Constant rule changes hampering education
Arizona Republic
Jul. 15, 2004
Stephanie Robertson

One of the things that attracted me to the world of education so many years ago was the stability about teaching. The school world looked unchangeable.

Once a teacher landed a job, they stayed at the same school, teaching the same subjects, in the same manner. There was a sense of comfort in knowing that Mr. Moore, my seventh-grade algebra teacher, and Mr. Arredondo, my seventh-grade biology teacher, had been at my junior high forever, teaching my friend's brothers and sisters long before I entered their classes. They really had time to hone their teaching to a sharp edge.

My parents and their friends had no worries about whether their children were learning the requisite skills for the subject or could pass achievement tests. They knew that the schools would not keep incompetent teachers and they knew by what we learned that something educational was happening in the classes.

Our test skills showed we were fairly smart, and most of us went on to become productive members of society.

That was 35 years ago. Today, the picture is completely different. Parents have little confidence in today's schools. Teachers change grade levels or schools as easily as they change their socks. Students move from here to there and back again, sometimes even attending the same school several times in one year!

Achievement tests - not educators - are now in charge and declare whether students are learning. Evidently, parents cannot tell any longer whether their children are learning until they have test scores in their hands proving it is so.

Change is constant in today's schools. Nothing stays the same. It's no wonder schools have trouble meeting standards because they are never the same from year to year. Teachers and administrators have little time to plan how to meet the identified goals before they morph into something else.

What I am required to teach my fourth-graders this year is not exactly the same as last year. Sure, I'll still be teaching reading, writing and math, but the concepts will be changing. Nor will the concepts be the same in two years, I guarantee you. Many of next year's fourth-grade science standards were fifth-grade standards recently.

What's more confusing is that the standards from state to state are different, too. Does that mean kids in California are smarter than those in Arkansas or Rhode Island?

Sadly, the concepts keep shifting downward until children are too young to grasp them. For instance, first-graders will be required to make change for a dollar. Perhaps my children are incredibly slow, but neither of my daughters would have been able to do that.

Some may argue this is a good thing, but imagine it like this: You work hard and learn to play basketball. You watch stars and try to do what they do. You study the rules until you know them forward and backward. You practice, practice and then practice some more. You join a team and you're ready for the big test! Suddenly, you find that although the game is still called basketball, you have to kick the ball through goal posts instead of shooting a basket, which is what you studied. Needless to say, you don't do really well, but you go home, study the new rules, and practice more. Then more again. You're ready for the big test! This time, you're told to hit the ball with a bat.

Will you ever become a basketball star if the rules and requirements change constantly, never giving you a chance to make that first basket you trained to do?

Just in the six years that I have been teaching, what is required of teachers - and students - has changed drastically. Phonics became a big deal a few years ago, thanks to Rep. Karen Johnson, R-Mesa, who wrote legislation that mandated a phonics-based approach in the schools. Why a politician knows more than an educator about how best to teach raises another whole set of questions, but suddenly, Arizona's elementary teachers were immersed in phonics. (By the way, that legislation set off a buying frenzy at schools to obtain new materials to meet the letter of the law. I wonder whether any money-conscious politicians considered that.)

The last six years have been a whirlwind of changes: The AIMs test debacle, all-day kindergarten, new achievement tests, a longer school year, Proposition 301, English as a Second Language instruction, and shifting state standards.

The newest politician-inspired legislation will now require all teachers and administrators to obtain 45 hours of training in English-immersion training by 2006. Thanks to Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, everyone will be somehow shoehorning one whole week of training into learning how to teach students who don't speak English.

While this may be a really good idea, every school already has identified those teachers who are qualified to teach these students, so here we go again, making changes for the sake of change.

Mr. Moore, my seventh-grade algebra teacher, had been showing students how to work with variables for more years than I could comprehend when I was a kid. He had been a fixture at my school and parents fought to get their students into his class because he was such a great teacher. He taught the only math class in which I earned an A.

Mr. Moore might have taken early retirement if he had to teach in today's schools. He wouldn't have been able to perfect what he was teaching because every year would have meant new concepts and new teaching methods, thanks to politically inspired changes.

Honestly, I'm not sure we have improved the world of education. Instead, we are making changes for the sake of change.

Stephanie Robertson is a fourth-grade teacher at Andersen Elementary School. She can be reached at The views expressed are those of the author.