Looking for Lessons When Your Students Fail

With our school days down to that nice round number 10, it can be difficult to focus on anything other than the light at the end of the tunnel that represents summer vacation. While the students are definitely antsy, I don't think they fully grasp how soon the year will be ending. We teachers don't have that luxury. So in the meantime, I'm fighting two very conflicting and equally strong impulses - throw my hands up and kill time or pack in as much as I can into two weeks.

Today I wasn't given much choice over how to spend the day. Yesterday we were told which students met the cut-off scores for the state exams, and who would need to attend summer school. That meant today I had to assemble promotional portfolios for these students. These portfolios are meant to show that in spite failing the ELA or math exam, these students are still at level 2, i.e. approaching grade level. Unfortunately, this just isn't the case for most of my kids who failed, since the majority are ELL's, including several newcomers. While all the students in this group made significant progress, most are reading at an early first grade level.

However, there were two surprises. Two of my students who I consider "high 2's" or even 3's didn't mean the cut-off. It's these students for whom the promotional portfolios are especially important. So setting my shock aside, I set out on getting their portfolios ready.

At the end of the day I'd put together eight portfolios in all. The process of assessing the students individually and organizing their work while keeping 26 other students occupied was exhausting and stressful. At the end of the day I read over one of my lowest student's writing piece, a girl who will most likely repeat the third grade.

This is a girl who has been in my school since kindergarten, and while her reading improved from a level B to level G this year (from kindergarten to first), she still hasn't grasped phonemic awareness. This makes her writing difficult to understand, but I could make out the general idea of her piece which was about our classroom.

"I love school and learning and school is awesome and Mr. Brosbe is the best."

It felt like a punch to the stomach. One of the most amazing parts of teaching elementary school is the practically unconditional love and trust of the students. If you keep them safe, show you care, and help them learn just a little, you're their favorite teacher ever. Until they move on to their next teacher, and the next. It's cute and endearing, but in this case, juxtaposed against my failure to do more for this girl, it was heart wrenching.

I hope that I can take some pride and consolation in the knowledge that I've instilled a love of learning in this girl that I hope will last. I hope that by advocating for this girl to repeat third grade, I'm advocating for her best interests, and giving her a chance to catch up.

This time of year is tough, because even as we as teachers seek a nice happy ending to provide closure to months of tireless effort, life sometimes interferes with unpleasant realities. Sulking or self-flagellation will not get us far though. We can only take these truths along with the many points of pride, and use them to do better.


Greig Roselli said…
I am sure her comment was more than heartfelt. She trusts you taught her to the best of her ability. Maybe a part of her knows already she will be held back and yet she still appreciates your effort. I wonder if there is a way to reach every student?
How can you insist on denying tenure to others when your own results are so dismal?
If you really believe in Educators for Excellence you should resign. From your own posts you are not even close to satisfactory.
Ruben Brosbe said…
Pissed Off,

I think you misread my comments about my own teaching and tenure. I'm not seeking to deny tenure to anyone, although I think tenure should be granted based on rigorous standards, and I think that some schools are already working on this. As far as my own teaching, having students who progressed from levels B and C to levels G and H doesn't feel dismal to me. Do I wish I could have made more progress with them? Yes, but I still look at this progress and I feel proud. I think it's unfortunate that by admitting my shortcomings as I've done, I'm being attacked. I think that by spending as much time as I have talking about my struggles I may have presented a certain picture of my teaching that's not the complete story. Nevertheless, as teachers I think it's important for us to be willing to be honest about our work, otherwise there's no way to grow or improve.
Pete Zucker said…
Good point Ruben, well actually no, I disagree with you. Again, you say that students progress from B and C to G and H. But as always, the proof is in the pudding.

But there are many questions I have put forth to you and you have yet to answer. Why not answer them here, or do you truly practice censorship and not allow anything to be seen that might not put you in the best light?

1. How did you get the gig for the NY Post?

2. Are you tenured?

3. Have you ever had your probation extended?

4. Do you plan on being employed by the NYC DOE come September?

5. Aside from the people listed as contributors for the latest E4E white paper concerning evaluations, were there any outside organizations or people that contributed to the white paper in an uncredited manner?

Thank you in advance for answering these questions.
Ruben Brosbe said…

There's nothing objectionable about your comment, so you'll see I haven't "censored" it, however, please don't expect me to engage in a dialogue with you since you're unwilling to abide by any standard of respect or decorum that is vital to civil debate.
Pete Zucker said…
Respect or decorum in which way? Like holding a meeting and when the questions and the meeting aren't going my way I take my ball and go home?

Respect or decorum like leaving anonymous comments on my blog Ruben?

Please, Ruben, you seem to be obfuscating here to avoid answering the questions.

I have given you the opportunity to give your side, your words on my radio show which reaches thousands.

I assured you, promised you that I will treat you with 100% respect.

But in light of you not answering my questions, if someone else asked you these questions would you then answer them?
Anonymous said…
I read the same post that Pissed Off Teacher read and I agree with her.

1. "Most of my kids who failed, since the majority of ELL's, including several newcomers. While all the students in this group made significant progress most are reading at an early first grade level."

For grade level state tests, this is not good enough. They need to be reading at exactly grade level in order for them to pass the ELA. It doesn't make a difference on their reading progress in your classroom. It is all about their test score. According to e4e's mission statements, this is a typical example of teacher who should be discontinued and denied tenure from the school system.

2. In regards to the girl who has 'not grasped phonemic awareness", maybe instead of test-taking preparation skills, it would be in the students best interests to teach skills that they really need to get them on grade level.

3. The student's response, "I love school and learning and school is awesome and Mr. Brosbe is great." describes my commentary in your last post about student surveys very well. This student's response says nothing about your teaching ability and how you teach but just give very basic and general adjectives.

4."Juxtaposed against my failure to do more for the girl, it was heart wrenching."
According to E4E's mission goals, this is a typical teacher who should be fired. This teacher did not apply 'rigorous standards to teach their students well and pass the ELA test".

5.Advocating for the children of New York City by supporting education grassroot groups that want to see 'less testing and more teaching' would be a great way to start. Second, applying a more relevant curriculum that connects all areas of learning would also be sufficient.
Ruben Brosbe said…
Sweet Girl,

I think you mischaracterize E4E's and my principles (which are not necessarily 100% aligned). To say that value-added data should be one component of teacher evaluations is not to say that if 100% of a teacher's students do not pass then that teacher should be fired. When we oversimplify the conversation in this way, then we can't really get anywhere. There's a legitimate argument against the use of value-added data that can be made, and if I were to say that anyone against value-added data only wants to protect teachers and doesn't care about whether students learn, that would be equally dishonest and simplistic.

We're all teachers here, so we know that there are a lot of problems with the way standardized testing has affected our classrooms (more so in grade 3 I imagine than in your pre-k classroom). The deleterious effects of test prep on my classroom has been a running theme over the past 4 years. Still, I believe as a teacher I need to be held to a standard. That's part of increasing the professionalism of our job.

The question is then, is there a way to use these assessments more effectively and fairly to judge students, teachers and schools? I believe so, but I still believe that there's a need for an accountability system that holds teachers and schools responsible for the progress (progress, not performance) of their students. This does not mean as you've suggested, that I believe any teacher with students performing below grade level should get the axe. That's just not reasonable or realistic.

It's a complicated discussion obviously, and sometimes tricky to engage in coherently through blog comments, but when you paint opposing views with such a broad brush you run the risk of making such conversation impossible.
Anonymous said…
It is not so complicated at all. The bottom line is that city school education does not work under governance, top-down principles. Simple.
Ruben Brosbe said…
Ok, so what does that mean. City schools shouldn't be governed? Schools should be entirely teacher led? I'm unsure what you're proposing as an ideal model for city schools.
Pete Zucker said…
Ruben, what she meant is that mayoral control is a failure.
fallsrock said…
You assembled the portfolios while the students were in class? You should have been teaching. Lame.

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