Teach Your Children Well

Shame on any parent or guardian of school-aged children who has never questioned the term “teaching to the test” and its residual pressures on teachers and students.

Shame on any parent or guardian of school-aged children who has never questioned the term “teaching to the test” and its residual pressures on teachers and students.

In the mid-1990s I first heard teachers in the Hamilton City School District whispering the term in frustration throughout neighborhood elementary schools I visited to report education stories when I covered Hamilton schools for the Journal-News.

I ignored it at first because veteran teachers have bucket loads of complaints and they can sometimes be passive-aggressive in their complaining, especially the nearer they get to retirement.

However, as the years have fallen away, those early grumblings have proven true: Teachers have long been pressured by building principals — who are leaned on hard by district superintendents who are passing the buck from state honchos — to re-prioritize classroom time and resources devoted to preparation for statewide standardized tests and Common Core standards.

This decreases teachers’ overall classroom sovereignty and creativity, leaving them scarce leeway for little else. It increases the probability our children will become robotic memorizers unable to think independently. Further, it greatly disallows any room for children with unchecked learning disabilities (like dyslexia, which I suffered undiagnosed through high school) to figure out how they think and learn and forces them to develop an unhealthy relationship with standardized testing when their brains do not operate traditionally.

I don’t know how “teaching to the test” — including rampant practice tests and pre-tests — fairs in other states, but it’s rampant here in Ohio and teachers, parents and students are sick of it.

In recent weeks it’s been reported there will be a mass departure of more that 100 teachers in the Lakota Local School District, the second-largest district in Southwest Ohio, at the end of the present school year, and it’s being attributed to drastic benefit reductions in the state’s teacher retirement system and to teacher fatigue over testing.

The Ohio Department of Education has long made it clear it places a priority on test scores and the answer to the department’s priority is to mandate a state of over-testing. The collateral damage from all that over-testing is to hold teachers accountable for low test scores and, therefore, hold teachers to closer scrutiny and tighter evaluations.

Teachers in districts like Lakota are feeling pinched.

I do not get the impression these teachers are scared, running away from responsibilities, leaving students and parents in the lurch. Looks to me like experienced teachers, upon weighing their financial and professional options, think it better to get out now while they can still hold onto the money they worked so hard to squirrel away and while they still have an ounce of teaching creativity left to, perhaps, become consultants, writers or transition into higher education.

I am not against the state requiring professional standards and guidelines for teachers — these people, these great influencers and terrific under-rowers who spend as much time with our children as we do. But demanding over-testing and adopting the Common Core standards along with its own bevy of testing grinds to a halt the great experiments of learning and the cultivation of thirsty minds that (used to) happen in American classrooms.

Imagine how difficult it is for teachers to start a unit on literary narrative by teaching students to tell their own life stories or beginning to teach principles of velocity by going outside and propelling airplanes into the air, then stopping all that to start preparing for a standardized test for the remainder of the week, then trying to resume the following week a lesson plan where it was paused.

Many children undiagnosed with attention deficit disorder — “normal” kids — have a difficult enough time switching gears and then settling back into a routine abruptly taken from them. I have been in my fair share of public school classrooms across two counties to know this is true.

Until you have spent long hours in a classroom with a group of kids, you have no idea how much of a train wreck a regular ol’ classroom can be. There is a smorgasbord of learning abilities, diagnoses, attitudes, home training — and lack thereof — to navigate.

Add to that everything that might be going on in a child’s home life — abuse, neglect, hunger, sleep deprivation and, conversely, insane wealth without the nurturing hand children need — and teachers have it beyond hard.

Some teachers morph into drill sergeants.

It’s a wonder any kid without a picture-perfect chance graduates high school at all in this country. And it’s no wonder that, yes, the Chinese — those old enemies — kick our collective asses in not only the applied sciences but in overall student progress and why America ranks so low on the international scale of educational excellence.

It all comes back to the systems we have in place to “educate” our children; the system is largely out of whack because of these damned tests.

Ask any random, well-adjusted junior or senior in high school with plans after high school, whether it’s college, work or travel. Ask ’em what was the greatest influence or achievement in their high-school careers, and I will bet you sure as I am black they will not answer: “Oh, why, it was all those standardized tests that changed my life.”

They will undoubtedly tell you how a specific teacher opened up the world for them by introducing them to drama or poetry or by making math less frightening or by making biology make sense or they met a teacher who had a reputation for being unbearable and it was that teacher who helped them figure out how their brains worked, so now they face the world more invincible, less invisible.

When I think of education in this country I think of two things. One, I’m thankful I came along when I did when teachers were still allowed to be classroom magicians.

And, two, though I still ache to be a mother I am sometimes glad I am not. It’s a test I’d pass but would my kid pass all their tests?

CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: [email protected]