In other respects, there are some aspects of teaching that are more difficult today than in the past and some aspects of teaching that were more difficult 20 years ago. What follows is a compilation of the changes for the better and the worse in our profession that make it both harder and easier to teach.
Positive Changes Today –
Common Core Curriculum -
20 years ago, the Common Core curriculum was in the developmental phase. California had already adjusted its English language arts curriculum to mirror the changes that would later appear in the Common Core, but most states and other subjects often had curriculum that Marzano labeled “a mile long and an inch deep.”
The problem was that the No Child Left Behind legislation helped usher in state standards that expected teachers to “cover” too much ground in a school year, rather than teach the standards to mastery, and high stakes testing had created an atmosphere in which most teachers felt compelled to simply throw out factoids to be digested and spit back out. Learning was not deep and was not related to a whole or a big picture idea, such as is suggested by McTighe and Wiggens and other Constructivist and Social Learning theorists. In some classes, students were not learning ideas and concepts and tying them together in much of any meaningful manner.
Today, teachers have the Common Core State Standards in most states. These standards were devised to allow teachers to teach a smaller number of “big-picture” concepts to mastery each year, with the ultimate goal of all students being able after 12th grade to read on grade level and synthesize what they have read with what they already know in order to be able to create new ideas. It is much easier for students to learn when they are relating the concepts and ideas back to a big picture and when they can apply what they have learned to real world issues.
Better Access to Differentiation Material Online-
There is no longer any excuse today to not provide students with text that is at their independent and instructional reading levels because there is a plethora of engaging text on the internet. As Tomlinson stated, students must be provided text that is at their readiness level so that they can succeed. Afflerbach stated that students do not deeply comprehend when they are constantly forced to read material at their frustration level, and they lack motivation to try to read such material.
Better Access to Professional Development Information and Groups Online-
Teachers can find online groups that are both formal and informal in order to promote their professional development needs. They can find places to get the answers by experts to common classroom issues. This was in its infancy 20 years ago. Teachers are able to more easily solve their professional development issues online with the help of colleagues around the world. Also, there are the rustlings of a move towards open access journals. This will help teachers more readily find researched-based answers to classroom problems.
Negative Changes Today -
Less School Funds Spent on Professional Development Today -
As stated by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, one of the impacts of the Great Recession of 2008 was professional development funding. When school districts felt the squeeze as states reduced and tightened funding because of lower tax revenues, one of the first items to be taken out of school district budgets was funding for professional development. This is a shame because professional development is a necessity for all teachers at all levels of expertise. Educational research is constantly advancing our understanding of how students learn best.
A suggestion would be for every teacher to work in groups with other teachers, whether online or in person, and read the fine book by Dana and Yendol-Hoppey on action research. Then, for their professional development, teachers should work together each year in teams with like-minded colleagues who have the same issues in their classroom in order to look at the journal research on the problem and conduct mini-research in their own classes on what works and what does not. This will help teachers create their own, personally relevant professional development opportunities. Each year, teachers need to find an issue to solve in order to improve their practice.
Hopefully, we will create a blog article on action research soon.
More Severe Student Learning Disabilities are Present -
It is beyond the scope of this article to get into causation, but the fact is that there are an increasing number of autistic students in our classes today. According to Education Week, the percentage of students who are autistic has risen dramatically. This presents a challenge for educators who struggle to reach and help students who may be gifted in other ways but lack sufficient ability to interact in a fully authentic and empathetic manner with peers.
School Districts Post-Great Recession are Hiring More Inexperienced Teachers -
According to Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, after the Great Recession, with state income tax revenues lower, schools received less funding. There were teacher cuts, and some states cut teacher pay. Other school districts may have tried to keep their budgets in check by purposefully hiring teachers who were less experienced and commanded lower salaries.
This created a situation in which schools in the past 20 years have been flooded with less experienced teachers replacing those who left their district or retired. The lack of experienced teachers to mentor the new teachers, along with less opportunities to attend professional development conferences, has made it more difficult for these new professionals to grow in their careers and serve their students.
Issues Nearly the Same, But Worse Today -
The NAEP statistics continue for the past 20 years to tell the shameful and shocking tale that our students are not capable of reading deeply and well. About 66 percent of students tested at 4th, 8th, and 12th grade in our nation continue to be either at a “basic” or “below basic” reading level. “Basic” means they cannot read deeply and synthesize ideas across texts at their grade level. Thus, most are simply breezing through the reading with only a perfunctory understanding at best. This is contrary to the larger goal of the Common Core State Standards, which is to have students be able to synthesize ideas across texts by deep reading and then take the information to create new ideas. That is a 21st Century skill that is a necessity for good employment in the Information Age.
Most mathematics 20 years and more ago was taught as learning formulas and solving mostly numerical computations through the use of formulas. According to Psychology Today, most adults today do not really understand mathematics and cannot utilize it in an authentic manner to solve real world issues, except on a very rudimentary level.
The Common Core State Standards Institute and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics are trying to change that and have teachers focus upon students doing their own mathematical inquiry in order to derive their own formulas. In this way, students learn mathematics that are applied in real life scenarios. Students learn what the formulas do and how to use them to solve real world problems.
It is difficult, though, for teachers, most of whom have not received such training to teach students in this hands-on manner.
The net effect of all of the positive changes, such as the Common Core curriculum and access online to more teaching materials and greater professional development opportunities, make teaching easier today than for teachers who were teaching 20 years ago.
Sadly, changes such as less school funds being spent on sending teachers to professional development opportunities, more severely learning disabled students in our classrooms, inexperienced colleagues, and students who come to our classes already behind in reading and mathematics make our jobs more difficult.
The key to always keep in mind is that our main goal is to provide each and every one of our students each day with the opportunities, scaffolding and immediate and constructive feedback that allows each of them to succeed and master the state standards every day, regardless of the abilities they possessed at the start of the school year. That is the responsibility that each and every one of us must hold dear because all of our students have the ability to learn and must be provided the nurturing environment in order to do just that.