October 22, 2006

Main Attraction?

Recently, while talking after class with two of my new teacher grad students, it dawned on me that in education the delivery of content should be the sideshow; the building of people should be the main attraction. But it doesn’t appear that way. Right now all of the attention is focused sharply on test scores. Schools live and breath by standardized test results. It’s warped. Of course accountability is critically important, and the accountability of the education system that trains today’s youth and tomorrow’s leaders should be taken very seriously. But the current pendulum swing emphasizes training outstanding test takers over creating exceptional people. We need to remember that it is the students who are the reason we are teaching, not the test scores. Sadly, today the "education of exceptional people" is bumped over to the side-stage, falling in the shadow of the headliner, "achieve higher test scores."

Any teacher can tell you that the external pressure to “teach to the test” is greater than ever. I don’t have a problem with the “teach to the test” approach in general, but if “teaching to the test” means that all the lessons in the classroom must be focused on test taking, there is a problem. When you add up the amount of time consumed by the number of standards in any curriculum framework, the rigor of the scope and sequence guidelines, and the schedule of frequent common formative assessments, there isn’t much time for anything that is not going to be assessed on the tests in the spring.

It’s happening at every grade level. A friend and colleague of mine has a student in kindergarten. His son’s kindergarten class is devoid of play-dough, musical chants, and letter or number dances. They have been replaced by carpet-time drills, severe discipline, and homework. Yes, homework for kindergarten. Kids are learning right away that school is serious business, and rarely any fun. The amazing thing is that kindergarteners don’t take the tests that count for overall school accountability. Well, we have to start somewhere.

My children attend the same school district. We recently received a letter explaining that my son and daughter’s school did not achieve an adequate overall score in math, so changes are being made. Actually, it was only the low SES (socio-economic status) subgroup that did not hit the benchmark. However, all students are now receiving more instruction in math that has materialized in even more math worksheet homework for my kids. Both of my own children achieved proficient or advanced scores in math on last years test, but they are still receiving the extra math homework. Many of the kids from the low SES subgroup who failed to reach the mark in math also failed to attend school regularly last year. Even with a free bus pass for 95% attendance as an incentive, many of these students did not or were not able to attend school a sufficient number of days for the teacher to prepare them adequately for the spring tests. So the whole school pays the price.

Speaking of paying the price, I was thinking that the answer to the problem must be a fine for the parents whose students do not attend school either because the parents don’t send them or they children decide to be truant. However, I asked one of our security guards about this and he told me that there is already a $100 fine for students caught truant. He also told me that he didn’t feel that it was fair to the parents to fine them when the problem at the high school level was really with the students, and that $100 was a real hardship for many of the parents involved.

Education should be valued. It should be the most important thing in a child’s life outside of their family. But I’m afraid that education is not valued in our society today, and that many children and parents don’t take it seriously. It seems like getting educated is less important then “gettin’ payd!” Forgetting of course that at least up to high school one with a diploma is likely to get paid more, then one without the paper. Why don’t people take education more seriously? Could it be because public education is free? Generally speaking, people tend to value less that which cost them less, or nothing. Furthermore, if the general public starts to realize that the best public education can do for their children right now is to make them outstanding test takers, then I’m afraid that the devaluation of education will continue.

But teachers know better; at least we hope for the better. We know that regardless of where the pendulum currently swings, that our roles in the lives of our students are far more valuable then simply those of a test proctor. We know that when these young minds sit in our desks and listen to our voices that the messages behind what we say is far more important then just how to bubble in A, B, C, or D. We recognize that while we may have to “teach to the test” that there are hundreds of “teachable moments” that occur so that we can continue to include the sharing of our own life’s lessons, the fruit of our wisdom, and the passion of our hearts. Our enthusiasm for life and our insatiable appetite for learning will continue to be infectious and our students will continue to cling to those moments as they hinge on our every word and the true classroom learning occurs.

Like the sideshow at the circus that includes the amazing magicians, the incredible contortionist, or even the bearded lady, we lure our students into the classroom with promises of great feats in algebra, biology, and economics. Then we keep them glued to their seats with our parade of lions, elephants, and standards. On the way to the Grand Spring Testing Finale, we teach them how to be better humans, and prosper in the big top of life.