Doug Robinson: The teachers respond to last week's column

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 2 2013 3:28 p.m. MDT

The teachers have plenty to say when it comes to the issue of absenteeism and government-mandated testing.

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Today’s column is brought to you by you, the readers. Or, more accurately, readers who are school teachers.

In a recent column, I wrote about the dilemma teachers face. They are required to give state-mandated proficiency tests in math, science and languages to a minimum of 95 percent of their students — even if many of those students choose not to come to school and even though the tests are voluntary for the students and don’t affect his/her graduation or promotion to the next class. The motivation for such tests is one-sided. Schools and teachers are held accountable, but the students are not. If the kids fail to take the test or score poorly, the schools and teachers pay the price.

Utah has an average absentee rate of 13.5 percent, which means nearly 14 of every 100 students is missing each day. So how are teachers supposed to get them to take the test and how are they supposed to score well if they’re gone?

It’s another dreamy, unrealistic reach by the government, a carryover from the silly No Child Left Behind law (NCLB), or, as educators like to call it, No Teacher Left Standing or No Child’s Behind Left. It’s a national issue that all states are grappling with. It’s federal law: EVERY child in public school must achieve grade-level proficiency in reading, math and science. While they are at it, why don’t they mandate world peace by 2016?

Well, educators had plenty to say about all this, especially the issue of absenteeism. Here are some excerpts from a few of their emails about last week’s column (and, by the way, why don’t we let teachers — the real experts — take charge of our education system, rather than legislators (or does this make too much sense?)?:

“Thank you for stating what so many of us teachers have thought for years,” wrote Donald Carper. “We are at mid-term for the first quarter, and I already have two students I’ve only seen once (in over 20 days). I have a large number of students who have missed around 10 days. They have been sick, or a relative has, and their parents have seen nothing wrong with taking their kids out of school for vacation, even if they had all summer to do it. And yet I’m repeatedly told there’s nothing we can do about it. I’m near the end of my career. I’ve loved all 40 years of teaching, but I would discourage anyone from following in my footsteps because life for teachers is going to get much harder with merit pay and publicly grading schools and teachers. It’s very sad.”

From retired teacher Janice Metcalf: “I have had parents take their kids to Disneyland for a week and ask me if their kids would miss anything while they were gone. Heck, yes! They miss everything. They miss review, new concepts, reinforcement, discussions … group work, games, new assignments, exposure to new ideas, etc. Then some of these same parents schedule a cruise for Thanksgiving or Christmas. I had asked administrators about testing for kids that were absent for so many days of the school year. These are the same kids that never miss a party or a field trip. It is mighty frustrating … Parents need to remember that adults don't have the option of deciding every day whether to go to work or not. Just get up and get going. That's what life is all about!”

Cheri Robinson, a teacher in Colorado, wrote, “Is it legal to punish one person for another person’s free will and choice? … What can a teacher do to force students to actually take the tests instead of just faking it? Colorado configures the mandatory tests over a seven-day period each spring. The kids just get tired of it, and then some of them refuse to try. I have proctored one-hour tests that students complete in five minutes simply by filling in the bubbles and writing nonsense on a few lines. Those scores will be close to zero. Average them into a group of 45 students and the group average plummets through no fault of the teacher. Test results are only valid if the students actually read the questions and try to find the correct answer. Students who pretend to take the test may take the entire hour, but later admit to just pretending.

“It is only when the students and their families are held responsible for their attendance and effort in class and on tests that scores will improve. If you check out the National Research Council on student achievement, you will see that test scores nationwide have been flat or declining for many years, in spite of multiple new teaching methods and new teaching reforms. Perhaps it's time to examine the students … If a high school student is responsible enough to have a driver's license, shouldn't the same student be able to show up to class on time with books, homework, pencils and papers, and be ready to take personal responsibility for learning?

Tracy Gruber, senior policy analyst for Voices for Utah Children, wrote, “I was thrilled to see your column today discussing chronic absence. Our hope is that parents, schools and community leaders will better understand the relationship between school attendance and academic outcomes even as early as kindergarten. We believe it is one of the least expensive ways to improve academic achievement while reducing school dropout rates.”

A teacher named Roger Williams wrote, “In recent articles about school/teacher accountability, this important aspect (absenteeism) was missed, so as a retired teacher, I was delighted to see it addressed clearly and persuasively. A related aspect is the student who is there physically but not mentally. In my 39 years of teaching, I called them ‘floaters.’ Often they refused to do assignments or to put forth any effort. So I ramped up my efforts to make instruction entertaining, interesting, relevant, dynamic. That did rope in a few more, but not the hardcore floaters.”

And finally, from Lynn Stoddard, a retired teacher who wrote a book — “Educating for Human Greatness” — that offers a way to revamp public education: “Why do kids not want to be in school? One reason is that NCLB forced teachers to do things that were harmful to children, causing many to drop out or go to school as little as possible and many others have dropped out emotionally. The idea of grading schools according to student achievement test scores is a carry over of the NCLB law and is an awful way to try to improve public education. It again will force teachers to use high-pressure methods to teach basic skills, causing more students to hate school and develop an aversion to learning. If we are really serious about students coming to school, we will do some things that will influence them to want to be there. How about starting with meeting each child's learning needs, not the needs of the state, the federal government or the needs of business executives?”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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