Tuesday, November 14, 2006

What is important?

I've been reading Alfie Kohn's What Does it Mean to Be Well-Educated?: And Other Essays on Standards, Grading, and other Follies. I've been reading it not for class or because someone recommended it; I've been reading it because it's been sitting on my shelf looking as if it wanted to be read. This is an awesome read. Somehow, I'd missed Kohn in my earlier educational readings which focused on two other power houses, Howard Gardner and Ted Sizer. My new triumvirate: Kohn, Sizer, & Gardner.

Gardner is usually known for his research and writings on multiple intelligences; Sizer is best known for his Coalition for Essential Schools and his belief that schools "should focus on helping young people learn to use their minds well." Kohn sees "pervasive standardized testing and excessive homework" as diluting education; we're creating systems that push our students away from what is truly important.

And then, today, in the Washington Post, I came across this wonderful op/ed piece, Today I Will Buck Standardized Objectives, by Crissie Traugott, a fifth-grade teacher, in Frederick County, MD. She writes,
Many teachers are required to post their classroom objectives daily. In this fresh culture of "accountability," we are required to publicly defend what we are teaching and why it's important. This amuses me because I imagine other professions having to do this.

Today patients will receive an immunization in order to fight disease.

Today riders will travel in my cab in order to reach a chosen destination.

Today in class, my curriculum-based objectives could have shared valuable chalkboard real estate with the following:

Today students will practice lockdown procedures in order to avoid violent intruders in our school.

Today students will work in teams in order to see that outstanding work can be produced with cooperation and dedication.

Today students will enjoy a book for reasons other than taking a test in March.

Today students will enjoy an impromptu lesson about spiders in order to debunk the myth that they are brain-eating creatures running under Zach's desk.

You certainly won't find these objectives tested in the spring; however, my students' development was unmistakably enriched by these moments. Lesson plans are tentative and fickle, as the teaching profession is an unpredictable roller-coaster ride filled with steep climbs, unexpected loops and breathtaking drops.

One thing is for certain, though: I cherish every minute of the ride.
I wonder how she can take those moments when those moments clearly don't further the goals of her school. And I wonder what we are doing to education in America. Our public schools are so concerned about scores on standardized tests, scores that tell us not much more, perhaps, than the socio-economic background of the students and how well they take multiple choice, standardized tests.

Do these assessments tell us how much students love and live, how much students incorporate learning into their lives and have enthusiasm for learning, how much mastery students show over real and applied knowledge, or how much intellectual inquiry students demonstrate? No, not at all.

And for this reason, and many more, I choose to not teach in a public school, a school where No Child Left Behind and standardized test scores drive every minute, where posting daily objectives is mandatory, where good teaching is killed under the guise of higher standards.

No, give me a school that thrives on truly engaging students, truly encouraging students to become life long learners, and truly assessing students through a robust system of demonstration, exhibition, and assessment. Please, please, please, give me such a school.

For your reading pleasure, check out books by Alfie Kohn, Ted Sizer, and Howard Gardner, if you haven't already.

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