As summer comes to a close, students are preparing to go back to school. I find that most of them enjoy returning. Certainly, our daughters did. There is something exciting about a new beginning. Kids look forward to seeing their friends and meeting their new teacher. Teachers matter a lot to kids. When I ask the students in my school to describe their teachers, they use adjectives like “great,” “caring,” “smart” and “patient.” It is upon the caring and trusting relationship between student and teacher that learning is built.
If you ask most Americans what they think of their child’s school, by and large, they think it is really pretty good. Although most parents see room for improvement, few think that the “sky is falling” on the roof of their neighborhood public school. When their son or daughter comes home with poor grades, most of the time they understand that their child’s effort had something to do with it. Parents, I find, are quite sensible in their perspective and do not automatically fault the teacher.
It is unfortunate, then, we are lambasted with sweeping condemnations of public schools and the teachers who work in them. It creates cognitive dissonance between our faith in what we know and experience, and our opinion of public schools in general. You can see that 'belief gap' in polling.
Although I agree that we should all make a serious commitment to improving education, I worry that reformers, many of whom have built careers and fame by constantly disparaging our schools, are successfully promoting changes that are not in the best interest of students. It may be that the “cures” they propose are far more harmful than the problems they seek to address. Here are the three reforms that I think parents should worry about the most.
(1) Excessive testing.
I strongly believe that the assessment of student learning is an important part of schooling. Assessment helps inform teachers, schools and parents about what students know and have yet to learn. Aggregate assessment information informs teachers and principals about the efficacy of their programs and their curriculum. What has occurred, however, in the past decade, is that standardized assessment has grown exponentially — especially in the younger grades. This year, New York State fourth graders, who are nine or ten years old, were subject to 675 minutes (over 11 hours) of state testing. And this did not include test prep and field testing. Both a NYSUT survey of teachers as well as an informal survey of teachers and parents by www.newyorkprincipals.org found that young students were breaking down in tears and suffering from anxiety due to testing.
Excessive testing is unhealthy. Students begin to identify with their scores. Last June, I was appalled when I heard a 7th grader tell his mom, “What do you want from me? I’m only “a two.”
(2) The use of test scores for purposes which are not student-centered.
Student test scores should be used to help parents and teachers determine what a student knows and does not know. They should not be used for other purposes, such as evaluating teachers in order to dismiss them or to give bonuses. They should not determine which school should be closed or be rewarded. When that happens, the relationship between the child and the teacher, and the child and the school changes. Some children become more desirable than others. Some children might be looked upon as getting in the way of achieving a goal. This is not because teachers and principals are bad people; it is because they are human. They may be overly concerned, but I know outstanding, thoughtful teachers who are worried that their relationship with students will change when they are evaluated by test scores. They want to educate students, not test prep them.
Now that all of the teacher, principal and school evaluations are based on growth models, yearly testing, I predict, will continue to expand. Each time that happens, precious learning time is lost.
(3) The amassing of individual student scores in national and state databases.
State and national databases are being created in order to analyze and house students’ test scores. No parental permission is required. I wonder why not. Students who take the SAT must sign off before we send their scores to colleges. Before my high school’s students could participate in the National Educational Longitudinal Study, they needed written permission from their parents. Yet, in New York, massive amounts of student data are now being collected and sent beyond the school without parental permission —end of year course grades, test scores, attendance, ethnicity, disabilities and the kinds of modifications that students receive. This data will be used to evaluate teachers, schools, schools of education and perhaps for other purposes yet unknown. Schools are no longer reporting collective data; we are now sending individual student data. Although the name remains in the district, what assurances do parents truly have that future databases will not be connected and used for other purposes? The more data that is sent, the easier it will be to identify the individual student.
Eleven states have agreed to give confidential teacher and student data for free to a shared learning collaborative funded by Bill Gates and run by Murdoch’s Wireless Corp. Wireless received $44 million for the project. With Common Core State Standards testing, such databases are expected to expand. Funding for data warehousing siphons taxpayer dollars from the classroom to corporations like Wireless and Pearson. Because Common Core testing will be computer-based, the purchase of hardware, software and upgrades will consume school budgets, while providing profits for the testing and computer industries.
Although all of the above is in motion, it can be modified or stopped. Parents should speak to their local PTAs and School Boards, as well as their legislators. They should ask questions regarding what data is being collected and to whom it is sent.
I think it is time to get Back to Basics. Let’s make sure that every test a student takes is used to measure and enhance her learning, not for adult, high-stakes purposes. Basic commonsense tells us that student test results belong to families, not databases. Remind politicians that the relationship between student and teacher, not student and test helps our young people get through life’s challenges. Finally, let’s return to the basic purpose of public schooling — to promote the academic, social and emotional growth of our children. It is the role of schools to develop healthy and productive citizens, not master test takers.