"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Conflicting Responses to Testing Abuses

Thanks, Nancy Flanagan, for resurrecting so many contradictory feelings – and thoughts that I do not want in my head as I return from the holidays to the classroom.  Seriously, Flanagan tackles the question that many teachers, including me, would like to dodge.  She quotes a comment that should make all of us recoil.  Roseanne Eckhert asks, “If you would take a bullet for a child, then why would you keep them from recess and PE or impose homework that consists of mind-numbing drill sheets for your paycheck?”

Flanagan restates the question about teachers, “Why do they let clueless, aggressive "reformers" capture the bully pulpit on ed policy? Why are they so spineless?”

My first response was to take a dive on that issue and I continued to surf the Internet.  But, then I found Gary Rubenstein’s Teach for Us.  Rubenstein features a blog post, by KIPPster  Chris Low,  describing the pain that testing imposes on his special education students. One student protested a failing score by fashioning his two-page score report into ice skates. “Sliding around the back of the room, he declared, ‘I don’t care about this stupid test! I don’t care!’”

My inner city high schools students, regardless of whether they are on IEPs, are equally eloquent in expressing their anguish, and anger.  They are virtually unanimous in protesting humiliating way that testing robbed them of the opportunity to learn anything “real.”  Being a teacher, I have to hear them out, respectfully, commit to offering as much engaging instruction as I am allowed, and then exhort, “Ok, now, back to work.”

And that brings me back to Nancy Flanagan.  She writes, “I don't know a single teacher who fetishizes data or puts their mandated and paced, standards-linked goals on the board in the happy delusion that their students will learn more.” We are aghast at the “enforced chipping away slowly at the ideals that make learning and life worthwhile: curiosity, motivation, a sense of worth and purpose.” So, why do teachers often limit ourselves to “small, covert rebellions,” such as complaining in the teachers lounge?

Flanagan explains that there is a value to a “more modulated response to ill-advised reforms.”  Veteran teachers are loath to be marginalized as mere complainers, or even as “uppity.” She observes, “Reflexively rejecting reforms--without evidence--is as bad as advocating for reforms without proof that they work.” 

And Flanagan added the emphasis to the following:

Teachers do what they're told to do for a more important reason than losing gainful employment. They do it because they may never be able to teach again, a fate far worse than being fired from a single job. The goal is to change the system, not to elevate your personal viewpoints.

I would only add one point to Flanagan’s wisdom.  For worse or for better, most teachers teach the way that we were taught by our favorite teachers.  While we must worry what happens when a generation of teachers without memories of the pre-NCLB era takes over, we must retain our faith in the great chain of mentorship.  We who were inspired by teachers who turned us on to the clash of ideas can’t now say “it’s our way or the highway.”  We must persuade our colleagues to do something that does not come natural to us and become more forceful than we would like in fighting test-driven “reform.” If teachers model the wisdom of Nancy Flanagan, then this “accountability” mania should also pass.

Neither can I deny the truth of P.L. Thomas’ metaphor.  Teachers are like the people who were frantically trying to save babies being washed down the river. They were horrified by the lawyer who quit the effort.  He explained, however, that someone needs to go upstream and stop the person who was throwing the babies into the water.

But, frankly, I worry about using Thomas’ metaphor, just like I was afraid to address Flanagan’s question.  I do not want it to sound like I am comparing “reformers” – who I know to be sincere – to people who kill children.  Neither do “reformers” want to kill the values of public education or to use testing to degrade students. 

Advocates of standardized testing believe that they are useful tools, just like I believe that teachers are not suffering from a mass hallucination.  We continually witness the cruelty and the disgusting consequences of data-driven “reform.”  On the job, we must do a better job of speaking “truth to power about what we're doing to kids.”  Teachers must do a better job of discussing issues that we typically would prefer to avoid. And, we must also pay our union dues and pressure our leadership to send the lawyers upstream to fight standardized testing. 

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