Bulldozing the Forests. . .

Cranky Blogger Warning:  Be aware that this entry was written after a long and miserable week!  While its topic is timely and true, its tone may be as much a result of timing as of anything!

Easily the most interesting book on my reading list right now is titled The Whale Warriors. It documents the voyage of a group of environmentalists whose sole goal is to stop illegal whaling in the earth’s waters—even if it means sinking vessels by ram or by mine.

Crazy stuff, for sure.

While reading today, however, I discovered that commercial fishing is—in some bizarre fashion—a lot like schooling in America. Here’s how:

Every year long line and bottom trawling vessels decimate wide swaths of ocean in a hunt for target species. While it is true that thousands of feet of netting dragged through miles of open ocean is likely to result in large catches of species prized by consumers and fishermen alike, it is also true that those same nets trap thousands of pounds of unwanted fish as well. Consider this quote from Whale Warriors:

“Weighted nets are dragged in and the target species are thrown into the hold, while all the rest are chucked overboard, dead or dying. Wasted…Between the longlines and bottom trawlers, 7 million tons of thriving ocean life is tossed as bycatch annually. Hundreds of thousands of sea mammals—seals, dolphins, sea lions—are dumped…

Bottom trawling is like bulldozing the forest, killing everything in it, to get at the wild turkeys. That’s what it leaves, a smoking waste.”

Pretty graphic image, right?

This passage moved me because, in many ways, I think that our nation’s embrace of standardized testing has had the same impact on teaching and learning. We’ve stripped our classrooms of anything that doesn’t have a proven connection to increased scores. Art and music are thrown overboard, along with lessons that emphasize creativity, collaboration or innovation.

We don’t reward students who think differently.  Instead, we create instructional plans that produce the kinds of thinking that is tested.

And like long-lining and bottom trawling, we’ve had enough success with our approach to schooling that we’re willing to overlook the unintended costs of our actions. We seem to take a blind satisfaction in numbers.

As passing rates and SAT scores rise, we are comforted by the belief that we’re doing the right thing and unaware of what we’ve lost along the way. “As long as our children are successful,” we say—forgetting that our vision of success has narrowed remarkably in the past two decades.

But I’m afraid that we’ve bulldozed the forest to get to the turkeys!  At the very least, I know that my work has been bulldozed. 

You see, I no longer drift very far from multiple choice questions at all.  Seminars—once a mainstay in my classroom because they encourage students to think creatively and to wrestle with deep ideas together—are now a twice-a-year event.  Why?  Because they take too long to teach, the skills required in a seminar are not tested (even though they are in my required curriculum), and I fall behind in our pacing guide. 

Almost every lesson begins and end with practice questions.  We have pretests for every practice test and then we debrief after taking tests, recording the kinds of questions we have to master before future tests.  I’d guess that my kids answer close to 200 multiple choice questions a month.

Seems like a drastic reaction, right? 

Not when you consider that–unlike the education professionals who work in non-tested subjects–I’m held accountable for one thing and one thing only:  the numbers my kids put up each year on end of grade exams. 

While others are evaluated on slightly ridiculous, overly nebulous, warm and fuzzy difficult to measure contributions—like these “foundational common beliefs” set by the American Association of School Librarians  (I’ll give you 10 bucks if you can effectively argue that “Reading is a Window to the World” is a standard while keeping a straight face.)—- I’m judged by how many kids choose the right answer on a multiple choice exam.

That dichotomy is destroying buildings.   
Consider my fall:  Our reading scores came back and they weren’t quite what everyone had expected.  In our “data debrief” meeting, my sixth grade LA team was called “decidedly average” in front of the entire faculty because our scores didn’t meet expectations—Never mind the constant “we’re all reading teachers” mantra making it’s way through the edu-sphere.
That leaves me bitter towards colleagues beyond the tested classroom.  I resent that teaching has become automated in my room and feel a sense of regret over what I’ve lost because I know that I’ve got another benchmark to give in a week. 
While my peers beyond the classroom get to educate, I do little more than mechanically train my students to pass exams.  Much like the oceans, my work has simply been gutted.
I’m trying to take hope from the environmentalists who remain somewhat optimistic about our oceans, regardless of how dark the current situation may seem.  Consider this quote from The Whale Warriors:

“The good news is that half of the coral reefs are still in good shape and ten percent of the big fish remains. Sea turtles are not all gone, and some albatrosses still grace the skies above the world’s oceans. Best of all, people are becoming aware of the significance of the ocean to their health, their prosperity, their security and more importantly their survival.”

Like those that protect the oceans, I think people—particularly parents—are intensely aware of the significance of education to the health, prosperity, security and survival of their children. Never before have we lived in a time when a high quality education was as great a determinant in success as today.

Quite simply, our children no longer compete with neighbors and friends for future employment—their competing in a borderless world with millions of driven children from around the globe.

That reality has forced us to be more sophisticated when judging quality—and to be more outspoken when we sense that something has gone awry. We’re beginning to question the merits of a system of education where creativity and a passion for discovery are replaced by test preparation. We’re learning—and beginning to actively redefine what successful students look like.

Perhaps resilience—paired with growing awareness and understanding—will inevitably lead to better public policies that balance the need to hold schools accountable with the desire to produce well-rounded students.


10 thoughts on “Bulldozing the Forests. . .

  1. Pingback: Value-Added Teacher Evaluation Models Fail Kids AND Communities | The Tempered Radical

  2. Roger Sweeny

    I’m not sure I believe this but…
    When it comes to subject matter knowledge, students have never learned much and never will. Those surveys that say half of graduates can’t put the Civil War in the right half-century aren’t exceptional. That’s just the way it is.
    Fortunately, it doesn’t matter. Twenty years ago, “A Nation at Risk” said the poor performance of our students was going to ruin us economically. Instead, we’ve had 20 years of prosperity.
    So let’s forget the graduation tests and just do things that are fun and interesting.

  3. Tammy

    We live in North Carolina and now after 2 years I understand why the teachers teach to the test-not that I like it.The teachers are judged on test performances on the End of Grade tests and if many people don’t do well then the teacher is in trouble.It is a double edged sword unfortunatly,the testing might be good to see how a teacher is doing but many students don’t do well and now a student must pass 5 tests to graduate!So why not teach the test to high schooers-if not nobody would graduate and then the public would be upset that high school graduation is low!!!!!!!!

  4. Mike

    Ooops. A few typos in my last post. I meant, of course, competent engaged teachers. That’s what I get for trying to type after an incredibly long teaching day.

  5. Mike

    I find myself returning to the basics these days. I judge each and every efucational “innovation” by a simple measure: Will this brilliant new innovation in any way help me to teach or my students to learn?
    We do know, don’t we, that the best recipie for learning is competent, engaged students and engaged, hard working students? That one has been researched to death, has it not?
    Imagine how different the education landscape would appear if that simple question, asked and answered in each case, was followed. Why, the states and feds would pretty much have to get out of the education business unless they shifted their emphasis to ensuring that teachers got what they needed to teach well. And even then, I think we could get alone without them. How about you?
    Ah, daydreams.

  6. Bob Heiny

    Bill, you’re a good thinker and writer. Kudos for stating your concerns clearly and understandably.
    I wonder if you, and perhaps others, are wrestling in part with how to balance effective instruction with efficient student learning patterns. Such dynamic balances can be challenging to manage, even during best weeks.
    A P.S. I think colloquial references to an education system yields a red herring into discussions of student-learning processes in schools. A system does not exist and I know of now formal efforts beyond teacher political rhetoric to effect one. Have I missed something?

  7. Parry

    The counter-argument is that, without some common, standardized system of accountability, the results would be worse than they currently are. Schools could ignore whole student sub-populations (as has clearly happened in the past). Teachers could make entirely independent decisions about what to teach and how to teach it, resulting in disjointed curricula and uneven standards of instruction (as has clearly happened in the past).
    How do you build a system that catches all the fish you do want, while protecting the ones you don’t want?

  8. Matt Johnston

    I think your rant (well grounded as it is) raises a couple of very difficult questions. I will have to assume that all teachers of subjects on standardized tests have experienced the same frustration as you. That leads to the question, should teachers who teach in subjects tested on standardized tests (i.e. math, science, English, etc) be evaluated in terms of professional development and annual reviews differently than those who teach non-standadized tested subjects, art, music, social studies, etc. If so, how would that be done so that it is equitable? Could tested subject teachers be rewarded more for success? Should they be disadvantaged for lack of success (as defined by your students’ peformance)? What impacts would you see for the recruitment/retention of teachers in both tracks?

  9. Nate Barton

    While I understand the frustrations of a difficult week, and how that might lead to some ranting, I believe that what you have written is well grounded. I have been a part of the meetings where your “data” is exposed, and while I consistently tell myself that I have not been working for test results, I recognize the inevitable shudder and even sense of embarrassment that can accompany my “results”. I have been fortunate. I am at a school that consistently meets the increasingly unreasonable expectations. We’re making it over the bar, and yet still I feel safe in saying that our faculty feels the hot breath of NCLB on the backs of our necks.
    Consistently at the data meetings my question has been, “Why can’t we challenge the system that is drowning the optimism and creativity of both new and old teachers?” Generally the reply is, “What can we do?” or “Just wait a few years and maybe it will change.” Even you have suggested resilience will be important. This, for me, is a difficult pill to swallow.
    I propose a revolution. Why must we sit idly by to wait for some disconnected bureaucrat to change the system that only we know so well? Revolution sounds dangerous but it needn’t be. I believe it begins as a conversation, a meeting of the minds. We’ll likely all begin at the same place. I just feel like there are so many terribly smart teachers who get steamrolled because of the same strongly held belief… I am here for the children, not the money, not the accolades, not the system that tells us every year around election time how important we are, but the kids. I’ve no doubt that if we were able to stand up, together, that we could be heard. Let the revolution begin.

  10. Steve

    I sympathize with your evaluation of the current trends in public education. It is also happening in private education. Teaching to the test stifles creativity and a love of knowledge. As human beings created in the image of God, we are by nature creative. That’s one reason my wife and I are the primary teachers of our children. We keep our children out of the bulldozer’s way.

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