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As NPR has written, this dramatic shift in culture is most evident in the early grades, where obvious play has been replaced by more seat-based and drill activities.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.

 

 

This year’s testing season is drawing to a close. Folks on all sides will once again count their spoils and lick their wounds, prepping for minor flare-ups when test results are finally released, and for future battles to come.

I have this feeling that while parents, teachers, and other activists squabble over testing, the system is already hard at work designing the next phase of this war. Anti-test activists might discover that, when testing and stakes are reduced sufficiently to their satisfaction, a new paradigm will emerge.

Anti-test activists, of which I counted myself one years ago, diminish the importance of testing to everyday teaching practice, but at the same time spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and words arguing against it. Does that not put testing squarely in the center of everyone’s consciousness when it should instead be relegated to the periphery?

When activists spend so much time arguing against testing, and common core, there is less time and energy for the creation of an alternative vision of teaching and learning. Maybe one day the testing wars will be over. Then what?

Parents and community members are given tremendous power in these debates because, quite simply, a parent cannot be fired for insubordination when refusing to allow their child to participate in testing. If these parents succeed in their fight, will they be able to envision an alternative educational vision? Will they step aside and allow teachers to take charge of this new mission?

I’ve seen some examples of this alternative vision emerge from some bloggers and commentators online, but I don’t see enough examples. I don’t see enough examples of actual teaching that can compete with a test-based narrative. I don’t see enough examples of these activists actually knowing their practice well enough so that we can trust them with developing something new.

Think of a list of prominent activists in this movement. How many pictures of their classrooms have we seen? Do they post syllabi or handouts? Video clips of their teaching? Student work samples? Do they post anecdotes of their experiences with students? I can only think of a handful.

Think of the boards of these activist groups. How many are still teaching? Do they comment on a future vision, or do they constantly rail against the past? All of these bloggers and commentators out there, do we have a collection of their teaching, of examples of their teaching, so that we know with some degree of confidence that they know what they are doing in the classroom?

I used to believe that it was not the activist teacher’s role to create this alternative, because it’s already been out there. Instead, it is incumbent on the reformer to remove the oppressive chains and give the teacher the freedom to practice as their profession commands. But now I’m starting to believe that the activists are only responding to old paradigms as the ground shifts underneath us. We will be late to the new battles that will emerge, and we must start laying new foundations now before we find ourselves behind once again.

I look at stories like this, and I wonder if this is the natural evolution of the test opt-out movement?

I take it that anti-test activist groups tout themselves as very pro-public schools, painting them as venerable democratic institutions that endeavor to promote wholesome, American values and with the potential to restore justice.

But can you have it both ways?

That is, empower parents to the degree that, specifically regarding standardized testing, they know what is best for THEIR children and that THEIR decisions are sacrosanct, but then at the same time relinquish parental authority when it comes to other potential decisions, like the above linked story about the acceptance of a transgendered child.

Testing activists like to pump up parents, saying they’re the key to this movement, that you can’t fire a parent, and that parents have the ultimate say in how their child is educated. After all this time, giving parents this power, how do you then say that they cannot resist or “opt-out” of other aspects of the curriculum?

I’m not necessarily talking about whether or not parents have the right to opt their children out of standardized testing. Opt out of testing groups, of which the NPE is now involved, are doing a pretty good job of getting that bit out there, although it’s still not reaching, from where I stand, the real epicenters of education reform.

I could be wrong.

Since I still follow the movement, although I’m not a part of it, I can see bits and pieces of misinformation still sprinkling in. And to be honest, I thought all of this would have been sorted out by now.

In earlier days of opt out movements, there was this comorbidity with hysteria over the Common Core. The standards evidenced a Federal takeover of the minds of children, and they would therefore be manipulated to smoke grass, vote for Obama’s re-election, toss their guns, hate God, and have copious amounts of sex for pleasure, which would then lead to wonton abortion as a method of birth control.

Opt out leaders attempted, with mixed results, to quell this anti-government hysteria because it lead to calls for the elimination of public schools altogether. There was a time when strict homeschool or unschool advocates became involved and cited the prominence of high stakes testing and Federal standards as reason to divest from public education.

Groups had to do some damage control, and an expunging of group membership, to reinforce their faith in a free and equitable system of public education. But one without testing and common standards. I think I see less mention of the Common Core in most opt out discourse nowadays because the standards turned out to be less of a boogey-person than was originally thought.

Despite the evolution of testing opt out movements, there is still a trickle of misinformation about testing itself, with a subtle smattering of anti-government flavor to it. For instance, that opting out of tests is always related to the Common Core.

It isn’t. There are a number of interim and summative assessments that have nothing to do with the standards.

Another example: there is one single way to opt out of a single, Federalized standardized test.

There isn’t. As it currently stands, there is no single, Federalized standardized test attached to the Common Core. I think the PARCC and SBAC were supposed to become those, but fewer and fewer students and fewer states are taking them. Otherwise, there’s still a patchwork system of high-stakes standardized tests, which therefore relegates this still to a state-by-state fight. Honestly, a single, Federalized test would make opt out movements more successful. All of this state-by-state stuff gets confusing and true consensus is unachievable.

What makes it more difficult are the series of additional assessment products taken throughout the school year, which again have very little, if anything, to do with a Federal Common Core.

Ultimately, opt out groups need to continue informing their activists and members and be very clear on what tests are out there, how they work, and above all, how to speak to them.

My how things change.

I do remember those days around 2010 when opting out of standardized tests was considered the most radical thing one can do. Foolish, silly, self-destructive.

And now, not so much.

How much farther would the movement have been if support for the strategy came on day one?

At this point, my views on opting out of tests have evolved well beyond, what I see, as the overall usefulness of the strategy. There is an overwhelming conversation about the act itself without attending to the actual development of an alternative vision of teaching.

Additionally, I still don’t see a lot of evidence that the strategy is reaching low-income schools. I don’t think it will connect with parents and families in low-income communities. Or, it hasn’t connected in any significant way.

But I do remember those days.