Let’s begin with a disclaimer: everything that follows is based on anecdotal evidence. There are two reasons for this, the first being that my more than 20 years as an elementary school teacher gives me a plethora of anecdotes to draw on. The second is that statistics can be manipulated to prove anything you damn well please, and I am retired so I no longer feel compelled to do “serious research” anyway.
Here are my educational bona fides: 20 plus years teaching 1st grade, 5th grade and Reading at a small but quite wonderful school in rural upstate NY. I have observed first hand the disconnect between the “ivory tower,” which includes both college teacher prep programs and the State Education Department, and the real world of teaching. I excelled at my college courses in education, emerging with stellar grades in both undergrad and Master’s courses. But as soon as I hit the real world of my first 1st grade all those good grades meant diddly, and I reacted to my slew of small people milling about me like a deer in headlights. Had it not been for my experienced and helpful fellow teachers, and an extremely patient and supportive principal, I would have retreated screaming back to the comfort and safety of my quiet and predictable books.
But I persisted, and over time became not too bad at convincing my charges to hold still long enough for me to share my love of learning with them. School has changed a lot since my elementary days in the 50’s (thank Heaven) – the only similarities seem to be the existence of desks and pencils. This is mostly a good thing. Classrooms pulse with energy and enthusiasm. No more endless worksheets and “skill and drill,” but project based learning, kids collaborating with teachers and one another, learning from one another and being guided by the teacher, who is constantly on the move and alert to the nuances of each child’s strengths and weaknesses. Classrooms are not quiet, but they are vibrant.
No more standing in front of the class and lecturing!
Enter the State Testing, the “high stakes” tests that have morphed from being just another means of assessing children’s academic progress to being tied in to – well, just about everything. The scores have a bearing on whether or not a school is perceived to be successful. They are now being linked with the assessment of teachers’ performance. The tests are big money. They have become the leviathan that looms every spring, dominating classrooms and sucking the life out of students and teachers alike.
I’ve administered and graded enough State Tests to freely admit that there is a lot of good to be found in them. With the possible exception of last year’s “talking pineapple” question, the tests ask the children to think critically, to write cogently, to draw from their own experience and knowledge to make connections to the texts they are reading. All admirable goals, which no teacher would disavow.
But here comes the disconnect. The tests are one size fits all, which is not only ridiculous but flies in the face of the interconnected, collaborative style of teaching and learning that has become the norm in at least the classrooms I am aware of. Children with special needs take the same test as everyone else, albeit with certain modifications that aren’t particularly helpful to them.
AAARRGGGHHH! Not another one!
And this year, the tests include elements of the “Common Core,” an admirable and ambitious curriculum. Quoting from their website, “The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.” Unfortunately, in many districts the Common Core curriculum has not been fully implemented yet, so the tests have an element of “cart before the horse” that can’t help but be frustrating to the children.
And let’s look at the results of the one size fits all, cart-before-the-horse tests. The status of the schools is dependent upon them. And now these results are to be tied into how teachers’ performance is evaluated.
This is a composite description of the makeup some of the 5th grade classes I have taught. Three children with special needs, who were allowed extra time, but were finished in a third of the “regular” allotted time because they couldn’t sit still that long. Four students who froze at test taking; they were bright and enthusiastic in classwork, but just couldn’t take tests. Four students who were hungry (in spite of school breakfast) and dirty, and who hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in days. One student yawning throughout because she got back from the Mall very late the night before. Two students who are smart but defiant and didn’t much care what they wrote. Six kids who get no support at home and view school as pointless. And the rest, who have a real shot at success – on the test. As their teacher, the only element of control I had was how to arrange their desks.
The Common Core is admirable. The tests, and how they encourage our children to think, are not inherently bad. But the overwhelming emphasis on their results, and especially how they are to be tied to teacher evaluations, is just plain wrong. Teachers have their students in the classroom, for purely academic pursuits, for a mere 5-6 hours a day, 180 days a year. No control over that. (I know, that’s a travesty too, but now’s not the time for me to rant about that) Because of budgetary constraints, teachers are being laid off, programs being cut, and class sizes increased. No teacher control over that, either. More and more paperwork is being added to back up and justify the new evaluation systems. Again, no control. And the parents, who have their kids for the majority of the time the kids are not in school? Ask any teacher the difference between the kids whose parents are 100% behind them and the school and the ones whose parents are unable or unwilling to participate in their child’s education or don’t give a #%. Teachers’ gratitude to the former group for their support and encouragement is unbounded. Sadly, the current trend seems to be an increasing number of the latter. Teachers can and do reach out to these parents, but with limited success.
I have no solutions. I weep for the frustration of my colleagues, and wonder about how all this testing and how the scores are used is realistically expected to be beneficial to our students. Somehow, the disconnect needs to be addressed, and soon.