Education that values metrics over meaning is toxic.
I’m being cute with “metrics over meaning.” What am I getting at here?
Success as a student and a teacher is reduced annually to numbers. Each school year, as new metrics are invented and policies are aligned to value numbers, the power and control of quantitative values increases. Teachers will then, and with administrative approval, prioritize the kinds of methods to increase numerical scores at the expense of what isn’t measured, or perhaps what doesn’t count for evaluation purposes.
As NPR has written, this dramatic shift in culture is most evident in the early grades, where obvious play has been replaced by more seat-based and drill activities. Prior to a few years ago, I never taught Kindergarten. My first inclination was to think about dramatic play and other sensory activities. I asked early childhood educators what a Kindergarten classroom should have. Since I had nothing, I built, for instance, my own sand and water tables. I built easels and invested in costumes and other play materials.
It takes a significant amount of advocacy and risk to implement play-based activities in early childhood classrooms. Most administrators, especially building level principals, don’t seem to understand the level of “rigor” possible in hands-on, student-driven activities. I hate use of the word “rigor,” but I can play that game. And I can demonstrate the level of potential “rigor” in play-based curricula.
The kinds of teaching, however, prioritized by current teacher evaluation obviously values what produces greater quantitative growth than anything else. It values direct instruction, but not even meaningful direct instruction, which is possible. Evaluation, even in Kindergarten, values teachers lobbing meaningless questions at students just to say they were covered. Administrative review values a checklist of “things” that must be ticked off in a certain time frame, regardless if they’re relevant or not.
Beyond method, a test driven culture in early childhood creates a tremendous amount of anxiety. It narrows all conversations to numerical data. And it, as painfully as this might sound, encourages teachers to “cheat.” I can name dozens of ways that teachers cheat their data, some more obvious than others. This is a terrible foundation on which to build a school, and I don’t necessarily blame teachers for it.
Not all teachers cheat. Most probably don’t. I certainly don’t, but teachers that don’t are punished significantly for their honesty. Their growth is not as huge. They underscore flaws in the system. Those teachers are blamed by the higher grades for not sending them students that “know anything.”
All of this promotes a toxic culture of self-preservation, a CYA mentality that serves the adults more than the children.