The National Obsession with teachers and standardized testing

08/21/2012  |  Samuel J. Spitalli
Guest Columnist With Samuel J. Spitalli

The national crusade against teachers, schools, and public education is in full bloom. It is not a new thing for disparaging remarks to be made about the teaching profession. George Bernard Shaw’s often quoted line from Man and Superman in 1903, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach,” is particularly condescending, inferring that those among us who are capable, do—that is, they become successful. Conversely, those who can’t hack it in the “real world” settle for teaching, thus the perception by some that teaching is only a part-time job for lazy people. Despite Shaw’s quote and the philosophical debate it has engendered through the years, the national preoccupation against teachers now has taken it to a whole new level, and many angry and worried teachers can be heard saying, “When did we become the enemy?”
... assessments need to be fair, accurately reflect students’educational progress, and provide information to be used to improve the teaching and learning process.

A Perfect Storm

The constant slamming of the teaching profession in our national discussion of education reform can have the same effect that trash talk has in the locker room—intimidation, loss of confidence, and discouragement, especially at a time when teachers are being ignored and when far-reaching changes are being made to the very foundation of education practice that foolishly glamorizes the value of high-stakes testing.

Words matter. Just as positive words can be uplifting and motivating, a barrage of negative remarks, especially in the media, can take on a life of their own and take a toll. And the losers in this scenario are not overpaid athletes and their fans, but underpaid teachers and, sadly, even their students. As a parent, I want my children’s teachers to feel respected, appreciated, and empowered — not disenfranchised and disheartened — because I have no doubt that how teachers feel about themselves and their chosen profession affects how well they teach.

Today’s Issues of Concern

Teachers should and must have a say in not only what children are taught but also a voice in how they are taught. Yet, many teachers complain that they are pressured to teach to the test (in itself a form of cheating), that their curriculum and methodology are highly scripted, and that the intense pressure for higher and higher test scores has taken the joy out of teaching and learning.

The history of American education is riddled with questionable innovations and educational flavors of the month which, at the time, were probably motivated by a hope of improving student learning. However, today’s crop of unproven “reforms” — merit pay, more tests, tying teacher pay and evaluations to test scores, removal of teacher tenure, etc. — all seem to be coming from a different place — punishment — where the purpose is to hurt. What is shocking is that major decisions are being made for both students and teachers based upon data that does not accurately reflect either student learning or teacher effectiveness. It’s what William Glasser, M.D. refers to as the “learn it, or I’ll hurt you” philosophy of education.

More Bad News

Educators are also taking a new self-inflicted hit on their reputations by a recent wave of cheating scandals which are symptomatic of intense pressure nationally to increase test scores. Cheating is inexcusable, period, but who didn’t see this coming? Good teachers know how to avoid creating conditions in the classroom in which some students will believe that they have no other recourse than to cheat; in other words, they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Yet, that is exactly what we are doing in our high-stakes testing arena where students, teachers, administrators — and even parents — have much to lose.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said he was “stunned” in an interview with NBC affiliate Channel 11 when he learned of the widespread cheating in the Atlanta, Georgia public schools and rightly said that it is not a reflection of the vast majority of other school systems in the country that are making gains without cheating. Cheating in several other states has led some to argue for stronger security measures that include hiring testing security firms to investigate suspected cheating. Cheating is becoming endemic, yet the resolution does not lie merely with increased test security and scrutiny but with an examination of conditions that promote cheating, including the over-emphasis on the stakes.

No Child Left Behind

We are witnessing a fundamental transformation in public education that has been in the making since the initiation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Its implementation has created a national culture of obsession over test scores, and the outcome has not been improved teaching and learning but winners and losers. NCLB has created a “tail wagging the dog” syndrome in which high-stakes testing has reduced learning to the acquisition of facts, figures, and details, where the pressure to raise scores has perverted the purpose of education — and meaningful learning has been relegated to an afterthought. This myopic and systematic weakening of the fundamental worth and purpose of American public education was recently reflected in a National Resolution on High Stakes Testing released on April 23, 2012, “by a coalition of national education, civil rights and parents groups, as well as educators who are trying to build a broad-based movement against the Obama administration’s test-centric school reform program,” as reported by Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post. As we have seen, the conditions have been created for the temptation to cheat, yet the actual cheating lies in cheating kids of a real education in which learning critical thinking, problem-solving, and how to be a responsible citizen should be priorities.

Teachers are resourceful. However, if teachers are going to play a role in education reform, they are going to have to use their collective resourcefulness to let state and national lawmakers and education officials know that they are not only fed up with bean counting, but also that they can and should be meaningfully involved in improving public education.

Fair Accountability and Assessment

Assessment of educational progress is essential, yet assessments need to be fair, accurately reflect students’ educational progress, and provide information to be used to improve the teaching and learning process. Schools and teachers are punished for low performance of students and face harsh consequences, a practice that is not likely to be effective when some factors affecting student performance are beyond teachers’ control. Holding educators accountable for student achievement, over the threat of sanctions, is like holding doctors accountable for their patients’ health — one is not magically going to benefit the other without at least some reciprocal cooperation, effort, and desire by the beneficiary, not to mention capacity to improve, family encouragement, and environmental supports.

Memo to George Bernard Shaw: Those who can, do—because they had good teachers.

Those who can, teach.

Samuel J. Spitalli is an adjunct professor at Palm Beach State College, Lake Worth, Florida where he teaches courses in classroom management in the Teacher Certification Program. He is also a volunteer Guardian Ad Litem, Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, West Palm Beach, Florida. He was formerly an administrator and English teacher at Township High School District 211 in Palatine, Illinois. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected].
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