Saturday, September 10, 2011

Reflections of a mother/teacher: Are we raising humans or test scores?

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." -Albert Einstein
As I drove my daughter Siena to her first day of preschool, I watched her clutch the two pictures she crafted enthusiastically and unprompted for each of her teachers. I saw the hope and excitement in her eyes and internally, I felt myself cringe.  School, in her eyes, is a wide open world of possibilities, a limitless terrain of new discoveries. As an educator, I wish desperately that she were right, yet I fear that indeed this is becoming less and less the case.

I have always likened the experience of being a teacher sending your own kid to school to a surgeon going under the knife.  I am too aware of the inner workings of education, I know too well what it is like to be a teacher, the tremendous demands of the job and the pressure that can ultimately lead to the children taking a backseat.  Most terrifyingly, however, I know the damage that is being done by the misguided crusade for "No Child Left Behind" that parades under the guise of teacher accountability and equality, while making it increasingly impossible for teachers to be accountable to anything other than the test.  Raising test scores has become the driving force in education, the test results the ultimate measuring stick for schools, teachers and students.  The proverbial cart is pulling the horse and the whole farm along with it. Lest I be misunderstood, I believe in high standards.  I believe that teachers should teach.  And that is precisely why I admonish the high-stakes testing movement.  High standards and teaching are simply not compatible with such a system.  When the delicate scale tips in the direction of assessment over teaching, it's the learning, and ultimately the students, that suffer.  When our eye is on the numbers needed for AYP, for safe harbor or for a bonus check, our gaze is shifted from the humans in our classrooms.  On my worst days, I worry that our nation, and my profession, has become so consumed with raising test scores that we have forgotten that our job is ultimately to raise human beings.

Having a child has changed my views on the purpose of education and my philosophy of teaching profoundly.  I am acutely aware, in ways I never was before, of the tremendous honor it is to be entrusted with someone's child as well as the colossal responsibility.  As I consider school options for my daughter, I am full of hope.  Hope that her school will be a joyful place, inspirational, challenging enough to stretch her but affirming enough to keep her spirit in tact, a place where all of her skills, not just those that translate neatly into test scores, will be valued and cultivated.  I am also, however, flooded with fear.  Fear that her educational experience will be more about compliance than creativity, that her proclivity for fun and curiosity will be squelched in honor of the ubiquitous pursuit of the "right answer".  I worry that her teachers will be so stressed that they will forget to be kind, that they will not see the light in her, that they will never learn to read her and she will be lost.  Certainly this is all tinged with the steady anxiety of letting go that flavors so much of the experience of parenthood, yet I also know and cannot deny that in my heart, I believe that the public education system we hand our children over to today is a scarier place then ever because of the battle cry of a data-driven model of effective teaching.

I know that what I want for my daughter cannot be tested, cannot be measured.  Just as I would not attempt to measure the value of a friendship or the contribution of a parent to a child's life, I know that a learning environment that truly values my whole child, as human and contradictory as she is, defies all measurement.  It cannot be pinned down.  Educators are, after all, in the business of dealing with individuals, with classrooms full of Sienas who come with passions and curiosities and weaknesses and hopes and fears.  To teach a human, you must reach a human.  And that, my friends, is simply not done through test preparation.  While there are those who will no doubt clamor that standardized testing alone does not preclude teachers who are caring or an education that reaches the whole child, I propose that the danger in this high-stakes testing movement is not so much in how we measure teaching and learning, but instead in the more insidious message that is being sold, and largely bought, with regards to what we value in teaching and learning.

And so, as I hand my daughter over to a new preschool and new teachers, I make a wish.  A wish that, above all else, this institution we call education remembers that she is human.  She is not an illness that needs to be diagnosed and fixed, she is not an empty void to be filled, she is not a number on a continuum. She is Siena, she is a human and she is filled with hope.

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