By David Lee Finkle
There is a myth going around our country that goes something like this: American schools have been dumbed down, bad teachers have been given free reign, our educational system is failing, and we will fail to be competitive in the new global economy.
Actually, American schools are more rigorous than they have ever been. What used to be high school topics and subjects have been moved into middle school (Algebra 2 in 8th grade, anyone?). High school students can take multiple college-level courses while still in high school for college credit, and even graduate with a two-year college degree along with a high school diploma.
Our educational system is not failing. When people compare our test scores to those of other countries, they fail to take into account that some “high-scoring” nations do not, as does the United States, test or even attempt to educate all their students. (Some test or educate only their best and brightest.) Moreover, there is not a proved link between high test scores and a robust economy, or even between high test scores and individual success in later life. Standardized tests generally test students’ ability to take tests. Last but not least, is our only goal in educating our youth to make them capable of earning more money than people in other countries? Or are our goals bigger and more generous than that?
Because of the myth about how our schools are failing, however, several things are happening. We have come to equate learning with testing, and testing with learning, because standardized tests are easy to measure. We have linked test scores to teacher evaluation despite warnings from experts that it is an unfair assessment method. This supposedly makes it easy to determine who is a good teacher and who is a bad one. We have driven teachers to teach to the test, an act that used to be considered unethical. But when our only goal is higher test scores, then anything that gets in the way of that goal has got to go. The curriculum becomes narrower; if it isn’t on the test, it doesn’t get taught. The arts are neglected. In the lower grades, science and history go out the window to make way for test prep in math and reading. Because we need students to pass the tests, we tell teachers how to teach, give them scripted curricula that tell them what to say and what materials to use, and mandate which assessments to utilize. The only thing left for teachers to do on their own is talk louder. They are held accountable for results, but robbed of the autonomy needed to get results.
Schools are threatened with closure if they don’t show test-score improvement. Schools have been closed and replaced with charter schools that often don’t get any better results than public schools, that sometimes hand-pick their students to make their scores look better, and that sometimes waste taxpayer money in well-documented scandals. There are organizations whose goal is to shut down and dismantle our public school system, based on the spurious claim that the system is, across the board, failing.
Teaching is a calling, but many teachers feel they can no longer do what is best for students. Tenure has been eroded or removed, and teaching is fast becoming even more of a revolving door job than it ever was. Reformers want teachers to teach for a couple years, and then move on to a “real” job; that way, the teaching force remains cheap and easy to control. Politicians on both sides of the aisle and the media at large have blamed teachers for everything wrong with schools. Teachers feel there is no one on their side. Even the much maligned unions have joined with reformers on many issues. Teachers feel depressed and demoralized, which makes it hard, if not impossible, for them to teach their best.
What we do to teachers we also do to students. Students are under increased pressure to pass tests, sometimes vomiting on their testing booklets. Opportunities for play and imagination and creativity — all things that research has shown lead to better behavior, self-control, and cognitive development in children — are being taken away. We are testing students to see where they are at the start of the year, testing them to see how they are progressing throughout the year, testing them for weeks or even a month to see if they’ve learned anything, and then testing them some more. The new Common Core standards now come with the promise of new, even more difficult tests.
Students are beaten down. Teachers are retiring early and leaving the profession in disgust.
But some teachers are fighting these trends. Teachers believe that education is not just teaching students to pass tests. They believe that education is not just about how to make a living, but also about how to make a life. They believe that school should be a place of joy in learning, not learning in fear. They believe that play, imagination, and creativity have a place in school, just as much as mastering difficult material. In fact, play and mastery go hand in hand. And these teachers are fighting to work harder than ever so they can continue to find ways to be creative in the classroom despite the pressure not to be. These teachers have classrooms you’d love to have your child in. These teachers are the teachers you don’t want quitting, yet the system is trying to drive them out, in favor of obedient curriculum dispensers (I call them Quantitative Learning Gains Facilitators.)
The reformers manufactured a crisis so they could run schools for profit and make money off your children. That is the real narrative.
We have a choice in this country. Keep listening to the story told by the “reformers” and end up with test-score mills even worse than the ones we have now, or listen to teachers who want a public education system that isn’t an industrial factory spitting out test takers but that offers schools that are places for deep thinking, learning, creativity, play, wonder, engagement, hard work, and intense fun.