Dear Mr. President:
In the past two weeks, I have read more about schools, teachers, and accountability than I have ever seen in my nearly 20 years in education. Sadly, I can’t say that what I’ve been reading is encouraging. The one word I see over and over again is “accountability.”
Accountability IS a good thing. As a teacher, I strive to instill its meaning into the mind of every single child I’ve taught. Accountability is a life skill that will make you or break you as an adult. But please understand me when I say that I’m afraid “accountability has become nothing more than a political buzzword, and I’m more afraid for American education than I have ever been in my life… and it’s not because I’m afraid of how that term, accountability, relates to me.
An American education has always been about opportunity. EVERY child in the United States has the right to attend a public school. We don’t turn children away because they cannot afford to attend public school. We even ensure they have meals during the day, whether they can pay or not. I fear this right may disappear.
You, Mr. President, are asking for more from our schools, but when was the last time you spent some serious time observing a typical school day/week/month in any public school? When was the last time you saw a teacher work with a child before school, during a lunch break, during teacher plan time, after school… all to ensure that student learns? When was the last time you asked what type of programs are being offered at schools to help struggling learners become more successful? When was the last time you attended a public school nighttime program that focused on bringing a community into a school for a multi-age learning opportunity?
I don’t deny that some schools could do much more to help their students become successful. What I do see, however, is the blame placed squarely on the shoulders of the teachers. We both know blame doesn’t lead to improvement. Besides, are the teachers the only adults responsible for those students academic success? How many of our children have parents who are supporting their education? What are schools doing to bring in community members and parents to be accountable for their children?
Are there bad teachers in our country? Sure, but I can assume that the percentage of bad teachers to good teachers is actually much less than you think. What I really see happening: teachers in the United States are becoming scapegoats. One of the most important things I learned in my history classes is that, when a nation is in crisis, scapegoats are created to assume the blame and suffer undeserved and, many times, brutal consequences. Please explain how blaming and firing teachers will EVER lead to successful schools?
Full disclosure: I am a teacher. I have always been a teacher, even when I was a student in elementary school. My teachers noticed at a very early age (2nd grade!) that I was a natural at helping students understand the concepts we were learning. Peer tutoring was something I loved. From the age of 8, I wanted to be a teacher. One of the most amazing things to witness is that point when you truly see understanding in a child’s eyes.
I worked really diligently to become a teacher. The first few years of teaching, I wasn’t very good. Sure, my choirs sang well, my students could recite facts about music back through the Renaissance period, but I was hung up on classroom management. I didn’t have enough strategies to be as effective as I should have been. Those strategies came with time, as well as advice from a master teacher mentor.
Eventually, my classroom strategies improved, and then I remembered the most important thing about teaching: LEARNING. Those kids didn’t care what I had to say. They wanted to be involved in their own learning. My goal was to help them learn to think, but more importantly, learn to learn. Those were skills they would need their entire lives!
Eventually, I left teaching for higher paying jobs. I felt I wasn’t really making an impact on children, and I was burnt out. Outside of education, I was successful… but unhappy. So, I took a very hefty pay cut and returned to my first love, teaching. Teaching music, to be exact. I love working with my students, and I take ownership of their learning and well-being. They are my children.
Almost every day, a student might ask me, “Why is writing (or science or math…) so important to you? It is just a music class!” My answer is the same now as it has always been: you are LEARNING. You are teaching your brain something more important than any fact you will ever remember.
Which brings me to the last point of Part I: your version of accountability is all about standardized tests. Standardized tests do not, and never will, measure LEARNING. They only measure “remembering” and occasionally “applying.” Those are the two lowest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Standardized tests do not measure analyzing, evaluating, creating, inventing… what do we want more for and from our children? Yes, I want children who can read and write, but I also want children who can think for themselves and can move beyond what we already know to what we do not yet know.
I will gladly admit there are some facts that must be memorized before we can move on to higher order thinking skills. Those facts currently on standardized tests, however, do not fully measure what a child knows and is able to do. Yet, we are basing our entire definition of success in schools on standardized tests. Money is tied to standardized testing. Threats to teachers and administrators are tied to standardized testing. Children are being threatened with standardized testing!
Have you ever seen a 2nd grader stressed out because he knows a standardized test is approaching? I have, and it sickens me. 2nd graders should not be worried about a TEST. The result of all the pressure and emphasis on standardized testing: teachers have begun teaching to the test. We can’t have teachable moments in the classrooms anymore, because “it’s not on the test.” “If it’s not on the test, we don’t teach it.” Students do not love learning. They don’t love or even like school. How are the children of this country going to be successful if they don’t want to learn? Their definition of learning has become “preparing for a test.” And I don’t blame them.
To close Part I of this note to you, I want to re-emphasize my two main points: we cannot have true accountability with tests that are so inadequately measuring our students’ true capabilities and potential; nor can we expect scapegoats to rise up and suddenly become accountable when they are shoved down, stepped on, and blamed for everything that is wrong with American schools. There has to be a better solution. I will address those ideas in Part II.
(Edu friends: I really want to send this post (and Part II) to our nation’s leaders. I would be grateful for any suggestions you have! Thank you!)