Boycott the Test: Why It’s Time for Teachers to Take Back Education

2/4/2013

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“Everybody is born with innate curiosities.  It’s a school’s job to cultivate them and not to kill them.” –Nikhil Goyal

I have tried to resist the temptation to use this blog as a soapbox to shout from–and those of you who know me personally know that I have in fact been controlling myself.  But I can’t remain silent now, as I finally see educators building a movement against standardized testing.  Thank you, Seattle teachers, for standing up for education.  It’s about time.

I have long believed that educators are the only ones who can turn this ship around and head it back toward the heart of real education.  For far too long, educators have been bullied into complying with the assumption that policy makers know what good education looks like–and can measure it better than we can from the trenches.  Afraid to lose our jobs and our livelihoods, most teachers have done the best we could–but most teach to the test a little more each year, even though we recognize that this isn’t education (and certainly isn’t why we went into education to begin with).

I am an activist at heart, and I believe it’s time to worry less about our jobs and more about our students.  Whether you’re a private school teacher with an internal exam system which keeps you locked into the game of getting every kid into Harvard, or a public school teacher facing school report cards and government-mandated exams, we all know that this is a game of accountability, not an example of education at its best and most vibrant.  We know what good education looks like and why we’ve decided to care–and we know why young teachers today are fleeing the field in droves after only 2-3 years in the classroom.  It’s time to do something about the rise of testing and the death of education.

Five Reasons Why Teachers Should Boycott Tests this Year:

1.  We know what excellent education looks and feels like. 
In my experience, good teachers go back into their memories of childhood and teach from the best practices they experienced themselves.  We can recognize when a kid doesn’t understand something, and we read a lot more than test scores to understand where a student’s strengths and weaknesses lie.  We learn–through teacher education, instincts and practice–to know what kinds of remediation students need from us.  We get to know our kids so well that we notice even the slightest flinch of confusion, recognize even the subtlest moments of student growth and success.

We also know what the most magical moments in education feel like.  We are moved as individuals when we see our kids grasp something new and engage in real learning, when we see that light in their eyes which says that we’ve hooked into a place of inherent curiosity and life-long learning.   And while there may be a few lazy souls and bad apples in the mix, the assumption that school buildings are filled with teachers trying to shirk their responsibility is absurd.  I know of no field in which people hold themselves more fully accountable than teaching.  Teachers are people who do hundreds of extra hours of unpaid work, who give up their evenings and weekends to grade and tutor, who show up for athletic games and student performances outside of their regular demands–not because it’s part of the job description, but because they love to see their students succeed.

2.  We know what our students really need.
Teachers don’t go into this work because of market forces or governmental policies–we go into education because we care about children.  We find our ideal age group–often the age group we most resemble ourselves–and we offer them far more than just our knowledge.  While students are in our care, teachers recognize and embrace the idea that we are en loco parentis, that we are parenting as much as teaching.  We are not accountable because of the test; we are accountable because we love our students and want them to be full, happy, healthy human beings with a constructive role in the world.  We want to help them find their passion and purpose, to develop their gifts and work on their weaknesses.  Schoolhouses across the world are filled with adults who do care, who yearn for and work toward the success of every child, who stay in this work in spite of standardized tests, not because they believe testing has anything to do with the heart of education.

3.  We know that testing doesn’t foster creativity or innovation, 
and that testing is not actually a reflection of the way the world works.  
Only in academia is one judged on the ability to take tests and offer back knowledge on command.  In the real world, our students will encounter messy, complex problems, not multiple choice questions.  They will use a variety of skills and a plethora of knowledge in concert to find new solutions to the world’s pressing problems, rather than being asked to simply demonstrate knowledge.  The long-standing belief that academic “rigor” will lead to a successful life may actually be a myth–particularly in schools where the push for rigor comes alongside the assumption that every problem has only one right answer.  Just fill in the right bubble with the right #2 pencil enough times, and you’ll be set for life.

But the truth is that life doesn’t actually work this way, and being good at taking tests only helps you navigate the current educational system until you’re in your mid-20s–after that, it’s not useful in many other contexts.  Just as the doctor develops a diagnosis by investigating the patient’s signs and symptoms, assisted by both the skill to notice and knowledge about what she’s seeing, so our students will apply a complex combination of skills and knowledge in their professional lives.  And education isn’t just about the more “academic” subjects, either.  Our students need to develop the ability to recognize beauty and create meaning out of chaos, skills fostered by exploring poetry, music, art, theatre, dance, and other subjects which never even appear on standardized tests to begin with (and are therefore being dropped by schools around the world).

There is no great culture on this planet which has flourished without the contributions of creative thinkers and innovators, and right now our educational culture is crushing most of that out of students before they graduate from elementary school.

4.  We have better ways of providing evidence of student learning, many of which provide a much more complete and authentic picture of student growth than standardized tests can ever offer. 
In fact, most teachers have already been trained in more authentic forms of assessment, particularly portfolios and the kinds of student products and performances which project-based learning has become famous for.  The problem isn’t whether we have other ways to gather information about student growth and performance–we do have alternatives, and most teachers would prefer to be using them.  The more important problem is that we’ve ended up with a system which trusts exams designed by policy makers more than assessments run by the teachers themselves.

The most important problem is that we’ve let education stay this way for so long.  We know better than to let the system keep telling us there is only one way to measure learning.  It’s time for us to take back the reins and fight for recognition–teachers are the ones actually in the classroom with those children, and there is no one we can trust more to assess our children’s growth and report on their behalf.

5.  We are the only ones who have the power to stop the tests, 
and we are accountable to children before we’re accountable to the government.
Just as we stood up in Texas and California in the 1970s and ‘80s, respectively, and refused to ban the children of illegal immigrants from our classrooms, educators need to stand up now.  Thousands of teachers across the world, whether they know it or not, have already acted as conscientious objectors any time the law has directly contradicted their calling as educators and their sense of what children really need.  Just as doctors agree to the Hippocratic oath, so teachers are sworn to do right by children, if only figuratively.

This is not a matter of law; it is a matter of conscience, and it is time to do the right thing.  It is time to take back education, to take it out of the hands of policy makers and put it back in the hands of educators.  We know better, and we know what our students need.

It’s time to stop talking so much about rigor and start bringing vigor back into our schools.