The first three pages of my Master's thesis draft were covered with penciled comments from my committee director, Ed White. At the end page three, he drew a line and said simply, "I stopped reading here. See me." Ed was a tough reader to please, fair and challenging. He showed me where my writing was confused and confusing and listened as I tried to talk through my ideas. I struggled mightily with that thesis, trying to make some sense of cognitive processes for reading and writing. Ed had in mind a type of writing that mine fell far short of with its fragments, misspellings, awkward phrasings, and run on sentences. A key founder of holistic assessment measures of student writing in college entrance exams, his responses were well-informed and well-intentioned. Under his leadership, I had helped read blue book applications of thousands of students applying to enter California State University, San Bernadino. I saw how students' form impacted deeply their placement into various tracks of preparatory writing classes. That draft of my thesis was only a little better than those entrance exams. I had to wonder if I'd ever make it through. But I had made it that far. And my acceptance into a few PhD programs kept me motivated to finish the job and get Ed reading past page three.
Writing assessment matters. It matters in the classroom, in entrance exams, and in standardized tests. All potentially impact writing development. How we give these kinds of feedback to learners and what they do with it, or feel enabled and compelled to do with it, are matters of equity. Just how so, for whom, and with what stakes are questions hotly debated in the media and scholarship. Few know this better than Mya Poe, the guest editor of 48.3, a special issue of RTE featuring international perspectives on diversity and writing assessment. Mya's research in this area includes the important book Race and Writing Assessment (with Asao Inoue). The issue includes an all star line up.
It features international scholars from across language and writing communities keenly interested in the effects a range of assessments have on diverse learners. David H. Slomp, Julie A. Corrigan, and Tamiko Sugimoto lead the issue with their article that "provides researchers, test developers, and test users with a clearer, more systematic approach to examining the effects of assessment on diverse populations of students." Mary Ryan and Georgina Barton's article details the teaching of writing in Australian elementary schools to reveal how diverse students create powerful identities for themselves in writing when given a space to do so. Asking how teachers define failure in students' writing, Asao Inoue explores "the nature and production of failure in writing classrooms and programs." Liz Hamp-Lyons widens the lens again to the global context:
"English tests have great value. Everywhere in the world, English proficiency is one of the essential keys to unlock the door of educational opportunity and all that promises for an individual’s future. The assessment of writing is, then, socially and politically significant not only within a country’s internal struggles for opportunity for all through quality education, but also between nations."
Global-scale tests in English proficiency, assessing writing at the university level, and every act of responding to writing in classrooms and third spaces impact diverse students especially. Together, these can perpetuate social inequities or help realize global equity. This issue offers paths of possibility to move us further along this continuum toward more equity for diverse learners. Hope remains strong.
One of the the brightest, most enthusiastic and creative preservice teachers I've had the pleasure of teaching, Elizabeth (psuedonym) is in her internship year in a mid-Michigan school district. I hardly recognized her voice on the phone when she called in tears. Just one week into her unit on Zora Neale Hurston, a parent sent her a note lambasting her for the unit's content and focus on African American Language. This parent thought that only the classics and standard English should be taught. Elizabeth had developed this unit throughout her senior year in Michigan State University's top-ranked teacher education program. As well prepared as she was, little in her teacher education preparation readied her for this person's horribly racist remarks about the content of the class and her abilities as a teacher.
It's hard for me to decide which I loathe more-- the parent's explicit racism or implicit sexism.
For Elizabeth, this was just a taste of what will likely be a steady stream of oppressive, demeaning, and exhausting encounters with parents she'll have as a teacher. Her story isn't that unusual. Read through some of the 3,400 or so comments in response to futurist's Ron Clark's CNN editorial, "What Teachers Really Want to Tell Parents." It's not clear why parents have so little respect for teachers or when this phenomenon starting taking root, though Richard Worzel has a few ideas.
If the entire profession had more males, though, my hunch is that teachers would be much more respected and well compensated, and recognized for work they do.* Between 1961-2006, the profession has remained consistently 70% female, but the number of those holding a MA degree has increase from only 23% in 1961 to 60.4% in 2006 (NCES). Despite the increased educational attainment of teachers profession, their income increased by only 2.7% between 2000 and 2011 (NCES). Compare this to the anemic 5.7% growth of the average US worker and the absolutely obscene 527% growth in CEO pay from 1978-2011 (ThinkProgress).
The disrespect for the profession and disregard for the teachers flies in the face of what we know about the demanding nature of the job. "Teaching done well is complex intellectual work," Mike Rose reminds us. "Teaching begins with knowledge: of subject matter, of instructional materials and technologies, of cognitive and social development. But it’s not just that teachers know things. Teaching is using knowledge to foster the growth of others." I'm not sure how much growth Elizabeth would have been able to foster in the parent whose racism and disrespect were everywhere present in that note.
I do know she was trying to educate all of her students equally well. And for that she should be well paid, respected, and recognized. The everyday struggle for equity in classrooms unfolded here on two fronts -- in the curriculum AND in how teachers are recognized as professionals. Both link back to an ongoing struggle with patriarchy that place white males at the top of the chain of being.
Not quite finished with her internship year, Elizabeth asked me to write her a letter of recommendation for graduate school. But it turns out she didn't need it after all. She's accepted a teaching position teaching in Saudi Arabia where, she was assured by the search committee, the teachers feel respected, have autonomy to make sound decisions based on their professional training, and have opportunities to refine their craft. Why does she have to go so far for respect?
* A recent UNESCO sponsored study "Women and the Teaching Profession: Exploring the Feminisation Debate," reviewed by Kate Greany for Gender & Development 20.2 (2012): 379-380, seems to suggest this as well.
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