published Sunday, June 30th, 2013

Cook: The test before us

Students and teachers aren't lab rats. Yet like crispy carrots in front of a donkey, our educational leaders — can I use that word? — dangle incentive after incentive, hoping, sooner or later, teachers and kids will make it through the maze.

Want more money? Get your students to perform better.

Want to do well in life? Pass this test.

It's all a lie. A dead-end, rotten, stinking lie.

To paraphrase Audre Lorde, you can't fix the house with the tools that broke it. You really want to get Tennessee out of the 6-feet-under grave it has buried itself in?

(Hint: Common Core ain't gonna do it.)

• Reduce classroom sizes. Make some single sex.

• Pay teachers a $60,000 base salary.

• Refuse to allow any for-profit company to be involved in setting educational policy in Tennessee.

• Turn the State Board of Education into an elected body, not one appointed by the governor.

• Put the classroom back in the hands of autonomous teachers who know what they're doing.

• Liberate students from the educational prison that is over-testing.

• Do not ever believe the fiction that students learn best through testing or teachers should be paid based on the grades of their students.

"Pay-for-performance plans cannot work; the more an organization relies on incentives, the worse things get,'' reads Alfie Kohn's "Punished by Rewards." "Parents and teachers who care about helping students to learn should do everything possible to help them forget grades exist."

Kohn's excellent research shows how incentives and bribes may cause a temporary change in behavior -- do this and I'll reward you with that -- but create nothing lasting or meaningful.

Years ago, I watched a documentary about this majestically good educator. Rigorous, inventive, compassionate, he made the classroom alive. Kids loved him more than chocolate.

The best part: One of his former students said that even on days when he (as a child) woke up feverish and sick, he still begged -- please-please-please! -- his parents to let him go to school.

Just so he wouldn't miss this man's class.

Holy smokes, isn't that wonderful? Yes, the students took tests, but the heartbeat of the classroom was based around the full development of the students into critical thinking, life-long, joyous-come-to-school-with-the-flu learners.

Extraordinary teachers like that are all over the place here, but they've been weakened, like Kryptonite against Kal-El, by the crucible of Tennessee public education.

"We are no longer educating children or preparing them to become good citizens or lifelong learners,'' one veteran teacher said recently. "We are preparing students to take a standardized test.''

She teaches elementary kids. You know, the little people who take naps, eat dessert first, believe in Santa ... and take standardized tests.

"I also wonder how many of the parents and public are aware of the fact that if a child falls asleep we aren't allowed to wake him? If that child accidentally skips a question and begins to bubble in the wrong spot, we are not allowed to say anything,'' she said.

Not even allowed to see The Test before test day -- it's like nuclear codes or something -- teachers are turned into police officers, unable to help the kids they devoted a career to.

We all ought to be up in arms. Great vengeance, furious anger. The state, its allegiance to standardized testing and the corporations behind it are kidnapping our kids and teachers from us.

"I can't begin to tell you how depressed teachers are in Tennessee,'' another teacher said. "Many veteran colleagues are retiring early or as soon as they can even though they love teaching children. The stress of the job is more they can take.''

The situation is reaching a critical point. If parents began to coalesce around this issue, and students woke up to that activist streak within them, and a few courageous politicians got involved (Bo Watson, Gerald McCormick, you out there?), and teachers found a safe way to tell their stories, then we could have a really good fight on our hands.

Can we do it?

That's the real test before us.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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smithlanding said...

Bravo David Cook! I have been saying this for years. I am not a teacher but have seen so many excellent teachers in my children's classrooms so stressed by THE TEST that it stifled every ounce of the love of teaching that they once had. Children need to develop a love of learning to succeed and THE TEST is doing the opposite.

June 30, 2013 at 11:04 a.m.
PStriper said...

Thank you, David. In only 20 years or so Tennessee has gone from half-day kindergarten-optional for public school students to expecting children to be reading when they finish kindergarten. Follow the money; it leads straight to the major corporations producing standardized tests, test preparation materials, practice tests, reading intervention programs and more. I was present for a keynote address by Alfie Kohn at a literacy conference several years ago; the audience of teachers was nodding in agreement with his every word from start to finish. His beliefs about the necessity of internal motivation for learning should be heeded by policy makers; until that day, we'll continue on the path you've described.

June 30, 2013 at 6:45 p.m.
aml75 said...

Very nice piece, David. I think one of the things we need to realize, though, is that "the test" does not have any power that people do not give it. By using "The test" as the subject of the sentence (English teacher here), you are making it the actor. Teachers and other educational leaders must be the actors.

But I beg you - please don't cite Alfie Kohn. He never taught a day in his life.

June 30, 2013 at 11:29 p.m.
luv4children said...

As an educator for the past 17 years, I have seen many changes and could not agree more with this article.

FYI aml75, you may want to do your homework....."Kohn was born in Miami Beach, Florida. He earned a B.A. from Brown University in 1979 and an M.A. in the social sciences from the University of Chicago. Kohn has taught at the high school and college levels in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. The father of two children, he lives in the Boston area and now works as an independent scholar, unaffiliated with any institution."

July 1, 2013 at 8:25 a.m.
shousley said...

THANK YOU!!! What the public doesn't realize is that the TEST is not just a one day event. It consumes teaching time for the entire school year. There is a pretest, practice testing, school level testing, weekly testing over classroom material, quarterly testing and then the post test at the end. And this is for first graders. Six year old children should be singing,laughing and learning the joy of reading. The state has forgotten we are teaching human beings not robots!

July 1, 2013 at 11:16 a.m.
RShultz210 said...

Excellent piece again Mr. Cook. I particularly liked the Lorde paraphrase. That's exactly what the Tennessee state Education system has been trying to do for the last 30 years. When I went to elementary school and high school I had teachers I dearly loved, and I had teachers I didn't like, but they all commanded my respect, and they all tried to teach the SUBJECT and not the bloody test, and they would sit with you during study periods and do their dead level best to help you if you were having a hard time with their particular subject. If everyone wants the right tools to fix the house they need to be listening to your excellent suggestions. And it wouldn't hurt at all if they would lean back and let the voice of Marlin Brando say to them..."They can be a great people Kal El, they wish to be....."

July 2, 2013 at 1:46 p.m.
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