Bound by bureaucratic policies

Nov. 11, 2008, midnight | By Nellie Beckett | 11 years, 2 months ago

School policies exasperate, leaving Blair staff with bureaucracy blues

It's lunchtime in the social studies office, and a cry goes out around the room. "The printer's broken again!" yells NSL Government teacher Marc Grossman. Teachers bustle in and out to fetch lunches from the communal fridge as the scent of microwaved soup fills the air. Social studies resource teacher George Vlasits sits at a table with his colleagues and takes out his lunch. It's this sense of camaraderie, he says, that keeps him here past retirement age, despite his growing discontent with Blair policies.

Vlasits has taught for more than 30 years, 18 of which have been at Blair, and he remains dedicated to his job. But the gradual institution of strict school policies, at both the MCPS and Blair level, has tempered his passion for the classroom. Among numerous countywide changes, one of the most prevalent is an increase in standardized curriculum and testing. With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, MCPS has felt mounting pressure to meet the testing benchmarks. "They're monitoring more and more of what we teach and how we teach it," Vlasits says. In recent years, much of Blair's curriculum has come from MCPS headquarters, and has been increasingly geared toward tests, leaving teachers limited, some believe, in their ability to keep learning interesting. "It's a real problem, because good teaching has to be creative," Vlasits says.

From the perspective of many Blair teachers, standardized testing and oversight are symptoms of a rigid bureaucracy at both the Blair and county levels. Mandatory teacher training, advisories and even the ID policy - which one teacher derides as "worthless" - are all sources of frustration. For some, they are reason enough to leave.

Good 'in spirit'

Honors Precalculus and Advanced Placement Calculus teacher Jack Giles has a series of grievances, starting with the grading policy that was approved at the county level and is being enforced at Blair. "I hate the 50 percent rule and the reassessment rule," he says. Giles explains that under the 50 percent rule, a student can fail an assignment and receive either half or zero credit, with no grades in between. Giles says this method is unfair to both students and teachers. He is a little more forgiving toward the reassessment rule, which allows students to retake quizzes for a higher grade. "It's a good idea in spirit," he says. But he adds that the actual implementation of the policy can be problematic. "People think everything is reassessible, and it's taken advantage of," he says.

Teachers also have trouble finding time for reassessments amidst their other responsibilities, like creating lesson plans and attending training sessions for new curricula. The half hour of daily break time given to MCPS teachers simply cannot cover everything, Giles says.

The pressure for students and teachers to succeed through changing grading systems, new curricula, teacher training and standardized testing is not unique to Blair, according to Grossman. He says that MCPS is carrying out orders from a federal level, as NCLB holds schools accountable primarily through standardized tests. "This is beyond the scope of Blair," says Grossman. "No Child Left Behind is in essence the best excuse to create a centralized bureaucracy." Directives trickle down from the state to the county, leading to countywide finals, PSATs and other tests - none of which are necessarily popular at Blair. "It's an incredible waste of resources and time," Vlasits says.

But not everyone agrees with Vlasits. According to MCPS Public Information Director Steve Simon, standardized tests are more than a tedious obligation - they are helping to check whether students are really learning, and are a necessary part of modern education. "It's important to make sure students are mastering skills," he says. "It's a reality for everyone in the field of education that there are high expectations for schools."

Love it or leave it

At times, a school's expectations can irritate the teachers striving to maintain them. Five years ago, former psychology teacher Eliot Applestein decided he'd had enough. Applestein left Blair in 2003 due to policies enforced by what he saw as an overbearing administration. "I didn't like how regimented they wanted the school," he says. He now teaches psychology at James Hubert Blake and also runs a college consulting business. Applestein favors Blake, citing smaller class sizes and less administrative oversight.

Though not as strongly driven away by policies, Wendell Hall left his position as a science teacher at Blair three years ago to obtain a doctorate in higher education policy at the University of Maryland. While issues with the bureaucracy were not his primary reason for leaving, they did factor into his decision. "I knew policies would be implemented after I left, like the 50 percent policy, that as a teacher I would not have been comfortable implementing," says Hall.

On the other end of the spectrum are teachers like Maureen Diodati, who taught Honors English 12 at Blair from 1978 to 2008. She says she stayed because of her love of teaching, along with the comfortable community-oriented culture at Blair. "I liked the diversity here and I loved the people I worked with," she says.

Though Diodati retired last year, she frequently returns as a substitute English teacher. And while she acknowledges the shift toward tougher policy regarding rules, testing and teacher accountability for test scores, she feels the trend has a positive influence on most teachers. "It makes you sharper, to make sure your students are well-prepared," she says. "It's not a bad thing." She also sees the Blair administration as being consistently supportive of teachers. "If you had a problem with a student, and you had your records in order, the administration would stand behind you on your decision 100 percent," she recalls.

Doing their duty

The task of keeping Blair running smoothly falls to many administrators, including Assistant Principal Linda Wanner, who monitors the busy lunch line on a daily basis. Wanner readily defends two of Blair's most despised and challenged policies: IDs and advisories. Mandatory ID wearing, Wanner says, comes down to keeping Blazers safe. "In this day and age, most big institutions have a way of identifying who belongs," she says. She regards advisories as a resource for all students, so that gifted and troubled students - the two extremes - aren't the only ones getting teacher attention. "Those students in the middle need our help and support so they do not fall through the cracks," she says. She also says that the administration values teacher input, pointing to weekly staff-wide Instructional Leadership Meetings, where policies are discussed and teachers are free to make suggestions. Wanner declined to comment on other oft-criticized academic policies such as grading and standardized tests.

Those same policies may ultimately help make the decision for Giles, who is considering a move to Howard County. Still, many teachers choose to remain at Blair, Vlasits among them. Citing unity among the teachers and his devotion to teaching, Vlasits is undeterred from doing his job, despite the mounting challenges of stricter policies and administrative oversight. "I stay because I've never shied away from a fight," he says.

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