I have been thinking a great deal about education in our country lately. Much of this comes from my own experience teaching at both the middle school and high school levels, although even my experience teaching at the community college level lends itself to some of this as it is there that the results of the K-12 education comes to light. Simply put, high-stakes, standardized testing is not the answer to the problems facing education. I am not saying that standardized testing is not a valuable tool, just that it is being used in the inappropriate manner. It was never meant to be used to prevent students from graduating, nor was it meant to be used to evaluate the ability of the teacher to do their job. It was meant to be used with student grades from their classes to help teachers plan and meet the academic needs of their students for the coming year. For example, a second grade student would take a standardized test in the Spring of their second grade year. When the results arrived, their current teacher would evaluate it in conjunction with the grades the student was earning in the class to determine if the student was on track with the curriculum. That information would then be sent to the teacher the student would have for their third grade year for their use in planning the curriculum for the following year.
All of this sounds pretty logical, right?
However, certain groups started thinking that standardized tests measured the overall student achievement aside from grades. Those groups then convinced politicians that standardized tests could be used instead of teacher assessments and observations to determine if students were learning. This somehow snowballed into believing that all students could learn at the same level if certain pedagogical methods were used. What this fails to take into account is that students are not the same, that is to say that they are not clones of the ideal student. Like every other human being, our students are individuals and their differences in genetics, socioeconomic backgrounds, nutrition, and meeting of other basic needs will affect their ability and motivation to learn. While the threat of being retained in a grade if they fail to pass a standardized test may work to motivate some students to learn, it will not work for all students. Based on my observations in the classroom, many students who have failed a number of times on standardized tests simply give up trying to pass them at all. When faced with the threat of not graduating, they simply stop caring and are either aged out of the educational system or quit on their own. This is a travesty in our educational system. No student is incapable of learning. They just need the right approach to learning in order to learn.
The right approach to learning is complicated to explain. In essence, it is that each student needs to be taught in a way that fits their way of learning the material. In addition to this, students need to be challenged in their learning without being intimidated by what they are learning. An example of this comes from my own experience in the classroom. I want to preface this with the caveat that it is not intended to work in every classroom because every class, even of matched ability students, does not function the same. I even needed to change the approach of what was taught to fit the needs of the class as a whole as well as each student as an individual.
I taught Advanced Placement (AP) English Language and Composition as well as an Exceptional Student Education (ESE) English III class. What I did, though, was teach the same material to both classes. I can hear the gasps from the pedagogical gurus already. How dare I take college-level work and try to teach it to “special education” students? I counter with how dare I not challenge all of my students?!? What I did was present the material to the ESE class in such a way that never told them they were learning at the college-level. More simply put, I did not tell them they were working on material that was meant for those students who were supposedly smarter than they were. I also gave them the safety net of more time to grasp the material and spent more time, in some cases, explaining the material to them more than I did with the students in the AP class. A funny thing happened, the ESE students mastered the material faster than the AP students. In some cases, the ESE students exceeded the AP students in effort and mastery of the material. It was only at the end of the year that I told the ESE students that they learned the same thing that was taught in the AP class. The look of pride on their faces, some of whom had not been proud of what they accomplished in school for years, was priceless. For many of these students, it served as their motivation to work through their senior year and graduate. Many of them also went off to college after graduation, a feat that they never thought was possible when they started their junior year with me.
Now, I will admit there was another component that these students and I had that some teachers either refuse to do or do not have the ability to master. We had a rapport with one another. I set certain ground rules with them when the year started and they followed them. I shared my thoughts and feelings with them and they with me. If a student was having a bad day, they agreed to talk about it rather than act out in my class. If they acted out, we talked about it after class. I did not, or at least tried not, to take on the role of dictator in the classroom, but rather a mentor and teacher for my students. Did I connect with all of them? No. There will always be personality conflicts between people and there were just some students who did not care or wanted to do what they thought was cool rather than learn. They were not ready to learn for a myriad of reasons and were unwilling to confront those reasons in order to prepare themselves for learning.
This leads to a related key in the education of our students, especially at the middle and high school levels. They need to learn not just the material, but about who they are in this world. Students at these levels are trying to find out who they are outside of being their parent’s child. Teachers need to help them with that as well as teach them the subject material. If you can connect the two, then so much the better. Many of our students have parents who either over-direct their lives, try to be their child’s best friend, or are absent from their lives. As teachers, we have the ability to be the authority figure they need, but also the mentor they need to navigate life. It is an awesome responsibility for teachers and some just cannot meet it.
I am not saying we need to be parents to our students, but mentors. There is a difference. We cannot push our personal, moral, or political agendas on them. What we can do is give them the freedom to express their opinions in a safe environment and help them think through why they have those opinions while exposing them to opinions opposite theirs and helping them to understand and respect why others believe differently than they.
But more about that later, I have written enough for today. Peace to all.