Need MORE Proof that Testing is Destroying Education?

Back in April, I spent a few minutes with one of my professional heroes:  Dick Sagor—whose work on action research has been a direct attempt to raise the professional status and credibility of educators. 

Our conversation was anything but optimistic, though.  Dick was convinced that the teaching profession in America was at a turning point and that our nation was going to head in one of three directions:

(1). We’re going to completely abandon formal teacher preparation programs and rely on TFA style staffing patterns—kind of like Switzerland’s volunteer army or the Peace Corps.

(2). We’re going to completely strip down teaching and script the crap out of it so that we can hire warm bodies instead of professional educators to staff our schools.

(3). We’re going to reinvest in education to make it a true profession, paying teachers richly, but at the same time, expecting them to be well-trained and capable.

Considering the miserable direction that conversations around education have taken in the kill-em-all-right-wing world we live in, which of those scenarios do you think we’re likely to see play out?

Things got worse for me this week, though. 

You see, I ran Dick’s thoughts past an AMAZING teacher and good friend of mine—let’s call her Jill—who happens to live in New York—a state that is sucking hard from the testing teat.

Check out her reply and tell me that our blind faith in testing as a tool for evaluating teachers isn’t destroying educators—but more importantly, education—in America:

Boy, I am living, breathing and eating this thinking right now.

New York’s Board of Regents just made it impossible to be an "effective" teacher under its new evaluation system if your test scores are too low.

Districts are now also allowed to count state scores as 40% of a teacher’s evaluation. This is using the value-added methodology (25-36% error rate) on tests not designed for growth in the first place.

16 first tier education professors, including Linda Darling Hammond, and 8 former NY State Teachers of the Year, have contacted the Board with their grave concerns.

They were ignored.

I teach the neediest cohort of kids on my grade level in my building.

Fully half of my content is standards-based and crucial to kids– and untested.

There’s a strong argument that the critical thinking skills I *do* teach actually *depress* scores based on multiple choice.

I have been a teacher for 13 years. A year ago, my struggle was "How long should I stay in the classroom in order to make a education Ph.D. worthwhile?"

Now, the danger to my family’s security is so great that I’m thinking about getting out of education completely.

How can I, in good conscience, live year to year hanging my pedagogy on my test scores so I don’t lose my job?

How can I even justify a doctorate, when all I wanted to do with it was get back into schools? Academia? Where are the jobs there, without dragging my family all over creation?

You know, I’d make a great nurse.

And I’d get paid for my teaching and research in that field. Along with a little damn professional respect.

Too bad we’d go fifty thousand into debt to retrain me and lose my salary for a year.


Jill’s thinking is at once valid AND heartbreaking, isn’t it.  Systems of teacher evaluation that are built around testing—which the Shanker Blog recently described as “designed to fail”—hold teachers accountable ONLY for content that can be tested.

In subjects like language arts, that leaves out huge swaths of critical skills—crafting persuasive arguments, engaging in collaborative dialogue, making critical judgments based on information—that are included in the required curriculum.

Which forces teachers into an almost untenable situation. 

We can choose to protect our jobs, crafting every lesson around the small handful of simple skills that ARE tested or we can protect our students, focusing our time on the kinds of skills that matter—and that are a part of our curriculum—but will do us no good when it comes to our own evaluations.

I call this walking the moral tightrope.

What choice would you make if you were in Jill’s shoes?

Would you push your principal to fill your classes with easier kids so that you could worry less about test results and more about teaching and learning?

Would you walk away from challenging schools completely, settling in the suburbs where you knew you could count on having kids who have spent a ton of time in museums and on educational vacations with their parents?

Would you strip down your lessons, focusing only on those skills that you knew were on the test even if it meant ignoring the kinds of skills that would matter to your kids later?

Could you live with yourself if you made any of those choices?

More importantly, can we live with ourselves as parents, as community leaders, and as elected officials knowing that OUR choices have forced teachers into these kinds of corners?

Is this REALLY what we want education in America to become?


Related Radical Reads:

Education Nation, Oprah and the Bigger Picture

Arne Duncan is Just Plain Clueless

Testing is Destroying Our Schools

The Monster You’ve Created

13 thoughts on “Need MORE Proof that Testing is Destroying Education?

  1. jamesmical

    MICATZ, a non-profit organization based in Tanzania, places volunteers from across the world willing to assist in various welfare projects in schools, hospitals, orphanages, monasteries, community/government organizations etc. with an aim to educate and help influence the life of the deprived people throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America.

  2. Jennie @ Got My Reservations

    “Would you walk away from challenging schools completely, settling in the suburbs where you knew you could count on having kids who have spent a ton of time in museums and on educational vacations with their parents?”
    If you call annual visits to Walt Disney World and the Riviera Maya “educational vacations” then I guess I’m guilty of teaching in a privileged suburban school. Frankly, I’d really like to teach a student who’s been DRIVEN across the Great Plains, not flown across it. Perhaps then that student would actually understand westward expansion. And sod houses. And prairies. And when tested, would know what he or she was talking about. Whoops, that would mean we took social studies seriously — but that’s a topic for another day.

  3. MDS

    Thanks for your response. I would love to hear what other educators have to say and I think this would make a great topic for a blog.
    I have been interested in urban education ever since I was exposed to all the incredible academic work surrounding culturally relevant pedagogy and teaching practices as an undergraduate student. I majored in African American studies and was able to focus on critical pedagogy, narratives, and the use of popular culture as a means to engage students and develop critical literacy skills. For the past few years I have read books, articles and reached out to professors who write about these topics all around the country. I studied abroad and gained a whole new understanding of what I was studying back in the US and used my experience abroad to further my academic interest at home. I have attended academic conferences, I even presented my own research at the AERA conference this spring. I moved to New Orleans this year and was placed in a charter school as a teachers assistant (I was not at all associated with TFA). I could not align myself with the culture of the school (in addition to a million other things) so I quit. I cannot get a job and do something that interests me without joining some sort of “core” like TFA, which I refuse to do because to someone who takes seriously the teaching profession and believes in public education and supports unions–TFA directly threatens everything I aspire to do and work towards.
    I say all this just to make clear how dedicated I am to teaching and to highlight what a disgrace it is that this new ed reform might not allow room for a dedicated young prospective teacher like myself to grow and develop (I suppose its almost as disgraceful as experienced and dedicated teachers being put out by ed reform). I have watched my peers, join TFA and begin their 2 year safari through urban schools, and it makes me mad, really mad. Despite closely following all the reforms taking place daily through twitter and blogs, I had never really considered giving up on my dream of teaching. I take very seriously all you have to say. I’m not sure what I would do if I didn’t teach as I cannot change my passions. I want to be apart of this fight for public education in some way and my thinking was that preparing to be a good teacher was the most radical thing I could do as all my other “good intentioned” peers sell their souls to TFA.

  4. Michael Paul Goldenberg

    Not the right time to leave, but rather the right time for teachers, administrators, parents, and students to fight. And we are. And will continue to do so. Folks are waking up. Wisconsin was a turning point, a Stonewall of sorts, and the march in late July/early August will help show that people aren’t going to continue to cower in the face of the deform movement. Don’t mourn, organize!

  5. Glennonpoirier

    This blog post was so thought provoking for me that I wrote my own piece based on it. To me, this comes down to the fact that so many people don’t trust teachers and their opinions. It’s ridiculous but true. In my post I look at why.
    Thanks for writing such interesting pieces, Bill. I would be interested in what you thought about my own as well, especially if you disagree or see something I missed. Thank you!

  6. Bill Ferriter

    Hey MDS,
    First, thanks for stopping by! Your comment is thoughtful—and Im likely to turn it into a post next week. Ill try to get you some responses from other educators.
    Second, my own rather pessimistic response is that I think dropping big bucks on an education degree right now is a bad move. Theres just TOO much negative momentum for educators to successfully push back against. While were trying—and theres prominent efforts to draw attention to the consequences of uncontrolled right-wing skulduggery in education—-its a fight I think were going to lose.
    If I was a betting man, Id say that teaching as a profession is going to get far worse before it gets better. Id bet that the hard right is going to continue to dismantle our profession unchecked until theres nothing left to dismantle. Teacher pay is going to drop, teacher working conditions are going to worsen, teacher protections are going to be erased. Were going to end up with a bunch of McJobs instead of professional work.
    Now, if you took your degree and worked in private schools, I think youd be making a great choice. Private schools remain havens—sheltered from the lunacy of legislators trying to get re-elected on rhetoric filled, ideological platforms.
    But if youre planning on spending your time in public schools, youre likely to be spending money that youll never get back.
    Hows that for a negative outlook?

  7. crazedmummy

    This year we spent most of the year running the top-down dictated program exactly as given. This was a team decision. We were told to “stop hiding behind compliance” and were finally told to come up with something else to rescue our students. Thanks to the NWEA tests, which are designed to show student growth (though,looking at the data, I have to say it can only be used on the aggregate) we now have documentation of scores dropping using their method, and of scores improving when we do what we think is right.
    We have been told that next year we will be allowed to do what we think is right, including teaching our struggling students at the level they come to high school (about 5th grade), so that we can actually help them improve, regardless of the class in which the district insists on enrolling them.
    We will see how the political will survives the summer.
    In short, if we as teachers are being forced to live by data, let’s learn to use it to our advantage. Let’s be public about our data, let’s stop creeping around. My kids are coming in to high school at a 5th grade level, as compared with the rest of the country. Regardless of what grades they are given, the district NWEA scores say they do not improve from 8th grade to 10th grade.
    This data should be common knowledge, then maybe we would stop being surprised when students are put into Algebra and fail it. Maybe we would demand that students be provided with remediation rather than being assigned courses they are not equipped to complete.
    Sorry, English teachers, you might need to get help from Math teachers on this one. They don’t bite.

  8. mds

    I am about to begin my professional degree in teaching in a program that is dedicated to urban education and social justice. I am entering teaching for all the right reasons and I am committed to teaching long term. I have had experience in a charter school in New Orleans dominated by TFA and I have seen how damaging it is (for corps members and students) to send under prepared teachers into a classroom with students from communities they know nothing about. Its so hard to read these posts and about all the teacher laid off and the growth of TFA.
    I am choosing to go into a teacher prep program (and go into debt to do so) because I feel its the only way that I will be equip with the professional knowledge and support to meet my students needs. am I in over my head?? Would people really advise that it is not worth it to go into debt for a teaching degree in this current educational climate? Like Jill, I am on the fence about what to do. I feel like it would be letting corporate ed. reform win if they are deterring good intentioned, dedicated teachers from entering the profession. On the other hand, if there will be nothing left of the profession in a few years I would be setting myself up for failure and missing an opportunity to contribute my abilities in a more effective way. I would appreciate peoples advice and thoughts. Thanks.

  9. Nancy Flanagan

    Great post, pal. And an example–I hope–of great minds running parallel. I spent last weekend having this very discussion: what does the future of teaching look like.
    Started posting a long comment. But it turned into a blog:
    Thanks for the inspiration. And just for the sake of argument, I think the Jills of the world need to stay and fight. Be subversive. March on Washington, even.
    It’s that thing about how you may not win, but at least feel better about yourself for going down fighting…

  10. John Hendron

    I believe Jill should leave. It’s going to get much worse before it gets better. If she is conflicted with the state of her career, then she ought to choose something where she feels she is constructive, helping others, and contributing towards the improvement of society.
    She may well be able to do that after pursuing doctoral studies. She could also continue as a classroom educator in another school, another district, or a private school.
    As a leader, we want teachers like this! But it is morally irresponsible to pay them so little and to dictate them educating students as if our schools were factories.

  11. Pammoran

    We are so deep into failures of management, imagination, capacity, and policy regarding our educational system that we will see those like Jill exit in droves from the profession and leave behind those who have few options or lack the skills to do otherwise. It’s a tragedy that’s been 100 years in the making since we moved to a scientific management-driven theory X model of running factory schools. That system has failed American industry and public education. Yet, those responsible for failing America in the corporate world through outsourcing to increase profit and tax-dodging to avoid responsible corporate sector behavior are now an increasingly explicit fifth column in running public education. We need to return to natural leadership in which we make our community central to the invention work we desperately need to educate contemporary learners. We need to have the freedom of medical education today- whose educators are throwing out 100 years of tradition and creating fresh approaches to teaching and learning work in medical schools. The rest of the world has figured it out. We are being left behind.

  12. Ric Murry

    Which one of the three directions will we take?
    Easy answer, because that’s what politicians seek: the direction that costs the least money, and allows for the most control. Therefore, I think it will be a combination of the first two. Ill-qualified teacher wanna-bes who will read scripts that are test-question based.


    The problem is a political one and very similar to the political problem of global warming. Political discourse adopts a “scientified” version of language that uses semantic similarity as a kind of magic to transform naive opinion into “science”. Education fares worse than science because so many educators use the same tactic to justify lamebrained acts like “school improvement plans” that have little more than a sprinkling of common sense behind them.

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