I attended my son’s middle school Back to School Night this past week; you may recall that this is Sam’s first year in a public school. I especially enjoy these events because as a former public school teacher, I enjoy hearing teachers speak, I love being in their classrooms and I most definitely want to let them know I appreciate their talents, education, dedication and time spent working with our children.
During my fifteen years of teaching my last five were spent teaching teachers and administrators in the public schools. A few of my responsibilities included training teacher leaders in the classroom, supporting administrators in classroom observation as well as providing professional development for districts. Of course the more I learned the less I knew – but that is how it is with good teaching. I have now been out of teaching for almost seven years and last night it fed my soul to hear our teachers speak. And because I know what to look for and listen for in a classroom, I have a different take on Back to School Night, as my fellow teacher readers will understand.
What is most fascinating about my child’s school is that I have been told it is not a good school – that it is simply mediocre. I have actually been discouraged from sending my child there by some in my community, even in the light of their high test scores. Yet, what I heard and saw last night was seven exceptional teachers that my child is incredibly lucky to have. My child has a teacher with decades of teaching experience who said that his goal every day is to learn something new. His science teacher understands that science is best experienced hands-on and that his students – including my lucky son – should be in the laboratory nonstop. My son has a teacher who understands brain-based learning. He knows that stress and fear shut down any opportunity to retain or comprehend new learning. My son has an art teacher who has them keep art journals and hangs the following Picasso quote on her wall, “Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.” She also understands that small class size is essential to student focus. His language arts teacher values the importance of silent reading and writer’s workshop. Sam is the lucky recipient of a real P.E. class – unlike many children across this country - none of it is online (yes the absurdity of online P.E. does exist). Sam’s social studies teacher has already had them do a project which involved research and writing that connected Sam personally to history by focusing on the day he was born. These projects will be displayed in the school’s hallways. Sam is in the school orchestra. Sam tells me that his principal is funny and is always smiling. These are the first impressions I have of my son's school.
I worry about our district. They are fairly sheltered from the storm that surrounds them. I have already put up my umbrella in anticipation and have opted Sam out of 3 tests: Reading Counts, MAP and TCAP. I opt out because I support public schools – I will not fill the pockets of profiteers who attempt to devour my tax dollars and our children. I opt out because I understand that a focus on high stakes tests narrows curriculum and authentic learning and teaching. I opt out because children living in urban and high poverty areas are being abused at the hands of corporate education reform.
I already see extrinsic rewards at the school; I am keeping my fingers crossed that I will not see any connected to high stakes testing. I heard rumblings on Back to School Night regarding our country’s inability to compete with China – some obviously don’t know Dr. Yong Zhao’s work and the fact that China is desperately attempting to rid itself of high stakes testing which has created a country in which their graduates cannot think or innovate. Educators in China are in shock as they watch us destroy our country at the hands of high stakes testing. We have some of the highest test scores in the world - when we account for poverty.
The Back to School newsletter included the following message: Our T-CAP scores are in and we did great. Our math status according to the state moved from the Meets category to Exceeds! Our reading held steady in the Meets category and our writing went from Approaching last year to Meets this year.
Of course this is very troublesome as it is sending a message that TCAP scores mean something; I know many of my fellow readers recognize that these tests do nothing to improve student achievement. Decisions in the district are data driven using TCAP and MAP – neither of which improve student achievement. Improved tests scores do not mean students can problem solve, create or think conceptually or critically. These test scores tell us we have good test takers and many children that are well fed and have access to books. And....if these tests are the prized assessments we know that there is most certainly teaching to the test occurring in the school.
Budget cuts are also rocking the boat. We have no librarian. We are very lucky to have a library - many schools across the country do not - and the evidence connecting access to books and increased student reading scores on the NAEP is clear. It is our job to share research and educate. Suburbia is not immune.
My school district is also not immune to the teacher bashing that our country continues to spout. The teachers that are still in these buildings and have not yet jumped ship are a force to be reckoned with – we must support them by continually focusing on best practices and the authentic assessments they share. We must help to change the narrative by turning away from high stakes testing and leaning forward proudly to share real learning and real teaching. Our school district is piloting a teacher evaluation program this year – we must watch it closely.
What my school does NOT have is the following - my son does not have to share our building with a charter school – or 6 or 7 for that matter as we see in the Bronx. There are no metal detectors, no children required to follow SLANT. None of my son’s teachers are TFAs. Our school is not housed in a basement. The students are not required to walk in straight lines wearing orange prison type shirts while the teacher yells, “Boys pick up those feet!”
Is this something to protect? You bet it is. And we can’t protect it by simply continuing to allow our children to take the state test – that is the kiss of death for the public schools. Suburbia is a sitting duck surrounded by casualties that they continue to ignore.