Cook: The test before us

Cook: The test before us

June 30th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

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.