This isn’t a funny post. I’m sorry. I know many of you follow this silly little endeavor of mine because it’s all about the ridiculous things that make this job so damn fun. And I love those things. I do. They are such a big part of what makes me love my job. I think I sometimes revel in and celebrate the silly things more than the average teacher. But at my core, underneath everything, the part of my identity that is the most important part of who I am right now is- teacher.
I love my students. I would do almost anything for them. The highest responsibility I’ve ever held is the privilege of helping them become happy, engaged learners, and successful members of a greater global community.
Yet I can’t, in good consciences, continue to do things I know are bad for my students. Why, you may ask, am I doing things I know are wrong? Ask the state and federal government why. Ask Arne Duncan. Ask the writers of the Common Core State Standards. Ask Bill Gates. Ask Pearson publishing company.
Here is what I’m angry about.
The Common Core Standards are developmentally inappropriate.
You may have heard about the Common Core standards. They cover grades K-12, are being implemented on a nearly national level, and have the goal of readying all students for college and career. Which is not a bad goal! Ask yourself, though, about the validity of developing reading, writing, and math standards for Kindergartners. Kindergarten used to be about learning to tie your shoes, hold a pencil, empathize with your peers, solve problems. Clearly this was a terrible idea, as I’m sure everyone reading this has suffered hugely from an inability to function in college or career based on the lack of standardized literacy skills you received.
Here’s the thing- many kindergarten classes are half day. In a half days time (even a full day in most cases), you can’t possibly cover all the skills K previously taught AND meet the CC standards. So by age 6, little Johnny has learned to “With guidance and support from adults, respond to questions and suggestions from peers and add details to strengthen writing as needed. (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.K.5 ) But he never had time to learn what to do when the kid at the table next to him takes his crayons away, other than smacking him.
It sounds dire, but if kindergarten isn’t the time and place to learn these skills, many kids will never learn them. Furthermore, how are kids who don’t know all their letter sounds supposed to be writing at all, let alone strengthening their writing as needed?! Multiple organizations have come out arguing that these standards, particularly for the primary grades, are developmentally inappropriate- http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/01/29/a-tough-critique-of-common-core-on-early-childhood-education/
Standardized tests don’t effectively evaluate students or teachers
Think back to times in your life where you have had to sit down and fill in bubbles on an answer sheet. Chances are that after the SATs and GREs, most of us didn’t do that. It isn’t a real world skill. Yet we evaluate students as young as 7 on their ability to take these tests. I’ll share an example from my own experience. I had a student with ADHD. It’s difficult for him to sit still for very long. He moves around, waves his arms, talks his thinking out before answering, draws pictures and diagrams. He’s a smart kid, and is pretty successful academically. He did poorly on our state test, though. Sitting still for two hours is really hard for an 8 year old, especially one with some attentional and impulsivity issues. Does this mean he won’t be successful in high school, college, his adult life? Hell no! He’s an incredibly creative, outside the box thinker. He solves problems, writes great creative stories, plans amazing science experiments. Yet we are sending a message to kids and their families that they are academically underperforming if they can’t be successful on one specific type of data collection!
These tests take time away from my teaching. They require me to have taught all standards before April so my kids can prove they learned them in time for the test. We are cramming ten months worth of teaching into seven months. Despite my best efforts, my kids are stressed and anxious about the tests, and can’t focus on the days leading up to them. In many schools, teachers are expected to take weeks on test preparation. Do we really think that our children are best educated by being reminded to fill in the bubbles fully, rather than being given the chance for authentic, open ended, student driven education? Do we think that our nation is best served by creating a generation of kids designed to answer to the test rather than think outside the box?
Teacher evaluations are also tied to these tests. If all your students are on grade level, have no major disabilities, are from stable homes, are well fed, well rested, healthy, and English speaking, this is a decent plan. Our schools don’t work that way, though. Our kids come from all walks of life, with unique and diverse backgrounds. And we love this. We embrace it. I have had the experience of a student coming in as a non-reader, able only to write fragment sentences. In a year, that student moved up multiple levels in reading, accessed chapter books, wrote full, well constructed paragraphs. The standards say she should be writing multiple paragraphs, though! These tests don’t take into account that students and teachers may bust their butts and make huge progress- if you don’t meet the standards, you’re out of luck. When did we decide that all kids meet the same milestones at the same time? What happened to what used to be the accepted belief in diversity of learning styles, of maturation at own pace? Does not reading at a fourth grade level by the end of fourth grade really mean you won’t be a successful adult?
These tests are the way they are because it just isn’t cost effective to assess in a variety of authentic, developmentally appropriate ways. Yet we give so much weight and importance to them! It’s my hope that more parents will choose to opt their students out of these tests, as we’ve seen in places like Seattle and New York- http://www.thenation.com/blog/176994/turn-tune-opt-out#
Corporate interests play a major part in the new education and testing system
One of the major publishers of new curriculum aligned with the Common Core, and of many of the state tests, is Pearson. This company describes themselves as “the leading pre K-12 curriculum, testing, and software company in the US.” They and their subsidiary companies are earning a great deal of money on the programs being written specifically to align to the new standards. Why shouldn’t they? A deeper look into the company reveals some uncomfortable connections- http://unitedoptout.com/boycott-pearson-now/. Having the same individuals and corporate entities creating and shaping educational policy and then benefitting financially from their creation is not ethical. School systems end up needing to buy new programs year after year (from companies like Pearson) as standards are rewritten (by people with a financial stake in companies like Pearson). Why should the shareholders in a publishing company have more say in what our nation’s students learn than the people who teach them?
Pearson isn’t alone. Companies like McGraw Hill are also profiting off our nation’s schools in unethical ways. If public education becomes for profit, what reason is there for companies earning money to actually care about students? What voice will students, families, and teachers have moving forward into this system?
Poverty is the real reason why students (and schools) don’t do well
Try this out- skip dinner, then breakfast the following day. Then try to learn a new skill, or take a test. It isn’t easy, even for adults. Yet that’s what a growing number of kids in America face daily. Add to that the fact that some stayed up until 2 am with a sick sibling, or listening to fighting. Add to that the kids who have no one at home to help with homework, or read to them. The kids that experience violence at home, drug use, homelessness. This is not a small percentage. In 17 states, students below the poverty line are the majority of public school students. Take a second to let that sink in. More kids are poor than aren’t in many places. That’s insane.
Unemployment is rampant, minimum wage barely feeds and houses an individual let alone a family, food and heating oil prices are rising. I don’t blame parents, in most cases. For every individual who is addicted to drugs and hitting their kids, there are many more who are trying as hard as they can, working multiple jobs just to feed and clothe their kids. How do we expect them to find time to read books to their kids when they work 18+ hours a day? Furthermore, how do we expect teachers to stay in districts where poverty is rampant when test scores are tied to pay?
In a recent article by Elaine Weiss, she asks “What if we have actually been teaching the right skills in US schools all along – math and reading, science and civics, along with creativity, perseverance and team-building? What if these were as important a hundred years ago for nurturing innovative farmers and developers of new automobiles as they are now for creating the next generation of tech innovators? What if these are the very characteristics of US schools that have made us such a strong public education nation, and the current shift toward a narrower agenda just dilutes that strength? What if, rather than raising standards, and testing students more, the biggest change we need to address is that of our student body?”
We are pouring money into systems to assess our nations teachers and students. Those of us within education (and arguably those with any common sense) know why there are deficits. Imagine if we spent that money on universal pre-K, reduced cost breakfast, counselors, special educators? We wouldn’t need a test to let us know which schools were performing poorly if we spent our resources fighting against poverty.
I know that many will read this and write me off. As lazy, bitter, union-driven, out of touch. I will point out these facts- I am inherently optimistic because I hold the future in my hands every day. I question every decision my union makes by asking if it is in the best interest of my kids. It would be so much easier to give in and go into lock step with these standards and initiatives. It’s much easier to use a curriculum someone else wrote (and profited off of) than write one yourself. Standardized tests take no time out of my personal life to make. They are easier than performance assessments, rubrics, student designed projects. This is the harder route. The route of being ostracized, condemned, criticized.
Here’s the thing, though. I don’t give a damn. I don’t care what anyone other than my students and their parents think. I know these practices are bad for kids. I know they won’t help my students become real learners, or the successful adults I know they will be. So I will fight them, yell about them, push back against them. My kids are the ones who really matter. I’m doing this for them.