Cook: Teachers, not tests, educate our children

Cook: Teachers, not tests, educate our children

May 23rd, 2011 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Last year's East Tennessee Educator of the Year, Vicki Wells, gracefully has been teaching kids in Marion County how to read and write for more than 30 years. A master in the classroom, Wells lets few things get under her skin.

Unless you mention the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program.

"I am sick and tired of teaching to the TCAP," Wells said in an email. "A student taking a test in four days does not prove what that student has learned in one school year."

Each spring, elementary and middle school Hamilton County students take the TCAP, the end-of-the-year cumulative test that affects teacher salaries, school funding and possibly whether children reach the next grade.

A 2010 Tennessee bill now charges local school boards with assigning a percentage - between 15 and 25 percent - by which the TCAP would count in determining a student's final grade.

"This is absurd," said Wells. "In no way should one test be used to help determine if a student should be passed onto the next grade level. I've had former students who have become very successful in life yet were not good test takers."

When I was in school, facts memorized for a test were often forgotten by the weekend. And this is the poverty of standardized testing, which equates memorization with learning.

Yet thankfully, in my public school life, I encountered dozens of teachers able to transcend the test. In their classrooms, we felt as if we were levitating, surrounded by stories, theories and questions that made us bigger versions of our former selves.

Today, students crash back to the ground, yoked to unending standards emanating from Nashville and Washington.

"There is no way a teacher can effectively teach all of the expected standards," Wells said. "I have just enough time to introduce the skill, practice very little, assess and then move to the next skill."

Sounds a lot like a factory system, which isn't surprising since our educational model arose out of 19th century industrialism.

"The students refer to the test as the Tennessee Child Abuse Program," Wells said. "I would love to give a sixth-grade

TCAP test to a legislator or governor to see how they scored."

See why the kids love her? I contacted Sen. Bo Watson and Reps. Vince Dean, Joanne Favors, Gerald McCormick and Richard Floyd with an invitation to take an online practice TCAP.

As of Friday, only one had responded.

"If I thought for one second my taking a TCAP test would fix or add value to our system, I would be more than happy to take the test and would lobby our entire General Assembly to do the same," said Floyd. "I couldn't agree more with [Wells] and her assessment."

Floyd cited too much government and too little parental involvement as the big problems. I'd give him a B- for that answer. He forgot one part.

Teacher salaries.

According to a recent New York Times editorial, more than half of all American teachers, earning on average the same as bartenders, work second jobs to make ends meet.

South Korea, with a 1 percent yearly teacher turnover rate, pays its teachers 250 percent more than we do.

All this helps me see so clearly that teachers are heroic. Like Linda Sparks, the best teacher I ever had.

"Our students aren't broken. Our teachers aren't broken," said Sparks, who teaches English at Soddy-Daisy High School and taught me, decades ago, at Red Bank High.

"We have people on school boards that make most of the major decisions about our systems who obviously don't care about the children or teachers in public education," she said. "Put educators - not barbers and electricians - in key positions."

Let's raise the standards for the school board: no membership without 10 years or more in the classroom.

And if legislators want to tie teacher salaries to test scores, they should also tie their own salaries to improved quality of life standards in their own districts.

"We have legislators voting to give teachers raises based on test scores when everyone knows that the poor teacher who gets stuck teaching ninth-grade repeater English is working twice as hard," Sparks said.

All this reminds me of an old Algonquian story.

It was a violent winter. The entire village starved, except for one woman and her baby, both barely alive.

All food gone, the only thing left in the village was a single fishhook. Taking a knife, the mother cut a strip of flesh from her own thigh, used it for bait, and caught a fish. Feeding herself and child, she also used the fish guts for bait, repeating this process until springtime - and other people - came.

This is the work of our teachers: taking from themselves in order to save others.

But they can't do it alone.

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@