It’s actually happened. I’m going to say it….
They can’t. They just can’t.
The fact that I am writing those words breaks my heart into a million pieces. As an educator it makes me feel like I have been defeated, and it makes me feel like a failure. I NEVER thought I would ever say those words, and I am such a strong supporter of a teacher never saying those words. If that’s how I’m feeling…I can’t even imagine what my students are feeling.
We are about four weeks from all students in the state of Florida taking the new Florida Standards Assessment in Writing. Teachers in every county are tirelessly creating lesson plans to try and prepare their students to take this test. I know it’s taboo to “teach to the test,” and any good teacher knows that shouldn’t be our goal, but right now, it’s kind of hard not to teach to the test when it’s a test that our students have never taken before, and is significantly harder than anything they’ve ever done in the past.
For this reason alone, I am calling out for help. I am reaching out to all state education representatives, politicians, and leaders. Please read this. Please take a minute to truly consider the words of a teacher that is finally standing up for her students. I’ve had enough. I’m tired. I can’t look at their frustrated and worried faces any longer.
Dear Florida Department of Education,
This letter is coming from a place of desperation. I am a sixth grade ELA teacher in one of your greatest counties, and I am calling out for change. I’m not writing this for me. I’m not writing this to complain, or to protest, or to challenge you. I’m simply writing this to make you aware. I want you to hear how the implementation of the new Florida Standards Assessment this school year is affecting the most important people of all…the kids. It’s not about the teachers, or the administrators, or the superintendents, or the state leaders, or the parents. It’s about the kids.
Close your eyes for just a second and put yourself in their shoes. You’ve spent your entire elementary school years worried about passing a test called the FCAT. You knew that is counted towards passing certain grades, towards advanced placement, and remedial classes. You also knew that it counted towards your teacher’s evaluations, and whether or not your school was labeled with an A or F. The past few years, you’ve struggled to keep up as your teachers not only assessed you on the NGSSS, but also integrated the new Common Core Standards into your lessons. This year, the game has completely changed. Out with the FCAT, and in with the FSA. All of a sudden, you have gone from writing completely from your own head about why Florida is a great place to visit, to writing an argumentative essay using three different complex sources that focuses on whether or not mistakes are the key to great discoveries. You have no idea what the passing score is for this new test, there aren’t any anchor papers for you to use as examples, and you have no idea how the prompt will be formatted. You sit in class every single day, and you try your hardest to focus on what the teacher is discussing, but it’s so hard for it not to be overwhelming. You feel overwhelmed. You feel mentally exhausted. You shut down. You find yourself not even wanting to pick up your pencil because you don’t understand. You feel like your mind is going to implode from all of the information, and that you can’t possibly ever make sense of it all.
I want to make something very clear. I do not oppose the Common Core, nor do I oppose the Florida Standard Assessment. I believe wholeheartedly that the work we are doing with our students is the BEST work, and is the work we so desperately need to be doing in order for them to be college, career, and life ready. It’s the work we should have been doing all along. The problem lies in a very simple fact.
We are not ready yet.
It is absolutely not feasible that teachers and students should be expected to make an important shift in learning this quickly. We aren’t talking about a slight shift. We are talking about a shift that is literally moving the earth beneath our schools. It’s shaking the foundation of education, and it’s creating a divide so vast, that it’s letting the ones that matter the most, the kids, fall right through the crack. These shifts in learning are necessary, and they are possible. The problem lies in the fact that they can’t possibly be done in one year. We can’t go from the FCAT to the FSA in one year. School boards and district personnel will tell you that the kids are ready, and that we have been preparing for this for a long time. I hate to be the one to say it, but I have to be completely honest. That just simply is NOT true. They aren’t the ones sitting in the classrooms with our children every day. They aren’t the ones that have to see what this stress is doing to our students, and to us.
I have integrated the new Florida Standards into my classroom for the past few years, and I have found that I am still DUMBFOUNDED as to how unprepared I feel. Please understand that the statistics are there. It’s not a secret. Teachers are leaving the profession every single day. It’s not because of our paycheck amount, or tenure, or teacher evaluations. It’s because we are losing the love and joy that we used to have for our craft. We have found ourselves in a situation where our whole job revolves around data, test scores, evaluations, and paperwork. To the state, it’s not about the impact we have on our students anymore, or how we have the ability to change their lives for the better.
The state of Florida has turned our profession into a contest about how we look on paper. We’re just a number, we identify with a phrase. It’s become all about being “highly effective,” and for that reason, we have completely lost the heart of what it means to be a teacher. You are expecting us to give a test to our kids in less than a month, when you still haven’t given us a passing score, anchor papers, an idea of the prompt style, or what could be deemed “unscorable.” How can you push out a test that you, the State, doesn’t even have completed yet? How am I supposed to prepare my students for a test that we are clueless about? This directly affects my students, and this is where I become a Mama Bear, and I get angry.
Don’t get me wrong, teachers need to be evaluated, and students need to be assessed on what they have learned. It’s par for the course. However, my classroom has become a hostile environment recently. As I am struggling to get my students to understand argumentative writing, they come into class every day in a bad mood. I’m in a bad mood. They are burned out. I can’t blame them. It’s not because of how I am teaching the material, or because they lack motivation. It’s because it’s too much at once, and it’s harder than anything they have ever done before. They are lacking the necessary background knowledge needed to do this kind of work. The majority of my students are reading below grade level. I don’t have time to give the necessary remedial lessons because I have to cover a vast amount of complex information before the first week of March. They are asking me questions that I can’t answer. I can’t even tell my students what score they need to pass this writing test! I can’t show them example essays as a model, because there aren’t any for me to show. My kids are trying their hardest every single day, and that’s what kills me the most. They couldn’t put forth more effort if they tried, and yet they are still left with a little piece of their confidence being taken away from them with every sigh, and every frown, and with every tear.
What I am asking for is very simple. I am asking for time. Please just give us time. Give us a few years to adjust to this new style of teaching and learning. Give us some breathing room, so we can integrate these new standards into our lessons in creative and engaging ways. Let us bring some of the joy back into learning, and re-instill a love for reading and writing in our students. Let us GROW into the Florida Standards, and GROW into a test like the FSA. I’m not asking for you to get rid of the test, or to go back to the way things were. Just give us a few years to make this transition easier for our kids, and to slowly build their confidence back up.
It’s ridiculously frustrating to know that most of the people who are making these important decisions regarding our state’s education are people who have never experienced a day of teaching. It blows my mind that nobody ever bothers to speak to the people who directly affect the kids; the teachers. I invite any state representative, politician, or leader to come into my classroom any day of the week leading up to the Writing FSA. Come in and speak to my students, see the hard work they are putting in, and witness their frustration and worry first hand. If you want to fix a problem, you have to go directly to the source. These changes, and these shifts are directly affecting the children in our state. I could care less about my evaluation, or how much I get paid. What I care about are the 120 little faces that I encounter every single day. Come and meet them. Come and let THEM tell you what high stakes testing is doing to their confidence, their moral, and their love for learning.
I started out this blog post by saying the words that I never thought I would say… “They can’t.” I want to follow them with this statement, and this statement is what I will leave you with. Right now, 90 % of my students CAN’T pass this test. It will not happen. Their practice assessments, and writing in class have proven this to me. But the thing is…some day…they CAN pass it. They WILL pass it. Despite what their scores have shown me, the determination, and the fight that I see deep down inside of them will get them there eventually. I have no doubt in my mind that my students are intelligent, and that they can accomplish anything they put their minds to.
All I’m asking is for you to give them some room to stretch their legs, and I promise you that they will reach heights we never dreamed imaginable.
A Tiny Tenacious Teacher