PTA Mom Asks: When Does the Real Learning Begin?

The smell of the ditto machine!

By PTA Mom

Do you remember dittos? That strange purplish hue and the sweet aroma forever immortalized in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. For those who are too young to remember, ditto machines were duplicators used in schools before copier machines and printers were affordable. It’s how tests, worksheets, and homework assignments were printed back in the day. Dittos died out by the 1990s, but to many of us their distinctive smell lives on in our memories (and possibly lungs).

Yet apparently the worksheet-driven education some of us received decades ago didn’t die with the ditto machine. Earlier this month a classroom rant by Duncanville High School (Duncanville, Texas) sophomore Jeff Bliss was captured on video and went viral to remind us all that this lowest form of “education” may still linger in 21st century classrooms. I’m the first to admit that I don’t know exactly what happened in that Duncanville ISD classroom or the purpose of the worksheets in question. While I imagine there may be times when worksheets might be appropriate to aid in instruction or test preparation, when a student goes Norma Rae in front of your classroom (and ultimately You Tube) declaring that a “freaking packet” isn’t education, that time likely passed long ago.

That’s not real learning. That’s not education.

There are educators out there that want to provide real learning opportunities for their students but can’t for other reasons. Their instructional opportunities are shackled by the constrained curriculum and requirements of “teaching to the test.” Cynthia Ruiz is a teacher in Pflugerville ISD who reached out to this blog to share the challenges STAAR testing has created in the high school English class she teaches.  She discussed a unit she enjoys teaching related to A Raisin in the Sun and an accompanying radio series about south side Chicago in the 1950s. Her class enjoyed it as well and offered writings about the project “that were both insightful and inspiring” according to Ms. Ruiz. “They come to class asking if they can read, listen, and discuss both the play and the radio series,” said Ms. Ruiz. “They enjoy working in groups to problem solve and discuss challenging issues.”

Isn’t this exactly what we want for our students instead of a worksheet-driven education? Unfortunately, Ms. Ruiz said that test preparation, STAAR practice tests, nearly 18 hours of grading STAAR benchmark essays that takes her out of the classroom, and testing days prevent her from considering introducing the “cool” units until after testing season is over.

Apparently sometime in May each year is when the real learning can begin.

As Ms. Ruiz said “I don’t know how it got this bad. I don’t know how we allowed this to happen to our students.” Ms. Ruiz has worked to fix the system by contacting superintendents, informing students and parents, writing letters to legislators, and attending lobby days at the capitol. She knows what’s at stake and she’s doing her part to fix it.

The stories are heart-breaking – students crying out for real education and learning opportunities and (some) teachers begging for the ability to provide it. How did our system denigrate to this?

WE let it happen.

WE stand by quietly and accept the status quo because it’s just easier. WE allow the state legislature to ignore the growing needs of public education to the point that it has become one of the most poorly funded systems in the nation. WE accept elected representatives that don’t consider public education a priority, desire to sell it off to the highest bidder, and prostitute it to test makers. (Make no mistake – there’s big money in Big Testing). And then WE re-elect those lawmakers. WE accept educators that try to pass off tired old teaching techniques that didn’t work decades ago as “education.” WE accept the administrators that let them get away with it. WE accept defunding, devaluing, de-professionalizing, and disrespecting public education to the point that it won’t be able to attract real educators like Ms. Ruiz to the profession for much longer.

So what can WE do about it?

Don’t take the path of least resistance. Instead, speak out and demand better. Point out what’s inappropriate before it becomes the new normal. Don’t settle for a mediocre educational system. If Texans accepts mediocrity, we will receive exactly the public educational system we deserve. And WE will all lose.

  • To educators – in case you haven’t noticed, you have a target on your back. Your profession is under attack around the nation from a variety of detractors. Some just don’t like or value public education; some think the private sector can do it better; some  are union busters; some are education “reformers” of various means, methods, and agendas; and some are profiteers that see money to be made in virtual schools, Big Testing, principal mills, and other snake oils and elixirs offered to “fix” public education. They seek to water down and undermine your important profession.So why are you joining them in their quest to destroy public education by allowing worksheet-wielding “teachers” to frustrate students to the point where they beg for real learning? Dittos aren’t teaching!  It’s time for teachers and administrators to stand up and push the small minority of apathetic and unmotivated educators out of the business of teaching our kids before they destroy you.If you’re an administrator that allows dittos to teach students on your campus, you’re part of the problem. If you’re a teacher that stands by while your colleagues deliver worksheets instead of instruction, you’re enabling mediocrity. If you’re a teacher pushing worksheets instead of real learning, you’re as much to blame for the destruction of public education as the corporate and agenda-driven reformers. You’ll bring it down from the inside – and you’ll do it faster and more effectively than the so-called reformers.
  • To parents – in most cases yours is the strongest, if not only, voice your child has. Have you used it? Lobby on behalf of your child. Ensure Austin understands your child’s needs.  If your child is being taught by worksheets, demand better from your school. If your child’s valuable education is being wasted by testing prep, learning testing strategies, practice tests, preparation for practice tests, and testing days that put a school into lockdown and bring anything resembling meaningful learning to a screeching halt, speak out! Parent groups like Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment and Texas Parents Opt Out have made inroads to reigning in the testing madness, but it remains unsigned on Governor Rick Perry’s desk. Perhaps this would be a good time to give him a call and make your opinion known.If you’re tired of historic budget cuts, broken funding formulas, raising money so your neighborhood school can purchase curriculum materials, and unfunded students – speak up! Contact your lawmaker (do it daily), work with your schools, challenge your schools, advocate for your schools (there are many local and regional groups that can provide tools, information, and opportunities), and support your schools. Never settle for a second-rate approach to this state’s most important obligation.
  • To lawmakers – public education is one of the few explicit requirements of this state’s government as defined by the Texas constitution. When you’ve disregarded and ignored it to the point that two- thirds of the state’s school districts have sued you, your school finance system was found unconstitutional in a court of law (again), and the state has fallen to #49 in education funding nationally, you’ve failed at your job. If your legislative actions or inactions have shown that you don’t value and support the public system that educates five million Texans each year, you’ve failed your state. If you’ve stood by and allowed public education funding to fall to third world status in a world-class economy like Texas’, you’ve failed our future.  Step aside and let someone else clean up the mess you’ve made.
  • To students like Jeff Bliss – I’m sorry. You deserve better. You deserve better than ditto-wielding educators and the administrators that look the other way. You deserve better than being just a test score. You deserve better than precious class time wasted on test-taking and preparation skills. (By the way, when I interview you for a job “out in the real world,” I won’t ever ask you about the most effective test-taking techniques you’ve learned. I will ask you questions to determine if you can think critically and problem solve, though.) You deserve better than being underfunded and ignored by lawmakers. You deserve better than a packet of dittos masquerading as education. I’m sorry you’ve been let down by the grown-ups in your world. I’m sorry we’ve let it get this bad.

Once you get past the sensational way in which he delivered his message, listen carefully to Jeff Bliss’ words. He cried out for a teacher that will touch a kid’s heart; he cried out for a teacher that will teach; he cried out for a teacher to care. (Sadly, his words are those that likely should have been delivered by a campus principal rather than a student, but they’re important nonetheless.)

Mr. Bliss laments, “You’ve gotta take this job serious. This is the future of this nation…This is my country’s future and my education.”  His is an important lesson that I hope educators, parents, and lawmakers hear.

Now that’s real learning – out of the mouths of students.


  • Well said. As parents, we need to look beyond the report card and accountability ratings and look at what our kids are actually doing in class every day. Are they learning how to think or simply how to regurgitate information? It is regrettable that we tend to wait until our own children have a problem to get involved. We can no longer just assume that because our children are getting good grades and the school is performing well on the state assessments that there is no reason for us to get involved. It’s time to look deeper.

  • Kelly Hastings

    You and Cynthia Ruiz make me proud to be a public school educator! Thank you!

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