Defending Teachers and Teaching: Standardized Testing Cons
By Mark Naison
This is a daunting time to be a teacher in the United States of America. At work, almost every day brings word of a new test, a new assessment, a new rubric for accountability that makes teachers and students jump through another hoop.
Media and elected officials add to the stress and anxiety. It is rare that there isn't another public declaration of devotion to the cause of "Education Reform," which teachers have learned to interpret to mean another attack on their professional integrity and another chance to blame teachers for the nation's failure to be competitive on international tests, or reduce poverty and inequality.
But worst of all is the scripting of the classroom environment by testing and technology in ways which eliminate the spontaneity that makes teaching fun, and the relationship building that makes teaching meaningful.
The classroom has become a zone of surveillance. It is not too far fetched to imagine that video cameras will be eventually installed to make sure teachers are not deviating from the curricula that have been purchased to insure good results on the tests that have been imposed.
In the short run, there may be no way to stop this. Too many people have built careers on promoting these "reforms" and too many people are making money implementing them. But little by little, those on the receiving end of these initiatives - whether they are teachers, school administrators, students or parents - are feeling discouraged, smothered, humiliated and abused.
Uncontrolled proliferation of testing, which now begins in Pre-K, is rapidly extending to subjects like art, music and gym, making school so boring and stress filled that the people in it are experiencing clinical systems of anxiety and depression. Special needs students, ELL students, and those whose lives are so unstable they can't give learning their full attention are being subjected to a form of "educational triage" startling in its cruelty, lest they pull down test scores and subject everyone else to the penalties triggered by that result - which can include closing of schools and mass firing of teachers!
In response, a simmering rage began to manifest itself among those most affected. It began with conversations, most of them private; then meetings; then formation of organizations; then rallies, marches, boycotts, lawsuits and strikes - the same model followed by movements of the Sixties on behalf of women's and gay rights. While these movements - Save Our Schools, United Opt Out, Dump Duncan, Parents Across America, the Chicago Teachers Strike - are still in their early stages, and have not stopped the Education Reform juggernaut, they have robbed it of its air of romance, exposed its links to big money interests, and challenged its claim to promote the cause of equity and civil rights. Most importantly, they have let individual teachers, parents and students who were feeling smothered and abused by the new policies know that they are not alone and that resistance is possible.
While it is impossible at this stage to know whether these resistance movements will be strong enough to force political leaders to withdraw their support from privatization and testing, they have created enough of a grass roots presence to publicly challenge and contest almost every Reform initiative at the local and national level. We now have a Counter Narrative, based on strong scholarship as well as experience, which warns that Reform policies are likely to widen educational disparities rooted in race and class and weaken the nation's schools by driving out the most committed teachers.
And people are listening. An extravagantly funded Hollywood film, Won't Back Down supporting a favorite Reform cause, Parent Trigger Legislation, got so little public support it was judged one of the greatest failures in the history of Hollywood films. A rally in New York City in support of teacher assessments based on standardized tests, organized by Students for Education Reform chapters at NYU and Columbia, was a dismal failure. Parent trigger legislation and charter school initiatives have been voted down in several states; and lawsuits are being filed by parents across the country protesting the impact of test mandates on special needs students.
The Reform Agenda is backed by limitless money and is fueled by the profit motive as well as political ambition; but because it turns schools into zones of fear and stress, the best it can do is compel opportunistic implementation and sullen compliance. And as teachers, students and parents step forward to say that our nation can and must do better than deluging schools with unnecessary tests, their courage, and their patience, will eventually inspire a moral and political awakening that will force policy makers and the media to take notice.
The first step is telling the truth about what Reform is really doing to our schools; the second step is to share that insight with colleagues, friends and family; the third step is to attend rallies and public meetings which challenge the Reform agenda; and the fourth step is to Opt-Out, Boycott, Strike and Sue.
Most of us are still in stage one and two, but because Reformers have no shame, and believe their own propaganda, they will continue to impose an agenda so manifestly ill-conceived and self-destructive that it will force more and more people into open rebellion.
In the service of this revolt, I proclaim the following:
- Testing is Not Teaching
- You Can't Improve School Performance By Making Children Hate School
- Demoralizing Teachers and Principals Doesn't Make Schools Better
Let's do this people. We have nothing to lose but our Assessments!
Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of White Boy: A Memoir (2002, Temple UP). This article originally appeared at L.A. Progressive.