I have worked at a suburban high school for over twenty years. We began with a mostly white and Asian population but that has changed over the last ten years. Nonetheless, we have always examined and strategized about academic improvements, grades, engagement, test scores, API, college and career preparation. Many trends have come and gone.
At one point, reading was everything. I still think it should be. Students not reading at grade level by 4th grade will experience increasingly daunting struggles. Poor readers fall further behind each year in most or all content areas. The inability to get through material quickly and comprehend appropriately by the end of high school (if they make it that far) will be intensely demoralizing.
When reading was everything, administrators and trainers told us that we are all reading teachers, which is only partially true. We incorporated reading material into every class—even PE. We had SSR (Silent Sustained Reading) where 15 minutes were added to 3rd period just for reading. But what SSR didn’t address was the reading level of the books students chose. Reading improvement does not happen when students constantly read at or below their level. Vocabulary development is also crucial and SSR had no structure in place to address that need.
After a few years, some teachers began class during SSR. They probably never heard complaints, but English teachers did. Unfortunately, we had no power to fix this and principals didn’t want to get involved. Soon SSR was gone and then we were all writing teachers.
Well, that’s great. Now, students were doing more writing than ever. Writing was required in all classes—even PE. But without the instruction and impetus to improve, without teachers holding students’ feet to the academic fire, without constant instruction and feedback, all that writing was just ink on a page—hundreds and hundreds of pages.
Then, our school went through the rigor phase. Administrators wanted teachers to provide the same level of rigor in all classes. English teachers were told to assign 8-10 books per year. Supposedly, this would make classes equally challenging. I tried to explain to the principal that this puts a Band-Aid on a broken arm. Rigor depends on what the teacher does with the book.
In sophomore honors, we spent almost an entire semester on Lord of the Flies, a magical, symbolic, historically significant, beautifully written, microcosmic novel. Students researched, analyzed, and wrote multiple essays. They had deep discussions about humanity and created works of art, depicting William Golding’s breathtaking metaphors. Depth trumps volume.
Largely (I suspect) to make it easier for administrators, that trend toward alignment has shifted to strong-arming teachers to teach the same things the same way at the same time. At first, alignment was largely to prevent parent complaints that this teacher is too hard or too easy compared to another. But there are many ways to help educators increase rigor without tearing away effective instructional methods from established teachers in the name of equality. Or is it now only equity?
At the twilight of my teaching career, the last trend I will ever experience personally has become the most absurd of all. For those of you who don’t know, equality is about equal opportunities. Equity is about doing whatever you can to ensure the same outcomes, the same grades, the same learning for all students. But what about all the beautiful variations of talents and inclinations within our students? The same people who love diversity don’t seem to want to accept it in education development, interests or achievement.
As we are taught about equity, the visual aids—obviously striving to coerce teachers to buy-in to this philosophy—mostly depict the “victims” as non-white. No one talks about the economically disadvantaged. It’s always about race. Shall we then blame the dummying-down of education on the development of greater ethnic integration? I hardly think so. ALL parents want the best education their children can get. Teachers have a profound responsibility to provide that. Students have a similar responsibility to step up to the learning plate.
But in the name of equity, teachers get told that there will be no more D’s or F’s, which leads to grade inflation and lowered expectations. That shift started with inappropriate COVID mitigation, which prioritized just-getting-students-through this mess. We were told to give free and easy grades, endless re-writes, constantly moving deadlines or none at all. Many students no longer took education seriously because they saw that their teachers didn’t. Lockdown learning loss is real and it is huge.
Some will tell you that this shift to lower rigor is for the protection and inclusion of minority students. I beg to differ. All students need rigorous, profound, well-rounded instruction. Great!Schools.org published an interesting article titled “Dealing with Teacher Bias” by Colleen Connolly. She explains, “Research has shown that Black and Hispanic students are more likely to be underestimated than others.” And low expectations, according to Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, “can [also] affect students’ academic aspirations.” Cherng, co-author of a 2017 study published in the Social Science Research Journal, asked students how many years of high school or college they thought they would complete. Cherng discovered, “If you’re underestimated, regardless of your race, that’s associated with lower years of expectation” (qtd. in Connolly). Confidence breeds tenacity, but it must be built on accomplishment and genuine praise.
Let’s not lower expectations when some students struggle, regardless of their ethnicity. Even though I certainly don’t disagree that teachers should be mostly equally rigorous, I am not at all interested in cookie-cutter instruction. Furthermore, collaboration can too easily lead to constant curriculum changes because we all have different interests. Professional diversity and autonomy are crucial.
Rather than whirlwind curriculum changes, grade shaming, and strong-arming teachers to grade easy, administrators could pair less rigorous teachers with more rigorous ones, so they can get help figuring out ways to infuse their own teaching style with greater skill development and higher expectations. We need to accept that instructors will excel in different ways at different times and that teachers also have varied strengths, interests and personalities. All of these need to come together for a complete instructional package.
We need to focus heavily on reading—from the very beginning. Elementary teachers must be extremely well versed in reading instruction. Schools should devote extensive time to reading instruction, with even more help for those who struggle. Grade level reading by 4th grade ought to be the highest priority. Older students should have speed reading classes that include comprehension strategies in preparation for high school, college, and life. More and earlier instruction on learning strategies is desperately needed. Students do fall through the cracks, not because of their ethnicity, not exclusively because of poverty, but because they have not been taught how to read and write well, and how to learn.
Connolly, Colleen. “Dealing with Teacher Bias.” Great!Schools.org, GreatSchools, https://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/how-to-deal-with-teacher-bias/ 10 Feb. 2023. Accessed 2 Mar. 2023.