Saturday, March 15, 2014

Feed the Dog

On Saturdays I am sometimes have a chance to check in with #satchat, a Saturday twitter conversation about education. If you are a denizen of the twitterverse, I recommend you check it out. Today this question was posed by moderator Peter DeWitt:

In an era of accountability, how can we be change agents for student learning?

My answer is that we have to feed the dogs of accountability with one hand and teach with the other.

Which is pithy and tweetable, but perhaps not entirely clear. So let me illustrate one metaphor with another metaphor.

Sometimes, when your child doesn't want to eat something nasty tasting, you hide it in the good stuff. Hide broccoli in the mashed potatoes. Cut liver up into really tiny pieces that go into a casserole. Put bacon on everything bad.

Many of us have been trying to do the same thing in our classrooms. We've been trying to mask the bitter taste of test prep and test taking by mixing it in and making it seem like just one part of the otherwise tasty dish that is Going To School.

The problem is, you can hide a little bit of liver in a yummy casserole (if you love liver, I'm sorry-- feel free to substitute a less-beloved food here). But once you have a couple of pounds of liver to his in a pound of casserole, the hiding no longer works. In fact, the bad taste starts to overwhelm the good. Instead of saying, "Hey, when you put it in the casserole, liver doesn't taste so bad," your child starts thinking, "I hate this casserole. It tastes just as bad as liver."

Under the current status quo of high stakes test-driven accountability, the testing regime has become a couple of pounds of liver. It has become a carload of liver, a slab of liver that could only have come from a Brobdingnagian moose or Godzilla himself. And it is making the school casserole taste terrible.

One of the Big Fictions about the current test regime is that The Big Test just measures what we're doing anyway. Do our jobs and do them well and great test scores will magically occur, which is true only in the sense that if such a thing happened, full-on magic would be involved. In truth, for many elementary teachers and some secondary subject teachers, test prep has become a whole new subject in our school program.

My thought? Stop trying to hide it. Stop trying to pretend that it is an equal part of everything that we do. Stop trying to mask it with the rest of the casserole.

In front of students and parents, call it by its name. "Okay, we're done learning for today. It is time to start drilling for the Big Test." Don't integrate it, either in instruction, nor (if you're a brave administrator) on your report card.

The reaction is predictable. Set the liver out by itself on the plate, and watch how much your child will fight not to eat it, complain about it, curse it and call it names, sneak in out of your freezer in the middle of the night and throw it out into the backyard for some unlucky skunk to steal away. You may want to avoid this ugly confrontation, but really, once the liver becomes unmaskable, don't you have this confrontation anyway?

Are we not seeing across the country the strong reactions as parents and students finally get a strong taste of the testing regime and what it is doing to their classroom? Sometimes people don't start to fight back until they start to see what they're being hit by. And in our case, isn't that a good thing.

But it's not the best thing. The best thing is that once you stop hiding the liver in it, the casserole goes back to tasting great. It regains all the flavor and pleasant enjoyment that it used to have, and your kids chow down with enthusiasm.

We've been trying to feed the dog and teach the students with both hands, at the same time, all the time, as if we can somehow teach the students and pacify the dogs all at the same time. We can't. The dogs are too big and ugly and demanding, and the students need our undivided attention. Trying to do two jobs with two hands at one time results in a half-assed result for both. I don't care so much about half-assed accountability, but we are letting the call for accountability compromise our teaching.

So separate them. They never went together anyway. Teaching students and satisfying test-happy bureaucrats are two separate activities, no more compatible than making love to your wife and repairing the septic tank.

I've said for years, even pre-NCLB, that teaching has become guerilla warfare. One of our functions is now to protect our students and, as best we can, keep the dogs from taking a bite out of them. I don't think it's easy, and depending on your administration, it may not be possible (which is just one more reason that so many teachers are leaving the field), but it's my real answer to the question of the day.

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