like the third grade reading law it’s as if they’ve deposited a steaming turd right on your front porch and made it illegal for you to dispose of it. Your only choice is to figure out how to mitigate its damaging effects. You don’t want to see it. You certainly don’t want to smell it. And since you can’t get rid of it, you do what you can to make it less offensive. Perhaps you spray the turd with some odor neutralizer. Even better, you cover it up with something.

That’s essentially what the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) has done. They’ve tried to make the turd less offensive by selecting a different cut score. Their justification is telling. MDE deputy superintendent Vanessa A. Keesler explained:

“A performance level of ‘not proficient’ on the ELA test does not necessarily tell us if the student is a grade level behind in terms of their reading.”

There’s plenty of evidence that the legislature knew this was a steaming turd when they passed it. First, they wrote language that limited retention to at least one grade level behind, even though they didn’t have a way of determining such a thing (the state test measures student performance against the standards; it does not report grade level performance). Second, students can only repeat third grade once. But why? If your position is that you don’t want students going to fourth grade unless they’re able to read at near a fourth grade level, then what difference does it make how old those students are? Why is passing them after a second try at third grade okay but passing them after one try not? It’s almost as if legislators recognized that retaining students is a damaging thing to do, so instead of not doing it at all, they compromised by only hurting kids for one year. Third, the state included a number of exemptions, including a revelatory one: the “good cause” exemption, which allows parents and teachers to request that a superintendent ignore the dumb test score and pass the kid on to fourth grade anyway.

These are the actions of a group of people who didn’t really want to do what they were doing but who wanted to look like they were doing something tough. They gave us a steaming turd, but they left the air freshener right next to it.

Districts should make liberal use of that air freshener. They should use the good cause exemption to avoid retaining any students. It’s both easy and legal to do. Here’s the law in its entirety and here is the relevant good cause exemption language:

“The pupil’s parent or legal guardian has requested a good cause exemption within the time period provided under subsection (10)(d) and the superintendent or chief administrator, or his or her designee, determines that the good cause exemption is in the best interests of the pupil.”

The key words here are “in the best interests of the pupil,” a phrase vague enough to cover just about anything, including the fact that retention has been found over and over again to be ineffective. (You can read a good summary of the research here.) Districts could and should use this phrase to exempt every student on the basis that retention is more likely to harm the student’s education that aid it.

Teachers who are concerned that parents might not request a good cause exemption need not worry because the law allows them to make the request themselves:

“10) The superintendent of a school district or chief administrator of a public school academy, or his or her designee, shall grant a good cause exemption under subsection (8) only through the following procedure:  (a) For a good cause exemption under subsection (8)(a) to (d), at the request of the pupil’s parent or legal guardian or upon the teacher’s own initiative, the pupil’s grade 3 teacher submits to the superintendent or chief administrator, or his or her designee, a recommendation for a good cause exemption along with documentation that indicates that a good cause exemption under subsection (8)(a) to (d) applies to the pupil.”

So here is what districts who don’t want their students harmed by the law should do:

  • Make it clear that they will honor good cause exemption requests every single time by communicating this message to parents throughout the third grade year.
  • Provide a summary of the research on retention to parents so they understand why they should seek the good cause exemption.
  • Make the process for applying for a good cause exemption easy by including a short form that is sent home with student report cards at the end of the year. Follow up with robocalls and/or emails within the 30-day window parents have to seek the exemption.
  • Provide a similarly simple form to all third grade teachers and require them to fill one out for each student the state identified for retention before they leave for the summer.

Such actions pose a question: Is it ethical to skirt a law because you don’t like it? After all, the law was passed by a majority of Michigan’s representatives and that is how our system works. If you don’t like a law, you can’t ignore it; you’re supposed to work to change it.

A few points to consider:

First, the law lacks legitimacy because of the legislature’s egregious gerrymandering. A three-judge federal court panel describes it as being of “historic proportions” and last year Michigan voters approved a proposal that amended the state Constitution to create a redistricting commission. Also, the law itself was hardly the result of a grassroots movement by the people of Michigan. Citizens were not clamoring for more accountability for third graders. Laws like these are typically the result of model legislation written by outside interest groups, many of which favor education reforms not supported by a majority of the state’s citizenry.

Second, it codifies bad practice into law. Retention is not supported by the research. Indeed, the research on retention is clear.  Researcher John Hattie wrote back in 2009 that retention is “one of the few areas in education where it is difficult to find students with a positive (d > 0.0) effect, and the few that do exist still hover close to a zero effect.” (Source)  If you as a teacher were doing something this damaging to students in your classroom, you’d be engaging in educational malpractice.

Third, we should consider the motives of the people who passed the law. These were the same people who sought to exact revenge on teachers and their unions by passing right-to-work legislation, have still not restored education funding to pre-recession levels, allowed unfettered expansion of charter schools with minimal oversight, promoted emergency manager laws that stripped control away from communities and placed it in the hands of individuals, many of whom lacked any experience in education, and have presided over Michigan’s precipitous drop in student achievement relative to other states. In short, they either don’t know what the hell they’re doing or they do know what they’re doing and they’re intentionally not acting in the best interest of Michigan’s children.

Finally, I’m not advocating that districts violate the law. Everything districts should do to avoid retaining students is legally permissible.

All of which means that districts should do everything they can to protect students from this steaming turd of a law and use the good cause exemption to pass every third grade student to fourth grade.