Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Why So Much Testing and So Little Love of Learning?

All of my friends want to know if the DC Public Schools are right for their kids. I used to be a DCPS teacher, and they know I have seen the belly of the beast.

I live in the city myself, and I’m looking around with my eyes wide open, wondering if the urban public schools my child adores today will meet her needs tomorrow. Increasingly, the question for me (a die-hard public school supporter, Berkeley Masters Degree of Education in hand) is not whether suburban schools can do it better than urban schools, but whether or not any public schools at all can match up to the academic freedom I see flying around the (mostly-test-free) halls of the area’s elite private institutions.

It’s like an educational parallel to the Whole Foods paradox. Peasants in the bad old days used to eat brown bread and vegetables and at the very least (despite nasty, brutish and short lives) were the healthiest eaters in the land. Now people with lower incomes are stuck eating fast food crap. Well, people with little money used to be able to turn to the public school system to find the freedom to learn. Now, the privilege of having unfettered access to the healthiest of educations –an innate love of learning, fostered by creative approaches to curriculum—seems like it may be reserved for the elites who can pay the price for test-free schools. As a teacher from Oakland High put it, incessant testing in public schools is “like weighing a calf twice a day, but never feeding it."

I can tell you from first-hand experience that the kind of test prep that happens in schools in the months leading up to test days is exactly the kind of thing that used to make my skull split right down the middle in elementary school my very ownself. The teacher, droning on in a patient voice, leading children through instructions they can very well read to themselves. Pattering on about how to pencil correctly in those tiny ovals. And all of this information actually necessary, because schools’ budgets and very leadership depends on this make-or-break test. Oh, the agony.

Back when I was teaching in DCPS, the test did not even align with the curriculum. They’ve (theoretically) solved that basic, horrifying paradigm of apples and oranges equaling a fascinating, high-stakes game of gotcha. But I wonder still if we cannot, as a society, ever trust that teachers are attempting to teach kids the best they can with impossibly limited resources. Sure, there were some dud teachers where I taught. Very few, though, and my excellent principal was more than up to the task of sidelining entire departments for a year or two in order to render a retirement package more alluring. A goodly number of the teachers I worked with were top-notch, dedicated, highly experienced, and downright fantastic at their jobs.

I’m speaking as a parent looking for what’s right for my kids. I’m speaking as a former public school teacher. I am all for ensuring high standards in teaching, in fact, I would love for there to be individualized education for every student in every class. But I do not think that the current (over)emphasis on standardized testing warrants the bloody beating of the dead horse of teacher and student motivation that exists in public schools today. IMHO, it’s a Republican plot to drive the public schools out of existence. It’s finger-pointing rather than problem-solving.

What can we do to help excellent teachers and the kids they continue to reach? Make ongoing teacher training helpful and interesting, instead of making the aptly-titled “seat hours” merely a shuffling of bodies. Reward teachers for completing their National Board Certification (which has teachers compile portfolios instead of just tracking their test scores;). Track grades, heck, even compile meaningful results. Ask teachers to do something like give a sample lesson in their interviews instead of just looking at their paper test scores. Give teachers meaningful standards to inform their teaching, and access to successful lesson plans (and don’t require mindless repetition of vague educational principles from either teachers or students). Devise citywide curriculum and spiral concepts through the grades so kids can build on concepts from year to year. And remember that there is a bigger picture to flesh out when judging schools than the numbers.

How healthy is the parent community? How involved are teachers in the extracurriculars and life of the school? What obstacles are the students and school community struggling to surmount even before butting heads with the three Rs? How, as a city, can we ensure the health of the whole child attending each school? Do our smallest citizens love to go to school and engage in meaningful dialogue with each other as they grapple with important ideas and constructs? Is every kid growing up with an open mind and heart?

This isn’t what I see fostered in public schools today. So, what do I tell my friends? Same thing I tell myself. Every child is different. You have to see what works for your child, one teacher and one grade at a time. Look at your kid’s report card, yes, but make your decisions based on the overall picture you see at a school. Public or private. The numbers only tell a fraction of the story. Open minds and hearts? Or rote bubbling of ovals? Hopefully, it won't come down to that divide.

Original DC Metro Moms post for Wednesday's Education Topic Day....


Sarita said...

Did you read about Bush's Pell Grants for Kids? It is school vouchers in disguise - once again saying "hey, rather than investing more money into our public schools, I'm just gonna pay for you to go to private school." And what makes these schools qualify as under-performing, the NCLB criteria. Ugh. Plus studies show two things: kids receiving these awards do not necessarily do better in private school and many of the kids who receive them are already in private school!

It is the government but it is the society too. We have to learn to value intelligences such as music, nature, inter/intra personal, kinesthetic (especially) as being as valuable as the typical verbal and logical/mathematical that is so highly valued in our society. Parents also need to stop comparing their kids and wondering how they are doing. Standardized test only assess a few types of intelligences so you'll never have a full picture with this method and who cares anyway! There are so many other ways to know how our kids are doing with out standardized testing. I still blame it on Sputnik. Well on our government's reaction to Sputnik...things were going in a good direction in American education before we started to feel threatened by the Russians.

As a teacher trained in the US but teaching in a foreign country, I can say that our teacher training is of very high quality and new teachers are coming out of their training knowing about multiple intelligences and differentiated education. I can feel that things are changing - and it is school that changes society, no?

In France it is actually worse if you can believe it and teachers get zero pedagogical or classroom management training.

MamaBird said...

Thanks for commenting, Sarita, I am so curious about the differences you see in the French educational system. I went through American teacher training a bit over 10 years ago, I and I will say that we were exposed to theories of multiple intelligences and other fine ideas (like nurturing intrinsic intelligence a la Alfie Kohn) but ironically, the friends of mine who worked at private progressive schools were much freer to implement changes in pedagogy. Seems ironic, no? Sheesh - no classroom management?! You might as well feed those teachers to the wolves.... One of my master teachers used to say that if there was no order in a classroom, you were depriving the well behaved children of their civil right to an education. Totally agree....

Hear, hear on the Pell grants and vouchers too. Love to hear more about your teaching in France...

Check out Sarita's blog, everyone, it's pretty magical over there.

Brynn said...

Great post. I, too, am a former public school teacher, at home with kids for a bit, wondering where my kids will be and where I will be in a few years. There is so much joy in our lives right now, so much inspired learning, and I am sad to say that that is exactly what is missing in so many schools. The pressures that teachers feel are unreal, unfair, and stifling! I agree with Sarita, our teachers are amazing! But, where will they go if this keeps up? I really believe that a teacher's responsibility to students and to society is to instill a love of learning, to promote creative thinking, and to understand the interdependence of our people and our earth. The content is almost irrelevant, after all we barely understand the future we are preparing students for! Let's educate them, free them, to approach challenges differently than us! How exciting and meaningful is that charge!!

I am comforted by the fact that the pendulum must always swing back. I think we are reaching an extreme. There will be changes soon.

I just spent a day leading a hike with a fifth grade class to teach local Geology. Their energy, enthusiasm, and unbridled spirit fills me up with happiness. I think one of the greatest things we can do for education, is just get out of the classroom and into the world, or bring the world into the classroom. Have you check out Expeditionary Learning Schools: I taught at a couple of these schools. This reform philosophy is amazing.

Thanks for your spirited and inspired post. I'll be back to visit again.


MamaBird said...

Thanks so much for stopping by, Brynn. I will be sure to check out the expeditionary learning schools - I agree with your wish to bring the world outside into the classroom - and vice versa. Also love your description of the (amazing) teachers' charge - to free them to look at the world creatively.

Anonymous said...

well, you prolly already know how i feel about the public schools based on my poorly-phrased epistle against homeschooling ;-)i believe in the public schools. i also believe, though, that it takes a committed community to make a public school work.

and testing? eek. one of the weirdest byproducts of the 1980s fears that american children were lagging far behind every civilized nation's abilities is the mass of testing, testing, and more testing. people want accountability, and they only way they think they can measure educational progress is... you guessed it.

i just find it all so weird. i mean, in third grade, the kids in VA have tests (aptly) called the SOLs. it is quite clear that all year long, the kids are geared toward reviewing for them. the tail wagging the dog?

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

What wonderful posting and comments for a teacher-to-be like me.

I can already envision the charter school I will someday fight to open.

Melissa said...

I agree with wrekehavoc that it takes a community to make a public school work, but No Child Left Behind is taking the community out of it and letting the federal gov. decide what is best for our children.
I think one of the worst side effects of all this testing is the constant changing of curriculum to try and find some magical method that will raise test scores. I recently went to a meeting about a Montessori program within my city's public schools and found out that they stick to the same tried and true curriculum. What's more, they individualize each child's education. AND the kids in their program pass the state tests at a rate of 90%, compared to about 50% in the rest of the district.
For a while I thought I might not return to teaching when my children are older because I am so disgusted with the way education is going, but now I am seriously considering getting certified in Montessori. It is my hope that programs like these can show that children can learn so much easier when it is allowed to happen in a more natural way, according to the interest and desires of the child.

Queen of Shake-Shake said...

My son, who is a gifted child, attends a public school. I use to be a big supporter of public education until my child got into it.

I don't think the problem is at the local level, meaning teachers and our particular school. It's the state and federal level.

The number of tests are ridiculous, and I'm speaking of the standardized tests, not weekly spelling tests. Our system requires, on top of the state and federal test, a quarterly testing that takes up three days every quarter. Sigh

I feel my hands are tied though because private schools aren't an option. Mainly because they aren't any better, only less tests and then there is the money issue.

So instead of feeling powerless, I'm starting a volunteer program in our school. It's mine and the principal's goal to have a volunteer teacher assistant for every teacher in K-2 so we can do more individualized instructing. It's to kick off at the beginning of the next school year. My fingers are crossed this will actually do some good to compensate for NCLB.