A product of the system

When students are taught to take tests rather than to be lifelong learners, schools meet their NCLB targets but students suffer no end.

I had a particularly disheartening discussion with a teacher tonight. It was just a few hours after I had tweeted an article from the Boston Globe that had really resonated with me. It was titled "Failure to educate" and was written by a former Boston school teacher, Junia Yearwood, who was completely disillusioned by our current educational system.

As she wrote,

For the ensuing 30-plus years, I witnessed how the system churned out academically unprepared students who lacked the skills needed to negotiate the rigors of serious scholarship, or those skills necessary to move in and up the corporate world...Teachers, instructors, and administrators made the test the curriculum, taught to the test, drilled for the test, coached for the test, taught strategies to take the test, and gave generous rewards (pizza parties) for passing the test. Students practiced, studied for, and passed the test — but remained illiterate.

This weekend I wrote a post on Wikipedia that yielded everything from murmurs of agreement to hate mail to another post from a reader that challenged us all to do better for our students in a rapidly changing society. In virtually every case, though, even for those who disagreed with my views on Wikipedia, the message was clear and echoed Yearwood's. Our students are unprepared and schools are too often not giving them what they need.

So back to my conversation tonight. I'm not going to give the context for the conversation. It isn't important and I don't want to single this teacher out. She is utterly a product of the No Child Left Behind system and I don't fault her; I fault the way we've interpreted accountability to make standardized, summative assessments more important than actual learning.

She defended her school's record of turning out many hundreds of kids who successfully passed our state's standardized tests and a curriculum that is closely aligned with state standards. And yet the subtext of everything she said and the instructional methods she described screamed "We teach to the test!!!" We were talking about math in particular, a subject that actually lends itself quite nicely to the teach-to-the-test approach. If you focus on precisely the topics that students must know to pass the most important sections of the test, provide a cursory look at the subjects that they might see on the test but can afford to fail, and teach test-taking strategies aligned with our particular standardized test, then kids pass the test! Go figure, right?

Unfortunately, those kids don't then know how to do math. Their view of mathematics is so narrow that the elements of critical thought and logic never make their way through.

I saw it over and over again as I taught high school math, primarily to the students who lacked the requisite skills to pass that all-important 10th grade exam. And it's so easy to get caught up in the mindset of getting them through the test that we lose sight of why we're there: to teach them mathematics.

The trick is for an entire district to commit to teaching a deep understanding of mathematics (or literacy or whatever general subject students need to understand). If it happens from the ground up and the focus is always for our students to be thoughtful, insightful, curious mathematicians, then guess what? They're going to pass any test you throw at them.

Obviously, we need to differentiate instruction for students of varying abilities, but a laser focus on mathematics or literacy, with applications spread throughout social studies, science, technology, and the arts, then even students who struggle will be able to meet a core set of standards (which are, by their nature, college preparatory and aimed at those elusive critical thinking skills). Differentiated instruction is, as any teacher knows, very difficult. It's far easier, though, when the differentiation comes down to skills, concepts, and applications rather than test-taking ability.

Until we change our focus to instruction and learning, all of the data that these assessments were supposed to generate (ironically, to help us teach better and improve student achievement) are just so many numbers for school districts to either tout or downplay. Neither our students nor our teachers can afford to be products of a broken system any longer.