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Bureaucrat's Field of Dreams

If You Test Them They Will Learn

Publication Date: 2003-03-05

For the first 38 years of my teaching career, I saw no noteworthy changes in education. Now, more recently, I have seen truly significant reforms; but unquestionably and unfortunately, they are changes for the worst. This time they?ve gone too far; the only viable prospect for a reversal or retraction of these deleterious, disastrous changes is a full-fledged, unified, national, teacher-revolt, a malevolent backlash.

Teachers will tolerate incredible abuse to themselves; but, they cannot tolerate their kids being systematically, deliberately and inhumanely abused in the name of standards, research, assessment or the state ?alphabet soup? high-stakes tests, accountability or anything else I can imagine. Teachers live with their kids; they love their kids; they know their kids; so when they reach their tolerance threshold they will revolt with the viciousness of a parent for his/her endangered child and will have the support of the fed-up parents and the beleaguered children. ?Teachers of the nation arise! You have nothing to lose but a senseless assault on the dignity and well-being of your students and the intrusion of nincompoops into your pedagogical expertise, your professional responsibility and your crowded room full of kids, in your own little corner of the world.?

Aggressively advanced by the President the United States, the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives, the U.S. Office of Education through their ?No Child Left Behind Act, January 8, 2002; shamelessly touted by governors, state bureaucracies, local politicians, testing gurus, college academicians and researchers; and gleefully joined by ?bottom-line? business interests, education corporation CEO?s, publishers, authors, profiteers, and lay boards; these self-appointed standard-bearers have intruded themselves into my professional life, imposed na?ve, regressive laws on my classroom instruction, constrained my pedagogy with mandated, counterproductive requirements, assaulted my kids with one-size-fits-all curriculum, insulted me with senseless regulations, overwhelmed my building administrators, and forced me into teaching-to-the-test, burdened me with useless additional paperwork, funded a billion dollar testing industry using my teaching money, made school budget planning a ludicrous joke, usurped what precious little autonomy I had left as a professional teacher, and deprived me of making continuous, crucial, daily, teaching-learning decisions; and screwed the at-risk kids. (Whew! You don?t see 150 word-long sentences too often anymore.)

Initially, this distressing educational upheaval as perpetrated by the rising tide of mediocre reports convincing politicians that our nation was at risk, educational criticism becoming a national media sport; teachers being blamed for society?s ills, schools becoming a heated topic of dinner-table discussions; and generalized school-bashing. Back in the good old days when teachers went into their classrooms, closed the door, taught the kids, and responded to the dime-a-dozen, budget-bursting, reform-of-the-day programs with the mantra, ?This too shall pass,? teachers had the freedom-to-teach, however surreptitiously that freedom might have been gained.

Comes the vote-grubbing, pontificating politicos, promoting perverse political power, pushing pseudo-research-driven strategies and assuaging an egoistical quest for so called excellence, world-class standards, and uniform student achievement; obligating teachers to become subservient, subjected, submissive and subjugated lackeys to the education industry?s charlatans and profiteers. Teachers were suddenly scrutinized, pressurized, criticized; blamed, blasted and blasphemed then forced to perform classroom routines like circus dogs jumping through hoops ? to the detriment of the kids it purported to help.

From their bottom-rung status on the education ladder, students and teachers found themselves hapless victims of ?exit poll testing,? where the results of a few days of fill-in-the-bubble, one-dimensional, standardized, state-level, high-stakes testing began to be used to measure, evaluate, rank, fund, reward, penalize, compare, publicize, and label the 1,200 hours of the year?s worth of teaching-learning progress. Cruelly misled by both the promise and threat of vouchers and transfers, teachers, teaching, kids and learning were knowingly sacrificed in a fool?s game of ?improvement by intimidation,? ?achievement-by-testing,? ?teach-to-the-test-omit-everything-else,? and ?retribution-by-labeling.?

In the name of accountability, statistical analysts evaluated kids, ranked classes, categorized schools and designated countless innocent children, failures. Teachers were demoralized by news papers publishing charts of meaningless test results, like box scores on the sports page, made students into data bank statistics for continuation of the travesty and hung a ?loser? label like an albatross around their necks.

Marilyn Brown, staff writer for the Tampa Tribune, wrote an article February 5, 2003, headlined, "Fla. Tries to Avoid Flunking 50,000 Third-Grade Pupils." I read it and wept. The 50,000 are not numbers or statistics. Each is a child living the only life s/he has, the only life each will ever have. Shall we punish a third grader for lack of study skills, knowledge, helpful homes, prior educational experiences and bureaucratic power run amuck. The least they could do is not demean children?s lives by labeling them ?flunkers? and making their failure public and permanent. Those retained will be a year behind their peers for the rest of their school life; though probably not for too long because statistically 50 percent of retainees will drop out before graduation. These are eight year olds who presented themselves last August to be taught. They showed up! An authoritarian school system assigned them desks, rooms, teachers, books, lessons, units, assignments and controlled their lives virtually ever minute of their schooling every day through lunch, recess and homework. Did they struggle with work they couldn?t do? Was everything offered to the class appropriate to every student? Now, tell me again, just what is it thousands flunked?

Regardless of arguments about the reliability, validity, meaning, cultural bias, ethnic unfairness, high/low standards, values, cost, unqualified, non-credentialed teachers, teacher quality, standardization and obvious limitations of testing; regardless of the expense, confusion, pressure, emotions, time considerations, failure ratio, teaching-to-the-test; and, regardless too, of conflicting research studies, frustrated, disgruntled teachers leaving the profession, bewildered parents, non-involved families, fairness issues, poverty problems, budget bursting costs, state funding shortfalls, and broken federal funding promises, the assault goes on unabated, with a crescendo increasing momentum, flaunting the tumultuous results.

These self-inflicted problems and any singular issue from compulsory phonemic awareness drill, non-social promotion, retention and third grade boot camps, to tutoring, uniforms, vouchers, norm standards, criterion reference, remediation approaches and all the children now left behind in the wake of the No Child Left Behind Act are sufficient to create decades of confusion, uncertainty, relentless haggling, and would require a fresh barrage of additional noxious laws, mandates and regulations and revised puffery, federal standards, continued insufficient funding, and arguments about national testing and certification requirements for teachers.

Each and every one of the nation's conscientious, dedicated, caring, two million professional teachers could effortlessly list a hundred and one arguments spelling out the specific evil, harm and horrors of the ?Leave No Child Untested? bureaucratic nightmare, that crunches kids and flies in the face of effective teaching. As I considered my own lengthy list of indictments, I reluctantly discarded all but one summative argument, to wit: accountability.

Accountability is only half a word; the other half being, ?to what?? ??accountability to what?? Am I accountable for carrying out prescribed, pre-determined, pre-digested, pre-packaged, mandated, scripted, administrated, supervised, direct-instruction, teacher-proof lessons with required procedures, group assignments, copied worksheets and commercially prepared, dated materials? Or, am I accountable for knowing each of my students personally, learning their special individual needs and idiosyncratic styles, communicating with their parents, coordinating my efforts with colleagues, and administrators, assessing daily work and efforts, evaluating learning progress, diagnosing through classroom check-up tests, remediating deficits, differentiating assignments, adjusting techniques and strategies, utilizing available resources, and making appropriate, timely decisions for helping them learn and remember the material and information.

If my accountability is to carry out prepared procedures of educational outsiders, non-teachers, researchers, corporate employees, text and test writers, people who have not even visited a classroom, and my kids fail to learn ?the intruders need to change their procedures; it is they who should be failed; it is they who need extra help, time and tutoring.

Actually, if teaching were a matter of procedures determined independently of the learner, by someone who has never taught, who has not been to school since his/her own successful graduation, who knows nothing about my kids, my school or my community; it would probably be better to hire high school kids as teachers for minimum wage. High School kids would likely ?mind? and do what they are told, however harmful and senseless, better than trained professionals would. Teachers, who have the kids? interest at heart would undoubtedly know or could find ways to circumvent the nonsense and put the kids needs and well being ahead of imposed standards policies and group procedures. Teachers know their kids better than anyone else, they are the heart and soul of the teaching-learning process and they must be trusted to make the educational decisions, not because they can do it best, but because they are the only ones who can do it at all!

On the other hand, if my accountability is for increased student achievement, I need to make the decisions that will produce the desired results. I am willing, and able and to be accountable to teach within the school districts parameters, policies, guidelines and supervision: but I must have the latitude to allow for individual differences, readiness, interest, motivation, ability, personality, feelings; and to consider prior knowledge, experiences, values, priorities, emotions, beliefs, needs and attitudes. I must be able to ask for variance, help and face-to-face negotiation for deviation for the good of the students. I must have the autonomy to make appropriate, timely decisions as a professional. I?ll be pleased to be accountable for assuring student achievement and have responsibility for learning goals and objectives, if I have the commensurate decision making authority and responsibility.

As long as the ?standardistos? want to intrude themselves in my classroom and impose their preordained lessons, required teaching techniques, prepared scripts, time limits, cut-off dates, set curriculum, and one-size-fits-all procedures, the standardistos must necessarily accept the responsibility for the results of the failures as well as the successes. I admonish them with a caveat in simple terms that simple pompous politicos can probably understand with the aid of an aide:

Kids have just one truly significant problem; they are human beings; they act, and to our consternation, they react as human beings. Teachers have the same problem; they too are human. They interact in the process of teaching and learning with human kids, not standardized, predictable, inanimate, cookie cutter objects. Kids are flexible and malleable, but a class full of kids contains a class full of individual differences that constantly require the curriculum and teaching strategies be adapted to them -- not vice versa.

Mandate what they will! Kids are each unique, complex, multifaceted individuals. They require competent effective teachers to make the moment-to-moment critical decisions about the who, what, when, where, why and how of kids? learning. Their mandates be damned! A philosopher once asked the French Legislature, what I now ask of the educational law makers, ?Why is human nature so contrary to our laws??

I?m hankering for a good old-fashioned, vociferous, knock-down-drag-out, no-holds-barred backlash with chanting, placard-waving, button-wearing, bumper-sticker, banner carrying protest; with foot-stomping, screaming, chin-kicking, podium-pounding, jam-packed, over-crowded, emotional educational shouting match; with the overused ?alignment? word referring to coalitions of kids, teachers, parents and community members; with petitions, ?testing opt-out forms,? media blitzing, boycotting; and culminating with an ear piercing, in-unison, national scream of, ?I?m mad as hell and I?m not going to take it any more!? Join Me! I?d be delighted to hear from you.

With joy in sharing,

Bill Page
Teacher, parent, realist. child advocate and a wannabe writer, who calls ?em as he sees ?em.
Comments, Questions: billpage@bellsouth.net
Visit www.teacherteacher.com

Permission hereby granted for reproduction and distribution of this emotional rant ? in its entirety including credit and note, please.


A national organization fighting for educational justice is led by a dedicated group of parents teachers and authors. Contact them for information:

E-mail: susano@gmavt.net Susan Ohanian has written numerous books. (My own favorite is One Size Fits Few) A teacher, a writer, a fighter!

Check out http://www.susanohanian.org for some enlightenment.

Juanita Doyon?s brand new book, Not With Our Kids You Don?t!, offers, ?Ten Strategies To Save Our Schools? She also offers buttons to wear to voice your indignation about high stakes testing and NCLB insanity, and also to meet people. Buttons and Books: Juanita?s e-mail: JEDoyon@aol.com

Alphie Kohn?s criticism of the high stakes testing and his efforts for the opposition are well known and have been around for a while:
E-mail: mail@alfiekohn.org and visit www.alfiekohn.org

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