Saturday, August 27, 2011

When teaching became a measurable act and not a meaningful experience

Last week was the first week of school for most students throughout the State of Florida.  For the past several weeks, teachers and administrators have been “gearing up” for the return of school and a new group of kids.  This is the time of year that most everyone remembers fondly – new clothes, new shoes, new school supplies and the eager anticipation that comes with wondering who your teacher will be and whether or not your best friends will be in your class.  It is a time of excitement, anticipation and wonder.  It’s a fresh start – a new year, a new beginning.

Looking back on my first day as a teacher – 22 years ago – I recall feeling excited and nervous.  I, too, had new clothes, new shoes, and new supplies.  My students’ desks were clustered in groups of four.  Fresh posters adorned my walls.  My lesson plans were typed using my new Apple Macintosh computer.  I was nervous, but I was ready.  As the first bell rang, I remembered what one of my professors told me, “When that door closes, it’s just you and those kids that matter.  Your job is to do everything you can to help make learning a meaningful experience for them – regardless of what is going on in the world around them.”

Today, however, much of that anticipation and excitement has changed for administrators, teachers and – more important – for students.  While most students still experience the nervous anxiety of new classrooms, new teachers and new friends, and teachers still approach a new school year as a clean slate and a new opportunity to guide and help young people, a new fear – a different kind of anxious anticipation – has gripped our schools.   Gone is the sage advice of a trusted professor – “your job is to make learning a meaningful experience…”  That philosophy has been replaced with a new mantra, “Your job hinges on your ability to raise test scores.”  For students, it is an even more ominous proclamation, “You won’t graduate if you don’t pass this test.”

This week, I had a dozen teachers in my classroom.  It wasn’t their enthusiasm, excitement or nervous anticipation that brought them there.  They weren’t in my room to share stories about the bright, new faces in their classrooms, like they would have years ago.  They were in my room with a new sense of nervousness and anticipation.  They were there to ask me to explain how, when and where they should be writing and posting their “learning goals”.  They were there to ask me how they should structure their “scales” so that they could show the administrators – who were observing them during the first week of school – that they were “taking the temperature” of student learning and understanding.  They were there to ask me to explain how they could be “scored” as “Beginning” for a skill that they were not using when they were evaluated.

Likewise, the nervousness normally exhibited by students has changed over the years.  No longer do students ask questions at the beginning of the year like, “Are we going to make a volcano this year?”, or “Can I bring in my new puppy to school for sharing?”, or “What projects are we going to do in class this year?”  These queries have been replaced with, “When is FCAT this year?”  and “If we don’t pass the Reading FCAT is it true we have to take two reading classes in middle school?”  and, “Why did our school get a B last year?”  Our teachers’ focus has shifted from “making learning meaningful” to making teaching observable – measurable.  Our students’ focus has shifted from “what are we going to do and discover?” to “when is our next assessment?” and “I hope I pass it.”

While the recent changes in teacher evaluation system and the implementation of End of Course exams for middle school and high school students (along with the ever present emphasis on FCAT testing) is much to blame, this “paradigm shift” did not occur over night.  It is rooted in the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind act and the mantle has been passed on through the Obama administration’s Race to the Top education plan.  It has been fueled by a numbers-driven political atmosphere in which politicians (and the voting populace) feel the need to analyze every dollar spent and to justify every program.

As a group of teachers and I waited for our last bus to arrive at the end of the third day of school – a bus that transports six students from the north part of our county to the south part of our county because we are a choice school – I made the comment, “This is the type of thing that the general public never sees – kids who spend an hour and a half on a bus twice a day simply because someone thought it was a good idea.”   One of my colleagues turned to me and said, “To the general public, these kids are nothing more than numbers.”  We all looked at each other and sighed in agreement.

Albert Einstein once said, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”  Alfie Kohn, a prominent educator in this country, summed it up even better when he said, “We are so busy weighing the elephant that we are forgetting to feed it.”

I long for the days when I could close my door, and it was just me and my students.  My only concern was how to make what I was teaching meaningful.  I long for the days when pacing guides did not exist and student interest and inquiry drove the curriculum.  I long for the days when a “basal reader” was a resource, not a required text.  I long for the days when – while gauging the temperature of student learning and interest – I could go off on a tangent and use that “teachable moment” to give my students what they wanted and needed – regardless of what my posted learning goal was. 

Sadly, those days are gone.  They are gone until someone has the courage to say kids are more than just a test score, and teachers are more than just a tool to generate those scores.  As Americans, we have to determine what can be counted and what should be counted.