Abusurd

How DISD tells teachers to teach

The Dallas Independent School District churns out reams of documents telling teachers what to teach, how to teach it and when. The problem is that the documents are self-contradictory, sloppily written and full of enough nitwit gobbledygook to put the average person in the nuthouse after two days on the job.

Then the teachers are required to spend all kinds of time giving the kids hastily written tests with questions that make no earthly sense covering material that wasn't what the teachers were told to teach.

"It just makes me not want to teach anymore," an elementary schoolteacher told me. "I wake up in the morning, and I just don't want to go in there and deal with all this junk."

Mike Moses
Dorit Rabinovitch
Mike Moses

Some of the worst and most confusing DISD documents were provided to me in response to a legal "open records" demand. Others were slipped to me by irate teachers. I showed everything to DISD Superintendent Mike Moses and his top administrator over curriculum, both of whom were chagrined. Moses was especially upset by a curriculum document on spelling urging teachers to drill kids on words such as gheto, embarras, abusurd and acrupulous.

No, no, those are not examples of bad spelling the kids are supposed to correct: That's how the person who made the list thought the words were supposed to be spelled. Dr. Moses snatched that one out of my hands and had copies made. And he should be embarrassed. All of these documents came from the district's vast "Curriculum and Instruction" department headquartered at 3700 Ross Ave. How much respect can teachers have for a headquarters that can't spell?

Moses insisted what 3700 Ross is doing now is better than what went on before. I have two problems: 1) Burning the buildings down would be better than what went on before (under Superintendent Waldemar ("Watch Out!") Rojas). 2) Some of the most confusing material from headquarters is the stuff that has been produced under Moses.

He says: "Work in progress." I say: "Watch out!"

Let's just say the spelling list was a screw-up. You take the person who made that list to a classroom and make him write "spell check" 300 times on the blackboard.

What's really much worse is the basic way that teachers are told how to do their jobs. In fact, after I spent several days trying to decipher some of this junk, I decided that the smartest teachers probably go nuts first. Or, we can hope, they just decide to ignore all this nonsense from headquarters and use their time instead actually teaching the kids something, even though that isn't allowed.

In fact, it is state law that teachers in every classroom in every district in Texas teach the same set of "objectives" during each six-week grading period. I looked at 11th-grade English because I had to start somewhere, but you could do this with almost any course at any grade level in the Dallas district.

According to the state guidelines, an 11th-grade teacher in English III must use the first six weeks of the year to cover Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) objectives 3A (legible), 3B (subject-verb), 5A (evaluate), 6A (vocabulary), 6B (context), 6C (prefixes), 6E (dictionary), 7G (inferences) and 11F (literary forms). This list of TEKS objectives is provided to teachers in a document called the "Scope and Sequence for English III."

All these TEKS objectives have longer official definitions than the shorthand I'm giving you here. Let's assume for the sake of argument that the teachers understand them. That's not the problem.

Attached to the list of TEKS objectives is another document called the "Reading Language Arts Instructional Timeline (for) English III." Imagine you're a new teacher, full of idealism, eager to make a mark and do what's expected, trying to figure things out. Your first problem: The timeline attached to the "Scope and Sequence" has a different set of TEKS objectives to teach in the first six weeks. The timeline thing says you shouldn't teach 5A until the third six weeks. But it says that in the first six weeks you should teach 8B (read), 8C (read more), 11B (analyze), 11E (historical context), 8D (interpret) and 1C (organize), even though none of those appears in the "Scope and Sequence."

I don't know how teachers stand it. I know I would be holding up this document plus a bad finger on my right hand saying, "Analyze this!"

But wait! It gets worse.

Just in case the teachers are confused (in case they haven't shot themselves yet), DISD headquarters thoughtfully provides a document called the "Curriculum Calendar by Grading Period." The problem here is that the curriculum calendar tosses in several objectives that are not in the "Scope and Sequence" (figurative, adjective/adverb, Greek and Latin) for the first six weeks. In fact, I can't find the thing about Greek and Latin roots anywhere in any six weeks.

DISD administrators responsible for the calendar told me that it was never intended for teachers. It was supposed to go to principals only. I don't really get how that helps. And obviously the calendar gets into hands of teachers, probably because principals shove it at them.

Excuse me. We are not done here, people! Please stop talking, go back to your desks, look through your packet of materials and remove the document titled "The Write Direction, PK-12 Teaching Guide," which will tell you what to teach in English III for each six-week grading period. You will notice that this document has a list of teaching objectives that sound sort of like the TEKS objectives but are sort of different, like "Inform, Explain, Report (Business)." Please do not try to find any of these objectives in the "Scope and Sequence," the "Reading Language Arts Instructional Timeline" or the "Curriculum Calendar by Grading Period," because they're not there.

I discussed this problem with Carmyn Neely, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, who explained to me that "Write Direction" is a separate curriculum from the rest of English III devoted particularly to writing, thereby explaining why the objectives in "Write Direction" are not in the other materials.

"'The Write Direction,' which teaches writing, is separate because we have some things which we must do in order to prepare those students to demonstrate and know how to perform on any test," Neely said.

But Neely also said she believes writing must be taught seamlessly with the rest of English: "As a former English teacher, I think writing has to be taught in conjunction with the other components when we teach literature or when we teach mechanics."

OK.

"To be fair," she said, "it's a spiraling curriculum. We build on what already has been taught."

Yeah. She's a smart person. I feel like maybe I'm not. I'm back at my desk by myself now. I've got the "Scope and Sequence" in this hand and the instructional timeline in the other, and the curriculum calendar is on the desk in front of me, and I forget where I put "Write Direction," but anyway I'm trying to picture them all sort of spiraling around. Maybe it's me, but I really think in order to get all this and know what to do with it, you would have to be up there with that Beautiful Mind guy. And look what it did to him.

What do first-year teachers do? Hey, 20th-year teachers, for that matter. My own personal objective No. 1, if I were a teacher, would be: "Explore employee benefit package at Starbucks."

Before I went to see the superintendent, I spoke with teachers who had contacted me at the Dallas Observer to complain about earlier columns I had written on schools. These were individuals who didn't know each other, to whom I spoke one-on-one. Maybe it was a small sample, but their complaints were stunningly consistent: It's a mountain of indecipherable crap churned out by a bureaucracy that prides itself on churning things out, all of it dumped on the shoulders of teachers in supreme disrespect for their personal gifts and prerogatives. It is spirit-numbing.

Neely and Moses both made the point that they are trying to effect a major reform in a school district that really needs it. And that's a very fair point. It's not as if the Dallas Independent School District can brag about anything before Moses. He challenged me to discuss the issue with principals, not teachers.

"I would invite you to talk to some principals and ask them, can they tell a difference in, as you said, people just cranking stuff out, cranking paper out. Or does the curriculum and instruction department have a plan? Is there a plan? Is there some sense to what we are trying to give them, as opposed to, 'Here's a lot of paper'?"

Neely expressed some disappointment that teachers had not brought their dissatisfactions to 3700 Ross Ave. instead of blabbing to me. She said she and her colleagues are keenly aware that everything they are doing needs major adjustment and correction simply because it's all new.

I called one of my teacher informants back, and she laughed out loud. "First of all, if we called Ross Avenue, they wouldn't take our call." She said she would expect to lose her job if she went around her principal and complained to headquarters.

The problem is that this headquarters, like all headquarters, isn't as smart as it thinks it is. A lot of the stuff they hand out is redundant, contradictory and just plain dumb. And in their zeal to get the rank and file to line up straight and march, the headquarters people lose basic respect for the rank and file.

Look, Mike Moses has accomplished miracles with the Dallas schools in an amazingly short period of time. Before he came, it was all bad news. Now it really is better news and good news for the most part. Nobody's perfect. But in the rush to cauterize the wounds--stop the fiscal corruption, get out from under the federal courts, get a major bond issue passed--the teachers are the ones getting jammed.

And they count way bigger than headquarters.

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