Why Do I Talk to My Mother?
Thanksgiving 2011

Teaching to the Test

When I started teaching a few years ago I didn’t understand what the veteran teachers meant when they said that things had changed, that the joy of teaching had left when the focus on testing and data came in thanks to No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Now I know. And it’s not making me a happy teacher, parent or citizen.

For quite a while all was well, I was teaching the things that were required of me, and they made sense, there’s no question about that, and I developed creative lessons that I thought encouraged my students to think, and to understand the material and the world we live in. And all seemed well. I thought I was helping send young men and women out into the world who had respect for punctuation and the thesaurus, and who thought that books were not just for nerds and teachers.

Hoops were put in front of us, and we leaped (or is it leapt) through them. Time was spent filling out charts about test scores and types of assessments given rather than lesson planning or grading. But that was okay, it wasn’t too onerous.  Yet.

But now, now I fear that the times have a’ changed.

Now the value of my teaching (and my value itself since this will be linked to my job evaluation) will be measured in test results. It’s not just talk; it will be the reality, my reality. So you tell me, do I spend time talking about racism and have my students write about what it feels like to have experienced or observed prejudice, or do I do an extra handout to ensure that every student in my class knows all the rules of the comma so that their grades on assessments are high enough to indicate that I’m a highly effective teacher? Do I skip discussing suicide when we read Romeo and Juliet so that we can perfect our ability to spot a metaphor when we read one?

Somewhere someone said something about putting the ills or the failings of society on teachers. That wasn’t far off. How can you expect us to overcome indifference at home and personal—for whatever reason? And how do we overcome exhaustion and hunger and stress? Another handout on semi-colons won’t do it. And learning difficulties, they cannot be overcome with a seat in the front and a large-print handout. And language difficulties? How do you bridge the language gap in a child who has been in this country for only a few years? Is it fair to expect all students to know English like a native speaker ASAP so they can pass the test and you can show that you’re an effective teacher? And yet I am not even minimally instructed how to teach non-native speakers. And don’t tell the native speakers that we just might need to s  l  o  w   d  o  w  n  until we all understand at the same level.  

I’m not saying that effectively teaching my subject is not my job and my mission, but for goodness’ sake, why judge what I do through standards that don’t reach what needs to be done—and what is the true purpose of education, which is to educate and not just to instruct.

And, you know, not every kid will click with and learn from every teacher. And not every kid gets every subject. And that shouldn’t mean that I’m a bad teacher. It just means that you can’t test away personality. Yes, sure, there are all sorts of ways to differentiate learning and scaffold learning and teach it different ways with different tools, but, honestly, not everyone is good at everything. I remember reading somewhere about, I’m pretty sure it was Dr. Seuss, giving advice to parents. He said that he was glad when he got out of school because he no longer needed to spend time on things he wasn’t good at, and that he could finally focus on only those things he wanted to focus on—and that he was good at.

Tests. What about kids who are defiant? They know that how they do on most of these “big” tests does not reflect on them, but rather on their teacher and school. And what about kids who don’t test well? And what about—what about teaching with passion and learning with passion?

And what about parents? Aren’t they first and foremost responsible for their children and the nurturing of their children and encouraging their children and teaching them to value and respect themselves and their future by going to school and doing well? The other day in the New York Times Tom Friedman noted that, “There’s no question that a great teacher can make a huge difference in a student’s achievement, and we need to recruit, train and reward more such teachers. But here’s what some new studies are also showing: We need better parents. Parents more focused on their children’s education can also make a huge difference in a student’s achievement.” (The study he referred to is from the Program for International Student Assessment, PISA, conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.) Seems amazing that this counts as news. Or is it more of the ole “buck doesn’t stop here” idea, where blame is always placed on someone else.

I send out information on students’ progress and grades to their parents on a regular basis. Except for the one mother whose daughter has an A and always thanks me for letting her know how her daughter is doing (which I appreciate so very much), I only hear from a couple of parents. And generally, it’s to find fault with me. Darling said that he handed in the assignment, but you didn’t mark it. Can Sweetheart hand in the work late? Honeybun said that you told him that he can’t hand in the work. Sweetness said that she didn’t do the work because the instructions weren’t clear. Unfortunately, all too rare is the, “Thanks for letting me know. I will talk to him about doing his work.” That really would help my work.

And maybe, just maybe, people at the top of the education chain need to realize that they are not the only ones who want the best for our students. After all, we spend our days with kids and we spend far too much out-of-class time thinking about our students and how to reach them. Is it fair to say that only a test can show what we bring to the desk?

What did I teach today?

Amongst the “things” that I taught, I hope that I also modeled what it is to be an effective speaker and listener, to be an expert in my subject, to be compassionate, to be firm, and to be analytical.

No child should be left behind, that’s for sure. But this reliance on the test effectively insults and demeans teachers and students, alike, by putting all learning down to a few circles on a piece of paper.

Pick the most appropriate response. Education is primarily the responsibility of: a. Administrators; b. Bureaucrats; c. Parents; d. Students; e. Teachers

Oh, and no, you cannot pick more than one response; and no, you cannot explain your answer. But you do have as much time as you need.


Adminderella .

I can honestly say that the most important things I learned in school were never on a worksheet. They were not part of a syllabus, either. I did, indeed learn things that were "core curriculum" but most of those things sit on the shelves of my brain unused.

I can also honestly say that I never did well on tests, not because the lessons were not well taught but because I simply don't function well under stress and because while I retain a great deal of information, memorization of specific facts is not my strong point. However, I can tell you my first real boyfriend's telephone number even though it's been more than 20 years since we dated.

Tests don't show that you know the material. Tests show that you were able to retain information long enough to regurgitate it on a test. I've known college educated people who are, quite frankly, dumber than a box of rocks when it comes to any "real world" situation because they can't think critically, can't analyze information and seem terrified of creativity.

Give me the kid with the purple hair and pierced nose who can draw amazing things when I need to hire someone to help me with marketing. I don't want the one with the perfectly manicured nails and brand new outfit from the trendiest store because they won't understand the audience I'm trying to reach. And maybe that's unfair, but at least I know that one of them can think for him/herself. Which is something you can't test for.

I'm hoping we find our way back to being focused on learning to think, analyze and create. I hope that for the students AND for the teachers, because I know several absolutely AMAZING teachers who feel ineffective because they're teaching to the test.

Thank you for all you do to help our children.


Thanks for reading and commenting Adminderella.

From your mouth to the decision maker's ears. May they not be full of the wax of those in the testing/education-business. (oh, how I wish that were an oxymoron.)

Analyze and create. It's critical that students not be dulled to the possibilities of their own minds. Seriously, "the mind is a terrible thing to waste" as the Negro College Fund stated more than thirty years ago. That phrase has always stayed with me--it should be the mantra for everyone in education policy.

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