I recently joined a group on Facebook called the Badass Teachers Association. I joined it because I, like the other 20,000-plus people who joined in the group’s first couple of weeks, am fed up with teachers being blamed for everything that is wrong with society.
There is a myth going around our country, a multifaceted myth. It goes something like this: American schools have been dumbed down, bad teachers have been given free reign, our educational system is failing, and we will fail to be competitive in the new global economy. This is a myth on several counts. American schools are more rigorous than they have ever been. What used to be high school topics and subjects have been moved into middle school (Algebra 2 in 8th grade, anyone?). High School students can take multiple college level courses while still in high school, for college credit, and even graduate with a two year college degree along with their high school diploma. Tenure allowed bad teachers to stay in the classroom only if administrators were unwilling to go through the process of removing them. Our educational system is not failing. When people compare our test scores to those of other countries, they fail to take into account that there may be different tests involved, which invalidates the comparison, that some “high-scoring” nations do not, as we in the U.S do, test or even attempt to educate all their students. (Some test or educate only their best and brightest.) Moreover, there has never been a proved link between high test scores and a robust economy, or even between high test scores and individual success in later life. Standardized tests generally test students’ ability to take tests. Last but not least, is our only goal in educating our youth to make them capable of earning more money than people in other countries? Or are our goals bigger and more generous than that?
Because of this story about how our schools are failing, however, several things are happening. We have come to equate learning with testing, and testing with learning, because standardized tests are easy to measure. We have linked test scores to teacher evaluation. If your students aren’t scoring well enough, the teacher isn’t teaching well enough. This supposedly makes it easy to see who our good and bad teachers are. We have ordered teachers to teach to the test, an act that used to be considered unethical. But when our only goal is higher test scores, then anything that gets in the way of that goal has got to go. The curriculum becomes narrower—if it isn’t on the test, it doesn’t get taught. The arts are neglected. In the lower grades, Science and History go out the window to make way for test prep in Math and Reading. Because we need students to pass the tests, we are telling teachers exactly how to teach, giving them scripted curricula that tell them what to say and exactly what materials to use, and what assessments to utilize. The only thing left for teachers to do is talk louder. They are held accountable for results, but robbed of the autonomy needed to get results. Schools are threatened with closures if they don’t show improvement. Schools have been closed and replaced all across the country with charter schools that often don’t get any better results than public schools, sometimes hand-pick their students to make their scores look better, and sometimes waste tax payer money in well-documented scandals. There are organizations whose goal is to shut down and dismantle our public school system, all based on the spurious claim that the system is, across the board, failing.