Okay folks; get out your #2 pencil. Choose the best answer from the following choices.
A teacher’s job is to:
a) accurately assess each student’s ability and structure a curriculum to maximize his or her academic potential.
b) work on bringing student test scores up to minimum expectations.
c) fill in gaps in skills and conceptual understanding for struggling students.
d) challenge students who are performing at or above grade level.
e) do all of the above.
So, what do you think? Certainly all of the choices seem like things we should reasonably expect our teachers to do. In fact, if the system were set up properly, most of these goals would be complimentary to one another. Choices c and d are basically just supporting details for choice a. So does that mean we can safely choose option e and go about the work of teaching with a clear sense of purpose? Well, if you read my last post you know that I don’t think the answer is quite so easy. (The obvious choice is hardly ever right on these things.)
As you might suspect, I believe the monkey wrench in the works is choice b, and most teachers (and administrators) in public schools get the loud and clear message that raising test scores is job #1. If the tests in question were better designed, then this wouldn’t necessarily pose much of a problem for teachers. Unfortunately, the tests and the standards that they are based on were not designed especially well. As I began to explain in my first post, they fail to accurately address the range of student ability, and the narrow band of skills on which they do focus often includes material that is not even appropriate for students in the targeted age group. I’ll explore that in more detail in later posts.
So we, as educators, are faced with a choice. Do we try to give all of our students a program that will allow them to maximize their academic progress, or do we try to bring their test scores up? The main point of this blog is to make the case that these priorities are truly in conflict with one another. Now, I realize that there may be some classes, schools, maybe even districts for which this is not the case. If your student body is comprised of a homogenous group of students who come from homes with literate, well-educated and native English-speaking parents, then you might have a chance to work on both goals in tandem. You might at least be able to meet the needs of most of your kids while preparing them for testing.
But the reality is that very few of our schools are filled with a homogonous group of high achievers. Most of us, whether in rural, urban or suburban neighborhoods have a significant number of students who are struggling. They are well below grade level academically, no matter which bar you use to measure them. The question of why so many kids in our country fit that description is a topic I won’t try to tackle in this post, but it seems pretty clear that there are many factors at work. As we keep learning, complex systems fail in complex ways. The pressing issue is that these students are here, in our classrooms, and they need help now. The gaps in their basic skills, fundamental concepts and study habits need our immediate attention.
The problem is that if we take the time to really provide the curriculum and instruction to address the needs of these kids and bring them up to speed, we will never get to all the material that will actually be on their standardized tests. This is especially true in the upper grades, when students can be two or three years behind grade level in one or more subjects, and still not qualify for special education services. So what’s a teacher to do? Do we spend our time giving the students what we know they need, or do we try to bring their scores up by teaching them specific skills without any meaningful context? (I can teach a monkey to type e=mc2, but that doesn’t make him Einstein.)
It might seem obvious that the more important goal is to deliver appropriate instruction to these struggling students, but the pressures to bring up test scores is intense. In many parts of the country teachers who raise their scores can look forward to cash bonuses or promotions. And when scores dip below minimum requirements, a cascade of consequences is triggered. The longer a school’s scores remain low, the more serious the consequences become. School’s can face closure, replacement of the staff and administration or even district takeover by the state. At a minimum, teachers can expect to lose any sense of autonomy they might have had in terms of developing and implementing curriculum, which will result in far fewer options for meeting each student at his or her level. Teachers are chained to their state-adopted curriculum, and to the pacing guides that go with them. As a tragically ironic result, the struggling students are almost assured to continue struggling as the curriculum marches on without them.
So how to get out of this catch-22? Well at this point the only workable strategy seems to be trying to pursue both goals. Teachers need to run two programs in parallel: one to actually teach the students what they need to know to move forward, and one to prepare them for the spring tests. This is a tall order, believe me, and it’s not fair to expect that most teachers will be able to do it effectively, especially in their first few years on the job. And even those teachers with the experience and expertise to do it fairly well could be much more effective in meeting the needs of all students if they didn’t have to waste time and energy getting their kids to jump through the hoops of the current testing system.
Regardless of what you think of the standards, doesn’t it seem reasonable that the tests should not only measure students’ mastery of the standards, but also their progress towards that mastery? As it stands now, teachers across the country are faced with an incredibly difficult choice. Do they teach the students what they need, do they try to turn them into machines for taking a test that is largely irrelevant to their academic needs, or do they try to do both? The scary thing is that many teachers succumb to the intense pressure and focus on test preparation throughout the year, to the exclusion of all else. Others have turned to cheating in desperation, erasing student answers and filling in forms themselves. I’m not sure which is more troubling. At any rate, count me among the ranks of teachers trying to actually teach my kids and prepare them for testing. I hope that my fifteen years experience and the extra hours at work will be enough to let me juggle both with success, but I look forward to the day when I, and teachers everywhere, can really focus on teaching with integrity and expect to be evaluated in the same way.