Blogging for Real Education Reform Day: Testing is Destroying Schools

When I stumbled across Paula White’s post promoting the Day of National Blogging Promoting Real Education Reform this morning, my head started spinning simply because I’ve got so much to say about fixing our public schools that I wasn’t sure that I could say everything that I wanted to say in just one entry—let alone get everything written in just one day.

I mean, I’m passionate about:

I’m also passionate about:

And I’m WAY passionate about:

(Sorry.  Had to get that dig in.)

But if I had to pick one thing to write about today—one thing to draw the attention of policymakers to—it would be the damage that current teacher accountability models focused on testing results are having on our teachers and our schools.

You see—having spent the better part of my career teaching tested subjects—I’ve grown to openly resent the way that you’ve chosen to hold me accountable.

And when I say resent, I mean resent with a deep-seeded, unhealthy anger that I can’t really explain. 

I literally used to love my job.  I was excited to come to work and to find ways to connect kids to the content that we were studying in class.  I was passionate about helping my middle grades kids to find their own interests and to develop their own identities. 

I was joyful—and that joy translated into a commitment to stay in the classroom even if I couldn’t support my family in the way that I wanted.

My commitment is just about gone now, though, because testing has stripped away the kinds of intellectual and creative freedoms that I once enjoyed.

Instead, I’m nothing more than an automaton. 

I’m a robot trudging through an impossible curriculum trying to make sure that my students are “prepared” for their end-of-grade exams—even if they’re not prepared to think or to express or to grow or to appreciate. 

I ALWAYS teach to the test—both to the three week multiple choice assessments that I’m required to give and to the end-of-grade exams that I’m judged by.  I’m expected to follow the curriculum guide that my district has developed for me and rarely encouraged to think for myself or to drift from the script.

Do you have any idea what kind of damage that’s doing to morale in schools?

Tested teachers like me carry a grudge on their shoulders, rightfully convinced that we’re bearing the brunt of today’s accountability culture. 

Teachers in untested subjects carry a grudge on their shoulders, rightfully convinced that their work is marginalized by a system that cares little for any kind of learning or expression that can’t be measured by a test.

Faculties are divided, and divided faculties are rarely effective at ensuring student success.

So what are the solutions?  How can concerned policymakers begin pushing for productive change AND hold teachers and schools accountable for results at the same time?

Here’s a few ideas:

First, we must more accurately define the specific outcomes that we want to hold schools accountable for. 

As it currently stands, the only outcomes we’re measuring are performance on reading and math end of grade exams, right?

But are those really the ONLY outcomes that we value? 

Or are we serious when we say that we want kids to be “globally aware” and “well-rounded?”  What role we want schools to play in teaching students healthy living habits or character traits like responsibility and determination?

Would we be satisfied with buildings that produced kids who could read but who weren’t inspired to explore, innovate, or create?

Of course not—but think about the message you’re sending when you hold me accountable for nothing other than end-of-grade tests. 

Where do you think I’m going to spend my time and energy—and where do you think our school is going to spend their limited cash—when some outcomes are “valued” (read: tested, recorded, reported and awarded) and others aren’t?

Next, we must find more sophisticated ways to identify and reward accomplished teachers and schools.

I’m not sure that anyone working outside of a tested subject can truly understand how damaging it can be to have the sum total of your contributions to the lives of the children that you teach summarized by a single score on a single exam on a single day in June.

Take me, for example. 

My test scores have almost always been the lowest on our hallway.  Every year, I feel the shame that comes from knowing that my kids “didn’t succeed” –and the pressure that comes from bosses who are held accountable for “success.”

But I’m pretty sure that I used to make a ton of contributions to the lives of my students each year, too. 

Academically, they learned about visual persuasion and collaborative dialogue—two skills that are essential to success in tomorrow’s workplace AND a part of our state’s required curriculum but left off of standardized tests because they’re difficult to measure.

My kids were always more aware of the world around them—and of how they can make practical changes in that world—than most adults that I know, but that knowledge isn’t measured either.

Socially, my students learned that men can be motivated readers and passionate writers.  They learned about determination and high standards. 

They learned that creative thinking is fun and that there’s no such thing as a right answer in a world that’s constantly changing.

None of that’s tested, though—so in the end, I looked like a failure year after year…and now I’m ready to quit.

Why couldn’t we start to be more sophisticated in our definitions of accomplishment?

Why couldn’t we take parent and student surveys into account when trying to determine exactly what knowledge and behaviors were taught during the course of the year?

Why couldn’t observations by outside experts and community leaders play a role in the labeling of both teachers and schools?

If we’re going to push for high stakes accountability models, we owe it to our teachers and our schools to accurately report the complete range of contributions that they’re making in the lives of our children, don’t you think?

Finally, we must hold our communities and our governments responsible for creating the conditions necessary for schools and teachers to succeed.

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry every time I think about the concerted effort that Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Michael Bloomberg and the rest of the “Kill-em-All” cadre have made to criticize schools during the middle of one of the worst economic times in the past two decades.

It’s so hypocritical that it makes me sick. 

I mean, North Carolina—the state that I work in—just decided to cut technology spending and professional development completely out of our budget because we’re going broke.

Not that I’ll really notice, considering that it’s been years since our school had the money to send teachers out to state and national conferences to learn. 

Yet we’re still hell bent to identify teachers who are failures?

Class sizes are due to rise next year as teachers are laid off and teacher assistant positions are cut—a trend that is becoming all-too-common as states look for ways to save money—meaning I’ll have even less time to give individual feedback to the kids in my care.

Yet we’re still hell bent to identify teachers who are failures?

I’ve got one working computer in my classroom and limited access to digital tools to look for trends in student learning data, making it pretty darn difficult to efficiently fine-tune my instructional approach or to identify kids that haven’t mastered individual objectives.

Yet we’re still hell bent to identify teachers who are failures?

I’ve got 90 minutes of planning per day—which is a helluva’ lot compared to peers in other places, but which is woefully inadequate when you’re trying to:

  • provide meaningful feedback to 120+ students
  • plan differentiated lessons for students with reading a
    bilities ranging from second grade to second year of college.
  • keep parents informed on student progress.
  • fill out the never-ending piles of paperwork that sustaining a bureaucracy requires.
  • meet with peers to identify essential standards and amplify quality instructional practices.

Yet we’re still hell bent to identify teachers who are failures?

I’ll GLADLY accept accountability for my work as soon as taxpayers, parents and policymakers accept accountability for correcting some of those conditions.

Until then, many of my “failures” sit squarely on your shoulders.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that—whether Oprah believes it or not—teachers and schools are actually doing a pretty darn good job considering the set of circumstances that we’re working in.

And if we’re really serious about fairly holding teachers accountable for performance, standardized tests are an incredibly small piece of the puzzle.

13 comments

  1. project of c

    In Vernor Vinge’s version of Southern California in 2025, there is a school named Fairmont High with the motto, “Trying hard not to become obsolete.” It may not sound inspiring, but to the many fans of Dr. Vinge, this is a most ambitious — and perhaps unattainable — goal for any member of our species.

  2. Online Diploma

    This is like my third time coming by your site. Regularly I do not make comments on, but I have to mention that this article really pushed me to do so. Really awesome article!

  3. Gail Ritchie

    I wrote and posted this once already, but somehow it disappeared. Thank you for such an eloquent and brilliant post! My hope is that one day very soon the people who hold all the power in the education policy arena will listen to voices like yours and other teacher leaders rather than so called “education experts” like Bill Gates (Since when does having a lot of money make one an expert?) and Michelle Rhee (Who doesn’t play well with others).
    Our priorities in this country are seriously out of whack, and we need to stop blaming teachers and schools for the fact that Americans seem more willing to pay for building new sports stadia or entertainment venues than repairing crumbling schools.
    Message to Secretary Duncan: Stop blaming the victims!

  4. Bill Ferriter

    K asked:
    You also asked: “Would we be satisfied with buildings that produced kids who could read but who weren’t inspired to explore, innovate, or create?”
    What if the answer is yes, we would be satisfied with schools producing kids able to read but not inspired to explore, innovate or create?
    Hey K—good to see you again and I hope you have a great Thanksgiving too!
    My answer to your question is I would be THRILLED if “we”—meaning the community that a school served—decided that all we wanted to hold schools and teachers accountable for was teaching students basic skills.
    That’s a tangible outcome that I could work towards as a teacher and that I could either prove that I was meeting or prove that I wasn’t meeting.
    The problem that I’ve always had with our accountability models, though, is that those AREN’T the only outcomes that people expect from schools—and because everyone’s got different expectations for what they want from me, I’m always letting someone down.
    I’m fine with any outcomes that the community picks for schools, but I’m tired of being held accountable for ALL outcomes, whether they’re stated explicitly or not.
    It’s like shooting at a thousand targets with one arrow.
    Does this make sense to you?
    Bill

  5. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter:
    You stated: “First, we must more accurately define the specific outcomes that we want to hold schools accountable for.”
    You also asked: “Would we be satisfied with buildings that produced kids who could read but who weren’t inspired to explore, innovate, or create?”
    What if the answer is yes, we would be satisfied with schools producing kids able to read but not inspired to explore, innovate or create?
    You answered “of course not”, but candidly, I am not entirely sure the answer is as obvious as you suggest. A student struggling to learn to read confronts huge obstacles in reading to learn. Maybe it is entirely reasonable to hold educators responsible for assuring that from one year to the next over the course of 13 years, students will demonstrate at least an agreed upon minimum competency level in basic skills.
    You noted that one task you perform in your planning time is to “plan differentiated lessons for students with reading abilities ranging from second grade to second year of college” Isn’t it a problem that you’re a sixth grade teacher and inherit students reading at a second grade level after 6 previous years of school?” The ideal may be to go beyond basic skill acquisition and inspire exploration, innovation and creativity, but what is the minimum set of specific outcomes we want to hold schools accountable for?
    I agree that standardized tests alone should not be used to assess a teacher’s contribution and performance with students. Your suggestions to more comprehensively evaluate teacher performance should be employed.
    By the time students reach your sixth grade classes, if someone has not helped them to acquire basic skill competence it doesn’t make you sad, frustrated or angry? When Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan and others scream out and muster their resources that it is simply unacceptable for kids to reach your sixth grade classroom unprepared, you can’t find some common ground with them?
    You said: “None of that’s tested, though—so in the end, I looked like a failure year after year…and now I’m ready to quit.”
    For what little it is worth, I hope you will not quit. I hope that out of all the cussing and discussing there emerges comprehensive assessments of students and teachers. I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving with your family and your daughter is doing well!

  6. Susan Rao

    Having spent much time in India, I am aware that some cultures place an extremely high value on rote learning. Significantly, these same cultures seek higher education in the United States because they perceive a value in the innovative and creative problem solving exhibited in our universities. It is ironic that many non educators in our society persist in denigrating our educational system without realizing its strengths. Your comments were eloquent and unfortunately true in regards to the current testing state of affairs. Critics of the system should remember that the United States has done very well in the past giving educators flexibility in determining curriculum. Using test scores from a limited number of students in foreign countries (usually the cream of the crop)in comparison to our inclusive school populations is pointless. This is not to say there isn’t work to be done. However, why train teachers to think independently if you don’t give them autonomy in their teaching methods?
    A teacher in training (second career)

  7. Bill Ferriter

    Hey y’all…
    Glad that this post resonated with you. I certainly enjoyed writing it and hoped it would be a fair reflection of the thoughts and feelings of others.
    I get wrapped up in my own emotions sometimes and worry that my pessimism blinds me from the reality that others experience.
    Rock on,
    Bill

  8. Jake

    Bill,
    Another excellent point. Just wanted to pass along a little conversation I had with a visiting teacher from Korea about this very subject. She intimated to me that though the Korean kids were far ahead in math and science that they were not able to think for themselves. In most situations they were not even allowed to ask any questions! When I asked which method she preferred she overwhelmingly replied that the (former?) American model is far superior as the kids are encouraged to think.

  9. Alison

    Hi Bill – I applaud your suggestions for improving this ineffective (or damaging) testing craze that we are in. As a mom and student teacher, I would much rather have schools focus on inspiring kids to be creative, responsible, and compassionate. In the grand scheme of life, those qualities will be so much more beneficial to our children and to our society.
    Most of the educators that I talk to would completely agree with you as I do. Do you think the pendulum will start to swing towards a more reasonable and thoughtful approach to improving schools? What is it going to take?
    Also, what would be your advice to a new teacher (and I’m not going to jump ship!) on how to balance wanting to focus on the whole child and having to teach to such narrow-minded standards?
    Finally, don’t quit! I’m finding that this profession needs people like you who are thoughtfully outspoken champions for our kids!

  10. Tessa Heyer

    Hi Bill,
    Thanks for your post. I have had my thoughts (not so good) about standardized testing, but haven’t quite looked at it this way until reading your post. In the grande scheme of things standardized testing is just a small portion of what’s going wrong in our school systems.
    I agree that teachers should be held accountable for the learning that takes place in their classroom, but standardized testing is not an accurate measure of what teachers are doing in the classroom. Lately it seems as though almost every one is targeting teachers as being ineffective by looking at end of the year test scores. It hardly seems appropriate to make such conclusions based off of a test that measures only two content areas.