Save Our Schools

The Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action is occurring this weekend in Washington DC. The purpose of this march is to call attention to the problems the last decade under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act has caused.  I don’t agree with all of their Guiding Principles (mainly with one about local curriculum) but I do most of them, especially a call for equitable funding for all schools. But what I most agree with is the call for teachers and parents to come together and make their voices heard.

I went into a graduate program for education in fall 2004. At the time, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I had some relatively useless degrees (history and poli-sci) and had always had some interest in teaching. History was wanted I really wanted to teach, and what I think I could have been good at. Unfortunately, after I finished school and eventually found a teaching job, I taught economics, which I really didn’t know much about (one problem with the education system).

When I started my grad program and then got into teaching, I really was oblivious to what had been going on in schools the last half decade. NCLB was enacted in 2001, after I had graduated high school. In Florida when I was in elementary, my class participated in one of the initial predecessor tests to grade level testing. But it didn’t count for anything, it was just a test we took. In Texas, where I moved my sophomore year, they had had testing for awhile, but since I was in high school and past the last year they did it, I was never effected.

In school, many people who were more politically aware and had been more focused on education, were very charged up in opposition to NCLB. I understood some of the things they talked about but didn’t really give it much thought. In truth, I really didn’t understand everything and didn’t want to look stupid by asking to many questions. When I did my first (and only) year of full-time teaching, I taught seniors so was again, not really effected by the testing. I did have to give up three days of instruction and find something for my students to do off campus, which was a complete waste of time but other than that I was unaffected.

I didn’t really come to understand what NCLB and the high stakes tests were doing to public schools until later. After moving to Texas, for three years I worked for an education non-profit. The companies purpose was to try and bring a more rigorous and consistent math curriculum into schools. Despite all of my issues with my former company, I still really belief in this goal. Most math education here in America is very haphazard and poor. Most teachers do not understand WHY math works or why it’s important. They just teach tricks for how to add, subtract, multiply and divide. But the curriculum we had actually taught WHY those tricks worked and got kids to really understand what they were doing. Doing math with this understanding not only improves kids ability to do math, it also helps them develop the ability to reason and think. So instead of just teaching facts, this curriculum was about learning to think.

Through my work with this company, I spent a lot of time in a variety of different schools. The schools covered the full range. Some were in beautiful buildings with top of the line computers and had a student body that were very well off. Others were falling apart and had nearly 100% of their students at the bottom of the socio-economic scale. Irregardless of the school, I saw the same issues caused by NCLB and state testing.

 

  • Despite every teacher and administrator who took the time to understand our curriculum agreeing that it was vastly superior to Texas’ curriculum, better for the kids and more effective at teaching math, they all had resistance to using it because it didn’t align precisely with what would be on the test.
  • Starting as far back as January and continuing through April, schools devoted almost 100% of their time to test preparation. Some went so far as to try and teach an entire years worth of material in the first semester, so they could just do test prep. Anything that wasn’t on the test, irregardless of it’s value to the children, was ignored.
  • Students had been happy with school the first semester, became bored and restless the more of their time was devoted to test prep, and less to actual learning.
  • Schedules changing and everything going away in favor of more test prep time. Recess, PE, history, science, music, etc all gone. Math and reading all day.
  • All but the “bubble” kids virtually ignored. Because the stakes for test were so high, principles required teachers to focus just on the kids who had a chance of passing (ie the kids who were one answer bubble away from a passing school). The kids who typically did fine got no special attention, and the kids who had no real hope of passing did not have their needs met.
  • Practice testing grew in frequency. From a few practice tests throughout the year, to benchmark tests every two weeks. Students that didn’t do well on a benchmark test in October quickly found most of their time turned over to test prep.

 

Gone from schools were the things I remember loving the most. Social studies projects, music class, a love of learning new things, the joy of coming in every day. All of these things were vanishing from the schools. This affected teachers and students alike. Schools have gone from a happy place to learn and be with friends, to a place to sit in a room and do practice tests all day. I am genuinely concerned for what my kids will have to face one day. My oldest niece starts 2nd grade next year, which is the last year before her state does testing. She loves school now. I fear that won’t last.

To those of you who would argue that testing is important because teachers are bad, or they need to be help accountable for their job, or any of the other asinine reasons given for defending the high stakes testing and only high stakes testing attitude, I say to you, how well would you be evaluated if your perform were entirely based on how well a bunch of other people did on a test? Or how effective you could be if you had to stop your real job and take a test about how well you were doing every few days?

Unfortunately, this march may be ill-timed. Because of the extra high level of stupidity occurring in Washington over the debt limit, I genuinely fear that this march will not have any impact on anyone. It will probably be ignored or waved aside as less important. Everyone is focused on the economy right now. Improving the economy is not an unimportant thing. But neither is education.

For more information I encourage everyone to reach Diane Ravitch’s book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education”. This book does an excellent job of explaining what is going on in schools, how it came about and why the rhetoric coming from politicians is just wrong.

For more information about the March this weekend, Valerie Strauss as a good summary in her Answer Sheet blog located here.

I encourage everyone to just become more informed. Think back to your days in school. Whether you loved or hated school, would it have been better if you had spent more time testing? Is what you remember most from school something that could be quantified and tested? Or was the thing that impacted you the most a teacher that cared and genuinely loved her job? Because soon their won’t many of those teachers left.

 

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One Response to Save Our Schools

  1. Tamarynn says:

    Very interesting. I hope it does raise awareness to some of the issues. NCLB ensures that most teaching is focused on testing material. I know quite a few teachers here, from elementary through high school, and it is truly awful what these tests are doing to education.

    Curriculum planning, from the beginning of the year, focuses on what is going to be tested. In elementary levels, if the teachers have enough time in the week they’ll add something else, maybe a science lesson or a social studies lesson. If they run out of time, they lose out on teaching that subject.

    High School is different, where many subjects are taught by different teachers. Students typically don’t lose out on non-test related subjects. However, math and english are still focused on “teaching the test”.