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Bad Teacher: Commentary from a Los Angeles Teacher

March 26, 2012

Those of you who have been reading me for awhile now know my feelings with regard to the incessant testing that we put our students through, and you know my feelings about the way that the data is used to undermine and demoralize public school teachers.  It is tragic actually.

Almost a year ago, the always excellent Valerie Strauss, posted a piece written by Sujata Bhatt, a Los Angeles teacher.  At the time I missed it, but I am linking to it and posting it below now.  The reason I am doing this a year later is because it is still apropos to today’s situation.  Across California, and in all parts of this nation really, teachers are gearing up for the push into May testing.

Testing season is serious, really serious.  If you are not a public school teacher you really have no idea of the tremendous sturm and drang that this time of year brings to teachers, principals, and especially students.  I am back teaching special education this year, but last year I taught a 4th grade general education class and for the first time I really felt the pressure of the standardized testing phenomena.  Literally everything for a public school is tied to its test scores since NCLB was enacted.  It is how funding gets meted out, it is how administrators think of particular schools, as in: “school XYZ is in its 2nd year of program improvement (PI), how will we raise test scores so we can exit PI?”  And it goes on and on from there.

Take a look at what Sujata Bhatt had to say about testing and it wasn’t long after her article that LA Unified decided to publish teachers’ test scores in the newspaper.  Also, remember that the publishing of this data led to a teacher suicide.  The picture below is obviously not from the article but I found it to be interesting.  I work with now, and have worked with at two previous schools, a batch of excellent teachers who really care about their students and who go above and beyond the fray to try and help them.  But, everywhere you turn teachers are spoken about negatively, it is really a travesty, and the scapegoating of teachers really needs to end.

By Sujata Bhatt

I’m a bad teacher.

Not the kind you’ll find vilified in accountability-based education reform. My value-added scores– coming to you soon courtesy of the Los Angeles Times–are just fine.

But that’s different from teaching.

Daily, as I drive to school, I ask myself, am I really helping these kids? Am I teaching them how to become productive, inspired humans who can navigate the complex world in which we live? Who reinvent this world as a better place?

The answer is sometimes. Am I helping these kids to be able to create a world that will be better 25 years from now when they run it? And again the answer is some days.

But not in the next month.

As testing season opens in May, more and more time in classrooms around the country will be devoted to test prep. Seven year-olds will drill into best possible choices, eliminating answers, key words, negations, distractors. They will learn test-taking strategies.

If you are not a teacher you might be shaking your head saying: “This doesn’t happen.”  Well, yes it does, in every class I have been in test-taking strategies are drilled into little minds.

Last Friday I actually told a child who had left three questions unbubbled on a district periodic math assessment to go ahead and fill something into those circles. He looked up at me nonplussed, “But Ms. B, I don’t know how to do those problems.” And I found myself about to launch into a discourse about how some tests penalize you for guessing and others don’t and this is one of the ones that doesn’t so…

Then I saw his 9-year-old face.

One summer in the 1980s, I earned money by preparing undergrads test for the LSAT, the law school entrance exam. The field of test prep was brand new back then, and its one or two companies paid a princely rate of $30/hr. The class I taught was not about content and knowledge, but rather about how to game the system: how to analyze questions, answers, negations, distractors, etc. We were in our early twenties and gaming the system seemed pretty cool.

Now it’s 25 years later, and I can’t believe I’m teaching this stuff to little kids. New test prep companies open daily: giant corporations, boutique test prep, specialized test prep. They have come to dominate the education reform debate, and they generate ever more tests for which to prep. This is the world we have bequeathed our children?

Call it sentimental, but one of the joys of teaching elementary kids is they are an antidote to the endlessly snarky world of grown-ups. They still believe in great invisible forces that rule the world: the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, honesty. They will have passionate arguments about who really leaves the dollar bill under the pillow at night. Even now, in our hyper-cynical world, they are not yet jaded.

How true!  Very cool of her to point out that truism, the refreshing honesty of kids is one of the reasons it is awesome to work with them.

The current trend in educational reform is to quantify everything. We need data to drive instruction. We need data to drive reform. We need data to drive accountability.

Also true, everything is quantified and it doesn’t have to be.  We are trying to produce little widgets, but our students are thinking, living, creative little beings that don’t necessarily fit into a tidy little box.

Then, because we’re so obsessed with data, we massage our data. We manage it. We manipulate it.

At what cost? Does this data really represent learning and knowledge?

Data derives from the Latin to give. Datum is that which is a given. I want to be able to look into that nine year-old’s eyes and give him the gift of echoing his honesty and integrity. I want to say, “You’re right to leave them blank.” It should be a given that the test measures what you really know.

But do I? Of course not. There’s too much data at stake.

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