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Guest Column: Who’s afraid of the big, bad competencies

by Lars Baker

This has been postponed until after the election because its content is not and should not be politically motivated. I’ve been a teacher in the Douglas county School District for eight years, but I am not a member of the teacher’s union. We’ve all cast our votes for the school board, so now you can read without feeling that I have an agenda in mind.

The views of many people are that teachers are afraid of higher standards, being held accountable and being asked to do more for less. However, I have not heard a single teacher say that the competencies are a bad idea, that requiring kids to perform is not possible or that working under a different system is too hard. The problem is that the competency system which teachers are being asked to implement is less than 50 percent complete. Teachers are being asked to work under a system with fundamental flaws in its construction. It would be similar to an airline allowing an airplane to take off without the knowledge of how to land it. Maybe a committee could be formed to figure out how the airplane will land. Meanwhile, the pilots are asked to hold on in mid-flight. Teachers feel as if we are in mid-flight, and we’re waiting for the answers to landing (graduating) our first class in 2002.

A competency system has four levels that must be in place before it can be successful. First, what we want students to know and to be able to do must be identified. Second, a means for students to show what they know and can do must be established. Third, a means to record the knowledge and skills attained must be in place along with a method to communicate that information to parents and teachers must be in place. Finally, a plan must be in place to assist those students who have not shown an acceptable level of knowledge or skill.

For eight years, we as a district have focused on the first level: what we want students to know or be able to do. I have a document that sits on the bookshelf in my classroom entitled “Secondary Competency Curriculum Objectives” (dated June 1999). In lay terms, this document is titled “What Students Should Know and Be Able to Do.” The pages aren’t numbered, but I can tell you it’s roughly 650 pages (as calculated by my freshman math classes). This document doesn’t scare teachers. It serves as a guideline for what we teach. This didn’t exist when I started teaching eight year ago. This document is not scary. It represents progress.

For three years, we have been working on level two: how we assess the skills. As teachers, we have seen the achievement level tests. We’ve seen the writing that English students have to produce. We’ve seen the integrated (algebra) achievement test and the science achievement test. Teachers can hold these tests in our hands. Teachers can write on our calendars the dates that these assessments will be given. We know what’s on the tests and we can teach the concepts. Holding students accountable doesn’t scare teachers.

For one year, we have been working on level three: recording and communicating the competencies. Teachers have nothing in our hands that shows how the results of the tests will be recorded and sent to parents. Communicating and recording results is not efficient internally as well. During the 2000 summer school session, a Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School teacher was teaching freshman English. During the first week of the summer session, a district administrator asked the teacher if he was planning to help the students pass the English writing competencies that the students failed to meet during the previous school year. The teacher asked to have a list of which students were missing competencies so he could help them. The administrator couldn’t produce the list. It’s not holding students to a higher standard that scares teachers; instead it is not being able to easily identify which students are behind. That scares teachers.

For one year, we have been working on the last level: how we assist those students who have not shown they are competent. Teachers have no set time and place to assist the students who are behind. Teachers can’t write a date on our calendars and say, “There’s the plan.” The district will tell you that summer school is one option. Currently, summer school is used to gain credits for those students who have failed a required class. If summer school is to be a means to pass missing competencies, when will the students make up missing credits? Will a student who is missing competencies, but not credits, have to sit through the entire six-week summer session? Will the libraries and computer labs of the school in which summer school is in session be open in order for students to make up a research paper competency? This was not the case at CVMS for the summer session 2000. Helping students who have not met competencies doesn’t scare teachers. That is when we truly see our hard work pay off. Teachers are scared because we don’t have an answer for a parent who asks, “When will my child have an opportunity to relearn the information needed to pass a failed competency?” Teachers don’t have an answer for a parent who asks, “When will my child have an opportunity to show that he/she is now competent?” Teachers can’t answer these questions because we (the district) do not have an answer to those questions. That scares teachers.

Teachers are scared because we are being asked to implement a system that is less than 50 percent complete. Teachers want to have answers for parents who have questions. Teachers want to understand the competency system from start to finish. Teachers want to hold students to a standard, to be able to tell parents where their child is behind and have the means to help those students who are behind. Teachers are asking questions and begging for information about the last two levels of our system. Teachers want to know how to record and communicate the results and when an how to help students who haven’t demonstrated competency. Our questions have gone unanswered. The lack of concrete answers – that scares teachers.

The blame for the flaws in the competency system cannot be placed on specific people, but instead can only be placed on one entity: time. We haven’t had the time to set up a competency system that will graduate a class in less than two years. Douglas County is not leading the nation in competency reform. Districts in Colorado (Loveland, Longmont, Greeley, Aurora) and Minnesota were implementing these systems from the early 1990s. Very few districts found success. San Francisco recently had its higher graduation standards thrown out, citing a lack of a plan for “promised tutors, extra classes” and other methods of assistance as well as an inability to communicate “that so many students were off track to graduate” (San Francisco Examiner, Oct. 15, 2000).

If we are to implement this system, it must be done gradually over time. We need the politicians to quit using the system as a soapbox for their political gain. The district administrators need to understand that the system might still be evolving long after they have moved on. It can’t be a line on an administrator’s resume saying, “Look what I did!” Teachers, parents, the community and the school board have to keep asking questions and demanding concrete answers to their questions. It doesn’t take “10” teachers to identify a flaw. As long as one teacher is asking questions that can’t be answered, the system has flaws. It doesn’t take “10” teachers to identify a problem, but more than “10” can recognize that there is indeed a problem. And it is the problems, not the competencies that scare teachers.

Lars Baker is a 9th grade teacher at Pau-Wa-Lu Middle school.