Thursday, March 15, 2012

Crunching numbers

Maybe I wouldn't have amounted to much of a teacher, after all.

I may not have gone where I intended to go,
but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.*

Maybe this is a bizarro "It's a Wonderful Life" story, wherein George Bailey, granted a chance to see a world without him in it, finds little difference.

Maybe some soothsayer could have talked me out of an expensive four-year rollercoaster ride that dropped me right where I'd started.

I mean, numbers don't lie … ?

Under ideal conditions, I'd be rolling toward the end of my fifth year as a teacher right now, my severalth career.

Hopped up on high stress, I'd be prepping students for the all-important state test (known as STAR in California, for Standardized Testing and Reporting) to which teachers must teach these days, because results mean so much to the future of each school. But I'd accept the stress, just as I had chosen this profession, and its myriad competing expectations.

Right about now, I'd be congratulating myself at the organizational skills I'd amassed in the last five years — and cursing myself for forgetting to photocopy the one worksheet I would need for the morning.

In a few moments I'd be racing to the school, hoping the custodial staff had unlocked the campus so I could be first to the photocopier, praying the machine wouldn't jam mid-job.

Right about now — the Ides of March — I'd receive the letter telling me my services won't be needed for the next school year. It would likely have been the fifth consecutive notice; with receipt of each one, I'd have sweated out the coming months like thousands of other teachers statewide.

Having survived — having had my termination rescinded — like as not I'd been teaching a different grade and at a different school from when I started. Maybe even a different district, where I'd start all over on the seniority ladder. But I'd be lucky and happy for a teaching job. I might have cut my workday to nine or 10 hours, and finally stopped falling asleep on the classroom floor trying to put the next day together and defuse the landmines.

Right about now, I'd dare to entertain a half-thought: I just might get the hang of this teaching thing one day.

These aren't ideal conditions, though, in case you're the last to know. The economy, to use a term economists have employed, sucks. California's economy suffers from its own poison brand of suckage, eating away at the infrastructure to provide for even the most standard needs, especially public education from pre-Kindergarten to graduate school.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, is bracing for $400 million in cuts the next school year, eliminating adult education and cutting 11,000 jobs. That's in addition to millions of dollars and thousands of jobs already cut from the budget since bleeding began in full in 2008.

(More than 20,000 California teachers this month have received their pink slips; it's an annual ritual, more widespread in the last three years. Though many will be able to return to teaching, more and more will not. School districts will wait until November — two months after the school year will have begun — whether voters will raise taxes to prevent a $4.8 billion cut to public K-12 education in Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget. Isn't that a fun job, predicting whether or not your school district will have enough money to pay for teachers, staff and resources? Over whose heads will hang the sword?)

Twin Rivers Unified School District in the Sacramento area, where I last worked as a full-time teacher, would be spared cuts under a tax initiative proposed by Gov. Brown for the November ballot. Twin Rivers would get special treatment as a new district, even though it's really four districts swallowed into one and given a new name.

Frustrated by an array of similar initiatives designed to enhance or obfuscate his own proposal, Gov. Brown has been trying to wave off the other initiatives, and just this week agreed to join forces with another initiative, if for nothing else to simplify the ballot.

But maybe all this bleeding is a good thing?

I mean, Del Paso Heights Elementary School, where I last worked, had 19 teachers on staff in 2011, the latest public figures show. Those teachers served 478 students.

In 2008, the year I worked there, Del Paso Heights had 28 teachers, who served … 478 students.

Fewer teachers — nearly a third fewer — the same number of students. I have to conclude that some or all of the classrooms became more populous, that state laws to cap enrollment to 20 students per class from kindergarten through third grade were lifted. I know that the classroom in which I taught was re-fitted the next year to accommodate students with severe disabilities who came from another school, so general education students were consolidated into remaining classrooms.

I may have been one of those 28 teachers in the 2008 figures; I'm not sure. The data released by the California Department of Education, and made available by the news media (in this case The Sacramento Bee) lists staffing by year, rather than school calendar year. So instead of listing 28 teachers in the 2008-09 school year, it lists 28 for 2008. I'm confused, you see.

Five teachers were let go that first year, nine total since then.

The conventional thinking is that a lower student-teacher ratio is best for students; students get more attention, more instruction, more correction, more chances to make mistakes and learn from them. But the STAR results — the results that officially matter — for the same 2008-2011 period suggest the students are doing no worse, and in some instances are doing better with fewer teachers and more crowded classrooms.

(Full disclosure: I'll never be mistaken for a statistician. Glaring poorly thought-out analysis may soon ensue.)

Look at STAR results for the third grade, where I taught, in 2009, the results from the year I taught them (those poor students!) In language arts, only 5 percent were considered advanced, and 18 percent proficient. These are the holy grail levels teachers strive for. A third of third graders tested at the basic level for language arts, 22 percent were "below basic," and 21 percent "far below basic."

Math was far different: A third of the students tested as advanced, 22 percent as proficient, and 18 percent as basic. Seventeen percent finished at "below basic," and 9 percent as "far below basic."

(Why math comes out so much better is a puzzle; maybe numbers are the truly universal language, and since at least six languages were spoken in my classroom, and about a third of the students were learning English as a second language, numbers made more sense to more students; maybe the math lessons of a more experienced colleague enriched we teachers who deployed them in our classes.)

The next year, after five teachers on staff were dismissed, the percentage of third-graders listed as advanced in math dipped to 25 percent, but those labeled proficient ballooned to 41 percent. The percentage for basic students stayed the same, while those for "below basic" and "far below basic" shrunk.

In language arts for 2010 STAR results among third graders, a higher percentage scored in the advance and proficient categories than did the year before — from 5 percent to 17 percent for advanced, and from 18 percent to 29 percent for proficient. The percentages of students scoring basic and below shrank.

By 2011, with four fewer teachers serving the same number of students, STAR scores for third graders moved more into the basic (37 percent compared to 27 percent the year before) and "below basic" levels (25 percent, up from 18 percent the year before). Those "far below basic" held steady at 9 percent.

Math scores held fairly steady, except that a higher percentage of students moved up into the upper three groups. Only 7 percent of third graders tested in 2011 scored "below basic" in math, and only 3 percent "far below basic."

Though I'm not privy to the herculean battle teachers waged to help their students, I don't doubt the remaining teachers and their principal girded up and bonded over the challenge of improving test scores. Their effort, at least in the case third grade, defies conventional thinking. As crowded as the classrooms may have gotten, the teachers found a way for more of the students to grasp the concepts they're supposed to know at that grade.

Results for the other grades show their own vagaries, but nothing to tell me that the loss of nine teachers spelled academic doom for the same number of students.

Getting laid off dismayed and disheartened and discolored me. I had gone back to college (an education in itself, and not just in the classroom) to embark on a new career path, to find I have horrible timing. Since the district did not give me any official credit for time served as a teacher (I was a 0.0), and I was under temporary contract, the teachers' union couldn't do more than bid me, "Good luck with … whatever."

I was lucky to have something else to do to make money. Not so with some of the other students who went to teacher school with me. And since then I have had some teaching opportunities, most recently teaching art to students in special education through a third-party program. I enjoy the challenge, as I had when I was teaching full time. I was committed then to being the best I could be, to figuring out how. I was in it, as they say, to win it.

I was willing then to give up most of what my life had been to that point. Teaching, at least for me, was all or nothing. I would have to give my all to become good at it, and give up freelance drawing, give up swimming regularly, give up the fun of being a tour guide and doing side jobs, give up the lack of a regular schedule, in exchange for good (I thought so, anyway) consistent pay and a career pursuing teaching mastery.

But maybe these are all sweet lemons. Maybe this rocky short-lived teaching career was an elaborate way of demonstrating I was not meant to be a teacher. For all my willingness to become good at teaching, I have to admit I'm not good at it now.

I teach for an hour at a time now, and I look at the second-grade teacher, standing aside for my time, ready to assist, her students wound up from a long day, being second graders, unable to sit quite as still or be quite as quiet as my lessons really need — and me really unable to settle them — their room redolent with their sour playground sweat. And I think: I could not do this all day, day after day, and worry about my shortcomings each summer day until school resumes, and worry about where and whether I'll be when school resumes, to try and do better.

It's hard not to think, based on the numbers I just crunched, that students can get along OK without me for a teacher.

This will not be a post I'll return to for inspiration.

* Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

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