The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Life is not a multiple-choice test’

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(Correction: Fixing 33-year teaching degree to 33-year teaching career)

I recently posted the resignation letter of Ron Maggiano, an award-winning social studies teacher at West Springfield High School in Fairfax County, after a 33-year teaching career — four years shy of full retirement. In the following post, Maggiano recalls his first day of teaching — and his last, and explains why he is leaving his job.

By Ron Maggiano

I will never forget that day. It was my first day as a classroom teacher. I felt a range of emotions from excitement and anticipation to abject terror. Would my students like me? Would I find a way to motivate them to do their best? What if I let them down? What if I failed as a teacher?

Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. My students loved me, I did not let them down, and I received national recognition as a master teacher. In 2005, I was awarded the Disney Teacher Award for innovation and creativity in the classroom. A year later, I was recognized for distinguished K-12 teaching by the American Historical Society.

Now more than three decades later, I have just spent my last day as a teacher. I resigned my teaching position because I can no longer cooperate with the standardized testing regime that is destroying creativity and stifling imagination in the classroom.  I am sad, angry, hurt, and dismayed by what has happened to education and to the teaching profession that I so dearly love.

It was a difficult decision, but I am confident that it was the correct one. For me this was a moral choice. I believe that our current national obsession with high-stakes testing is wrong, because it hurts kids and deprives students of an education that is meaningful, imaginative, and relevant to the demands of the 21st century.

Research shows that today’s students need to be prepared to think critically, analyze problems, weigh solutions, and work collaboratively to successfully compete in the modern work environment. These are precisely the type of skills that cannot be measured by a multiple-choice standardized test.

More significantly, critical thinking skills and analytical problem solving have now been replaced with rote memorization and simple recall of facts, figures, names, and dates. Educators have been forced to adopt a “drill and kill” model of teaching to ensure that their students pass the all-important end-of-course test. Teaching to the test, a practice once universally condemned administrators and educators alike, has now become the new normal in classrooms across the country.

If teaching to the test was wrong 30 some years ago when I first entered the classroom, it is just as wrong today as I leave my classroom for the final time. The fact is that we are not really educating our students. We are merely teaching them how to pass a test.

And we are not preparing them for success at the college level or in the workplace. If we were, colleges and universities would not have to require remediation courses for incoming freshmen, and businesses and corporations would not have to spend millions to reteach skills their employees should have mastered after twelve years of education.

Albert Einstein once declared, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Unfortunately, Einstein’s view is not shared by those who seek to promote standardized testing as the new holy grail of education. Indeed, imagination has been marginalized if not completely prohibited in the high stakes world of standardized testing.

Our classrooms have become intellectual deserts where students are not allowed to use their imagination and their natural curiosity in order to learn new tasks and explore new ideas. Teachers who dare to be innovative and creative are more often than not viewed as a threat to the testing regime and its priorities.

Academic freedom has been replaced with a lock-step approach to learning in which testing has become an end in itself. This is not progress, and it is not reform.  It is, however, a threat to our students, their future, and our future as a nation.

Indeed, America has always been a nation of innovators who used their imaginations to explore new frontiers in science, engineering, technology, and the arts. From Benjamin Franklin to Alexander Graham Bell to Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs, innovation and imagination have been our greatest national assets. Yet these traits are now being strangled in our public schools and classrooms.

It is time to say enough. Our children and their imaginations are too important to be sacrificed on the altar of high-stakes standardized testing.

It is time to for us who care deeply about the decline of American learning to say what I told my students on my last day as a classroom teacher: Life is not a multiple-choice test, and the answers to life’s most important questions are not A, B, C, or D!