Sunday, July 17, 2011

The NYT Disappoints

Today's editorial in The New York Times, "Are They Learning?," comments on the cheating scandal in Atlanta. It is the most disappointing commentary I've read in some time.

It is disappointing because of the simplistic, wrong-headed conclusion the editors express.

It proves just how little the pundits are paying attention to what has been going on in our public schools. And if they aren't paying attention, who is?

It is disappointing because NYT has bought the arguments sold to the public and the media by very powerful special interest groups.

It is disappointing in the extreme because the editors do not blame the testing culture for the rampant cheating that has gone on.  Testing, in their eyes, is OK.  In their words: "It's the cheats who need to go, not the tests."

The editorial underscores that regular classroom teachers have an even smaller voice than ever as we Race to the Top of a Mountain of Testing and Test Scores.  Will no one ever listen to those who live in the landscape?

To answer the paper's question in a word: "No."  Our children are not learning.

Classroom teachers have been decrying the death of learning for the past ten years, and now the NYT and all the rest have come down on the wrong side:  Keep the tests.  Punish the adults.

I can fully understand how teachers can be pressured into changing scores.  We are at the bottom of a very long hierarchy, and doing what we're told is communicated in many, many ways.

Teachers are encouraged to "get along" and "be team players."   If teachers are not fired outright, their professional lives can be made a living hell.  Many good teachers have already been driven from the classroom.

In the current climate the numbers of reports and plans required by administration have multiplied to the point of exhausting teachers outside of the classroom, while demanding ever more in the classroom. We often suffer through the demands with our hands tied, neither controlling district nor school-wide decision making.

In the testing culture, teaching professionals have been systematically de-professionalized.  Districts have scripted instruction, set pacing guides that include regular testing windows, cannabilized instruction time for testing schedules, and pulled students--the well-known "bubble kids"--to remediate, remediate, remediate.

Large scale meetings have routinely focused on the numbers and have often resorted to humiliating whole groups of teachers.  ("Stand up if you are in a school that did not make AYP."   "What are you going to do this year to wipe that 'L' for 'Loser' off your forehead?"  These are sadly real comments heard in real meetings.)

For the thousandth time, yes, we need accountability.  But it needs to be non-invasive, low-stress, and less frequent then the "test every child every year in every subject" being pushed by the current Department of Education.  The NAEP that the Times calls impervious to tampering is a fine example of how we can routinely measure progress in our schools.

Here's a news flash: kids do not progress in a linear fashion.  Sometimes they regress, circle around, and then leap forward.   (Ask your tennis pro.  He'll tell you the same thing about athletes.)  We can't keep pushing kids through an education extruder.  It won't work.  They won't learn that way.  They aren't learning that way.

On the other hand, adults learn very quickly that if we need high pass rates to keep our jobs, then high pass rates will be had--learning be damned.

We need reform, and it needs to look like this: Take all that testing money and invest it in teachers.

While we've pushed tests for the last ten years we have done nothing to ensure that we have well-trained, effective adults in the classroom.  Ironically, we have gone in the opposite direction, letting any and all take a stab at teaching.  (TFA, Troops to Teachers, Career-switchers, long-term subs, etc.)

In the age when we are learning more daily about the brain and how brain-friendly strategies can improve learning for all, we are throwing open the doors and letting those with even less training take on the complex problems of helping our growing numbers of impoverished children succeed.  And, unsurprisingly, the less-trained teacher is fleeing even faster than the career teacher.

The Times is wrong.  We don't need better tests, better accountability, or better laws.

We need an army of well-trained teachers.

If the Times is this far off the mark, good luck convincing the public that better teachers not better tests are what our children need.

Please March.