Friday, June 8, 2018

Is The Pipeline Poisoned?

In his book The Testing Charade, Daniel Koretz talks at one point about the discovery that many young teachers are emerging from their training believing that test prep and good teaching are essentially synonymous.

I've seen it, and so have other veteran teachers. Certainly it's not all young teachers, but it's too many of them who have grown up soaked in the reformy doctrine. What do I teach? Well, whatever lines up with the standards that are on the test. Which literature do I teach? It doesn't matter-- just find some stuff that comes with practice tests that are like the Big Standardized Test.

And "just find" is another symptom of the test-and-punish era of the BS Tests. The testing approach, rooted in multiple choice bubble test style, drives home the notion that for every question that is asked, the answer is already out there. You don't construct or invent an answer or an array of answers-- there's just one answer, somebody already knows it, and you just have to find it. Apply that approach to the question "What should I teach and how should I teach it?" and you get a classroom teacher working with Teaching Assistant Dr. Google.

That's bad news. If you are teaching something because it's on the test or because you found some material that looked fine, you are going to teach it poorly. If you're giving a test not because you designed an instrument that measures the goals you had in mind when you designed the unit and the points that emerged as you taught it, but because it's a good-looking test you found on the internet, your test will not make sense to your students (and if it's at all subjective, you won't know how to grade it).

You could be easily replaced by a computer program, and you deserve to be. But your students deserve much better.

When these sorts of young teachers land in a school run by an administrator who is focused only on data and test scores, that school is swimming in a toxic stew.

We know that the teacher pipeline is drying up. That's bad enough. What we don't know is how much of the remaining pipeline is poisoned, how much of the remaining teacher pipeline is turning out people who think that a good teacher is one who delivers effective test prep. For a decade, I've half-joked that nobody goes into teaching dreaming of helping a student do well on a standardized test-- I am no longer confident that this is true.

This is, after all, the generation that has grown up in a world where schools and teachers are measured by BS Test scores. There's no doubt in my mind that the resistance is everywhere, both in K-12 and on some college campuses. But nowadays it's not enough just to be a source of cool, clear water. Steps need to be taken to clean up the poison.

That means pushing back on programs like this one that claims it's awesome because its graduates raise test scores in their classrooms. That means having hard conversations with new teachers. I've been there with a former mentee. "How should I score this?" she asked. "Well, what was the objective-- the point-- of your unit?" I responded. She didn't know-- and she was not happy that I asked, just as she couldn't understand why getting all of her classroom materials by googling wasn't a great idea (not until her students started cheating like crazy by googling the same tests).

If we're not careful, the very meaning of the verb "to teach" will be completely shifted until it no longer refers to guiding, coaching, helping ignite a flame, sharing mastery of material, passing on and adding to the collective understanding, helping understand how the world works, encouraging students to find their best selves, grasping what it means to be fully human in the world. None of that-- it will just mean "get students ready for the test."

Speak up. Mind the pipeline. Guard the future.


  1. If you want to feel better about this, I'd suggest hanging out on the Heinemann webpage, and reminding yourself that their books are read by many. They're not super quick to criticize testing culture, but they *do* offer books that grapple with both the reality of teaching and of English.

    It's where I go when my colleagues (mostly the ones in their late 30s/early 40s) are wondering why we even *have* school for the two months after state testing.

  2. So how do we change the narrative? We know what works but everyone wants results that are numerical. What is our narrative? The message of reformers is very simplistic and easy to buy into.

    Can we reclaim our schools? Has there ever been a time in history where tech giants etc. Have had such a strong influence? I'm guessing no.
    Do we have any proof that this standards based approach isn't working?
    Id love to change the narrative but I don't think we can..