Practical Strategies to Save Our Schools
Whenever something in the schools is amiss, it makes sense to work on two tracks at once: protect students from the worst effects in the short term and work to change or eliminate that policy in the long term. Let’s begin with some short-term responses where testing is concerned:
First, teachers should do what is necessary to prepare students for the tests — and then get back to the real learning. Never forget the difference between these two objectives. Be clear about it in your own mind, and whenever possible, help others to understand the distinction. For example, you might send a letter to parents explaining what you are doing and why. (“Before we can design exciting experiments in class, which I hope will have the effect of helping your child learn to think like a scientist, we’re going to have to spend some time getting ready for the standardized tests being given next month. Hopefully we’ll be able to return before too long to what research suggests is a more effective kind of instruction.”) If you’re lucky, parents will call you, indignantly demanding to know why their kids aren’t able to pursue the more effective kind of instruction all the time. “Excellent question!” you’ll reply, as you hand over a sheet containing the addresses and phone numbers of the local school board, state board of education, legislators, and the governor.Second, do no more test preparation than is absolutely necessary. Some experts have argued that a relatively short period of introducing students to the content and format of the tests is sufficient to produce scores equivalent to those obtained by students who have spent the entire year in test-prep mode.
Third, whatever time is spent on test preparation should be as creative and worthwhile as possible. Avoid traditional drilling whenever you can.
Fourth, administrators and other school officials should never brag about high (or rising) scores. To do so is not only misleading; it serves to legitimate the tests. In fact, people associated with high-scoring schools or districts have a unique opportunity to make an impact. It’s easy for critics to be dismissed with a “sour grapes” argument: You’re just opposed to standardized testing because it makes you look bad. But administrators and school board members in high-scoring areas can say, “Actually our students happen to do well on these tests, but that’s nothing to be proud of. We value great teaching and learning, which is precisely what suffers when people become preoccupied with scores. Please join us in phasing them out.”
A group of educators in Florida took advantage of their school’s privileged status to make a powerful statement. That state not only grades schools but then hands out money to those with the highest scores – in effect making the rich richer and the poor poorer. In a bold public protest, six teachers and their principal went to the state capital and handed back the bonuses. (Click here to read their statement.) In North Carolina, teachers pooled their bonuses to create a foundation that would provide funds to the schools that needed it most.
Finally, whatever your position on the food chain of American education, one of your primary obligations is to be a buffer – to absorb as much pressure as possible from those above you without passing it on to those below. If you are a superintendent or assistant superintendent facing school board members who want to see higher test scores, the most constructive thing you can do is protect principals from these ill-conceived demands to the best of your ability (without losing your job in the process). If you are a building administrator, on the receiving end of test-related missives from the central office, your challenge is to shield teachers from this pressure – and, indeed, to help them pursue meaningful learning in their classrooms. If you are a teacher unlucky enough to work for an administrator who hasn’t read this paragraph, your job is to minimize the impact on students. Try to educate those above you whenever it seems possible to do so, but cushion those below you every day. Otherwise you become part of the problem.
As important as I believe these suggestions to be, it is also critical to recognize their limits. There is only so much creativity that can be infused into preparing students for bad tests. There is only so much buffering that can be done in a high-stakes environment. These recommendations merely try to make the best of a bad thing. Ultimately we need to work to end that bad thing, to move beyond stopgap measures and take on the system itself.
Unfortunately, even some well-intentioned educators who understand the threat posed by testing never get to that point. Here are some of the justifications they offer for their inaction:
Thus the need for us to organize in order to fight the tests themselves. Some states are already organized, even to the point of having websites. Check these out — or, if you live elsewhere, use them as models for constructing your own:
Together with other educators and parents, consider taking these actions:
“Do the tests improve students’ motivation? Do parents understand the results? Do teachers think that the tests measure the curriculum fairly? Do administrators use the results wisely? How much money is spent on assessment and related services? How much time do teachers spend preparing students for various tests? Do the media report the data accurately and thoroughly? Our surveys suggest that many districts will be shocked to discover the degree of dissatisfaction among stakeholders.” [Source: S. G. Paris, et al., “A Developmental Perspective on Standardized Achievement Testing.” Educational Researcher, June-July 1991, p. 17]
Some parents and students are, in effect, boycotting the tests even where opt-out provisions don’t exist. For example, two-thirds of all families with eighth graders in Scarsdale, NY refused to participate in the state’s middle school tests in the spring of 2001. (Read more about the Scarsdale boycott.)
Teachers, too, might think about organizing acts of civil disobedience. In Japan, as Catherine Lewis reports in her book Educating Hearts and Minds, “Elementary achievement is high because Japanese teachers are free from the pressure to teach to standardized tests.” Until they get to high school, there are no such tests in Japan — and the reason there are no such tests is that teachers (through their union) simply refused to administer them because of their destructive educational effects. Boycotts have also been effective in England and Australia.
Closer to home, Jim Bougas, a middle school teacher in a small town in Massachusetts, grew increasingly frustrated with how the state test was forcing instruction to become more superficial. He informed his principal that he could not in good conscience take part in administering the test and was reassigned to the library during that period. The next year, following a denial of a similar request, he agonized about what to do. Finally, he decided that if the test was just as unfair and destructive as it had been the preceding year, his response could not be any different – even at the risk of suspension or dismissal. Besides, as he told a reporter, if the test continues, “I have no job because they’ve taken it away from me as long as I have to spend my time teaching to the test. I can’t do that anymore. So I have nothing to lose.”
Don Perl, a teacher in Colorado, engaged in a similar act of conscience, commenting, according to a newspaper article, “I have to look at myself in the mirror, and I know these tests are wrong. Frankly, I’m not a teacher when I teach to a test like this, [or] when I administer a test like this.” Perl is no longer in the classroom but has been active in opposing his state’s test, collecting about 12,500 signatures in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to let voters decide whether to get rid of the CSAP test, and then raising money to pay for ads on bus benches that invite parents to visit www.thecbe.org to obtain letters advising school officials that their children will not be taking the exam.
A dozen Chicago high school teachers got together and refused to administer the tests being used in that city. (Read more about the Chicago boycott.)
Such protests are not only inspirational to many of us but an invitation to ponder the infinitely greater impact of collective action. Imagine, for example, that a teacher at any given school in your area quietly approached each person on the staff in turn and asked: “If ___ percent of the teachers at this school pledged to boycott the next round of testing, would you join them?” (The specific percentage would depend on what seemed realistic and yet signified sufficient participation to offer some protection for those involved.) Then, if the designated number was reached, each teacher would be invited to take part in what would be a powerful act of civil disobedience. Press coverage would likely be substantial, and despairing-but-cowed teachers in other schools might be encouraged to follow suit.
Without question, this is a risky undertaking. Theoretically, even an entire school faculty could be fired. But the more who participate, and the more careful they are about soliciting support from parents and other members of the community beforehand, the more difficult it would be for administrators to respond harshly. (Of course, some administrators are as frustrated with the testing as teachers are.) Participants would have to be politically savvy, building alliances and offering a coherent, quotable rationale for their action. They would need to make it clear – at a press conference and in other forums – that they were taking this action not because they are unwilling to do more work or are afraid of being held accountable, but because these tests lower the quality of learning and do a serious injustice to the children in our community.
The bottom line is that standardized testing can continue only with the consent and cooperation of the educators who allow those tests to be distributed in their schools – and the parents who permit their children to take them. If we withhold that consent, if we refuse to cooperate, then the testing process grinds to a halt. That is what happened in Japan. That is what can happen in the United States if we understand the urgency of the situation. Discuss it with your university students, your staff, your colleagues, your neighbors: What if they gave a test and nobody came?
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