Blogging for Real Education Reform Day: Testing is Destroying Our Schools

If we're really serious about fairly holding teachers accountable for performance, standardized tests are an incredibly small piece of the puzzle.
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When I stumbled across Paula White's post promoting the Day of National Blogging Promoting Real Education Reform this morning, my head started spinning simply because I've got so much to say about fixing our public schools that I wasn't sure that I could say everything that I wanted to say in just one entry -- let alone get everything written in just one day.

I mean, I'm passionate about:

I'm also passionate about:

But if I had to pick one thing to write about today -- one thing to draw the attention of policy makers to -- it would be the damage that current teacher accountability models focused on testing results are having on our teachers and our schools.

You see -- having spent the better part of my career teaching tested subjects -- I've grown to openly resent the way that you've chosen to hold me accountable.

And when I say resent, I mean resent with a deep-seeded, unhealthy anger that I can't really explain.

I literally used to love my job. I was excited to come to work and to find ways to connect kids to the content that we were studying in class. I was passionate about helping my middle grades kids to find their own interests and to develop their own identities.

I was joyful -- and that joy translated into a commitment to stay in the classroom even if I couldn't support my family in the way that I wanted.

My commitment is just about gone now, though, because testing has stripped away the kinds of intellectual and creative freedoms that I once enjoyed.

Instead, I'm nothing more than an automaton.

I'm a robot trudging through an impossible curriculum trying to make sure that my students are "prepared" for their end-of-grade exams -- even if they're not prepared to think or to express or to grow or to appreciate.

I ALWAYS teach to the test -- both to the three week multiple choice assessments that I'm required to give and to the end-of-grade exams that I'm judged by. I'm expected to follow the curriculum guide that my district has developed for me and rarely encouraged to think for myself or to drift from the script.

Do you have any idea what kind of damage that's doing to morale in schools?

Tested teachers like me carry a grudge on their shoulders, rightfully convinced that we're bearing the brunt of today's accountability culture.

Teachers in untested subjects carry a grudge on their shoulders, rightfully convinced that their work is marginalized by a system that cares little for any kind of learning or expression that can't be measured by a test.

Faculties are divided, and divided faculties are rarely effective at ensuring student success.

So what are the solutions? How can concerned policy makers begin pushing for productive change AND hold teachers and schools accountable for results at the same time?

Here's a few ideas:

First, we must more accurately define the specific outcomes that we want to hold schools accountable for.

As it currently stands, the only outcomes we're measuring are performance on reading and math end of grade exams, right?

But are those really the ONLY outcomes that we value?

Or are we serious when we say that we want kids to be "globally aware" and "well-rounded?" What role we want schools to play in teaching students healthy living habits or character traits like responsibility and determination?

Would we be satisfied with buildings that produced kids who could read but who weren't inspired to explore, innovate, or create?

Of course not -- but think about the message you're sending when you hold me accountable for nothing other than end-of-grade tests.

Where do you think I'm going to spend my time and energy -- and where do you think our school is going to spend their limited cash -- when some outcomes are "valued" (read: tested, recorded, reported and awarded) and others aren't?

Next, we must find more sophisticated ways to identify and reward accomplished teachers and schools.

I'm not sure that anyone working outside of a tested subject can truly understand how damaging it can be to have the sum total of your contributions to the lives of the children that you teach summarized by a single score on a single exam on a single day in June.

Take me, for example.

My test scores have almost always been the lowest on our hallway. Every year, I feel the shame that comes from knowing that my kids "didn't succeed" -- and the pressure that comes from bosses who are held accountable for "success."

But I'm pretty sure that I used to make a ton of contributions to the lives of my students each year, too.

Academically, they learned about visual persuasion and collaborative dialogue -- two skills that are essential to success in tomorrow's workplace AND a part of our state's required curriculum but left off of standardized tests because they're difficult to measure.

My kids were always more aware of the world around them -- and of how they can make practical changes in that world -- than most adults that I know, but that knowledge isn't measured either.

Socially, my students learned that men can be motivated readers and passionate writers. They learned about determination and high standards.

They learned that creative thinking is fun and that there's no such thing as a right answer in a world that's constantly changing.

None of that's tested, though -- so in the end, I looked like a failure year after year... and now I'm ready to quit.

Why couldn't we start to be more sophisticated in our definitions of accomplishment?

Why couldn't we take parent and student surveys into account when trying to determine exactly what knowledge and behaviors were taught during the course of the year?

Why couldn't observations by outside experts and community leaders play a role in the labeling of both teachers and schools?

If we're going to push for high stakes accountability models, we owe it to our teachers and our schools to accurately report the complete range of contributions that they're making in the lives of our children, don't you think?

Finally, we must hold our communities and our governments responsible for creating the conditions necessary for schools and teachers to succeed.

I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry every time I think about the concerted effort that Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Michael Bloomberg and the rest of the "Kill-em-All" cadre have made to criticize schools during the middle of one of the worst economic times in the past two decades.

It's so hypocritical that it makes me sick.

I mean, North Carolina -- the state that I work in -- just decided to cut technology spending and professional development completely out of our budget because we're going broke.

Not that I'll really notice, considering that it's been years since our school had the money to send teachers out to state and national conferences to learn.

Yet we're still hell bent to identify teachers who are failures?

Class sizes are due to rise next year as teachers are laid off and teacher assistant positions are cut -- a trend that is becoming all-too-common as states look for ways to save money -- meaning I'll have even less time to give individual feedback to the kids in my care.

Yet we're still hell bent to identify teachers who are failures?

I've got one working computer in my classroom and limited access to digital tools to look for trends in student learning data, making it pretty darn difficult to efficiently fine-tune my instructional approach or to identify kids that haven't mastered individual objectives.

Yet we're still hell bent to identify teachers who are failures?

I've got 90 minutes of planning per day -- which is a helluva' lot compared to peers in other places, but which is woefully inadequate when you're trying to:

  • provide meaningful feedback to 120+ students
  • plan differentiated lessons for students with reading abilities ranging from second grade to second year of college.
  • keep parents informed on student progress.
  • fill out the never-ending piles of paperwork that sustaining a bureaucracy requires.
  • meet with peers to identify essential standards and amplify quality instructional practices.

Yet we're still hell bent to identify teachers who are failures?

I'll GLADLY accept accountability for my work as soon as taxpayers, parents and policymakers accept accountability for correcting some of those conditions.

Until then, many of my "failures" sit squarely on your shoulders.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that -- whether Oprah believes it or not -- teachers and schools are actually doing a pretty darn good job considering the set of circumstances that we're working in.

And if we're really serious about fairly holding teachers accountable for performance, standardized tests are an incredibly small piece of the puzzle.

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