from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A different March Madness -- in our schools 

The title is that of an op ed that in appeared in a North Jersey newspaper. I received a copy of the op ed on an educational list serv, and have been unable to find an online link. I have therefore put fairly large chunks in block quotes, attempting to still abide by fair use by using ellipses and by paraphrasing portions. I have placed in bold those portions about which I will comment briefly at the end.

I warn the reader that I will not attempt to discuss all the issues the author raises. But his points about the nature of the relationship between teacher and students are to my mind critical. I agree with another author, Parker Palmer, that teaching and learning involves relationships. If there were one thing of which I could persuade people it is that our increasing mistaken reliance on high stakes external tests is destroying our ability to inspire real love for learning in our children, precisely because of the loss of the kinds of relationships the piece discusses.

The (North Jersey) Record -- March 20, 2006
op. ed. by James F. Battaglia

Battaglia begins by noting that this month in many schools begins the cycle of the annual testing mandated by No Child Left Behind, and acknowledges in his role as a psychologist he values test scores as ONE tool in assessing children’s learning.

However, this law goes too far by making standardized testing the only assessment tool at specified grade levels . . . .
Because this law inserts itself in the relationship between teacher and student, it is squeezing the soul out of our educational system. Soon, students and their No. 2 pencils will be unwitting players in our country's other "March Madness," and students and teachers are destined to lose.

As a child, I went to school for two main reasons: First, and foremost, because my parents said so, and then, over time, because I valued learning as a means to become a better person.

An unspoken contract was present between my teachers and me: they did their best to teach me and I did my best to learn. For me, schooling became a quasi-spiritual journey toward what Abraham Maslow called self-actualization. Teachers were my guides.

Now that contract between teacher and learner is in jeopardy due to the oversimplifying tendencies of politicians in their doling out of resources and status
.. . .

Teachers were once given license to instill in children a love of learning in immeasurable ways. My teachers showed me how to immerse myself in the lives of people I never met in places I had never been during times I had never lived. . . .

A crucial mission of teachers, to quench children's thirst for learning by instilling in them a love of reading, writing and more, cannot survive this law. Neither the love of teaching nor the love of learning can flourish at the end of the barrel of a gun.

He describes how outside of education people do not rely on only one measure, which is why for jobs there are interviews, because recruiters are interested beyond test scores in things like problem-solving, organizational ability, and teamwork, which can be assessed by “alternative assessment” but not by the tests this law seems to demand.

If these politicians were to talk to psychologists they would learn that vast complexity is simplified when numbers are assigned to abstract concepts. The history of the concept of intelligence is replete with varying theories of intelligence, tasks to measure it, and statistical formulas to calculate it.

Test scores are at best imperfect, intelligence is more than one score, and yet politicians and educators continue to reify the annuls set of education scores.

Sting sang, "Poets, priests and politicians have words to thank for their commissions." But today's politicians are also indebted to flawed numbers that they consider to be, well, flawless.

If our politicians were to run the NCAA basketball tournament using this approach, the tournament would be thrown into crisis. The playing of messy, unpredictable games would be scrapped in favor of a simple foul-shooting contest or, worse, a written test on the rules of the game. The politicians would still get the numbers they like to crow about, but basketball would be stripped of its excitement, passion and individuality.

This is what is happening in classrooms across the country, and it is creating the other March Madness.

But this one is no game.

It is time to leave behind No Child Left Behind.

James F. Battaglia, a psychologist living in Fair Lawn, is
director of AIMRoom Services, an educational program for students with disabilities. For more information, see theaimroom.com

Let me add a few comments borne of my varied experiences. These include not only my 11 years as a teacher, but my own experience as a student in K-12 classrooms and the many times I have dipped my toe into educational waters in post-secondary institutions, in which I have earned one bachelors, two masters, dropped out of another bachelors, another two masters and two doctorates.

Often I have learned most in circumstances in which my test scores did not reflect what I had learned. That is, because I am a quick reader and very good at pattern recognition, and because I long ago figured out how to take mass-produced tests, I would do quite well on external tests but my scores would bear no relationship to what I actually knew or had learned in the class whose learning was being assessed. On the more difficult in-class assessments (I had many tough teachers), it would sometimes be a crapshoot if the items used to assess a block of learning happened to overlap what I had actually learned. Far too often tests either asked things I knew or understood prior to instruction, or overly emphasized domains in which I had less understanding and skill than those in which I had shown more growth. Now, in the case of mismatch between what I knew and what was being assessed,that provided me - and the instructor - information that could be used to improve my understanding. But it did not give a complete picture of what I knew or could do. Perhaps that is why many teachers balance how they evaluate their students -- part of the final grade is determined by things like classroom participation, papers, other kinds of assignments. That way one does not rely too heavily on any one means of assessment which could give a wrong perception because of measurement error, because the student is having a bad hair day, or for any other reason.

And then the test did not stand as an artificial barrier between teacher and student. It generated information that both could use to help understand what each needed to do to help the student learn more.

I have no trouble with the idea of challenging students. I can be a very demanding teacher. And I learned quite a lot from teachers who demanded of me. But in each case we were talking about relationships. Teachers asked and often prodded me to live up to what I could do, to go further, they encouraged me when I was struggling, they persuaded me that I could dream big dreams. Perhaps one reason why I have some effectiveness with my students is because I try to emulate this aspect of those teachers who made a difference in my life while still being true to who I am. I am enthusiastic about my subject, but I care more for my students than I do for my subject. If I have to individualize (one reason for relying upon assignments which allow individualization in a way tests do not) in order to make the subject meaningful for my students, I will.

I do not have time this morning to make this a really thoughtful piece. I have rushed to put this together to make it available. If someone can find an online link to the article, I wish they would make it available.

In the meantime, if you are a teacher, connect with your students. If you are a student, remember that most teachers care about far more than how you do on tests. And if you are a caring person, as I expect most of you are, give some thought to how you would like to be treated as you struggle to learn, then give some effort to help make our schools the kind of place in which you would like to be, or that would be positive and supportive for any child about whom you care, which I hope would be all of our children.


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