Teachers instead of Tests

origin_14994024015It 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.


photo credit: Truthout.org via photopin cc

Voting for School Board


Okay, I’m going to rant a little here.  As you all know, today is election day.  If you’re not sure who to vote for, try a resource like this to help you find candidates that match your values.  Go here to find out what’s on the ballot and where you can vote.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the small-scale stuff.  I live in a somewhat rural Parish in Louisiana.  We’re mostly oil refineries and plants, with a few towns thrown in.  Now, in my district, we’ve got a contentious school board election happening.  What that means is that every intersection is peppered with campaign signs, including a sign campaigning for someone with the nickname “Worm.”  It’s Louisiana – what can I say?  I’ve had numerous pamphlets dropped off at the door, quite a few robocalls, and several candidates knocking on my door.  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for them) they all knocked at inopportune times so I wasn’t able to talk to them.

If I had been able to talk to them I might have asked them simple questions like:

  • Your mailers and robocalls tell me absolutely nothing about your expertise related to education.  Simply having reproduced or lived in Iberville Parish your whole life is not sufficient.  What experience do you have in schools?
  • What is your position on any number of major issues facing students and teachers?  Nowhere on any of these campaign materials did I see any information about standardized testing, charter schools, vouchers, church/state separation, Common Core, or any of the other issues of critical importance to our schools.
  • Why are you a better choice than the other million people who appear to be running for school board?  Simply having a bigger sign is not sufficient qualification.

Now, I’m someone who considers myself to be an educated voter.  I look up information on amendments and candidates before I hit the polling place.  For school board, though, I was stymied.  I found Facebook pages for some of the candidates, and some of them even had information about their positions.  These Facebook pages weren’t listed on their campaign materials, though.  I taught class the night of the Candidate Forum, and I would imagine the majority of residents also did not attend.  So what are people basing their decisions on? For me, as much as I hate to admit it, it boiled down to voting for people based on party affiliation (I vote D even though I’m Green because Green basically doesn’t exist here) and what little I know of them from word of mouth (“Worm” actually had some good stuff on his Facebook page, and my husband’s told me good things about Larry Rouse, who works at LSU).

I shudder to think what a less obsessive voter might base their decisions on, though.  Who sent the most mailers?  Who robocalled the most?  Whose sign was the biggest (Katie Mascarella wins that contest)?  It’s terrifying to me that major decisions about the education of students in my parish might be made by people elected because their sign was the biggest.  But then, I guess that’s American politics…

photo credit: secretlondon123 via photopin cc

Unprocessed Education

In San Francisco at the end of April, I had the opportunity to hear James Paul Gee speak a couple of times about learning and new media literacy.  Gee has done a lot of great work in the field of video games and learning and new media literacies, but what struck me the most was a topic that he kept coming back to; the problems with processed food.  He drew parallels more than once between the nation’s consumption of processed foods leading to illness and death and the nation’s educational problems.  My ears perked up as soon as he began talking about the dangers of processed foods, since with the last year I’ve read a couple of Michael Pollan’s books, and subsequently purged almost all of the processed foods from my fridge and pantry.  Gee’s words really stuck with me over the last couple of weeks, and I finally realized why.  What we have right now in the United States is Processed Education, and it’s killing learning.

So what do I mean by Processed Education?  It’s the status quo.  It’s the factory model, one size fits all, standardized testing version of “education” that is happening as we speak in our public schools.  I call it processed, because it is top down.  It is state and federal legislators making educational decisions.  It is Race to the Top. It is state standardized tests (the Monsanto of education; an attempt to educate everyone that ends up destroying everything good about education).  Processed Education is the equivalent of feeding everyone government cheese so that no one goes hungry. 

What I call Unprocessed Education draws on a number of different sources for wisdom on teaching and learning.  The Waldorf approach to education, Montessori education, constructivism, sociocultural theory, and unschooling, among others, have informed this view, along with the reality that most kids need a place to go during the day while parents are working in our current economic reality.  I call it Unprocessed Education, because like the unprocessed food movement, it puts control back where it belongs.  In the unprocessed food movement, that’s with home cooks, parents, and individuals; people like me who are making their own bread and avoiding GMOs.  In unprocessed education, that should be students, teachers, and parents.  They are where the power should sit, they are where the money should go, and they will be the evidence of learning.

I’ve boiled my anti-Processed Education rantings down into a nice, handy-dandy chart for you to have and share.  Isn’t that nice?

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Do you agree?  Disagree?  What is stopping us from moving to Unprocessed Education?