The Utah Legislature, education, and testing

The Utah legislature meets annually, for a limited time: 60 days. This wasn’t a bad session for education, with 515 million in new ed spending, always welcome news. The leg also had discussions about SAGE, the Utah year-end assessment test that all students have to take, which in part determines school funding priorities. A bill was proposed that would have phased SAGE out. That bill did not pass, unfortunately. But at least they’re having a conversation about it.

Because of that, I can’t help but think that, even with all the new funding, this was an inconsequential session in regards to education. They could have made a genuine difference; they could have actually improved the way kids are educated in the state. But education professionals and education reformers won again, armed with their two great buzz words: ‘accountability’ and ‘assessment.’ And so testing will continue. What a shame.

Here’s why I hate testing so much. I am a teacher, the son of two teachers, grandson of another. I have three sisters-in-law who are teachers. My brother was a teacher. My son is training to become a teaching. Teaching is in my blood. And when I teach, my loyalty, first and foremost, is to my students. Nothing else, no other considerations, can be allowed to get in the way. Teachers focus on kids, those kids, in that classroom, their needs and difficulties and strengths and weaknesses. Of course there’s a subject matter that needs to be taught, and lesson plans that need to be developed, and we do have to come up with some way to figure out how much the kids are learning. But it’s always kid-oriented, directed for and about students. And sure, testing can be a valuable tool, when subject-matter and classroom limited. (Though I never once in my entire career gave a multiple-guess or true/false kind of test. Never once.)

This is just fundamental. Teaching has to be about students. We learn as much as we appropriately can about them. And the point isn’t just to get them to superficially understand certain facts or concepts. The point is empowerment. We want our kids to learn new skills, develop new ways of understanding the world, while always, always respecting their independence, their autonomy. We don’t teach math because there’s anything inherently valuable about figuring out an algebraic equation, but because there’s a kind of mental discipline that working out algebra problems helps develop.

Now, of course, the whole time we’re focusing all our attention on the students, we also are getting paid by the school system. We do owe our employees a certain loyalty. But teaching works best when we’re able to forget that, and lose ourselves in a kind of illusion of selflessness. And honestly, it’s not that much of an illusion. Teachers aren’t paid all that well, and the hours we spend outside the classroom, and the dollars we spend of our own money for classroom supplies all do suggest that teaching really is more a calling than a profession.

And think back to the genuinely great teachers who made a difference in your life. I think, for example, of my old high school drama teacher, Mary Forester, who routinely put in 80 hour weeks to give the school’s outcasts and misfits a place where we belonged. I think of Kenny Mann, my high school English teacher, who told me that short stories I wrote were genuinely engaging, and encouraged me to keep writing. (And I remember how painfully I took the news of his premature death from AIDS). I think of Marvin Carlson, my grad school advisor, who made a point of greeting me every time he saw me in his own bad Norwegian, because he never forgot that I had some fluency in the language.

Bad teaching, though, is what happens when the teacher has some other agenda than caring for students. I remember, for example, a grade school teacher of my oldest son’s. Her own son was in her classroom, and was the school bully, and when we would talk to her about it, it was clear that her primary agenda was to stand up for her kid, and not protect mine. Understandable, perhaps, but immensely damaging, until we were able to transfer Kai to a different school.

Conservatives sometimes complain about higher education having a liberal bias, suggesting not only that some college professors have an ideological bias, but that indoctrinating students ideologically is more important to them than just teaching. I think that does happen, and that it’s wrong. Overly tendentious political correctness is genuinely damaging to academic discourse. At the same time, feminist or Marxist or post-colonial literary theory are important lenses through which we can and often should view texts. The best teachers are those who can teach such theories, without insisting on the ideology. Good teaching is an effort to genuinely engage students in the world of ideas. All ideas, at least initially.

Ultimately, though, good teaching isn’t liberal or conservative. It’s personal, it’s respectful, it’s deeply and powerfully empathetic. And the best classroom moments are those when you sense that this classroom needs something other than the lesson you’ve prepared, and toss your entire plan out the window.

So what happens if institutional imperatives clash with the personal attention you have to give your students? I taught at BYU, I got a paycheck from BYU, and BYU has an Honor Code. I taught playwriting, and some student plays were frankly confessional. What if a student, in a play, admitted to having violated the Honor Code? Would I feel some kind of divided loyalty? Honestly, I never did. It never even occurred to me. I never turned a student in, and can’t imagine ever doing so. I was a teacher. Confessions made in class were, to me, privileged communications.

But once you introduce a state-required standardized test, and tell teachers that their raises and the funding of their schools requires that students do well on it, you’ve fundamentally changed the entire teacher/student dynamic. Suddenly, the worst possible kind of education process–forced rote memorization of worthless facts–becomes the way you have to teach. (Of course teachers teach to the test; the stake are too for them high not to). Suddenly the illusion of selflessness disappears. Your loyalty isn’t to your students anymore; it’s to the dictates of the state, or the principal of your school, or the school board, or whoever else in power needs your kids to do well on the SAGE.

It’s destructive, and it’s unnecessary. Education professionals insist on the necessity of ‘assessment,’ and when you protest, they respond with the other ‘a’ word: accountability. Suddenly, if you protest, you’re a freeloader, a cheat, someone who wants to be paid to do a job but opposes being held accountable for how good you are at it.

But teachers are already accountable. You’re accountable every time you look over a classroom of students. You feel that responsibility; you want them to do well, you care about them, you want them to excel.

When a student wrote a paper for one of my classes, I read it, I marked it up with comments, I gave it a grade. I always gave students the opportunity to re-write. Did their re-writes improve the paper? Yes, without exception, they did. How did I know? How could I prove it? By what assessment metrics could I demonstrate that improvement? I didn’t have any. The paper was better. I have read how many student papers in my lifetime? Several thousand? I know a good paper when I see one, and I also can tell when a paper improves. Trust me. I know what I’m doing.

Assessment and accountability. Those have become the two most destructive and damaging words in contemporary American education. They have become the false gods our education establishment worships. And both find their perfect expression in standardized, state-required tests.

The way teachers survive, I think, is through a kind of practiced mendacity. Teachers pay lip service to the A-words, while preserving as much of their own integrity as they can. Some teachers, of course, take it a step farther, by falsifying their student results. That’s understandable, and, in a sense, laudable, as acts of civil disobedience are often laudable as a response to tyranny. But what really needs to happen is for parents to get involved. Make a fuss. Insist that states end testing. End it now, end it everywhere. And meanwhile, when your kids take the SAGE test (or whatever malevolent equivalent your state’s cooked up), tell them to flunk on purpose. If everyone did that.. . . .




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