Monday, May 23, 2016

An Open Letter on Testing and Education

Dear Congressman or Congresswoman; Dear Mr. President; Dear Bill and Melinda Gates; Dear Arne Duncan; Dear Anyone Who Has Touched and Impacted Education in the Last Decade:

I'd like to try an exercise with you. Close your eyes, block out all outside distractions, and think about your favorite teacher. I want you to picture that influential man or woman, and remember why that teacher was your favorite. Was he especially good at creating connections to you emotionally? Did she encourage you to explore your interests, even when they diverged from her lesson plan?

Or did that teacher, your favorite, win your heart because he or she got great results on standardized tests? Do you remember this person because he was especially good at following the prescribed curriculum?

I have several teachers that stand out in my past. Ms. Jeanne "D" DeVilliers gave up night after night of her own time to meet with us and work with us on competitive speeches, student congress, and our debate cases. To meet the demands of a subject area that requires creativity, intense research, and heavy practice, she led an unusually-structured class, with students moving between her room and the library, hall, and theater, to conduct their own personal research and rehearse until each gesture had been refined into perfection. We did not cram for standardized tests, and she did not employ traditional assessments, yet there was no question whether she was one of the best teachers in the school and the state.

Mr. Charlie Dugan, world history teacher and track coach, inspired students with his enthusiasm and passion for ancient cultures. He loaned students books from his own library when they sought to learn more about world religions and cultures. He drew comics for every handout and used science fiction to help us understand the impact of history on the modern day. It was his assignment to interview an older relative or friend about his life that gave me access to one of the most meaningful and impactful moments of my life and taught me the true meaning of living well.

I've had teachers who weren't afraid to be goofy--some of whose antics I use in my own classes because they were so effective for my learning. I've had teachers who weren't afraid to find out why I was withdrawing to the corner of the room and teachers who allowed me to work ahead when I was inspired.

These teachers built a foundation in education for me which remains with me, woven into my identity, and I remember them all because they were great teachers.

I don't remember the name of my reading teacher in the fourth and fifth grades, who had us complete innumerable practice readers to prepare for the Iowa State tests. In fact, the readers are the only thing I remember about that class--which became a problem when I changed schools a year later and was expected to know how to analyze literature. I couldn't explain the theme of a story, but I got top marks--99th percentile--on the Iowa test.

To tell the truth, I don't remember the names of any of my teachers in that school, a school that was known throughout the area for its outstanding test scores. We spent weeks every year preparing for standardized testing, and I got very good at multiple-choice tests.

But I didn't know the material on a deeper level; I hadn't learned to use information well, how to analyze ideas and evaluate them myself. And I did not form any lasting relationships with the teachers there. I was never inspired.

When I enter my classroom and greet my students, when I read brain research to learn how students' minds learn language best, when I ask my students about their lives and really listen, when I show I care in the lessons I create and the relationships I build, I am not following a prescribed curriculum. I am not working to improve students' test scores.

I am working to improve students' lives.

I want my students to know I care and I want my students to care, not just about Latin, but about learning. I want my students to embrace and love education. I want them to feel safe being themselves in my room and to pay that safety forward by standing up for each other's rights. I want my students to know that every inch of curiosity pays rich dividends of information and I want them to learn how to find that information.

I want my students to be healthy, happy, and lifelong learners.

How can that happen in a nation where the discourse about teachers is so negative that the legislators have decided it would benefit their future campaigns to dictate to teachers what and how they should teach in their classes, without one year of experience or one experienced consultant? How can students learn to love school when a billionaire turns his ambivalent feelings into bitter rhetoric that has no source in research?

When did accountability begin to mean micromanagement? Teachers are told when to test and how to test and what they should teach on the way and how to train students to produce the correct form of the correct answer and there is no space left in this crowded syllabus for teachers to innovate, create, or personalize learning.

"No Child Left Behind" became "Race to the Top" but the baseline is the same: test scores for money. So schools put teachers in boxes and punish them for stepping outside them.

No matter that students learn to hate school. No matter that there is a nation-wide epidemic of teen anxiety that is endangering young lives. This has never been about what is best for students. This is about appearances and votes and seeming like you're doing something. No matter that it's the wrong thing.

No matter that you're strangling education.