We are coming to that time of year when the kids are amped up to 11 and little gifts and handmade cards start appearing on teachers' desks and everyone is counting down the days to something. I don't make a big deal out of it, but I love those little gifts, and especially the cards that say "Thank you for teching me about tichnology becase i think it is relly intersting and I want to be a computer spechulist." Those are the best. They make me feel loved and valued and trusted.
It's a big thing, to be trusted by a child. Trusted that I am doing the best I can to help them become the best they can. All of us, I hope, can remember a teacher like that. Hopefully we can all remember more than one. Teachers we loved, and some we didn't like so much but they did teach us something and, yes, probably a handful who weren't so hot. Maybe they were at a bad point in their lives or were just marking time till retirement, or one who'd been pulled just three months earlier from 20 years of teaching Driver's Ed and told he'd be leading College Prep 10th grade history since they'd cut his program. Poor bastard. I can feel for him now, though I couldn't when I was 15 and didn't know any better.
Those lousy apples, they were few and far between, and in truth, I knew no teachers who were truly awful. And even if I didn't like them, for the most part, I trusted them. So did my parents. So did the community. We trusted teachers to teach us, and grade us on what we'd learned, and honestly decide if we should move on to the next grade. Not an infallible system, to be sure, but one that relied on professional people doing what they'd been trained to do, with both the objectivity of the professional lens and the subjectivity of humanity to know when maybe the test wasn't going to cut it.
Teachers knew that when parents came in at conferences and said "We're getting a divorce" that the best anyone could hope for was that their child would be upright and breathing at the end of the year and the learning would have to come later. They knew that the 15 year old sobbing in the back of the room because her boyfriend had just dumped her might have known every answer 20 minutes ago, but would know nothing now. They knew that two and a half hours on a single test in a single sitting was way too long for anyone under the age of 15, and maybe even then, so they wouldn't even think of doing such a thing. They knew all this, and so much more. And we trusted them.
When was it that we stopped trusting teachers?
Sure, I suppose you could point to the few bad apples and say they're to blame, but I'd defy you to find me a profession, ANY profession without its slackers, incompetents and just plain jerks. Find me a profession where those people aren't in the ranks of power, protected by connections, or just lost in the noise of the big corporation. Tearing a profession to pieces on the basis of a few poor performers defies logic. Refusing to trust any teacher because one might be bad defies reason. That isn't it.
When did we stop trusting teachers?
Perhaps it was when "A Nation at Risk" came out, pummeling America's educational system, showing with facts and charts and impressive statistics that we ranked near the bottom of, well, everywhere in the known universe educationally and couldn't think our way out of a wet paper sack. Maybe that's where it began. Only, it wasn't true. Just like "The Bell Curve," which proved beyond doubt that white people were smarter than black people wasn't true. In the case of the latter, the authors had forgotten to sort for poverty.* Minorities are over-represented at the low end of the socio-economic-scale, you see. When all of Murray's results were sorted out by economic levels, it turned out that black kids were as or more intelligent than their white counterparts. Like "The Bell Curve," "A Nation at Risk" was comparing apples to kumquats, and when you sort for poverty, US kids, and US schools hold their own. We don't have an education crisis in America. We have a poverty crisis. Education is part of that crisis, to be sure, and as long as we fund schools through property taxes, it's going to continue.
So why did we stop trusting teachers?
Was it because legislators looked at poverty and knew there was no way to sell it? There's no way to tell constituents that we need to fix poverty and we don't know how, so let's see who else we can blame? Or was it because legislators looked at public schools, the places that could be a magic bullet against poverty, and decided instead that they could become a means to funnel ungodly amounts of money to their private donors? Testing is BIG business.† Testing costs a fortune. Private companies make the tests. They grade the tests, they compile the reports, they keep ALL of it a secret. Teachers, they send the tests home. They grade them and send them home for parents to see for themselves what it is their children can do. But test companies, those same companies who fund campaigns, do not.
So why do we not trust teachers?
When was it that we decided that the evaluation system we have built and have kept improving upon since schools began wasn't good enough to determine if teachers were doing their jobs? How was it determined that looking at how a group of 9-year-olds can do on a single test, given over 2 1/2 hours in a one day, can determine not only the sum total of what knowledge they gained in a year, but also whether or not the teacher was the one responsible for it? A teacher can be judged adequate or no based upon a test given to fewer than 10 of her students. Through the magic of statistical manipulation, the test results from a tiny number of students can be used to determine just how good she is or isn't. We have put our faith into numbers, but as Mark Twain once said "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics." This is where we have put our trust.
When did we stop trusting teachers to know when a child wasn't ready to move forward? Failing one of these tests can mean a child is held back an entire grade. A test the teacher doesn't see. A test the parents don't even get to see. All the faith we used to put into teachers is now in the hands of these testing companies, who are paid through public funds, and who heavily lobby (read: fund) legislators.
Most of you are saying right now "I DO trust my children's teachers." And, in fact, you do. I would even bet that you trust most of them a lot more than you trust your representatives at the State Capitol and in our Nation's Capitol?** You trust teachers to do right by your child, and you should be asking asking their leaders, and their leaders' leaders, all they way to the Statehouse-- "Why do you not trust teachers? Why are we testing our children like this? Who does it benefit? What does this testing tell us that we couldn't know from having our teachers simply doing their jobs as we trust them to do?"
There is a parable about a frog in a pot of cool water. If the water warms gradually, he stays put. Were it to heat suddenly, he'd spring out to freedom. But with a slow heat creeping about him, he would complacently stay until it was too late, cooking to death when the water began to boil.
It used to be that testing days in Ohio -- those days of immense stress and anxiety -- was only two days long for 3rd grade. Now it has jumped to eight. Eight days. From three days for 4th and 5th graders to ten. TEN days spent on high-stakes testing. The water is beginning to boil.
Why are we doing this?
Is it because you don't trust teachers?
Is it because you trust politicians more than you trust teachers?
I don't think so.
It's time to start asking the hard questions, and deciding whom you trust.
*They'd also used a lot of data from questionable sources. To read more, you can start here.
**To find out who your State Representatives are, you can go here. For National ones, try here and here.
†To find out more about testing, try here.