A Different Narrative of American Education

From Saturday, July 13, 2013

There is a myth going around our country, a multifaceted myth. It goes something like this: American schools have been dumbed down, bad teachers have been given free reign, our educational system is failing, and we will fail to be competitive in the new global economy. This is a myth on several counts. American schools are more rigorous than they have ever been. What used to be high school topics and subjects have been moved into middle school (Algebra 2 in 8th grade, anyone?). High School students can take multiple college level courses while still in high school, for college credit, and even graduate with a two year college degree along with their high school diploma. Tenure allowed bad teachers to stay in the classroom only if administrators were unwilling to go through the process of removing them. Our educational system is not failing. When people compare our test scores to those of other countries, they fail to take into account that there may be different tests involved, which invalidates the comparison, that some “high-scoring” nations do not, as we in the U.S do, test or even attempt to educate all their students. (Some test or educate only their best and brightest.) Moreover, there has never been a proved link between high test scores and a robust economy, or even between high test scores and individual success in later life. Standardized tests generally test students’ ability to take tests. Last but not least, is our only goal in educating our youth to make them capable of earning more money than people in other countries? Or are our goals bigger and more generous than that? 

Because of this story about how our schools are failing, however, several things are happening. We have come to equate learning with testing, and testing with learning, because standardized tests are easy to measure. We have linked test scores to teacher evaluation. If your students aren’t scoring well enough, the teacher isn’t teaching well enough. This supposedly makes it easy to see who our good and bad teachers are. We have ordered teachers to teach to the test, an act that used to be considered unethical. But when our only goal is higher test scores, then anything that gets in the way of that goal has got to go. The curriculum becomes narrower—if it isn’t on the test, it doesn’t get taught. The arts are neglected. In the lower grades, Science and History go out the window to make way for test prep in Math and Reading. Because we need students to pass the tests, we are telling teachers exactly how to teach, giving them scripted curricula that tell them what to say and exactly what materials to use, and what assessments to utilize. The only thing left for teachers to do is talk louder. They are held accountable for results, but robbed of the autonomy needed to get results. Schools are threatened with closures if they don’t show improvement. Schools have been closed and replaced all across the country with charter schools that often don’t get any better results than public schools, sometimes hand-pick their students to make their scores look better, and sometimes waste tax payer money in well-documented scandals. There are organizations whose goal is to shut down and dismantle our public school system, all based on the spurious claim that the system is, across the board, failing. 

But most children in the U.S. still attend public schools. They are the backbone of many communities. They can be the greatest ticket to opportunity a child from any background can have. Since most U.S. students still attend public schools, it is worth looking at what is happening to them. Bad teachers used to be the ones who didn’t work hard, who just taught from the textbook or handed out worksheets. Now teachers are being pressured and bullied to teach like robots and teach to the test—the exact behaviors that used to be considered bad teaching. Teaching is a calling, but many teachers feel they can no longer do what is best for students. Tenure has been eroded or removed, and teaching is fast becoming even more of a revolving door job than it ever was. Reformers want teachers to teach for a couple years, and then move on to a “real” job; that way our teaching force remains cheap and easy to control. Politicians on both sides of the aisle and the media at large have all joined together to beat up on and verbally abuse teachers. Teachers feel there is no one on their side. Even the much maligned unions have joined with the reformers at this point. Teachers feel depressed and demoralized, which makes it hard, if not impossible, for them to teach their best. 

What we do to teachers we also do to students. Students are under increased pressure to pass tests, sometimes vomiting on their testing booklets. Play and imagination and creativity, all things that research has shown lead to better behavior, self-control, and cognitive development in children, are being taken away from them. The curriculum is being ever narrowed in favor of what will appear on standardized tests. We are testing students to see where they are at the start of the year, testing them to see how they are progressing throughout the year, testing them for weeks or even a month to see if they’ve learned anything, and then testing them some more just because testing is the whole point of school. The new Common Core standards now come with the promise of students in most states following standard, scripted curricula to prepare them to take new, even more difficult tests, some of which may take ten hours to complete. Students are beaten down. Teachers are retiring early and leaving the profession in disgust.

But some teachers are fighting these trends. Some, perhaps most, teachers believe in public schools and a free education for all students. They believe that education is not just teaching students to pass tests. They believe that education is not just about how to make a living, but also how to make a life. They believe that school should be a place of joy in learning, not learning in fear. They believe that play, imagination, and creativity have a place in school, just as much as mastering difficult material. In fact, play and mastery go hand in hand. These teachers are now perceived as the trouble makers, the insubordinates, the bad apples, the defenders of the status quo (What status quo? Testing has been the status-quo for nearly 20 years now). These teachers don’t want to follow a script. They are fighting to work 4 times harder than they have to because they actually want to be creative in the classroom. These teachers have classrooms you’d love to have your child in. These teachers have classrooms you’d probably like to spend the day in. These teachers are the teachers you don’t want quitting, yet the system is trying to drive them out, in favor of obedient, compliant curriculum dispensers – I’ve called them Quantitative Learning Gains Facilitators. The reformers manufactured a crisis so they could run school for profit and make money off your children. That is the real narrative.

We have a choice in this country. Keep listening to the “reformers’” story and end up with test-score-mills even worse than the ones we have now, or listen of the teachers and watch us grow a public school system that isn’t an industrial factory spitting out test takers, but a system where schools are places of thinking, learning, creativity, play, wonder, engagement, hard work, and intense fun.