Sunday, January 13, 2013

In Support of Garfield Boycott

This is a simple piece in support of Garfield High teachers who have chosen to boycott the MAP test, which was imposed on Seattle schools a few years ago. I’ll also suggest a starting point for what to do if we as a society ever stop blaming the teacher for everything that’s wrong with our young people.

I have written extensively on testing, and even about this specific test. My primary complaints were about the time required to do these tests three times a year, and about how they monopolize the computer labs for weeks at a time. Other problems include the over-emphasis placed on test results, the questionable validity of those tests, and the dubious circumstances in which this particular test was brought to us (our superintendent at that time was also sitting on the board of the company that writes the test).

In a time when more and more is foisted upon teachers as if we are the sole bastions of hope standing against the tides of illiteracy, incompetence, unemployment, relational and social decay, racism, sexism, ism-ism, bullying, violence, and cultural misunderstanding, it is so refreshing to see a school standing up against one of the many tools thrown upon us that we are told will make a difference, but that actually won’t.

People say there’s never any good news, but this event puts that claim to rest. Good news is when people finally say they’ve had enough of having more time pulled away from them while they are concurrently blamed for failing to uphold the increasing number of responsibilities forced upon them.

The Testing Burden
We are pressured to raise achievement, raise awareness, raise scores, increase attendance, increase college readiness, increase techno-literacy, increase reading, increase writing, combat bullying and violence in all forms everywhere–and then our students are pulled from our classes for what adds up to about two weeks of school for some kids.

And this is just from the MAP test.

There’s also the EOC biology, the EOC algebra, the EOC geometry, the PSAT (yes, the district forces all students to take that too...for good or bad, it’s another school day lost), the HSPE reading, the HSPE writing, the AP tests, and in addition to all that are school assessments various schools give.

In Seattle, teachers are also told to give pre and post tests to their own students at the beginning, end (and sometimes middle) of the year in order to collect the all-important Data, without which, how would we know our students have really learned?

(Grades, anyone? Tests? I know how to do my job?)

Either way, add up all those tests, and we lose weeks of instruction every year to all this.

So it appears Garfield, when yet another test was thrown on top of all that, they finally decided they had enough after a few years of it.

And I salute and support them wholeheartedly. 

I heard a couple weeks ago they were planning to do this, and was very glad to see them follow through with it. I’m also glad the Seattle Times reported on it, because the public needs to see teachers making a case for their students.

Class Time? That’s so 20th Century
We are tired of students being pulled from class all the time, and then being blamed when they don’t learn as much as someone else thinks they should be learning.

Almost every day, I have a student come to me with a pass to see a guidance counselor, career counselor, behavior counselor, nurse, other teacher or administrator, or some other person requesting them from my class, but I can’t read the signature and don’t even know who they are.

They are pulled out for field trips, some students four or five times a year. They are pulled out for sports. If you have an athlete the last period of the day, they will miss two days a week in your class until the season ends, unless they also play a sport the next season.  They are pulled out to be told how bad their grades are and that they need to do better if they want to graduate. Yeah, really.

That makes it pretty tough to, like, learn stuff, you know?

I mean, if you went back fifty years, I just don’t think it was like this. I don’t think kids were getting pulled out all the time.  Is all of this helping?

I understand the need to build whole students, and that we are more than just knowledge, facts, and test scores. In fact, I think I understand that better than most people.  And some of these pullouts are for seemingly good reasons.  But why can’t we do more of this outside of class time?

And at what point must we admit that, if we’re going to pull kids out of class this many times, we need to finally relax all this pressure on teachers as if they are the only ones responsible for student achievement?

If these things are that important–if they are meant to “make a difference”–then the people pulling them out also ought to share that responsibility. But how would you do that? It would be practically impossible. So the solution is to just throw it all on the teacher?

A Truth We Must Accept
No. The solution is to relax a bit. The solution is to first accept something. This is very hard for some people to accept. But we must all agree on this before progress can truly be made: Some students will fail, and we won’t be able to stop them. I’ll say it again.

Some students will fail, and we won’t be able to stop them.

All the testing, pulling out, extra time, tutoring, counseling, and accountability in the universe will never result in every student graduating as competent, employable, functional citizens. It just isn’t going to happen. That’s not reality. It’s not human nature. Look at history. You cannot find one civilization that did not have poverty, crime, failure, and misery.

Am I saying to just give up? By no means. Why would I be a teacher if I thought that?

But we have to recognize, and admit, that we do not possess control over all the factors in people’s lives that lead to failure. And we never will. We are limited. We are one voice among many. We offer great opportunities, great potential. We offer a way to what could become a better life.

There’s a great movie from a couple years ago by that title, A Better Life. It’s about an illegal immigrant trying to help his son have a better life than he did, but he’s forced to do so without being able to participate in the same system his son can.  It’s great because it shows, so vividly and so personally, that it’s the son who has to ultimately decide what he wants.

Do I want to be a loser and join gangs and beat people up and vandalize stuff? Or do I want to take a real risk, and try to learn something, and honor the sacrifices my father has made on my behalf by succeeding in school and getting a good job?  I don’t phrase it this way to trivialize it. This is just how it looks from our perspective. But for the kid, this can be a hard choice, because he has little moral certainty on which to base his decision. But he does have a loving father, and what a difference that can make.

When the father’s truck gets stolen–one he just bought with all his savings to help start his own landscaping business–he and his son go looking for it, and grow closer together in the process.

The son–or, in our context, the student–has to make the key choice.  He’s got voices coming at him from all directions. He alone possesses the power of choice. Not his teachers. Not his counselors. Not his tutors. Not even his father. And certainly not his test scores.  What do I want from my life?

So until we as a society finally admit this, and really understand the implications of it, we will continue to seek solutions to problems that at their heart lie outside of our control.

And as long as we do that, and run after fads and gimmicks such as the MAP test, we will continue to flail about and wonder why things don’t get better. Once we finally admit this truth, then we can start to have a real conversation about what it will actually take to improve education on a systemic (cultural) scale. If it comes down to each student making a choice, how do we encourage good choices?

And, is that the teacher’s job?

Congratulations to Garfield staff for standing up to a gimmick that was robbing us of our time and yet condemning us for failing to do more with less of it.  Edu-truth is with you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Way to go, Edu-truth! I love this post and agree with you 100%.