Checklists vs. teaching

As a reading specialist in New York City, Miss Brave spends more time filling out paperwork than teaching.

When I meet with my students for guided reading, I have to fill out a checklist where I note whether they have “mastered, attempted or not attempted” a list of about 15 behaviors. I also have to fill out a sheet where I write down what I observed, what I coached them on, what focus question I asked them before they read and what teaching point I left them with after they read.

In addition, she’s required to teach second-grade “teaching points” to students who read at the first-grade level.

For example, next month’s unit is all about characters, and one of our teaching points is something about noticing when the characters in our books “go on internal journeys.” Like, am I really going to teach these kids who are reading C level books (sample text: “I kick the ball. I pass the ball”) about their characters going on internal journeys?

If students can’t describe the internal journey of the ball kicker, she’s supposed to “base my strategy lessons off the checklist I completed for my mini lessons.”

About Joanne


  1. Miller Smith says:

    I spend tons of time filling out the required paperwork for my job now. I have to fill out and submit phone logs, data utilization reports, minutes of meetings with other chemistry teachers for cooperative plannning (none of us teach the same type of students), daily progress reports that require the stopping of teaching 15 to 20 minutes beforethe end of class (depending how many students have them), attendance update reports (required at the beginning and end of every class session every day), and so on. And we keep getting “one more thing” almost every day.

    Now each department has to do presentations to the faculty on a program out of the University of Pittsburg called Institutes for Learning with our part being Accountable Talk. We have never seen this demonstrated or even had a meeting for and “expert” to tell us what it is. We’ve only recieved three handouts which is supposed to make us “expert” enough to present it to the entire faculty.

    We did send in our script for our presentation…”We don’t kow what to tell you dear faculty as we have never been trained in this teachnique much less even seen a video of it in action.” The admin was not pleased and kicked it back. Our reponse? “Write us up for insubordination and let the games begin!”

  2. Good job, Miller Smith.

    This kind of administrative folly not only disrupts real teaching and learning. It undermines the credibility of the institution and the system. Like a school memo riddled with poor grammar and mis-spellings.

    Education codes ought to strictly prohibit mandates without adequate support.

  3. Miller Smith says:

    The “kow” was a typo. The “teachnique” was not. My Bad.

  4. Guided reading (a component of Balanced Literacy) takes a great toll on teachers and students. Not only must teachers document their individualized instruction, but they must teach “strategies” for attaining the next reading level. In NYC, the schools use the 24 levels defined by Fountas and Pinnell. The difference from one level and another may be as minor as a line break; but teachers are supposed to address that line break explicitly. Students are supposed to read at their level only; teachers are not supposed to let them try a harder book until they prove themselves “ready.” Books written expressely for the F&P levels are predictably bland–and for all that, the students don’t learn solid decoding skills.

    We should teach phonics (and spelling and grammar) on the one hand, excellent literature on the other. Guided reading is neither. Everything is broken up, differentiated, documented; lessons focus on “strategies” rather than on literature itself. Why on earth can’t we have lessons about a poem, short story, or novel? Why can’t we give students actual phonics drills, so that they can sound out words with confidence? What are we proving with all those lists and conferencing notes, if we are not teaching what children need to learn?

  5. Robert Wright says:

    The paperwork, the trivia, the buzzwords. It’s getting worse and worse.

  6. You really made me laugh out loud, Larry.

    There ought to be mandates to prohibit mandates? Come on. The way to prohibit mandates without adequate support is to arrange the environment so that the mandate-issuer suffers from poorly-thought out mandates.

    In Miller’s case the people who are in a position to make demands on his time aren’t responsible for the educational results that those demands might create. So from their point of view, no harm, no foul.

  7. Miller Smith says:

    Hi Allen.

    This new mandate of “teach the other teachers what you have not been taught” is so strange that we are literally going to stand in front of the faculty and tell them we have no idea what we are talking about. We have told the admin this beforehand and they are not taking it very well, but they also are not providing any guidance whatsoever. Seems that they want magic to occur.

    I’ve had to tell parents and students that I have no time for them due to having to write reports to my admin. We have to take attendance six times a day for three classes on the computer database and also record it by hand in a paper attendance book. We have to use the SchoolMax system to keep grades and we have to print out all of our grades every week in case the system goes down and wipes everything out. SchoolMax doesn’t allow parents to log in to see their student’s grades (ours was disabled by the admin) so any student who has a ‘C’ or lower has to get a phone call or letter sent. Since admin can’t look at attendance data to see all kids who qualify for admin action due to unexcused absences and tardies, we have to write paper reports from our paper attendance books to tell them.

    I spend all my time doing things having nothing to do with teaching or preparing to teach. We even had admin mandate a new grading policy that gives a student a 75% (C) without having to take a single test or quiz. Students get a ‘B’ if they randomly answer the tests.

  8. Miller Smith –

    I must commend you and your colleagues in being willing to stand up to such top-down stupidity. It’s nice to see teachers who do more than just whine about the administration.

  9. At my school, our Teachers College staff developers insisted we log every conference, including recording the compliment that we gave each reader (we had to call them “readers” not children, kids or students)at the start of each conference.

  10. I think a lot of administrators *want* their teachers to be miserable and eventually fail, and excess paperwork that keeps them from doing any real teaching is a major tool they use. Why?

    (1) The misery takes out most, if not all, of their ‘competition’, as no teacher can perform at 100% under those conditions. In the administrator’s view, all teachers are potential future administrators that can take their job, and any teacher that looks like they may be a rock star on campus is a threat to an administrator.

    (2) Once all the teachers are miserable and none of them are operating at 100%, they become fish in a barrel for the administrator’s whims. Are scores down? Drown the teachers in paperwork and beaurocracy until they either quit or get so overwhelmed that the administrtator has to “intervene”. Then he/she has an excuse to replace teachers at their whim, making the administrator the ‘hero’ for ‘replacing bad teachers’ while the hardworking teachers take the fall.

    Of course, there ARE some bad teachers out there, but not as many as administrators want you to think there are. They have to justify their jobs and exorbitant salaries, after all!

  11. Pilots and physicians, both highly paid and highly respected professionals, use checklists.

  12. gbl3rd –

    Good point. However, if one were to hand me a checklist that made no sense to the activity I was doing, say preflight to a 747 when I was flying a Piper Cub, I’d have about the same reaction as Ms. Brave did.

  13. I commiserate with you Miller but do you understand that this is outcome is the only logical outcome given the situation?

    Administrators aren’t on the hook, or at least weren’t until the advent of NCLB, to concern themselves with whether kids were being educated. Being removed from the classroom administrators have even less motivation then teachers, who have only pride to goad them on, to pursue policies that would result in educational efficacy.

    But being unburdened by the need to demonstrate that their leadership results in kids getting good educations doesn’t mean that administrators aren’t under pressure. If they wish to demonstrate their value they have to find some means other then providing leadership that results in kids getting educated. Education fads recommend themselves highly for this role.

    Education fads come replete with impenetrable jargon which helps deter skepticism. Latching onto an education fad means the administrator isn’t some old fuddy-duddy but a cutting-edge thinker who wants only what’s new and fresh for their school(s). Education fads inevitably require more budget. Like the bus, there’s always another one arriving shortly so the failure of one edu-fad is obscured by the arrival of the next edu-fad.

    The point is, that administrators are acting in a rational manner given the situation in which they find themselves. If you think they should act differently then you either need to select for administrators who *don’t* act rationally and there are such although not many, or you need to change the situation.

    I vote for the latter.

  14. Miller: “We have never seen this demonstrated or even had a meeting for and “expert” to tell us what it is. We’ve only recieved three handouts which is supposed to make us “expert” enough to present it to the entire faculty.”

    It sounds like the administration is under the impression that you’re college-educated professionals who are capable of doing research.

    Of course, there’s no excuse for coupling thatdemand with crushing loads of irrelevant paperwork so you don’t have time to do research – or even to teach…

  15. Miller Smith says:

    markm, are you kidding? “We” paid the University of Pittsburg big bucks for this program. I have meetings all day long (you know…classes). I have to prepare for those classes and grade the stuff the kids throw back at me and do hall duty. I have to go to classes myself to keep certification and not a one in my area offers this “new” stuff.

    And when you go to the UofP website for this stuff you see that you will have to pay big bucks to even get the video for just one specific area of their program. Heck, I ran down the paper that was written by the cirector of the program and all it said was how the teachnique was effective without a single discription of the teachnique itself.

    Well, we’re going to drop this silly assignment right on the floor and let the chips fall where they may. The admin is responsible for in-service presentations and staff development, not I or the other teachers. Admin wants us to do something then admin will have to show us what they want.

    Personally, I don’t think they know either. They better give us all the materials and put subs in our rooms all day for at least a week while we learn this stuff or they can kiss my hairy butt…which, considering the size, will take the better part of a week to do. Hope they have plenty of chapstick.

  16. It is disgraceful that we have to pay big money to see an example (e.g., a video) of a mandated pedagogical model. If a model is used or required in the schools, all information about it should be publicly available, and public discussion should be encouraged and allowed.