Janet Garrett is a veteran kindergarten teacher in Oberlin, Ohio. She just started her 35th year of teaching — which will be her last. She is running as a Democrat for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from the 4th Congressional District of Ohio, challenging the conservative Republican incumbent, Jim Jordan. In this post she talks about the fads in education that she has seen come and go, and her concerns about what is happening in kindergarten classes today and the huge amount of testing being given to 5- and 6-year-old students.

By Janet Garrett

It’s the first day of school. A 5-year-old boy whom we will call Bobby walks through the door tightly gripping his father’s hand. He is wearing  new school clothes and new shoes. He has on his back a new backpack containing all his school supplies. He is nervous, even a little scared. I imagine that he is wondering: “Will I know anybody? Will I make friends? Will my teacher be nice? What if I don’t know what to do? What if I get into trouble? I hope my teacher thinks I’m a good boy!”

I, his teacher, greet Bobby and his father at the door with a big smile. I invite them in and show Bobby where his cubby is, with his name on it, so he can put his things away. I tell him that I am very glad he has come and that we are going to have a great day. I encourage him to give his dad a hug and say, “I’ll see you later.” He does, much to his dad’s relief. Bobby and I go into the center of the classroom where several children are already waiting, sitting cross legged on the rug. There is another friendly lady in the room, helping the children get settled.

I begin class. I welcome my new students and ask them to tell everyone else their names. Then I explain that I have a rule –that we are all friends. Nobody can tell another student:”You can’t play” or “I’m not your friend” or “I’ll be your friend if you do something for me.” Bobby smiles and I see his body relax. He smiles at the boy who is sitting next to him and who is smiling back.

I have taught for 34 years. This is the beginning of my last year of teaching. I know young children. I know their families. I have been in their homes. I see their struggles and I suffer because I see the struggles getting worse. We used to teach children and then give them a test to see if they learned what they were taught. The purpose was to see if they needed to be re-taught the material. Now we are teaching to the test. We lose vast amounts of instructional time to test prep and testing. This is going on now at every grade level.

The state of Ohio Department of Education, now requires the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment (KRA). Half of the test is due by the end of September and the rest is due by November first. This test requires a minimum of 1 1/4 hours of teacher instructional time to administer PER CHILD. The developer of the KRA advises that if a child is not doing well to suspend the test to another time. This appears, on its face, to be kind. In reality, it means that the teacher could potentially be tied up in testing for the entire first two months of the nine months of school. And that’s not all. There are two other tests which must be done by the end of September and redone in April. The legislators who enacted these requirements obviously have no idea what Bobby needs to start his school experience off right. Perhaps they don’t care. They certainly never took the time to ask teachers and parents what they thought.

In anticipation of this untenable situation in my classroom, I lined up an army of help. The “friendly lady” who was in my classroom that first day is a friend and a retired teacher. I have three retired teachers, one retired school secretary, and a retired playground supervisor all coming in to volunteer in my classroom. I am determined that my last class, before I retire, will not be short changed due to the madness of testing.

But , sadly, my personal solution to this problem is not one that will work for others. I have heard many stories of kindergarten teachers who, in desperation, put their students in front of movies all day so that they can test their students, one by one, for hours on end. There are Bobbys across Ohio who are starting their school year, being led into a classroom and put in front of movie after movie. These Bobbys are led in by obviously stressed and nervous teachers. Since children take their cues from the adults in charge, they sense that something is wrong and are more agitated than they would be otherwise. Some of them have not had breakfast. Some of them come from violent home lives and are terrified that they will be beaten if they make mistakes at school. They get up from the movies and attempt to get reassurance from their teachers, who are testing other children . In some cases the stressed teachers respond to these interruptions in anger which increases the stress level in the classrooms. How does this square with what their parents have told them to expect? How does this square with what the children need?

I want to state loudly, that I do not blame the teachers who are doing this. I blame the state legislators and the state Board of Education for creating this situation. This is a tragic way for a child to start school! Bobby needs social interaction. He needs physical and mental activity. He needs to start learning from day one. One of the beautiful things about teaching young children is watching how fast they learn, grow and develop. Even after all these years, I still get goose bumps when I witness a child reading for the first time. My students have been in school for four weeks and what they have learned already is amazing. Not so for the kindergarteners stuck in front of movies all day.

Let’s go back to the first week of school. As I do with other children, I call Bobby to my table alone so I can test him. I ask him questions, show him pictures and objects to assess him on this state-mandated exam. He becomes nervous, being questioned closely by his teacher. On some questions he gets the wrong answers because he is actually “over-thinking,” or  thinking beyond the scope of the test. His answers show me that he is a very thoughtful child but that his scores will be low and as a result, I will be required to put him in a remedial program that I can see he doesn’t need and that will waste his time and school district money.

The problem with these tests is not that there is any one question that is harmful to children. It is the sheer weight and volume of these tests that cause the entire educational process to come to a screeching haul. And the sad thing is, in all this testing, I am not able to get to the information I really need. For example, two of the tests ask for the children to name a few letters. As the child’s teacher, I want to know how many letters, and which ones the child knows so that I can teach what is needed. Only after all of the required testing is done, can I ask for the information I really need.

The legislators keep tightening the noose on public education: requiring more and more time devoted to testing so that there is less and less time for instruction, raising the bar on school district grading systems to make schools look worse than they really are, extracting funds so that profits can be made. Every place I go where teachers are gathered, I hear the same conversation revolving around this question: “How can I get out?”

Public education is one of the foundations of our democracy. It is, arguably, the only equalizing force in an otherwise unequal system. Over the years I have seen many fads and trends come and go. Over these last few years, however, I have become increasingly alarmed over what appears to be an attempt to destroy the public school system across the nation by people from both political parties. It started with President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, a mandate without funding and a pretty way to say, “No child left untested.” President Obama’s “Race to the Top” competition for federal education funds has only intensified the testing. We have public-funded vouchers for students to spend at little-regulated or unregulated private schools, and we have publicly funded charter schools, some of which are run by for-profit companies making a great deal of money from the enterprise. More recently we have seen the rise of the Common Core State Standards, which is probably a good concept but has been badly implemented.

People ask me from time to time what I think of the state of public education. I tell them we desperately need educational reform. What children need is not to be taught how to pass endless tests. They need to be taught problem solving, creativity and, most of all, a love of learning. We must give them the tools they need to learn. We are teaching children, today, for a world we cannot foresee. What we need is a new, child centered, not profit driven, education agenda.