It is no secret that I am no fan of standardized tests. I strongly believe that they are killing public education, and I am terrified at what our educational system will look like in 20 years. We desperately want to be the best, and so we devise test after test to hold students and teachers accountable.
Who is it that we think we need to hold accountable? We have these mythical “bad teachers” who just aren’t doing their jobs. Those teachers do exist, but they are a small percentage. The vast majority of teachers out there are good teachers. Because, you see, teachers don’t become teachers for the money (or even for the summer breaks). They become teachers because they have a passion for inspiring and educating young minds.
So, the powers that be convince themselves that it’s these “bad teachers” who need to be held accountable. They need to be forced into teaching properly with test after test after test. So, perhaps, there are a few teachers out there who were coasting along, and decided to step up their games when standardized testing was implemented. What about all the rest of the teachers, though? The vast majority who are GOOD TEACHERS? The joy of teaching and learning is being replaced with test-prep booklets, scantron sheets, and proclamations from legislators and number crunchers who have never stood in front of a classroom but are oh so sure that they know how to measure good teaching.
And so good teachers find less and less joy in the classroom, on top of their already abysmal pay. They hear that if they don’t get certain scores on a test that they know is invalid, they might be laid off. They might not be able to feed their families. Is it any wonder that teachers are resorting to unethical practices to deal with these pressures?
It’s not just about the testing, either. It’s the opportunity cost of all of this testing. It’s the things teachers can’t do because they’re teaching students to bubble properly. It’s the 1.7 billion dollars that states spend on testing annually that could be spent on teachers. What is the impact of these lost opportunities?
We don’t give teachers adequate support from paraprofessionals.
We don’t give teachers adequate time to plan or grade.
We don’t give teachers control over what happens in their classrooms.
We don’t give teachers opportunities for high quality professional development.
We don’t give teachers a chance to be part of a larger community of professionals.
We don’t pay teachers nearly enough.
We give teachers standards that don’t make sense, or are too numerous to address in a single year.
We give teachers textbooks that are substandard, and encourage them to teach from them.
We give teachers pacing plans that tell them which standard to teach on which day, as if we can somehow plan out in advance how a group of completely unique individuals will learn.
We give teachers piles of paperwork.
We give teachers meaningless meetings.
We give teachers 5 subjects to teach in 2.5 hours total per week.
We give teachers endless, flat tests that measure only a small percentage of what we want a high quality teaching and learning experience to be.
We give teachers scores from these tests and assume that they somehow reflect a teacher’s quality, when we know that this isn’t true.
All of these things detract from the ability of teachers to do what we really want them to do: create and deliver engaging, differentiated lessons for their students.
I tell my students all the time that when you’re trying to create a successful classroom, you can go one of two ways. You can implement a system of rewards and punishments so that students will sit through your boring lessons attentively. Or, you can create engaging, interactive, relevant lessons so that students voluntarily participate and learn because they want more of that type of teaching and learning. The first option is little more than putting out fires. It will quickly suck the life out of you, and it leaves little room for creativity, interaction, and mutual learning and growth. The second option helps both you AND your students to eagerly anticipate walking into the classroom each day.
We’re doing a large scale version of the first option in our public schools. We dangle merit pay in front of teachers, and threaten them with pink slips if their students don’t perform well enough. What if, instead, we took that 1.7 billion dollars, and we used it to do things like provide professional development, peer observation time, classroom materials, grading/planning time, or any of the other things that teachers need? What if we made sure that teachers were highly qualified, and then trusted them to do their jobs?
There are 98,817 public schools out there. What could we do with that 1.7 billion if we divided it up among those schools? That’s just over $17,000 per year per school. Now, sure, $17,000 is a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things. I would wager, though, that if allowed to spend that $17,000 themselves, teachers could find any number of productive uses for it.
$17,000 is a computer lab or a class set of iPads.
$17,000 is piles of books.
$17,000 is time for teachers to engage in collaborative planning.
$17,000 is sending a team of teachers to a professional conference.
$17,000 is musical instruments.
$17,000 can be a thousand useful things.
What isn’t useful is obstructive and invalid standardized testing.
“But we NEED to know if teachers are doing their jobs,” you say. “What if kids aren’t learning?” Well, if you really don’t trust trained teachers and administrators to take care of themselves, then we’re going to need a lot MORE money.
$1.7 billion dollars won’t even come close. You’re going to need trained observers at school sites. You’re going to need to buy administrators and teachers out of time they are currently spending elsewhere so they can engage in peer observation. You’re going to need assessment instruments that aren’t scored by a machine, which means training and paying professionals to hand-score each assessment. You’re going to need assessments that reflect the unique needs of each school site. You’re going to need assessments in multiple languages, because I don’t care how many times you make them take it, a math test in English can’t gauge the math skills of someone who is still learning English. You’re going to need to implement dynamic assessment practices, which will involve training teachers on how to scaffold learners during assessments.
Or, we could just, you know, let teachers do their jobs.
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