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Monday, December 03, 2007

Why I've Been So Slow, Part 2: The Kansas State Department of Education Hates Me

From 2001 to 2006, I had one-year positions, from Mississippi to Arkansas to Illinois. There were, to say the least, some pretty significant disadvantages to lacking any sort of permanence in my academic career, but there was one undeniable advantage: I was rarely given any kind of significant committee work to do. Since coming to Friends University in the fall of 2006, however, those five years of freedom have quickly been made up for. Friends in some ways aspires to a kind of classic, teacher-student-focused liberal arts college model; in other ways, it does what it does simply for a lack of funds. Either way, this means that regular faculty--which now includes me--are heavily involved in advising students, registering students, and all sorts of committee and secretarial work. (I'm the college secretary right now, for example.) All well and good; I was happy, for the most part, to get thrown into all this mostly uncompensated work, because it made me feel more connected to the university community as a whole. So, when it turned out that the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) was going to be following up on a years-old assessment it made of our numerous teaching education programs, and the person who had been responsible for preparing for their review of History and Government Education said she was sick and tired of the whole thing, and the only other candidate besides myself was plainly incapable and uninterested in taking it on, I said, hey, sure, toss it at me.

All you experienced professional educators and academics can stop laughing now. I know. Believe me, I know.

Beginning last spring, I started attending education board meetings and trying to pick up their, to me, highly confusing jargon: rubrics for this, indicators for that, data that demonstrates the learning of content knowledge (as opposed to pedagogical knowledge) via measurable assessments that reflect the state standards in particularly subject areas. And on, and on. The individual previously responsible for it all dumped upon me hundreds of pages of tests, worksheets and grading records, which somehow spoke to Friends University's effective teaching of the basics of history and government education...or more importantly, spoke to how Friends University was giving, and would continue to give, the Department of Education proof that we were following the standards in ways that would effectively and measurably reveal the degree to which we taught the basics of history and government education. What are these standards? Things like (and the wording is important...oh, how I have learned that the wording is important!) "The teacher of U.S. history and U.S. government and world history has knowledge and understanding of significant individuals, groups, ideas, events, eras, and developments in the history of the United States, and is able to utilize essential analytical and research skills" and "The teacher of U.S. history and U.S. government and world history has knowledge and understanding and can create learning experiences around historical concepts and their interrelationships." There are 10 such standards, ranging over history and political science, obviously, but also sociology, economics, geography, and cultural anthropology, to say nothing of pedagogy. For every one of them, indicators need to be discerned that can guide developing assignments which will test levels of mastery relevant to the specific particulars of each standard. And, of course, these tests must be rigorously objective and consistent, meaning that reliable rubrics can be developed for them that can be submitted to the state, and will show who has taken these tests, how they've done on different portions of them, and what that reveals about the level and quality of teaching taking place at Friends in regards to specific elements in each of the standards, thus enabling the state to make a responsible judgment about whether the student teachers we're turning out really can intelligently teach history and government (and economics and geography and anthropology) in Kansas's junior highs and high schools, and thus whether we deserve to continue to be licensed in this area.

By summer, I was going mad. Mostly because I'd gotten myself into something I hated: for--again!--reasons that are probably grounded in equal parts philosophy and laziness, I have always detested the sort of mentality which assumes all good things are to be reported, assessed, analyzed, and thus must needs be expressed in terms of rubrics and schedules and graphs and proficiency charts demonstrating empirical progress towards this or that or the other thing. I'm a lover of the subjective, the intuitive, the big picture; the more I must fine-tune a thing (and things sent to bureaucracies must always be fine-tuned, turned into a content that can be transformed into systematic judgments), the less I enjoy it. God, I frequently like to tell my students, actually isn't in the details. Or at least so I wish to believe. But leaving all those "grow-up-and-deal-with-it"-type of complaints aside, also was also being driven mad because our particular situation here. We're a small program at a small school. Many of these classes are taught, and have been taught for years, primarily by half-time adjuncts. Even when it comes to the bulk of the fundamentals of history and government education, I'm lacking in usable data, because political science was handled for the two years prior to my arrival by a sad case of a professor who left abruptly when his previously hidden drug problems became known, and before that was handled by an Indian professor who, in his 35 years here, steadfastly refused to provide anything consistent to the education people, just on principle, I guess (which I admit I kind of admire). And then there's the fact that history and government, at least, is overloaded to bursting with requirements; the education requirements alone take up massive amounts of time, and then we have to somehow make sure they take American government and comparative politics and basic economics and cultural anthropology and on and on. Most students end up having to cut deals allowing them take classes as individual study courses, or they take them over the summer at other institutions, and either way, the result is requirements fulfilled without much or the right kind of data which can be plugged into our existing methodologies.

And so, in the end, I went into my usual furious panic mode, which usually involves me refusing to be sucked into any previously dug trenches, convinced that such is simply going to result in wandering down paths that will require even more work from me. Instead, once school started again in the fall, as the deadline closed in, I went through all the syllabi and exams I could, trying to identify straightforward assignments that I could write descriptions for which would suggest their relevance to specific standards, and then collected all the data I could addressing history and government education majors' performance on those particular assessments. Final grade data was easy to obtain; specific data on test performance, particularly from the last three or four years (which is all the KSDE cared about) was far more difficult. So I threw together a narrative which tried to take all this into account, checked it and double-checked it with the education folk downstairs (who really, I must assure anyone thinking of attending Friends, are fantastic people: generous with their time, funny, and absolutely devoted to education; they helped me out enormously, and only mocked my ignorance of how to best develop a grading rubric for lesson plans very slightly), and sent it off. The whole thing occupied I don't know how many hours of my time; I know that there were whole weeks during which I was just basically paralyzed by the entire thing.

Last week, the reports came back. Every single education program at Friends was found insufficient in one way or another. For history and government, they rejected every single one of the assessment plans I'd submitted; we didn't qualify under a single standard. I suppose I should be optimistic--everybody fails these things to one degree or another regularly, or so I'm told. And it's not like we don't have the chance to write a rejoinder and get it all fixed up; I'll be meeting with the education folks tomorrow to begin the process of figuring out what they didn't like about the narratives and assignments and data I compiled, and how I can fix it. But I can't deny feeling pretty low about it; I spent more time on this than any other single project for the past several months, and blew it. When our university president got all us program heads together to express his disappointment (which was significant, but not cruelly done), I felt it pretty deep.

I suppose I could draw from this some sort of larger argument about No Child Left Behind and the current obsessions with "performance" and "improvement" and "measurement" that haunt our educational establishment, but I really don't have the will to do so. Professional educators and academics--at least, those of us at small enough schools where we don't get to play experts capable of outsourcing all the bureaucratic stuff to some hired hands--know the way the system works these days; if it's not an obsession with proving to state boards that one's teaching is up to snuff both in terms of content and pedagogy, then it would be an obsession with something else. And the thing is, in principle, I don't entirely object to such obsessions; rote teaching is often a pretty important and relevant tool for creating certain egalitarian and civic goods through the schools, especially marginalized or impoverished ones, and supplying data is a good way to force us rambunctious faculty to discipline our own teaching to at least a few core matters. But must it be done in accordance with such frequently arcane methodologies, with such strained and complicated expectations? If you end up designing all your assignments in a comparative government class so to make them easy to turn into clearly measurable data on how the students perform in demonstrating their skill at designing "learning experiences," exactly how much time will you have left to focus on--and how creatively will you be able to encourage their tested work on--you know...actually comparing different governments?

Oh well. I know, I wanted this career, and now I've got it. And I still love it. When all is said and done, I still want to be the program head, too; at least then I'm deciding what counts for what (within my minimal space for altering content expectations, that is, aside from what the education standards dictate), and not someone else. My main hope at this point is 1) that I can get the rewrite done by Christmas, and 2) that I'll be organized enough to actually keep track of what I'm learning, so I don't have to start all over again when KSDE comes back in a few years. Oh, and 3) I hope I'll be able to get past this and spend time on fun things again, like blogging. But I seem to be making some progress on that goal just fine right now.

1 comment:

Jacob T. Levy said...

All you experienced professional educators and academics can stop laughing now.

When I read that, I said, "No, Russell, you're wrong, I can't." But I stopped laughing very shortly into the next paragraph as I started to get a sense for what you'd actually signed up for. Argh. Good luck.