We the irrelevant?
-- by Susan J. Hobart
I’m a teacher. I’ve taught elementary school for eleven years. I’ve always told people, “I have the best job in the world.” I crafted curriculum that made students think, and they had fun while learning. At the end of the day, I felt energized. Today, more often than not, I feel demoralized.
While I still connect my lesson plans to students’ lives and work to make it real, this no longer is my sole focus. Today I have a new nickname: testbuster. Singing to the tune of “Ghostbusters,” I teach test-taking strategies similar to those taught in Stanley Kaplan prep courses for the SAT. I spend an inordinate amount of time showing students how to “bubble up,” the term for darkening those little circles that accompany multiple choice questions on standardized tests.
I am told these are invaluable skills to have.
I am told if we do a good job, our students will do well.
I am told that our district does not teach to the test.
I am told that the time we are spending preparing for and administering the tests, analyzing the results, and attending in-services to help our children become proficient on this annual measure of success will pay off by reducing the academic achievement gap between our white children and our children of color.
I am told a lot of things.
But what I know is that I’m not the teacher I used to be. And it takes a toll. I used to be the one who raved about my classroom, even after a long week. Pollyanna, people called me. Today, when I speak with former colleagues, they are amazed at the cynicism creeping into my voice.
What has changed?
No Child Left Behind is certainly a big part of the problem. The children I test are from a wide variety of abilities and backgrounds. Whether they have a cognitive disability, speak entry-level English, or have speech or language delays, everyone takes the same test and the results are posted. Special education students may have some accommodations, but they take the same test and are expected to perform at the same level as general education students. Students new to this country or with a native language other than English must also take the same test and are expected to perform at the same level as children whose native language is English. Picture yourself taking a five-day test in French after moving to Paris last year.
No Child Left Behind is one size fits all. But any experienced teacher knows how warped a yardstick that is.
I spent yesterday in a meeting discussing this year’s standardized test results. Our team was feeling less than optimistic in spite of additional targeted funds made available to our students who are low income or who perform poorly on such tests.
As an educator, I know these tests are only one measure, one snapshot, of student achievement. Unfortunately, they are the make-or-break assessment that determines our status with the Department of Education.
They are the numbers that are published in the paper.
They are the scores that homebuyers look at when deciding if they should move into a neighborhood.
They are the numbers that are pulled out and held over us, as more and greater rigidity enters the curriculum.
I was recently told we cannot buddy up with a first-grade class during our core literacy time. It does not fit the definition of core literacy, I was told. Reading with younger children has been a boon to literacy improvement for my struggling readers and my new English-speaking students. Now I must throw this tool away?
In an increasingly diverse public school setting, there is not one educational pedagogy that fits all students. We study and discuss differentiated curriculum, modify teaching strategies, and set “just right reading levels” to scaffold student learning. But No Child Left Behind doesn’t care about that. It takes no note of where they started or how much they may have progressed.
As a teacher, I measure progress and achievement for my students on a daily basis. I set the bar high, expecting a lot.
I don’t argue with the importance of assessment; it informs my instruction for each child.
I don’t argue with the importance of accountability; I believe in it strongly—for myself and my students.
I have empathy for our administrators who have to stand up and be told that we are “challenged schools.” And I have empathy for our administrators who have to turn around and drill it into our teacher heads, telling us we must do things “this” way to get results. I feel for them. They are judged on the numbers, as well.
No Child Left Behind is a symptom of a larger problem: the attack on public education itself. Like the school choice effort, which uses public funds to finance private schools and cherry-pick the best students, No Child Left Behind is designed to punish public schools and to demonstrate that private is best.
But I don’t think we’ve turned a corner that we can’t come back from. Public education has been a dynamic vehicle in our country since its inception. We must grapple with maintaining this progressive institution. Policymakers and educators know that education holds out hope as the great equalizer in this country. It can inspire and propel a student, a family, a community.
The state where I teach has a large academic achievement gap for African American and low income children. That is unacceptable. Spending time, money, energy on testing everyone with a “one size fits all test” will not eliminate or reduce that gap.
Instead, we need teacher-led professional development and more local control of school budgets and policymaking. Beyond that, we need to address the economic and social issues many children face, instead of punishing the schools that are trying to do right by these students.
We’ve got things backwards today. Children should be in the front seat, not the testing companies. And teachers should be rewarded for teaching, not for being Stanley Kaplan tutors.
Ten years ago, I taught a student named Cayla. A couple of months ago, I got a note from her, one of those things that teachers thrive on.
“Ms. Hobart was different than other teachers, in a good way,” she wrote. “We didn’t learn just from a textbook; we experienced the topics by ‘jumping into the textbook.’ We got to construct a rainforest in our classroom, have a fancy lunch on the Queen Elizabeth II, and go on a safari through Africa. What I learned ten years ago still sticks with me today. When I become a teacher, I hope to inspire my students as much as she inspired hers.”
Last week, I received a call from Niecy, another student from that class ten years ago. She was calling from southern Illinois to tell me she was graduating from high school this month and had just found out that she has won a scholarship to a college in Indiana. I was ecstatic in my happiness for her. We laughed, and I told her I was looking at a photo of her on my wall, building a pyramid out of paper bricks with her classmates.
I also had a recent conversation with Manuel in a grocery parking lot. He reminded me of my promise eight years ago to attend his high school graduation. I plan to be there.
Cayla and Niecy and Manuel are three of the reasons I teach. They are the reasons that some days this still feels like a passion and not a job.
When I pick up the broom at the end of the day to sweep my class due to budget cuts, I remember Cayla.
When I drive home demoralized after another meeting where our success is dissected with a knife manufactured in Texas, I remember Niecy.
When another new program that is going to solve the reading disparity, resulting in higher test scores, is introduced on top of another new program that was supposed to result in the same thing, I remember Manuel.
They are the fires that fuel my passion. They are the lifeboats that help me ride this current wave in education.
Eight or ten years from now, I want other former students to contact me and tell me a success story from their lives. I don’t want to be remembered as the teacher who taught them how to sing “Testbusters” or to “bubble up.” I want to be remembered as a teacher who inspired them to learn.
Susan J. Hobart, M.S. Ed., is a National Board Certified Teacher living in the Midwest.