Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What really matters...

For those who know me personally, I am rarely silent, and probably less so on issues near and dear to me.  I became a teacher because I view young people as our future, as our leaders, as our greatest asset. The current climate for education in the US is upsetting. Teachers and schools are being vilified. Test scores have become the be-all, end-all of whether a school is good or not.  Percentages are being thrown about like schools are factories producing a commodity, which I guess in the way they are, because intellectual development, critical thinking and creativity are capital in today's world.

In the last few days, one of the topics under discussion in a Facebook group for ex-pat teachers is the situation in Pennsylvania where teachers are volunteering to work without pay because the governor is trying to move to a voucher system for charter schools.  Most of the discussion participants were upset, but not surprised by this report. However, one participant posted a link to the school's academic achievement report, which tracks its AYP (adequate yearly progress) based on NCLB (No Child Left Behind). This report looks at many factors but one of the most important are test scores.   The poster went on to comment that "any business running with these numbers would be out of business." First, let me restate that these posts are taking part in a group for educators, so ideally most of the members are educators or are connected in some intimate way to an educator.  We were urged by the poster to consider this information as we discussed the situation. What follows are my thoughts...

It would be lovely if NCLB really meant that, but to find out if children are being left behind, I don't think the answer lies in test scores, absenteeism or graduation rates.  These are all outcomes or benchmarks we can point to and declare whether we are successful or not, and they are handy for making statistics; but we should be looking at what these things measure. Tests measure one thing at one moment in time and it is short-sighted to believe that any one test can measure all that is actually happening in a classroom. Standardized tests are based on the perception that students share a background knowledge and cultural exposure that the test makers believe the majority of students have access to, when the reality is no one is "standard".  Economically disadvantaged and racial minorities are statistically less likely to have the required background knowledge and exposure to do well on these "standard" exams, never mind students who are not strong test takers, whose abilities will not likely be represented appropriately.  Economically disadvantaged students have been shown to be more at risk for absenteeism, low graduation rates, etc.  These are not necessarily the faults of the district, but a part of the many factors that accompany poverty, like less access to medical care, adequate nutrition, stable housing, etc. Taking money away from districts that are struggling is not necessarily the answer.

Education is much more complicated than test scores. Good teachers are one factor, but so are strong administrators, supportive communities and parents, access to resources, and student ability to concentrate on the task of learning, and yes, a desire/commitment to learn. Students are better able to focus on their learning if their basic needs are being met. I would question how bad the teachers actually are in their instruction in this Pennsylvania district because one factor that I truly believe really shapes the outcome of a student's education is the commitment of the teacher to the student. Teachers who are willing to work without pay, to put their student's education before their own economic security, must care an awful lot about providing the best education they can to their pupils.  I have never been in a situation where I could put the financial well-being of my family behind the desire to provide education to my students, and as teachers, I question how long they will have the resources to be able to sustain their mission. 

I wonder what would happen if we took No Child Left Behind more literally and really examined what it means to leave a child behind... I am from a state that in 2010 ranked 6th in the nation for child homelessness - which means we had the 6th lowest rate in the nation, meaning we had 4,436 children documented as being homeless. According to the Carsey Institute report, "On one day in January 2009, the New Hampshire Department of Education and New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services counted 1,402 homeless elementary, middle/juniorhigh, and high school students at school. Twelve percent (171) were unaccompanied youth under age18, with most of them probably homeless adolescents." I wonder how well those students did on a test that day?

My point is that many factors contribute to the development and education of a child and I really have to question a situation that creates more focus on test results and school report cards and less on what really matters, the overall well-being of a child.

3 comments:

Tina said...

Amen!

Mary Esther said...

A standardized test, or a test of any kind, measures only a person's ability to take a test. You are right on. What in heaven's name do they think they are measuring? Why is education, of all things, so far behind. No corporate player would do such a shoddy job of measuring quality assurance or performance management. Ask any social scientist who survived the educational system by being able to take tests successfully.

T. C Adams said...

As a teacher in Georgia your observations about AYP, NCLB, poverty, and minority students struck a deep chord within me.. The standardized test scores do not take into account the diversity of this country. Test scores mean that teachers have to teach to the medium... we leave behind the gifted and the special needs students. So much for NCLB.