Testing Abuse

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Friday, June 22, 2007

A Collection of "Us" Needed for Hope

This is our response to the latest article on the "restructuring" of 2,300 schools.
SEE IT HERE: http://www.cnn.com/2007/EDUCATION/06/20/failing.schools.ap/index.html

Last night me and my wife were watching “Lord of the Rings”. Two hobbits were forced into a forest of trees, which they realized were intelligent beings, but under the threat of being burned by nearby enemies. There was a point in the story where the Ents (tree like creatures who protected the forest) did not want to battle these dark forces because they hadn’t yet affected the forest directly. They told the little hobbits to return to the Shire and enjoy the good life. One hobbit gave in and started to turn back home, located hundreds of miles away. The other explained to him in exasperation that if they went home and did not withstand the ensuing battle that, “There won’t be a Shire to go home to.” He realized that the insanity of destruction that lie ahead would swallow their entire world whole if they did not meet its challenge. The story focuses on hope in the most perilous of times, when all hope is gone, except for the narrowest sliver of light.

The AP story from yesterday only magnifies a struggle similar to this one that many find hard to deal with, yet has a glimmer of hope. Teachers need to educate parents about what is happening to their schools, but many are tired and fearful. The future of public education hangs in the balance, as those who would profit from destroying it wait in the wings. 2,300. That’s the number of schools, with more to come, that will be up for “restructuring”. It is always curious to me how people in government and administration want to reconfigure these schools based on test scores that give no specific indices of how students came to their answers. Superintendent Joseph Ferraina stated, "There are people working with data every day now," he said. "They're sitting down with people and saying, 'You know what, your class seems to not be doing well in whole numbers. We need to add a lesson in whole numbers.'" How does he know EXACTLY what to focus on in that area? How does he know the teaching methods that were used originally? Was there an original observation of this teacher and student reactions to the lessons? Would there be any continuing focus on the metacognition of those students at all? His remark shows complete ignorance of the value of multiple methods of assessment and proof that standardized testing tells you nothing of the student context or mindset when answering. It is a hodgepodge experiment that asks teachers to keep manipulating their teaching methods such that they FINALLY get the reproduced answers that the test asks for. This is not good teaching and learning, and limits the creativity and uniqueness that exists in all students to examine and respond to math and other problems from divergent points of view.

I find it quite interesting that a principal mentioned, "Instruction wasn't happening...Schools have failed them.", as the explanation for gang violence and dropouts. This statement is outrageous. Teachers are not responsible for creating or solving the social ills that affect students! It is irresponsible to ignore the deprived lifestyle, lack of parent support, little motivation, and severely limited vocabulary exposure of these students as possible culprits for dropping out or joining gangs. What was the first thing she did (beside firing 3/4 of the staff and hiring younger, easier to manipulate teachers) ? She painted the school bright colors and bought brand new books, while getting rid of the "moldy" ones. Now, why did she do this? Because she knew that the environment that the students were in AFFECTED THEIR LEARNING. In general, the students were still struggling a year later. So, I guess it wasn't 75% of the staff that was the problem. We have to start addressing the surrounding poverty of the neighborhoods as a whole and heal the entire thing. It takes vision and will of all citizens to do this.

Poverty absolutely does NOT mean that those afflicted in it can’t learn. However, it DOES mean that the methods that are used to teach those children have to be rich, even richer, in hands on experience and vocabulary than their wealthier counterparts. Superintendent Deasy stated, “...testing goals have to be very targeted”, and, “ there often isn't time for electives and free play like at other schools.” By “other schools”, does he mean the well-off, “higher-scoring”, and thus free-to-teach-as-they see-fit-for-their-community-schools? The horrific part is, electives and physical play are just what those poorer students need. Structured P.E. lessons are valuable in making a balance with the mind and body. These children need varying courses to give them the real life experiences that they have sorely missed in their early childhood. Science experiments, field trips, and presentations of self-created models can show their knowledge of standards. At Arrowhead Elementary “math worksheets were on the desks, and kids were sounding out vowels...” in the afternoons instead of something that could teach depth and meaning. This is NCLB’s vision of a “restructuring” plan. It does not meet the needs of those kids, is forced upon them by this law’s punitive make-up, and is thus creating more inequity than before.

The truth is that while NCLB’s intent was to balance the playing field for all children, the effects have been disastrous for many children and teachers. The statement, “The most obvious sign of the pressure is in a public hallway near the school's main entrance where graphs hang in full view of passing students and teachers.” This practice is morally wrong, should be considered harassment, and probably is illegal since it divulges private student data.

Scripted programs, the punishment for most “restructured” schools, suck the soul and life from children and creative teachers. These have been challenged by many scholars to have invalid research and only continue to hold the poorest children hostage with transmissive teaching techniques that don’t allow them to think critically. A teacher from Portland, Oregon wrote in the Nation periodical, “Teachers soon begin to pass that message along to students: Don't think; just do what's in front of you. There are two choices for educators like myself: Teach public school and teach the poor how to follow orders, or teach private school and teach the rich how to think for themselves. I can't say this publicly because I would lose my job. We all have to watch what we say.”

This idea of squashing professional judgement is definitely clarified in the AP article when it states, "The administration also wants the federal law to override provisions in collective bargaining agreements to ensure failing schools have complete control over who works there." And so the attacks are mounting. But, as in Lord of the Rings, there is hope. We absolutely need a collective “us” to speak up for our profession and say that these things are wrong. Teachers are leaving the profession in alarming numbers and at a huge expense, from experience to monetary cost. Upon the many letters I have read on this matter, the joy of teaching is being lost. It is the kids who will lose in the end. If a return to the “status quo” and doing “what’s comfortable” means to allow the freedom of learning and exploration, then I’m all for it.


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