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A Lesson in Teaching to the Test, From E.B. White

Posted: 2012-03-08

from New York Times Schoolbook blog, March 7, 2012

My only quarrel with this wonderful essay is that the title should be "Dear President Obama, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and the Governors of all 50 States and Puerto Rico, as well as ASCD, NCTE, and all other professional organizations offering webinars on the Common Core." I would love this essay even if Trumpet of the Swan hadn't been especially close to me and my third grade misfits. Gathered together as the worst readers in third grade, a number repeating third grade, some with severe difficulties, we embraced this book. Sam entered the children's life and they talked about him all during the day. I read the book aloud. At children's request, some of their parents read it aloud at home at the same time. They wanted to hear the story again. This happened frequently: children wanted to hear a good story more than once.

I'd call this the Anti-David Coleman Common Core attempt to force New Criticism on the classrooms of America. Notice the way Miss Annie Snug encourages students to respond to the text with opinion, family experiences, and so on. All specifically forbidden by David Coleman. And if you think I'm exaggerating, go view his "don't-give-a-shit" performance at the New York State Department of Ed. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have paid the Hunt Institute received $5,068,671 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for "Common Core communications support." Hunt has made 32 videos to spread Coleman's poison to teachers across America. State departments of ed are issuing Coleman's message as an imperative.

I repeat: This commentary is a beautiful rebuttal of Coleman and an affirmation of what is important in teaching. Thank you. Thank you-- to the authors and to the New York Times.

By Anne Stone and Jeff Nichols

In a recent quixotic attempt to broaden our kids' horizons beyond Hogwarts during evening story hour, we turned to E.B. White, whose crystal-clear style, arrow-straight moral compass and trenchant sense of the ironic, coupled with great storytelling gifts, make him a superb choice for both children and adults.

New Yorkers in particular have found again and again that his writings have anticipated the talk of the day, so we should have predicted that his perspective would illuminate current debates over the importance of quantifying student progress and teacher performance. White's wonderful book about a mute swan given voice by a trumpet stolen for him by his father, The Trumpet of the Swan, contains the following passage that in a few paragraphs beautifully evokes the elementary-school classroom of yesteryear -- and, we should all hope, of tomorrow. (The episode is at the close of the chapter entitled "School Days.")

The fifth-graders were having a lesson in arithmetic, and their teacher, Miss Annie Snug, greeted Sam with a question.

âSam, if a man can walk three miles in one hour, how many miles can he walk in four hours?â

âIt would depend on how tired he got after the first hour,â replied Sam.

The other pupils roared. Miss Snug rapped for order.

âSam is quite right,â she said. âI never looked at the problem that way before. I always supposed that man could walk twelve miles in four hours, but Sam may be right: the man may not feel quite so spunky after the first hour. He may drag his feet. He may slow up.â

Albert Bigelow raised his hand. âMy father knew a man who tried to walk twelve miles, and he died of heart failure,â said Albert.

âGoodness!â said the teacher. âI suppose that could happen too.â

âAnything can happen in four hours,â said Sam. âA man might develop a blister on his heel. Or he might find some berries growing along the road and stop to pick them. That would slow him up even if he wasnât tired or didnât have a blister.â

âIt would indeed,â agreed the teacher. âWell, children, I think we have all learned a great deal about arithmetic this morning, thanks to Sam Beaver. And now hereâs a problem for one of the girls in the room. If you are feeding a baby from a bottle, and you give the baby eight ounces of milk in one feeding, how many ounces of milk would the baby drink in two feedings?â

Linda Staples raised her hand.

âAbout fifteen ounces,â she said.

âWhy is that?â asked Miss Snug. âWhy wouldnât the baby drink sixteen ounces?â

âBecause he spills a little each time,â said Linda. âIt runs out of the corners of his mouth and gets on his motherâs apron.â

By this time the class was howling so loudly the arithmetic lesson had to be abandoned. But everyone had learned how careful you have to be when dealing with figures.

In light of current controversies around testing and teacher evaluation, letâs do a little thought experiment. How would Miss Snug have handled this lesson if it were occurring just before a round of standardized testing? Would she not have had to interrupt the childrenâs speculations and instructed them that actual circumstances in word problems must be completely disregarded, because the point is to arrive at the answer the test designers have in mind? After all, how could test designers anticipate the lines of thought that spontaneously erupted in her classroom? Real life, and real thought, are too complicated to be foreseen -- and so need to be put aside at testing time.

Our city officials donât seem to be particularly bothered by that. In a recent press conference, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said, "This business of teaching to the test is exactly what we should do, as long as the test reflects what we want them to learn."

Itâs a good thing he qualified his statement. We say we are concerned about education because our adult citizens need to be flexible thinkers, ready to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances of the global marketplace. But making standardized tests the center of our curriculums tells children the most important thing they need to learn in school is how to arrive at predetermined answers on the tests. A teacher in Mayor Bloomberg's test-driven schools would not be encouraged to announce with satisfaction that "we have learned a great dealâ after a lesson in which the children have decided that 8+8=15 and 4Ã3 is too difficult to solve conclusively.

So in fact the test doesnât reflect at all what kids should learn in school. What they really need to master is the kind of imaginative, adaptive thinking Miss Snug encourages in the passage from The Trumpet of the Swan -- skills that cannot be assessed in any way other than actually knowing the children.

This little episode captures what volumes of education research have shown: we are born curious, and the best education models do not proceed on the basis of âwhat we want them to learn,â as Mr. Bloomberg correctly describes the goal of test-oriented education, but on the assumption that our job is to foster childrenâs ability ultimately to shape a world different from what we leave to them. We provide the scaffolding; they design the building. And thus it is we who stand to learn from children, if only we can suppress our anxiety about their futures long enough to refrain from stifling them.

In testing children, in evaluating teachers, it is time for us all to learn âhow careful you have to be when dealing with figures.â

Anne Stone is associate professor at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Jeff Nichols is associate professor at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. They are the parents of eight-year-old twins in the third grade in New York City schools.

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