Fifty million students are available on a daily basis with experience and ability to solve many school problems; they are free and eager, needing only to be allowed to provide their feedback.
by Bill Page
Regular contributor to the Gazette
April 1, 2008
“It is ironic that in a closed society of micro-managed members given mandatory assignments, where individual freedom is suppressed, movement and speech are controlled, and all communication censored; where a puppet government is encouraged, but denied any real authority, where efficiency and character reports are required and recorded, and attendance at cultural assemblies is compulsory, where it is avowed that all, no matter their preparation, will be administered to equally, where absentees are tracked down, returned, and punished for attempting to escape; in short, in the milieu of the American school system, we attempt to teach democratic values.” Bill Page
Throughout my schooling, I had more than 100 teachers, numerous required courses, and years of compulsory attendance. But not once, in the 12 years school made life-altering decisions about me and for me, did anyone in charge of my schooling know, ask, or care what I thought of my learning, my classes, my teachers, or my education. Never did I fill out a questionnaire and never did I comment on the value or importance of any class, subject, teacher, textbook, rule, procedure, or activity. Educators made decisions without my advice, consent, or involvement.
In each of my six years of ”Grammar School,” I spent more than 1000 hours each year with just one teacher, who evaluated me, my knowledge, behavior, attitude, effort, handwriting, manners, cooperation, wrote comments to my parents, assigned letter grades to represent her judgment of my performance, my progress, my learning, and me. The teachers made subjective remarks and judgmental evaluations on my report cards and in my school records, which are still on file and still available seven decades later.
Although I spent every day with individual teachers and knew them, their effectiveness, and their behavior well - in relation to me - I was never permitted to evaluate any aspect of my experiences or feeling through all the years of schooling. I knew more about my teachers and their teaching than anyone else, except my classmates, but no one cared. Could it be that educators didn’t care because they might be obliged to respond to my assessment, perspective, or concerns?
Of the three most authoritarian institutions in America - prisons, mental institutions, and schools - I can understand that prisons and mental facilities would not permit inmates to have a voice, because prisoners are serving court sentences and mental patients may not be rational or competent. But I certainly cannot accept that other students and I would not be valuable resources for improving teaching and our own education. Students are in school to learn and mature, to become more independent and responsible, and to function as good citizens in a democratic society. Evaluations by students are essential and should not just be allowed, they must be required.
The teaching-learning process is an interactive relationship, “It takes two to tango” but apparently, and to their detriment, the “powers that be” think that parents and community members, those who vote for school laws, bonds, and boards, provide sufficient evaluation for America’s largest employer and its three million teachers. Citizens may be considered the real consumers of education, but students are the ultimate consumers. Students literally live every minute of their years of school attendance; they need to have a voice.
Evaluations by school are in the form of grades and report cards, which are not just unilaterally determined by each teacher; they are always subjective. It is impossible for grades to be objective because they reflect the teacher’s individual subjectivity. Teacher biases and discrimination in relation to student gender, appearance, manners, language, class, speech, culture, and subculture, are well documented. Grades reflect what teachers taught, how it was taught, what vocabulary, examples, and activities were used and therefore are the personal, subjective evaluations and decisions of that teacher.
Tests don’t test kids; teachers test kids. Tests don’t make decisions; teachers make decisions. Teachers choose the lessons, the activities, and procedures; they choose the testing, the conditions, and requirements; they choose the evaluation. Tests reflect what teachers choose to put on the test plus whether and how they review, or whether they use a practice or diagnostic test, and whether they grade homework. Teachers unilaterally determine the testing conditions as well as the test. Teachers get different grades by asking 20 questions in 10 minutes instead of 10 questions in 20 minutes. If a student gets one of only two essay questions wrong, it would be a 50, which is an F. But if there were five essay questions and the student answered four questions correctly, it would have been an 80. If “spelling, or neatness counts” or a time limit applies, a different grade would result. Grades can depend more on the teacher’s choice of the type, number, and scoring of test questions and on the chosen testing procedures more than on the student’s knowledge and ability to express it.
Evaluation is not something my teachers do to me-- it is a relationship they have with me. Teachers cannot take themselves out of the relationship. Suppose I say, “My teacher is cold and aloof.” But then consider that three other students might say s/he’s the warmest, friendliest teacher they know! Is s/he warm and friendly or cold and aloof’? S/He is neither--outside of a relationship. To me s/he may be aloof--to other three students s/he is friendly. To other students in the same class s/he may be different, too.
And teachers cannot take me out of the relationship. I am an integral part of any evaluating the teacher does of me. My evaluation, expectations, values, needs, and responses must be included in the evaluative process for it to be valid, reliable, or complete. There is one thing I know that no one else in the world knows (they may think they know, but only I know for sure), and that is how I feel about what goes on in relation to me, about what I am thinking and doing, and the reasons why. I live with myself 24 hours a day and have all my life. I know me; I am an expert on myself. And if s/he asks me nicely, I may be willing to share some of my self-knowledge.
To what extent is a student’s failure of a task, unit, or test the teacher’s fault? No one knows because apparently no one cares. The only question is, “Did the student pass or fail?” not. “Did the teacher pass of fail in his/her teaching? It is always one sided. Teacher efficacy can never be accurately determined until the student part of the relationship is determined, valued, and accepted as a part of the educational assessment. The one-sided, subjective assessments are not complete and should not be accepted as an accurate measure of learning. Teaching is only half an act; school learning is only half an act; and they are not necessarily closely related. The two terms should always be associated with each other—teaching-learning as a singular term. School assessments must be bilateral or multilateral; they are too binding to be unilateral.
As a teacher, I feel most confident and competent in measuring learning by exhibit. While project and small group learning are inconvenient to grade and are still subjective, the level and extent of the learning that goes on is obvious to the teacher, because the teacher works with students as a facilitator and is an integral part of the project learning process. Although students work in groups, each is evaluated. Subjectivity is reduced by activities involving more information, more people, and higher level thought decisions.
When students keep a portfolio and share in evaluating, the assessment can be especially meaningful. Anyone who has ever participated in or witnessed the enthusiasm, intensity, and effort of students in a county science or art fair, writing for an essay contest, or on an “Odyssey of the Mind” team, knows the value of public display and exhibition. Authentic learning and projects require individual effort, research, verbal explanations, displays, charts, models, audio/video clips, and public exhibit that can be made available to classmates, other classes, parents and community members.
School Autocracy Is Unnecessary, Disgraceful, and Embarrassin
Fifty million students, compelled to attend school for at least ten years, are denied any voice in the decisions about the educative procedures that dominate their school life. School decisions directly impact every important aspect of student’s lives from home life to future life. Schools monopolize student’s time. They control daily schedules, routines, social life, homework, study assignments, extra curricular activities, and to a great extent, their future.
While mandatory school attendance is generally understood and accepted, it is absolutely inconceivable that any institution other than prisons and mental hospitals could deny at least some important level of participation in the decisions that dominate students’ lives. Employers can ignore employees’ input because employees can quit--a choice not available to students. Because parents participate politically in the governments, agencies, and boards that make educational decisions, and because school officials respond more to their accountability to the community, educators deny students the right to participate in school decisions. Educators fear student participation and refuse to allow even minimal student participation, apparently because of the “camel getting its nose under the tent” syndrome.
Schools Don’t Believe in Using Democratic Processes.
Schools talk about student participation and involvement but only on their terms and in their mandated classroom lessons. Involving students in the decisions that affect their lives could significantly eliminate and ameliorate many classroom problems. Student participation would help and encourage each other’s learning. The Hawthorne studies that began in England at the time of the industrial revolution and continued in the US, provided an answer to increasing production that applies to students' improving achievement in education.
In the Hawthorne studies, as researchers attempted to increase production in factories, they tried longer breaks, music, drink breaks, better lighting, bonuses, extra pay, carpeting, etc. In nearly 50 years of study, only one incentive increased production and maintained it. The other incentives worked until they became commonly used for every one, then most of the gain was lost—hence, the term “Hawthorne Effect.” The one way that worked was involving the workers in the decisions. When workers participated in the decisions about their own working conditions, they and the changes worked. Strange isn’t it, that finding is the same simple definition of “democracy": “Those who are affected by the rules, participate in the rules.”
Some Practical Ideas for “Participatory Education”
I learned to use and value democratic principals in my relationships and in my teaching-learning procedures. I invited and utilized student input and assessment, including evaluation of the class, course, teaching-learning and my own behavior in several ways:
Classes have regular class meeting for a half-hour every Friday to discuss the affective concerns, learning, context, and problems. Additional meetings may be called on specific topics or concerns by posted sign-up petition.
A comment or complaint box is readily available. Three students, as a committee on a rotating basis, maintain the box, deal with the comments and class discussions. So, the comments or complaints are not necessarily to or about me.
At the beginning of the year, I post a Student Bill of Rights as a sample from which individual class bills of rights are developed, written, modified and amended as an ongoing process throughout the year. My sample bill of rights has four categories: things I guarantee, alternatives I offer, things I resist or abolish and special considerations. The Bill of Rights is my beliefs against which my students evaluate my teaching.
I develop a “learning community concept” so students function as a coherent group rather than a conglomerate. Using reasoning and valuing students working together reduces discipline problems and helps the students take responsibility for class order.
My teaching style is flexible to meet individual needs and permits the students to “worry about themselves” rather than what the others and I are doing.
Students keep their own records, mark their own tests and keep a portfolio of work against which they judge their learning and discuss it with other students and me. They also challenge test questions and procedures by proposing questions and alternatives.
My willingness, ability, and success in working with problem kids and problem classes enabled me to be judged by the school administrators by student satisfaction as well as the additional criteria of, increased student achievement, elimination of suspensions and office referrals, and the number of parents eager to get their kids in my class. Participatory education is a key to student motivation, achievement, satisfaction, and cooperation.
Early in my career, I fought as a representative of my school along with those from other schools, for the right to negotiate teaching issues with our district school board. Our negotiation committee was successful in getting an agreement and later the state required negotiation with school boards. Other teachers and I fought and won “the right,” not just the permission, to participate in the district decisions that affected us. That was more than forty years ago. At the time, I predicted students would be next; they would be fighting for the right to participate in educational decisions. I was dead wrong. Students have fewer rights and more intensive supervision now. And future change or improvement looks awfully dismal.
he 50,000,000 students will remain silenced, squelched, intimidated, and subjugated at an unbelievable level. My solutions are my own in my own classroom. They do not affect other teachers and schools. So, unfortunately, the only solution I see to school autocracy is for each teacher to begin offering student participation in class decisions one step at a time on the long journey. I really do believe it is better to light one little candle…
An administrator friend asked me what I would do to evaluate teachers. I suggested two ways I could evaluate teachers by using student feedback. I haven’t heard yet whether he liked my suggestions. So I will share them with you:
On opening day of school, teachers stand by their door with a clipboard to sign-up students for their class. Teachers who do not have anyone signed-up by noon can get the newspaper want ads free as they leave the building.
If a student dislikes a class and wants to transfer, s/he is free to leave, taking his or her share of the state’s daily attendance allocation fund to give to the new teacher. Teachers aware that every kid in class could walk out permanently at any time would have a different attitude toward their teaching responsibility.
I wrote a lengthy, serious article, “A Teacher’s Evaluation of Teachers’ Evaluation” subtitled, “I Used to Think They Were Stupid, and Then I Found Out I Was Right.” It has a dozen suggestions and was published in the Journal of Michigan Elementary Principals Association. I will email the article free to anyone who requests it.
When I become dictator of the education system (a benevolent one; not a mean, ornery one), or better yet, when I find out who’s in charge of the policies that deny students a voice in their lives, I will work to give students a voice. Until then, I guess President Woodrow Wilson was correct when he said, “It is easier to relocate a cemetery than to change school policy.”
With joy in sharing, Bill Page
Note: I will email, free, the “Student Bill of Rights” I use as a model for my class rules, to those who request it: firstname.lastname@example.org
Feeling Their Pain,
Understanding Their Plight,
Accepting Their Defensive Ploys.
“Insights into kids who can’t, don’t, or won’t try to learn.”
Bill Page, a farm boy, graduated from a one-room school. He forged a career in the classroom teaching middle school “troublemakers.” For the past 26 years, in addition to his classroom duties, he has taught teachers across the nation to teach the lowest achieving students successfully with his proven premise, “Failure is the choice and fault of schools, not the students.”
Bill Page is a classroom teacher. For 46 years, he has patrolled the halls, responded to the bells, and struggled with innovations. He has had his share of lunchroom duty, bus duty, and playground duty. For the past four years, Bill, who is now in his 50th year as a teacher, is also a full time writer. His book, At-Risk Students is available on Abebooks, Amazon, R.D. Dunn Publishing, and on Bill’s web site: http://www.teacherteacher.com/
In At-Risk Students, Page discusses problems facing failing students, “who can’t, don’t and won’t learn or cooperate.” “The solution,” he states, “is for teachers to recognize and accept student misbehavior as defense mechanisms used to hide embarrassment and incompetence, and to deal with causes rather than symptoms. By entering into a democratic, participatory relationship, where students assume responsibility for their own learning.” Through 30 vignettes, the book helps teachers see failing students through his eyes as a fellow teacher, whose classroom success with at-risk students made him a premier teacher-speaker in school districts across America.