CST Blues: Year Two

June 20, 2013

This is a nitty-gritty teaching post, fair warning for those who aren’t in the classroom.  My one sentence summary: Don’t make excuses for teachers who don’t get results, but do realize how freaking hard their job is.


I made myself and my students a promise when I started teaching in the public sector.

I promised to not make excuses for my failures.

I’ve been a teacher for long enough to know that teachers are full of excuses. There is always someone (or something) else on which I can blame the failures in my classroom.

But, I promised to not double-speak my failings. I made this promise because I believe that my students deserve the best possible education. They deserve teachers who can teach them to read and to write. They deserve respect and high standards. They don’t deserve to be sacrificed at the altar of teachers’ egos.

This is not to say that poverty, lack of parent education, insufficient prior education, poorly designed tests and curriculum don’t affect my students. I know that they do. It is ridiculous (and prideful) to think that one teacher can alter a lifetime of less than excellent educational and social experiences. This is why we need to hold teacher evaluations based on test scores with a wary hand. Anyone who is looking to “solve” education without a holistic understanding of larger socio-economic issues is just simply crazy.

But, at the end of the day, I believe in teacher accountability. Teachers should be held responsible for the quality of instruction in the classroom, for the gains or losses that students make while in their care. How? I have absolutely no idea, but it does need to happen.  It is a matter of justice.

So what does this have to do with me, this year? Well, I just received the raw CST data for my sophomores … and it’s not so hot. That’s an understatement. It’s awful. And, even as I write this, and as I look over my scores, my mind is coming up with a thousand and one excuses while this doesn’t mean I am a bad teacher–ways to spin the data (i.e. compare to other schools or LAUSD), explanations for certain students, fingers to point at other factors, poor administrative direction, etc..

But, I’m going to refuse to make excuses, as painful as it is to my ego, to my sense of vocation, and to my hopes for teaching in the future.

To be concrete, last year, 50% of my freshmen tested at proficient or advanced (roughly >70-80% of the questions correct). 32% of them tested at basic (roughly >55%-60%) and 19% of them tested below or far below basic.

This year, as sophomores (being tested on the same standards but with a harder test), 46% of them tested at proficient or advanced, 45% of them at basic and 10% at below or far below basic.

The biggest take away is that my proficiency levels went down. Around ten of my students who tested proficient last year, did not this year. Many of my students raw scores went down as well.  This is awful, and makes me almost sick to my stomach. The thought that students lost knowledge or stayed static while in my care as opposed to increasing their knowledge makes me cry.  It is inexcusable.

Now, I know as well as the next teacher this test doesn’t measure increased student motivation, writing, the books we’ve read this year, or non-multiple choice reading comprehension. But, having spent several years with the CSTs, I do know that they are effective at measuring some things. And this data means that for roughly half of my students, I wasn’t able to improve their basic reading comprehension or grammatical understanding. And, there are no excuses for this.

The data does tell me that for the other half of my students (mostly my lower performing ones), I was able to bring their reading comprehension/grammatical understandings from the below 40-50% to 60-70%. This I am happy about. These are students who couldn’t really comprehend at the paragraph level, and now can show basic comprehension at the several page level.

But–No excuses.  In many ways, I failed this year.  I didn’t fail in all the ways, and I succeeded in some ways.  But, I do know that I let down some of my students (whether or not they are aware of this).  And so, because I care so desperately about my students and this work, I am angry at myself. It is a terrible feeling to have worked as hard as I possibly could, to have put in way too many hours, to have creatively exhausted myself trying to get as many books as possible into my students’ hands … and to not have seen the results that I hoped for.

What does one do?  I’ll think about what was effective this year, and what was a waste of time.  I’ll try to examine specific students and figure out why I didn’t see growth. I’ll look over specific lessons and try to analyze why students didn’t retain information.  I’ll think about what I would have done differently had I planned to teach my students next year.  I’ll try to be humble and talk to other teachers.  I’ll cry a little.

And, I will remind myself that I am in this for the long-run, and it is the height of pride to think that I would have mastered the art of teaching underperforming students in two years.

I won’t beat myself up (as I’ve told my students over and over again). But, I won’t make excuses.  I did my best this year, and it wasn’t enough. But, the stakes are too high for me to give up.  My students deserve better.

So, next year I’ll strive to be better than I was this year.  And for right now, that’s all I can do.

Ms. C-H


7 Responses to “CST Blues: Year Two”

  1. Vivian Hyatt said

    While I’d love to encourage you… my attempt would probably sound shallow and ‘motherly’… But I would remind you of the paragraph you wrote that starts ‘This is not to say that poverty, lack of parent education…etc.’ These factors are huge. I think of all I had going for me and all you had going for you — healthy home lives, involved parents, good nutrition, and so on and so on. Those basic factors make up so much of the difference in life. One thing these students of yours have going for them is the memory of a teacher who held them accountable, did not give up on them, worked hard for them, and didn’t make excuses for herself. You may never hear, in any individual case, what that meant, or will mean in the future. Don’t despair.

  2. Caitlin said

    Hey babe… Same as Vivian — I don’t want to come across as trite or to undermine the importance of education — but what I see as a teacher’s most lasting contribution is how you changed their attitudes towards life and learning. And from everything you’ve shared about your class this year — your students walked away from your classroom more wholly-engaged with Life.

    Their reading comprehension won’t determine their success in life… their attitudes will. Robert Kiyosaki just wrote a book “Why A Students Work for C Students.” My business partner — one of the smartest and most successful men I’ve ever met — has dyslexia. Personally, I’ve always done well on tests and I like them, but as I Live More away from the classroom, I realize that Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmatic are tools that can be sharpened… but what good are tools in the hands of an apathetic or evil person? Useless… or worse.

    Honestly, Bec, what makes you such a Phenomenal Teacher — and human being — is your passionate heart and the exemplary role-model of a Life Well Lived. Some of them may not read as well, but they will be better people for having had you in their life.

    Keep your chin up, love. The Master Teacher called you to teach, and what He called you to, He will equip you for.

  3. eastofmina said

    Friends–Thank you for your encouragement! I did post this, it is worth saying, out of a desire to be honest about the successes and failures of this year, not out of a need to be cheered up.

    The most excellent teachers change attitudes about live & work AND teach kids to read better. I’m on my way to being excellent, but I think it’s important to be honest about not being excellent yet 🙂

    It’s easy to say that the attitude part is more important than reading comprehension from a vantage point of knowing how to read/argue/articulate etc excellently. If these last two years have given me anything, it is a very clear picture of how poor my students’ reading, writing, and reasoning skills really are. I refuse to pretend that this is not going to hamper them significantly. The lack of those basic skills will keep significant doors shut, no matter what their attitude toward life is.

    No matter how much I inspire them, I firmly believe that I am disrespecting them by being content with low reading comprehension. Call me rosy-eyed, but I think it’s an issue of social justice (maybe this should just be another blog post).

    Anyways, thank you again! I would not have gotten through these past two years without support … but I don’t want sympathy. I want to be pushed to keep doing this thing better. You know?

  4. Caitlin said

    Here’s my point, Bec:

    If they don’t WANT to learn: No one can help them.

    If they DO what to learn (fill in any goal): Nothing will stop them.

  5. Caitlin said

    what = want* 🙂

  6. eastofmina said

    Totally get that. Wanting to learn is utterly necessary, and if I have helped my students to desire learning, I can be happy. But, I think I disagree that if someone simply WANTS to learn, nothing will stop them.

    But, there are bare mechanics of reading and writing that don’t get picked up by osmosis. This post was written out of my own frustration that I have students who DO want to learn, who seemingly didn’t improve their reading abilities this year. I hope that eventually nothing will stop them, but there are some fine lines here … and sometimes when students don’t have good teachers to teach them concrete, real information and skills–the desire to learn eventually gets crippled by lack of ability.

    I guess my point is that I want to be good at teaching kids to read well, and I’m less good at that right this minute than I thought I was. Thus all the verbal processing.

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