Standardization Tests Teachers

There was a time when society acknowledged two kinds of knowledge: book smarts and street smarts. Test-taking ability and common sense. Even though these developmental scales were not mutually inclusive, most of us learned them in the classroom from teachers.

The best teachers were the ones with clever stories, worldly wisdom and the ability to hold a child’s attention and make them feel passionate about one subject or another. A good teacher could make one student interested in biology and another in art, but both of them would feel they learned something and would grow as individuals. What made a teacher truly great was not a quantifiable element, not a percentile or a grade or a rank, but it was something all of his or her students knew, and it was something that mattered.

Not anymore, it would seem.

On Sept. 10, the Chicago Teachers Union enacted a strike, refusing to teach and picketing outside of schools and administrative offices, until just this past Friday. At first, some might question the logic and commitment of these teachers: If they were truly committed to teaching students, passionate about inspiring learning, why would they permit them to get untaught? Is their conflict about pay raises, or vacation days? To a small degree, yes . But the reality is much more dramatic.

Recently, the Chicago Public School system tried to enact several new policies determined to “improve” student performance. The goal, championed by Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emmanuel, was to lengthen school days, increase focus on math and writing and – the heart of the problem – introduce a new standard of teacher performance for job security. In the proposed new system, principals would gain the ability to hire teachers they wanted, based on standardized test scores. That’s right. Long gone were the days of age seniority and tenure. Gone too were the days of the “favorite” teacher, loved by students and parents, who could be made untouchable. What Chicago wanted were teachers who showed the absolute highest state test scores in their students in math and writing.

At first, that might not sound so terrible. On the contrary, it might even sound fairer. Certainly more fair than an age-based seniority system of tenure, which effectively means that teachers who received their jobs in times of economic prosperity would be guaranteed their positions until retirement. And it could be argued that a simple numbers game is fairer than an unbiased reviewer giving scores and feedback, because that too would be subjective based on the reviewer.

But think back to your early days – elementary school, middle school. What teachers had the most impression on your growing up and developing? Was it teachers that taught you the most math, the most grammar? Or was it a teacher that had that something special, that spark and dedication to your overall growing.

The only thing that such a system could guarantee is a generation of very effective standardized test-takers. But last we checked, there weren’t any career openings or college majors for “Standardized Tester.” On the contrary, in the “real world,” while math and science and basic English are important tools, what generates success is creativity, ingenuity and charisma – none of which can be taught with multiple choice. We of the Editorial Board can safely say that, if our teachers hadn’t encouraged creativity and imagination, a focus on things beyond “ABCD or none of the above,” we wouldn’t be here, and neither would you.

The Chicago Teachers’ Strike reached a tentative agreement this past Friday. The compromise was hazy at best: teachers gained some control over their evaluations and pay raises, and Mayor Emmanuel granted administrators longer school days and stricter hiring power.

The agreement hasn’t passed just yet, as the Teachers’ Union has to vote, but the implications may be staggering. This proposition may be the first of many, and as the U.S. falls further behind in math and science internationally, how greatly will the education system overcompensate?

The more pessimistic among us can see it now: blank white cubicle classrooms, devoid of art or ingenuity. Creative writing, social sciences, philosophy – no more. All knowledge will be reduced to the bare bones book smarts of math and writing, with no imagination to power them. It is a frightening future, but it isn’t inevitable. At least, we hope not.
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