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    The Problem with Relying on Testing When Assessing Students and Teachers

    What defines a good school?  Nearly every report, comparison or analysis on education labors under the assumption that this can be found in some form of test scores. Ever since No Child Left Behind made its debut in 2001, top-down government-funded education has proceeded from one failed experiment to another.  Testing is now almost always the sole way schools are being judged for excellence.  

    But this reliance on testing is only done because of deeply flawed assumptions being made by politicians and an army of “experts” who have never actually taught children themselves. Dealing with disembodied numbers also makes it much easier for these “experts” to convince others that they know what they are talking about. Currently, the latest fad being imposed from above is Common Core, another guaranteed-to-fail government program which attempts, yet again, to force-feed children into learning what they “need to know.”


    Certainly, test scores for truly motivated and older kids can be useful.  Testing can help in assessing how well a school has performed for these motivated kids as they reach their later years in high school and as their interests become more defined and focused.  But using tests as

    a useful indicator for the quality of our schools among younger children often only ensures a growing failure in ever getting a child to truly enthusiastically embrace learning.  Institutionally-driven tests became a counter-productive instrument of “accountability,” and very often degenerates into full-blown child abuse and is causing an astounding rise in youth suicides. 


    Keep in mind that it is the needs of the unmotivated, or somewhat  unmotivated students, who are hit the hardest with any form of early academic testing.  (Also note that using tests to discover true learning disabilities - and not just manufactured ones by a growing army of LD teachers

    who want more work - are excluded from any of my assertions here.)


    For most students, test scores are not a valid tool for any school to use until perhaps the later adolescent years during high school. Without motivation coming from within the child, which is the teacher’s and parents’ job to first create,  testing in and of itself will never improve a child’s long-term prognosis.  Early testing, or a premature focus on academic work in general, has become a national scourge within many of our schools, both public and private.  Anyone teaching a kindergartener with college preparation in mind is profoundly misguided as to what is developmentally appropriate for children.  Teachers who slavishly teach to a test, whether by choice or force, are just gradually demoralizing kids and destroying their interest in learning altogether.  At best, this model will lead children to only pursue interests in what they already do well in.  That is not growth, and that is not good education.


    A distinction between a motivated and an unmotivated child is important.  A popular misconception is that “motivated” means smart, while “unmotivated” means dumb.  It is actually often the opposite: many unmotivated students simply shut down due to lack of serious challenge or lack of interest in what they are being given by school.  Read John Taylor Gatto’s book “Dumbing Us Down:  the Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Education” regarding this.  It is concise, well-written and I think one of the best books ever written on this subject.  The author also deals with the inherent problems of mass schooling on a deeper level when it comes to our children’s future in his 142 page book of large type. 


    Gatto, it is important to note, is not a fake educational “expert.”   He does not view a child is just a receptacle of “knowledge” which needs to have the top of its head removed and knowledge poured in at carefully-measured quantities.   He was awarded New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991, and three times awarded New York City Teacher of the Year.  He knew what he was talking about, and anyone interested in our educational system and how real live children successfully learn -or don’t learn - needs to read his book.


    As a teacher, I enjoy the challenge of developing internal motivation within kids over time.  It is like solving a puzzle and it is what I like most about teaching.  Of course I love music.  But for me, just working with kids over time and watching them grow up to be happy and self-confident adults, ready to help other people and take on the world, is even more satisfying.  I did not have my own child until later in my life, and teaching always fulfilled my desire to be a parent. The only part I dislike is when I am asked to take on a young screen addict whose parents just won’t listen to my concerns about what these potent electronic drugs are doing to the mind of their child during the critical years when that pliable brain is being molded for life.


    So how do you motivate kids to embrace learning, and not just help them to pass a test which has no lasting meaning to them at all, even one day later?  In answer, consider one of my experiences from a number of years ago. 


    C comes to me for piano lessons at age 7. He comes from a comfortable middle-class home with a supportive mother and father. He doesn’t really want to be there,  but his mother has told all three of her boys “if you want to do sports you must do piano lessons with Amos.” 


    After C begins his lessons, he does very little with the piano for years.  I do my best in trying to mix together piano lessons and meaningful non-musical talk with him. The piano part is just very slow.  C wants to be outside making trebuchets and crossbows, setting up zip lines, working on his book of practical jokes and running around in the woods every day after school, among many other things.  He doesn’t practice, and he never brings his assignment book to his piano lessons. But I can identify with him, because I had similar interests as a boy growing up in an environment very much like his own.  At that age, neither of us wanted to be sitting at a piano. We had more important things to do. 

    But -  and this is very important - he also wasn’t sitting at home playing video games, watching TV all the time or staring at his smart phone every second of the day like so many of his peers. If he were, then I would have suggested to his parents that he find a different teacher who believed that these were  positive things for him to be doing as he is growing up.  Maybe those activities really would have been positive things; who am I to say for sure, despite all my reading and personal observations about this?  But his parents and I are already on the same page, so that is not an issue.  Consequently, I just do my best, all the while thinking, as time goes on and he progresses from one grade to the next in school while never really getting much better on the piano, that his parents are really just wasting their money.


    If the state were to give C a test regarding his competency in playing the piano during any of his first seven years of study, he would be a failure.  Not a D student, but a failure.  He would have failed at age 8, at age 10, at age 12 and age 14. He would have been a clear and incontrovertible failure at the piano according to everyone.  And I, as his teacher for all those years, would also be judged a failure.   Everyone who looked at the “data,” would know I was a failure as C’s teacher.  They would also note that I do not have any kind of music degree.  In fact, I have no history of ever studying music in college, aside from some private classical guitar lessons. 

    Speaking of college, I don’t even have a college degree.  I would be judged as a terrible, unqualified teacher who needs to be replaced with someone who can do the job right.  And the parents of my students, including those whose kids appeared multiple times on Prairie Home Companion, have been featured on WPR and Wisconsin Public Television, performed with orchestras and ended up as music teachers themselves, are all fools.  These foolish parents need the state to inform them about which teachers in their town are truly good and which are truly bad.  Ideally, the state should also pass a law and ban people like me from teaching altogether.


    Fortunately, C’s parents are still free enough from the power of the state, and have enough financial resources to be able to keep their faith in me and their son’s potential interest in music once he grows up a bit more.  C eventually does NOT end up as a “failure” in music. Instead, around his junior year in high school, he becomes really interested in music. Guitar is now included in the mix. Understanding harmony at the keyboard grabs his imagination, something which I’ve been trying to push on him from the very beginning. He becomes interested in how to play in different keys and how modulations work. One day, he shyly mentions that he has written a song.  He plays and sings it to me, and it is great.  My enthusiastic and positive response encourages him.  Pretty soon he’s filling a notebook with one song after another and eventually sends a whole pile of them off somewhere to be judged.  I tell him in all sincerity that I think some of those songs merit being published and recorded. We discuss and refine his poetry. He writes instrumental pieces and then orchestrates them with a software program. With his own money, he buys an expensive professional notation program and turns on other kids at high school to it.  By the time he graduates high school, or maybe it was when he took off a year before starting college, he is working on scores for two short films which he and his friends were working on.   

    I actually did nothing to help him do all this, other than to meet with him once a week for either 45 minutes or an hour, and to encourage him in his journey in embracing music as part of his life. I did this in a way which was flexible and met his own needs over years and not just a few months.

    I did not attempt to force a square peg into a round hole in order to meet the demands of the state as it stares compulsively at a clock and tries, every single day, to pound square pegs into round holes and then can’t ever figure out what went wrong.


    An experience like this, I have seen happen time and time again with my students. Of course not usually to such an extreme, but as often as not it has occurred at some level.  All experienced and competent teachers, who control their own teaching techniques in how to help each individual child, will tell you the same thing.  This is why it so clear to me that the idea of handing over the difficult and complex job of teaching to politicians, bureaucrats or school board members is just absurd. 


    If you are still not convinced of the point I am trying to make, ask yourself this:  If you were the CEO of Toyota, and an excellent CEO at that, would you also think you were qualified in any way to walk into the engineering division and instruct the engineers on how they need to design the next generation of fuel injectors? Sure, you could tell them that they need to design one which fulfills a certain requirement concerning fuel efficiency or power.  But would you actually enforce upon them new ways and approaches to do this task, when you have no technical  knowledge about fuel injectors and how to design a well-functioning vehicle?  


    A car is made up of metal, plastic and rubber. It takes years to build a manufacturing plant to start building the first one. You can do whatever you want to a car and it will never turn into a living and breathing creature with a soul.  


    Children are not cars. They respond to their teachers and school administrators who know and love them on a personal level. They can easily change their own attitudes to school almost overnight.  That is, they can if parents are given a real opportunity to find a better environment to make this happen before it is too late.  It happens all the time, but the parent has to first have the means to find a real alternative for them.  

    For how that happens for fortunate people, see my 4/1/99 letter to the editor under the “Charter,” section of this site. In that letter, I quote a mother’s Wall Street Journal letter in which the writer recounts her own successful experience with school choice because she was rich.  This is all good and I commend her wisdom on understanding what was best for her two different children and having the financial means to make it happen for her kids.

    But if those options are to be open with poor or middle class families -unless homeschooling is an option, which it usually isn’t - it must be through publicly-financed true school choice.  I see no other alternative which will really work, after considerable time in reading, thinking and debating this with many people who have been mostly hostile to this idea until relatively recently.

    Children will never respond positively to faceless orders from clueless paper pushers who have never taught children themselves. They will respond to teachers and school staff who truly love and care about them.

    This is especially true for kids who come from troubled backgrounds and  have home lives filled with chaos and an overwhelming lack of stability.  


    If MMSD throws out its testing protocol and puts discipline into the hands of local principals and staff, stands up to the state and feds whenever necessary, and expands school choice options as widely as possible, I think that things could improve dramatically for MMSD.  Things could especially improve for those children who are currently struggling and falling more and more behind due to previous MMSD board decisions stretching back for many years.  


    If elected to the school board, I will try to work with everyone remotely receptive to school choice to make this happen, and will always remaining flexible in analyzing how this can best be done.  I know that significant dissension is pretty much guaranteed, but hopefully all conflict will be open and honest, ultimately resulting in better future decisions by the MMSD Board.