The Deseret News, my esteemed local birdcage liner, has been pushing education reform, floating a number of proposals ranging from mainstream/sensible to nutso. This letter to the editor contributed, I thought sensibly, to that debate. My grandmother was a teacher, so was my Mom, two of my aunts, three of my sisters-in-law, a niece, my father. And me. And now, my son. So let’s talk education.
A counter-intuitive but awesomely true principle of quantum physics is that, even at the sub-atomic level, the behavior of particles changes when they are observed. That same principle is clearly evident in education. Students today are subjected to more standardized tests than ever before, and their scores on those tests do not suggest education improvement. I don’t think this is accidental.
If teachers are told that raises and promotions depend on how well their students perform on standardized tests, then teachers will inevitably teach to the test. If students are tested repeatedly, then teachers will focus on developing students test-taking competencies. This means, often enough, stressing rote memorization, which is the worst possible kind of teaching and learning. I would suggest, therefore, for starters, eliminating all standardized tests. All of them, forever. Permanently.
I have a personal reason for loathing standardized tests. From 7th grade through 12th, I was part of a program called SCAP. I was a six-year SCAPPY. The Secondary Continuous Advancement Program. A key to it was standardized testing–you were graded, not according to achievement, but to how well you achieved based on how well you were supposed to achieve, as measured by test scores. I vividly remember a spelling test, in seventh grade, where I missed 2 words, and got a D minus. The kid next to me missed 9 words, and got a B plus. See, I was supposed to do better than that–for him, that was a good score. This did not encourage me to work harder. It simply fed my paranoia. ‘It really is true,’ I mused, amazed. ‘They really are out to get me. It really is personal–they really do have it in for me.’ This is not a mindset conducive to learning.
As it happens, I’m good at standardized tests, a skill that seems to have transferred to my kids. We’re all ace test-takers. I have a son who scored a 29 on the ACT (an outstanding score by any definition), and who gets teased by his siblings, all of whom did better than that. The GRE, man, I even did well on the math part of the GRE, 90th percentile, despite the fact that I’m such a math doofus I can barely balance a checkbook.
So getting rid of standardized tests would negatively impact people like me and my kids. I’m in still in favor of it, and for this reason: teaching to the test is lousy teaching. It doesn’t foster creativity, or self-reliance, or confidence, or problem-solving, or leadership, or any of a hundred far more important life skills.
More than that, though, I loathe the message it sends to teachers. What it says to teachers is this: ‘we don’t trust you. We don’t think you’re doing a good job.’ I know, the buzzword is ‘accountability.’ Well, screw accountability. I am, as a teacher, accountable to those kids in that classroom. Period. Don’t tell me I don’t take that charge seriously.
Education policy is, for too often, managed by state legislators, anti-tax small business people, realtors and attorneys, people who sort of fundamentally don’t trust education or educators. Or corporate types–the ‘we need kids with these skills in the workplace’ crowd. Or the ‘we need to introduce competition to education’ buffoons. And education policy seems inordinately influenced by people who make the biggest mistake of all–treat education as a science, and not as an art form.
Teaching, done well, is fundamentally creative, fundamentally empathic. What you need is imagination, intuition, creativity, empathy. You have to be able to read a classroom, sense what those students need that day, and sometimes it requires improvisation. You have to prepare, of course, you have to plan. But the greatest teaching moments are often spontaneous, those moments where a kid asks an awkward or ingenuous question, and suddenly there are all those faces, looking at you, and you realize your lesson plan just flew out the window. And above all, you have to love your students. You have to care about them, embrace their vulnerable humanity. Teach to their needs, that day.
My last couple of years at BYU got less fun, because of some ridiculous nonsense called ‘assessment.’ That’s a education theory buzzword, the latest fad; the word itself reeks of administrator mistrust. It’s all about objectives and outcomes and rubrics; it’s about coming up with some kind of (spurious) statistical profile demonstrating that your students’ (sorry, ‘learners’) outcomes were congruent with the who-knows-and-who-cares. Sorry, it’s not really possible for me to discuss assessment without going on a rant, which I will spare you. I do know it doesn’t work. Australia recently outlawed it; allow me to suggest to any American student looking for an excellent, possibly offbeat college education experience: look to Australia. The ubiquity of assessment, unfortunately, renders the possibility of excellence in an American university unlikely; go somewhere where they don’t have it. Or find college teachers who don’t bother wasting their time with assessment–the majority, in my experience.
Because the essence of educational excellence is providing scope for teachers to be excellent. All educational reform should flow from this one principle: let teachers teach. Trust teachers to do their job.
So specifically: increase education spending to reduce class sizes. My niece teaches in a class with something like 38 students. Elementary classroom. We could substantially increase education spending by reducing military spending, and by federal law mandate class sizes of no more than, say, 18. That might necessitate building more schools; fine.
Increase teacher salaries, to attract qualified people with degrees in other areas than el ed, and to allow veteran teachers to be able to afford to stay on their jobs, without having to work as a Walmart greeter or something to make ends meet. A teacher should be able to support his or her family with only a teacher’s salary.
I do support a longer school year. I do support some limitations on teacher tenure–not abolishing it, but making it a bit more difficult to obtain. I do not support a greater emphasis on math and science; art and music and PE should be part of the curriculum. If high school football were to go the way of the dinosaur, I wouldn’t shed a tear. But teachers need union protection; any right-to-work nonsense has no place in education policy.
Above all, we need state legislators to butt out. We need corporations to go away. We need the driving force in education reform to be spear-headed by teachers.
Finland! The best educational system in the world is that of Finland; lets study what they do over there, and do some more of it here. I like the European model in which students with an interest and aptitude for a vocation have a track designed for their needs. Not every student should go to college, though every student who wants to should be able to afford it. Let’s remove cost from the equation, and see if Americans can compete in global markets driven by imagination and innovation.
My brother and I were talking about this the other day, and he said ‘well, you need testing; it’s very difficult to tell a good teacher from a poor one.’ I don’t think it’s difficult at all. Just walk unannounced into a classroom. See how engaged the students are, see how animated the teacher is, see how creatively classroom space is utilized. We don’t need what are essentially artificial accountability measures. Get rid of the tests. We can see good teaching without them.
A school is a temple; not a laboratory. Teachers are acolytes, not social scientists. My niece is an amazing teacher, not because she wears a lab coat well, but because she’s so wonderfully full of love. We’re very fond in this country of paying lip service to the importance of education. So, okay, American taxpayer: fish or cut bait. Double education funding, for starters, give teachers a raise and fewer students and let them do their thing. Trust teachers to teach.