Jan Carr is a NYC public school parent and a children’s book author. I have met her at parent events in NYC.
Last week she posted about the harm done by standardized testing and other of the “reforms” of our time, and especially about the inability of teachers to focus on critical thinking.
At my invitation, Mike Petrilli responded.
That led to a good discussion.
Jan responded too. Here is what ahe said:
Diane, thanks for sending out my blog post. It’s interesting for me to read Mr. Petrilli’s response as well as the other responses posted. While it is certainly true that I cannot discern with certainty the motivations of the men I mentioned, I have to wonder about those motivations because their actions are so destructive. The endless testing is a scourge in so many ways. Here are some anecdotal accounts of experiences I have had:
• THE TESTS ARE FALLIBLE. Often, throughout my son’s public school career, he’s come home with practice tests in which he doesn’t understand why a question required a certain answer. Because I’m a professional writer and editor, I take a look to try to help figure out where he went wrong. Often, I find that I, TOO, would have chosen the “wrong” answer! And when I ask my son why he chose it, he has a very strong and articulate and defensible argument. So we’re “right,” the test is “wrong?” And I am put in the surreal position of having to teach my son how to suss out the right “wrong” answer so he will get a better score on the test!
• KIDS FEEL THAT THEY’RE DEFINED BY A MEANINGLESS NUMBER. Once, during the first week of school, I was standing outside my son’s school for pick up. That day, the kids had gotten scores for tests they had taken the previous spring. While I waited for my son to emerge, this is what I heard from the other kids: “I’m a 3.” “I’m a 2.” “I’m a 4.” In other words, DURING THE FIRST WEEK OF SCHOOL, WHEN THEY SHOULD BE EXCITED ABOUT THE CLASSES AND LEARNING THEY WOULD EXPERIENCE IN THE COMING YEAR, they were deadened by thinking that they were reduced to a number. Truly, it broke my heart. These were high stakes test scores that would determine which high schools they would eligible for. What a way to start the year!
• THE TESTS ARE DEADENING. Many teachers have told me that on test days, the kids have a flattened affect. I’ve definitely seen that in my son. His interest in learning flattens out the more tests that are piled on. He is an excellent student and has a curious intellect, but there’s only so much one can take.
• TEACHERS HAVE TO RESTRICT DISCUSSION IN ORDER TO GET THROUGH THE REQUIRED MATERIAL. My son has often reported that teachers had to cut off discussion in order to move on so that they could cover everything that was going to be on a test. As a teacher, does one want to dig in deeply, or cover a lot of surface ground? Does one want to encourage kids to think and discuss and provide supports for their answers, or does one want to teach kids to spit out a pat answer? I’m sure that teachers in the private schools attended by the kids of the men I cited are encouraged to have a deep and meaningful curriculum.
In my experience as a former teacher, I think the real key to keeping up the quality of the classroom is in the teachers.
• Provide the teachers with lots of staff development, so they, too, are constantly thinking and exploring and creating.
• Recruit smart, good teachers who will stick with the profession and pay them well so they stay. And of course the union is key to this.
• Have experienced teachers mentoring new teachers, which helps both, keeping the older teachers fresh as well as providing support for the newer teachers.
• And keep class size LOW so teachers can actually track and interact meaningfully with individual students. If a writing teacher is responsible for hundreds of students, how is s/he supposed to give meaningful feedback on papers?
All of these supports for teachers and the classroom are ones that that stem from educators themselves, not the business community. Whatever the motivation, an emphasis on data and accountability and testing is wrong-headed, completely missing the point.