In our meetings we will…
Come prepared • Assume positive intent • Honor time • Speak our truth
Listen attentively • Be mutually respectful • Step up and step back

That was the message on the agenda at the meeting I went to yesterday about MA school testing. It was placed just below the names of the facilitators, just above the list of meeting expectations. Not in huge print, but smallish, in italic script – not blaring, but noticeable. A firm, gentle reminder about the etiquette for the meeting. Beautiful.

I want to see that everywhere. I mean EVERYWHERE. I want to see it over the school doors. Carved into the sides of buildings. Taped to stop signs. Painted on vacant storefront windows downtown. All over the place.

Also, I want a stack of business cards to hand out that simply say, “Go forth in dignity and  kindness.” But Will thinks I might get punched out trying to give them to people. Or that they might confuse dignity with indignation x.x

So this meeting last night. It was a determination meeting in regard to a proposal that  MCAS testing be used as a tool to evaluate teachers. MCAS is standardized student testing in this state, and it’s high-stakes. If students don’t pass it, they ultimately don’t graduate.*

Whether or not you believe that standardized testing gives us valuable data,** there’s definitely something oogy going on surrounding this test. Zoe and myself are seeing our kids in the throes of test season right now, and we’ve been watching the homework dwindle, projects become an endangered animal, and reading become something that happens only because a student needs something to do while waiting for the rest of the class to complete their testing. The kids have big chunks of their school week devoted to MCAS prep – which entails learning how to fill in bubbles on a scantron sheet and how to sit quietly. How, exactly, is this good for students?

The teachers aren’t thrilled either – many feel that they’re being pressured to teach to the test. There was a 7th grade math teacher at the meeting last night who said that she was working with kids who she was trying to bring from a 4th grade math level to actual grade proficiency. She said that as the MCAS approached, she was under pressure to get the students to a point where they would pass the test, and she was scrambling. She was miserable – with a resigned sigh, she told us, “I did the worst teaching of my life this week.” A history teacher told us that if they started to require a history MCAS, that she would leave teaching.

And then there was the woman who raised the question that everyone was thinking about: How is it that some schools, like charter schools, do not teach to the test, continue to have dynamic curricula, and their students pass MCAS without a hassle?

Because some schools are doing that. So what’s going on in our kids’ schools? Could it be that pink slips go out with regularity every year in an effort to circumvent teacher unions?*** These are the people who are charged with educating our children – wouldn’t it seem more right to not jerk them around? To, I dunno, maybe allow them some dignity?

How can students learn dignity from teachers who are not imparted with it? When we put our teachers in the stressful position of teaching to the test, we flatten their curriculum, their dynamics, and their creativity. Then we put our children in the classroom with these frustrated people who are in constant concern over their job situation, and we expect that things are going to come up roses? For reals? This, friends, is not a morale booster.

We draw our expectations from our examples, and in education our expectations are extremely important on a grand scale. When our students spend their days in a classroom with teachers who teach well, dynamically, and creatively, and thus create a culture of high expectations in their classroom, we see students who will shoot for the moon. Conversely, when our students spend the day in schools with lackluster curriculum, with just-good-enough education and learning to the test, when they see teachers who have been stifled and denied dignity, how would they expect to have dignity and success  in their own lives? We are educating our children to be worried, bitter before the fact, and unspectacular† – and that human disregard is happenstance.  We’re educating them to be ok with the shit-happens mentality.

I’m sorry, but that’s just not acceptable. If the MCAS is used as a yardstick for teachers’ performance, what we’re looking at, excuse my language, is some seriously circular bullshittery.

So how do we find out how our teachers are doing without using standardized testing as the end-all-be all of data collection? Student portfolios. Exit interviews for students.†† Curriculum and rubric examination. Direct observation.††† What about achievement through things like science fairs, math bowls, spelling bees, and forensics? Writing competitions and school-based publications? Where are the authentic learning experiences that show us that our children have more than rote learning, but rather, deep understanding of the education which they are imparted?

Standardized testing has its place in data collection, certainly. For the record, I took the Iowa tests in school and didn’t think twice about it. But is standardized testing, especially with a teach-to-the-test approach, really going to tell us anything deep about our students’ learning or our teachers’ capabilities? There’s got to be a better way. There’s just got to.

***

*This is a test that starts in elementary school, and is distributed every year, and the kids stress out about it, and the parents stress out about it, and the teachers stress out about it because everyone from the school board on the state levels to the principals in the individual schools are stressing out about it. Even realtors get stressed about it, because everyone with kids is concerned about the school district.
**Broadly speaking, it often gives us data that indicates socioeconomic status.
***With the whole last-in-first-out business teachers have to put up with, I wonder why anyone would want to go into teaching at all. A friend of mine gets her pink slip at the end of every freaking year, then gets hired back on as school approaches, with crappier income and hours. Because she was last in, and so first out. Why was she last in? Because she got the freaking pink slip. Riddle me this, Batman: if the adminstration doesn’t respect their educators, how is it the students are supposed to be so inclined?
†Do you know? Man Cub was the only kid in his school to ever go to Regional Science Fair. He was one of, I think, two kids in his whole school to do an entry in the regular science fair. Why is no one pushing it? His science teacher is fantastic – she is a former engineer, and she has them slingshotting stuff across her room to talk about physics. She is one of two teachers Man Cub has who is able to maintain a dynamic classroom (because she knows that teaching isn’t the end of the line for her, so she’s less pressured? The other teacher he has who’s dynamic is a long-term sub.) – yet there’s no time to put emphasis on the real world skills of conducting an experiment. Two kids went to city science fair from the whole school. Two.
††Not just gee how was your teacher? but important stuff like, what were the expectations in your classroom? What do you know now that you didn’t know before? What would you like to to find out more about _________? When presented with a rubric for Mr. Soandso’s projects, what grade do you shoot for? What do you want to know more about now? What was your favorite part of this class? What was the hardest part of this class? &c.
††† There was a man at the meeting last night who asserted that observations of classrooms were unprofessional. WTF? Personally, I see it as a professional courtesy – the principal wants to know how the classrooms are operating and that her teachers are doing well in it. And furthermore, last time I checked there was no Las Vegas what-happens-in-the-classroom-stays-in-the-classroom policy on teaching. What are you hiding, friend educator?

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