Speech delivered by Ken Sider at Hartwick College’s panel titled “A Report from the Trenches: How the High Stakes Reform Agenda Impacts Stakeholders,” on September 23, 2013.
I’ve been asked to participate tonight to offer the perspective of an elementary school teacher. While I have primarily been a teacher of kindergarten through third grade, I’ll also convey what I see and hear occurring in K-5 classrooms. This year, the administrators of the Oneonta City School District are requiring all elementary school teachers to use daily instructional scripts called modules. Modules are instruction manuals written by distant corporations, not local teachers, and they now dominate the school day.
A module is a day-by-day, minute-by-minute, step-by-step direction manual that actually forces teachers to teach with a stopwatch. Topics of study and teaching methods are determined by the module, and teachers have no authority to change either the content or the procedures. Modules prevent a teacher from shaping the learning environment in ways that are responsive to children’s interests, passions, and, most importantly, their individual needs. These automated teaching methods eliminate the possibility for wonder, curiosity, and self-direction.
I have been asked what my students are losing because of the modules. To illustrate the loss, I would like to share a story from one of my recent third grade classes:
In 2012, during a social studies unit on Kenya, my students and I read a newspaper article from Mombasa about two children walking to school when they found what they thought were stray kittens. They took the kittens to a game warden at nearby Tsavo National Park who identified the kittens as striped hyena cubs. This incident became big news for my students because the cubs were cute, and as we learned, the striped hyena is nearing endangered species status. Due to their enthusiasm, we found and watched a news program about the hyena cubs on the Kenya Television News channel.
That same afternoon, at a weekly class meeting held on the rug in the reading corner, Jasmine asked us if the striped hyena will still be alive when she is a grown up. Despite all eyes on me, I had no answer. No one knew the answer. Jasmine’s question established a turning point in our year. This unexpected conversation changed the mood and shifted our class’s attention to the plight of the striped hyena. The class immediately decided to take action. They split up into groups and did online research. They searched for information at home and during the school day. We expected to find an organization dedicated to protecting and saving the striped hyena, but we found none.
We did happen upon an article written by a scientist named Dr. Aaron Wagner, an evolutionary and behavior ecologist at Michigan State University. Dr. Wagner’s article in the scientific, peer-reviewed journal Animal Behaviour, was daunting, but with highlighters and patience, we managed to learn a lot from his field work in Kenya.
Since Dr. Wagner’s phone number was posted on his website, the kids wanted to call him and ask how to save the striped hyena. Four volunteers wrote a script and rehearsed their parts. After calculating differences in time zones, we chose our moment and called. Amazingly, Dr. Wagner actually answered his phone. We were shocked, but not as shocked as Dr. Wagner. The kids introduced themselves, asked questions, and before hanging up got him to agree to Skype with us. One week later, wearing homemade Save the Striped Hyena buttons and prepared with their questions, the kids gathered in our school library to interview Dr. Wagner at his office on the MSU campus. Thanks to his advice, they spent the rest of the year petitioning the Wildlife Conservation Society to devote resources and attention to saving the striped hyena.
This was done through their tireless work which integrated math, ELA, science, and social studies in a seamless student-driven curriculum. The third graders campaigned for the striped hyena by writing, designing, and distributing flyers, creating a mass email campaign reaching hundreds of recipients, holding informational school-wide assemblies in 2 elementary schools, posting a glog at Glogster.com, and raising awareness through their own drumming performance at SUNY Oneonta. Through the kids’ efforts, our project was noticed by the Beacon Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, a National Science Foundation Center dedicated to studying biological and evolutionary processes of species worldwide. Our class was featured on their website and we had the good fortune of consulting online with Dr. Danielle Whittaker, director of the Beacon Center.
Looking back on that year, people might expect me to say that my students’ hard work, willingness to immerse themselves in academic topics well beyond their educational level, adroit handling of interdisciplinary content, activism, and impressive collaborative skills surprised me, but that would be incorrect. I was not surprised. These traits are revealed when students are encouraged to apply what they are learning to real-life issues of their own concern. In fact, in this environment, compassion, industriousness, creativity, and democracy flourish.
So to answer the question: What is lost in my classroom now that I must follow a script? I have an answer: Every element of the story I shared with you will be lost.
Modules force children to endure tiresome repetition, a single instructional approach that assumes all children learn at the same pace, and very long periods of sitting with little or no mental and physical breaks. Kindergarteners now sit for daily 50 minute math sessions and 120 minutes of English Language Arts. First graders have one hour skill sessions followed by one hour listening sessions, and another 90 minutes of math modules. Children are frustrated – some to tears, while others are acting out. And this frustration does not end at 3:00. The modules include mandatory daily homework, even for little ones.
Many teachers have been reduced to tears, not just because of the burden of learning this new, bewildering instructional system, but because we have become the tools that are stripping the joy from learning.
This unprecedented turn to hyper-standardization in our classrooms stunts the blossoming of humanity in its multiple and vital forms. A mass-produced corporate classroom culture is anti-intellectual and sabotages opportunities for meaningful engagement as learners and critical citizens in a democracy.
Today’s educational reform movement focuses on technical skills and tests. Schooling should enable students to achieve mastery and understand bodies of knowledge presented to them, but it is more important for students to understand how knowledge and skills will inform and support them in their everyday lives.Education is more than skill and drill and test scores. Students deserve to be educated to transcend the base expectations of the current political and educational leadership in our city, state, and country. Students are not merely commodities or consumers or data points or future employees, they are children, but now they are being silenced through a classroom socialized for passive engagement. Students cannot be spontaneous or unique, rather they only participate when given the teacher’s scripted prompt and respond within the limitations and parameters of the module.
And teachers are being silenced, too. Student data and test scores are being misused in a system of teacher accountability that intimidates and threatens teachers and principals alike, while earning unimaginable profits for corporations. A teacher evaluation system based largely on test scores is an abuse of data which intends to fire teachers for low test scores without regard for tenure, the historic legal practice of protecting teachers from capricious decisions and shifting political winds.
It is an abuse of data when my third graders endure 6 hours of pre-testing in September, 6 hours of post-testing in June, another 6 hours of state testing in the spring, plus pre and post testing in PE, Art, Library and Music. This accounting does not include the countless hours of practice tests that begin in some schools in September, and others in January. This, by the way, is the testing model at every grade level K-6. It is an abuse of the public trust when we as caretakers and educators fill children’s days with rigid, dull, artificial experiences that are as much tedious as they are laborious. And all of this is carried out with disregard for individual students’ needs.
Currently in the Oneonta City School District, the modules have forced many changes. Kindergarteners are not making apple sauce and reading about Johnny Appleseed, instead they are studying life in colonial towns. First graders are not learning about Oneonta and our neighborhoods, instead they are studying Ancient Egypt and Ancient South American culture. Second graders are not visiting City Hall or tapping maple trees, instead they are learning about Mesopotamia, Ancient Chinese civilization, and the War of 1812.
While not yet published, Social Studies and Science modules are coming next. This means the entire school day will be scripted. Sadly, many districts are responding not by pushing back and defending their students, but by eliminating recess, the arts, and special events.
Teachers are outraged and upset, but also intimidated and threatened. In this frightening moment in America’s educational history, teachers have been vilified. Sadly, corporate leaders, bureaucrats, and politicians cast teachers as the problem, and worse, as being resistant to their so-called high-quality academic reform. For this reason, teachers do not comprise an adequate first line of defense for our children. Teachers need parents and grandparents, friends and relatives, to join us in speaking up for children. We must return local control to our schools. It is not for the teachers’ benefit, but for the children who are subjected to a system that views them as 1s, 2s, 3s, and 4s.
When you hear about efforts to reclaim our community’s classrooms, I hope you will join us in standing up, but more importantly, in speaking out to restore a quality education that respects and nurtures our students.
Oneonta’s children deserve better.
Ken Sider is a 3rd grade teacher at Valleyview Elementary School in Oneonta, NY. He has developed interdisciplinary programs that bring together service learning with the arts in ways that enable children to interact meaningfully with academic content and issues of social justice. Mr. Sider has been awarded ten Arts Education Grants from the NYS Council on the Arts. In addition to being an adjunct instructor at SUNY Oneonta’s Department of Elementary Education and Reading, he is a doctoral candidate at SUNY Albany’s Department of Educational Theory and Practice and is preparing to conduct his dissertation study on race and identity in teacher education. Mr. Sider received the 2011 New York African Studies Association’s Distinguished Teacher Award.