by Lawrence Bush
MY WIFE SUSAN makes her living as an “educational consultant.” These days, that phrase might make you think she’s part of the charter-school or testing-regimen movements, but she’s not. Susan is a teaching artist and a teacher trainer who uniquely uses creative movement to teach elementary school curriculum. She trains teachers in the use of kinesthetic lessons to teach math, science, social studies, literature, literacy, and other subjects. She breaks apart the sit-at-your-desk-and-try-to-stay-awake decorum of the classroom and gets the kids moving and learning.
I’m lucky enough to hear about the results on the days she has work: about the English-as-Second-Language kids who are smiling and fully participating in classroom activities for the first time since they became strangers in a strange land; about the distracted, squirmy kids diagnosed with ADD who suddenly become focused classroom leaders when they’re given the chance to learn through their bodies; about boys draping themselves with colored scarves; about girls creating tableaux about strength, or anger; about teachers who are awakened and transformed by the obvious yet radical idea that young kids will thrive more with experiential, physical learning than by sitting, disembodied, before a whiteboard or iPad screen.
But it’s not only joy that I hear about from Susan.
I hear about kids sent home each weekend with backpacks full of food because there’s not enough food at home, and teachers who worry during school vacations about what their kids are going to be eating without those backpacks.
I hear about kids dancing about the Hudson River who have never seen the Hudson River even though their town borders the Hudson River! — because there are no grownups in their household with the leisure time, vehicle, or carfare to take them there. I hear about kids whose family lives are shaped by prison, parole, minimum-wage jobs, undocumented status, parental death, food scarcity, homelessness, acute single-parent stress — by all of these very adult, very endemic poverty problems.
And I hear about their teachers, who are so pressured by standardized testing, and so dispirited by the very public attacks on public education, and so upset at the prospect of having their livelihoods linked to those friggin’ test scores, that when Susan is setting up her residencies, they’re at first reluctant to schedule time for her, reluctant to make room for real and exciting learning opportunities because they have to be flogging that curriculum and drilling for those tests. (Later, they’re so thankful for having their enthusiasm and idealism as teachers restored by the tools she provides for them.)
Those black educators in Atlanta who have been sentenced to terms of up to seven years in prison and thirteen years of probation for tampering with test scores are precise examples of what’s most wrong with teaching-to-the-test system. “Teachers are under tremendous pressure to meet standards and ensure that students pass tests, even to the extent that their jobs, their livelihoods may be threatened,” said Rev. Bernice King (the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr.), calling for leniency in their sentencing — a plea that Judge Jerry Baxter ignored, handing out sentences of twice what the prosecutors had called for, unless the convicted educators were willing to give up their right to appeal (two did; eight did not). Investigators have made clear that those convicted are clearly just a tiny portion of educators in Atlanta who have fudged test scores — and there’s nothing unique about Atlanta. As economist Richard Rothstein wrote for the Economic Policy Institute‘s blog,
Holding educators accountable for student test results makes sense if the tests are reasonable reflections of teacher performance. But if they are not, and if educators are being held accountable for meeting standards that are impossible to achieve, then the only way to meet fanciful goals imposed from above — according to federal law, that all children will make adequate yearly progress towards full proficiency in 2014 — is to cheat, using illegal or barely legal devices. It is not surprising that educators do just that….
Our use of tests as the chief way to measure school and teacher performance has corrupted schools everywhere. Because schools have been held accountable only for math and reading test scores, classroom time has diminished for other critically important subjects like social studies and civics, science, physical education, and character development. In many places, drills and test preparation have displaced instruction. Elsewhere, teachers and administrators have studied prior tests to make educated guesses about the specific question types that are likely to appear on the next test; teachers can then practice these question types with their students, while ignoring other types that are just as important in the curriculum. Some districts tend to suspend low-scoring students for alleged disciplinary infractions just before testing day. In many places, principals convene meetings of teachers early in the school year to review prior year test results in order to identify students whose past performance has been just below the passing point; then, teachers can concentrate instruction on these students while devoting less attention to students who are already above the passing point or who are too far below it to be able to improve the passing rate. This strategy is known as “data-driven instruction” and is highly praised by education policymakers. Because it causes less harm to students, the cheating done by Atlanta teachers may be more ethical than the more commonplace forms of corruption.
IT HAS EXCITED ME to see parents resisting the standardized testing regimen by “opting out” their kids — and to see teachers’ unions encouraging them to do so. Opt-out movements have shaped up in Colorado, Florida, Oregon, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere — and most powerfully in New York. The New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) notes at its website that “parents and teachers share deep concerns about over-testing resulting from the state’s botched implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS). Concerns include: stress on students, appropriateness of tests, erosion of learning time and lack of state transparency on test content.” NYSUT then offers an extensive fact sheet about the ins and outs of opting out. Statistics for how many New Yorkers had their kids actually sit out the three-day English and three-day math tests in April will not be released until the summer (opt-out advocates estimated 175,000 students; National Public Radio’s Albany reporter Karen Dewitt suggests that “as many as 20 percent boycotted the third through eighth grade math and English exams”), but a Siena Research poll showed that 50 percent of voters statewide at least supported the idea of opting out.
That figure rose to 62 percent in upstate New York, but it fell to 38 percent in New York City — where only a third of the population is white (non-Hispanic). Does this indicate that parents of color are less opposed to standardized testing than white parents? It may be so: In January, more than twenty-five civil rights and education-advocacy groups supported the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in a statement that advocated “annual, statewide assessments for all students (in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school) that are aligned with and measure each student’s progress toward meeting the state’s college and career-ready standards.”
I asked Susan why she thought that support for testing may be stronger in minority communities. She observed that standardized testing and curricular reform, including No Child Left Behind (George W. Bush) and Race to the Top (Obama), were originally trumpeted as leveling the playing field between rich and poor school districts and between racial groups — making sure, truly, that no child was left behind. Minority-group parents were attuned to that and made hopeful by it. Their kids especially DO need school reform, Susan believes — but the way the reforms have played out have simply undermined educational creativity for everyone. Arts and music have been eliminated in some schools, and even recess has been decreased. (“Every brain scientist will tell you these days that recess helps learning,” she said, “both the physical activity and the time off from concentration, they both help learning.”) The joy and creativity of teaching are being undermined: “Teachers are teaching to a script now. Everything that makes learning memorable is being squashed — from the sparkle in the teacher’s eye when she’s excited about something, to the kid who responds to something and goes off on a tangent — ‘Turtles! Oh, I saw a big turtle on the road the other day!’ — and now has to be reined in rather than being able to have a lesson about turtles! There’s so much that has to be covered superficially rather than having the chance to explore subjects in depth, and from many different angles.”
Susan also noted that a main reason for opposition to standardized tests is that teachers’ evaluations are being keyed to them (New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo wants the tests to count for fully half of a teacher’s performance evaluation). It’s a labor issue: Tests, and the scapegoating of teachers and their unions, have taken the place of economic uplift, social programs, livable wages, good food, family counseling, neighborhood improvement, prison reform, and all the other changes that would truly create the conditions for educational success. But in New York, Susan observed, and in many of the states across the country where she has worked with teachers (with the notable exception of Mississippi and Georgia), the teacher corps is overwhelmingly white. The black community, she suggested, has had a history of wariness and even antagonism with their kids’ white teachers, and may not so readily identify with them or feel concerned about their labor issues.
To my mind, it’s definitely time for the opt-out movement to examine the class and race issues that attend their struggle, and to make sure that opting out is not primarily about protecting middle-class kids from stress. We need to be talking about real school reform, serious alternatives to the corporate-sponsored, competitive, do-or-die standardization of education. My wife’s creative use of kinesthetic teaching is one small example of how everything about education — the goals, the methods of instruction, the technology, the time spent in buildings, the communal versus the individual aspects, the role of the teacher, the role of parents and other responsible adults, the mixing of the practical/vocational with the social/civic with the moral/ethical — needs revision. Not in an atmosphere of pressure, hostility, punishment and reward, etc., but in the spirit of… well, cooperative education.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.
For a video about the impact of standardized testing from United Optout, look below.