This was written by Sujata Bhatt, a National Board Certified teacher who has taught grades 1-5 in a high-poverty elementary school in the Los Angeles Unified School Disrict for the past nine years. Prior to that Bhatt was a playwright, and, at the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, a medieval historian.

By Sujata Bhatt

I’m a bad teacher.

Not the kind you’ll find vilified in accountability-based education reform. My value-added scores-- coming to you soon courtesy of the Los Angeles Times--are just fine.

But that’s different from teaching.

Daily, as I drive to school, I ask myself, am I really helping these kids? Am I teaching them how to become productive, inspired humans who can navigate the complex world in which we live? Who reinvent this world as a better place?

The answer is sometimes. Am I helping these kids to be able to create a world that will be better 25 years from now when they run it? And again the answer is some days.

But not in the next month.

As testing season opens in May, more and more time in classrooms around the country will be devoted to test prep. Seven year-olds will drill into best possible choices, eliminating answers, key words, negations, distractors. They will learn test-taking strategies.

Last Friday I actually told a child who had left three questions unbubbled on a district periodic math assessment to go ahead and fill something into those circles. He looked up at me nonplussed, “But Ms. B, I don’t know how to do those problems.” And I found myself about to launch into a discourse about how some tests penalize you for guessing and others don’t and this is one of the ones that doesn’t so…

Then I saw his 9-year-old face.

One summer in the 1980s, I earned money by preparing undergrads test for the LSAT, the law school entrance exam. The field of test prep was brand new back then, and its one or two companies paid a princely rate of $30/hr. The class I taught was not about content and knowledge, but rather about how to game the system: how to analyze questions, answers, negations, distractors, etc. We were in our early twenties and gaming the system seemed pretty cool.

Now it’s 25 years later, and I can’t believe I’m teaching this stuff to little kids. New test prep companies open daily: giant corporations, boutique test prep, specialized test prep. They have come to dominate the education reform debate, and they generate ever more tests for which to prep. This is the world we have bequeathed our children?

Call it sentimental, but one of the joys of teaching elementary kids is they are an antidote to the endlessly snarky world of grown-ups. They still believe in great invisible forces that rule the world: the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, honesty. They will have passionate arguments about who really leaves the dollar bill under the pillow at night. Even now, in our hyper-cynical world, they are not yet jaded.

The current trend in educational reform is to quantify everything. We need data to drive instruction. We need data to drive reform. We need data to drive accountability.

Then, because we’re so obsessed with data, we massage our data. We manage it. We manipulate it.

At what cost? Does this data really represent learning and knowledge?

Data derives from the Latin to give. Datum is that which is a given. I want to be able to look into that nine year-old’s eyes and give him the gift of echoing his honesty and integrity. I want to say, “You’re right to leave them blank.” It should be a given that the test measures what you really know.

But do I? Of course not. There’s too much data at stake.


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