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The View from a Teacher’s Chair

• Mary Laura Bragg

My husband, a deputy sheriff, had to spend his day off (and part of the night) last week at the rifle range for “qualifying” status to keep his law enforcement credentials up to date. Putting aside my irritation that this obligation kept him from his honey-do list, I asked him why he had to be there for 9 hours.

“Was it nine hours of being assessed?”

“Well, we got an hour for dinner.”

“Was it EIGHT hours of being assessed?”

“No, I passed the performance assessment in the first 2 hours. But I needed the practice. I’ve been on patrol duty for two years without ever firing my gun in the line of duty. It’s important for me to log those practice hours.”

One of my best friends in high school flew crop dusters as his summer job (I grew up in the Mississippi Delta.) He had to fly a certain number of hours, both with an instructor and solo, to earn his certification as a pilot, and then each year he had to do the same to renew his certificate.

He used to invite me to go up with him. As much as I would have loved to see the land from above, I politely declined every time. He gave me grief about it every time, too, saying that there was a reason he had to fly a certain number of hours to earn his renewal. Practice, practice, practice.

Certain roles lend themselves to this kind of requirement. It makes sense that even though my husband, and my friend, had proven mastery of the skill, they needed repetition to maintain it.

I would argue that the classroom is not one of those situations. When kids master a topic, it is time to move on or they tend to get bored, lose interest and, on occasion, even get a little antsy.

Unfortunately for them, we adults like our structure and march in lockstep to it.

I know because I was a teacher. I loved the structure of the school year. There was a beautiful symmetry to the full 180 days — 90 before Christmas and 90 after Christmas. It helped me plan my units. I taught history, and if I wanted to cover the fall of the Berlin Wall before Memorial Day, I needed to kill Napoleon by Christmas. But all that is about ME. The problem is that it shouldn’t have been about ME. It should have been about the kids in my class and whether or not they had mastered the concepts of nation-building and democracy and foreign policy and, most importantly, could write deeply, originally, and intellectually about it. Let’s face it. History is the same story over and over with just different people in different places, finding themselves in the same situations (and because they didn’t have a good history teacher, they make the same mistakes.)

Think about this. Take a really bright student who is in Algebra I. And by December, she is so in love with algebra that she decides, on her own, to take an online Algebra II course. It’s entirely possible that she could complete the course and pass the Algebra II exam before she even earns “credit” for Algebra I.

Kids who master the content of a course – truly master it as measured by a rigorous assessment – shouldn’t have to stay with the pack. That’s like telling a 100-meter sprinter he has to slow down because everyone is required to finish the race in 15 seconds, regardless of how fast they actually can run it. Kids who have mastered the standards set forth for a subject don’t really gain anything by staying in the class for another “insert arbitrary number here” days. They need to take what they have mastered and apply it to the next challenge.

Now I just have to get my husband to apply the same faithfulness to his household to-do list that he applies to his law enforcement training:  master the standard, and then repeat.

About the author

Mary Laura Bragg

Mary Laura serves as the Interim Vice President of Advocacy for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. A former classroom teacher, Mary Laura directed Governor Jeb Bush’s statewide literacy initiative, Just Read, Florida! As director, she was responsible for crafting and implementing the policies that helped place a command focus on reading instruction in Florida. She has served on advisory groups on adolescent literacy for both the Alliance for Excellent Education and the National Governors Association. She is also a member of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Advisory Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy. Contact Mary Laura at