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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Tearing Down Education Piece by Piece

By Peter DeWitt — December 10, 2011 4 min read
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Today we had to tear down a longhouse in our main hallway. The longhouse was built by our fourth grade teachers and students during our No Testing Week. We had to take it down for a variety of reasons. It was only meant to be temporary; much like our week where we felt free from the constraints of our constant top-down mandates provided to us from our state and federal education departments.

The longhouse was amazing, not just because it was the collective hard work of many. The longhouse reminded many of us of the days long ago when we could teach in creative ways. When there wasn’t the black cloud of mandates hanging over us. Back when students were judged by their hard work, creativity and willingness to work with others, and not whether they were a 1, 2, 3 or a 4 on a state exam.

The longhouse was sixty feet long, and for the six to 8 seconds it took to walk through it we were transformed. Perhaps it was the Native American music playing from under one of the benches, or the fake fire on the floor. As we walked through it we felt a sense of calm. Everyone in the school loved to walk through it and remarked that they could not believe that students and teachers could build it in a week.

Strangely, when they were building it I was concerned that students would bump into one of its pillars and knock it down. Instead, something much more extraordinary than that happened. Students politely walked through it, even when no one was watching. They were respectful, and cared about making sure the structure stayed standing. Some of them spent a few extra seconds inside, and I’d love to know what they thought.

The longhouse was well built and secure. Secure enough that at an author event on a Friday night numerous children and parents walked through and took pictures without harming it at all. For two weeks it became our symbol of everything that is right with education and teaching. Tearing it down became a symbol with everything that is wrong with our present testing dominated educational system.

Less Constraints
In education, we are not asking for much from our state and federal education departments. We would like the freedom to teach and want less of an emphasis on high stakes testing. High stakes testing should not be tied to teacher and administrator evaluation because there are too many outside influences that factor into how a student performs on an exam.

Our new Common Core Standards are about going deeper with curriculum, and without the pressure of high stakes testing we could truly explore the Common Core to depths that students have never seen. We can assess student understanding and find out what they have learned and what they need to relearn. With high stakes testing looming over educators, they are more concerned about what will be on the test so they can teach the core that will be assessed. Many state education department - public school relationships have become more “gotcha” than collegial. The federal education department needs to take some responsibility for that.

For full disclosure, I do not like high stakes testing. I find it harmful to students because of the stress that comes with it. It’s harmful to teaching because it asks teachers to stop teaching creatively and asks them to teach to the test so students perform better. I have testing anxiety, and I am a former struggling learner who was retained in elementary school and struggled to find my path in high school. I left high school ranked fourth from last in my class. I would have been a 2 student.

High stakes testing is geared toward one type of learner. Any other type of learner who does not do well on the test is labeled a 1, 2, or a low 3. That student feels like a failure, even though their teachers and parents tell them they’re not. The adults around them comfort them by saying they are more than a test, when we know that their scores on high stakes testing will define them and their teachers.

If we do not provide the adequate interventions, and sometimes even if we do, those same students go through the educational system feeling like failures. By nature of the test, educators have to spend more time focusing on their weaknesses, although they really want to focus on their strengths. If students are fortunate enough to graduate, they will be another generation who feels that their educational system doesn’t get it.

However, if they attend a test prep school with a heavy focus on high stakes testing, they come out of high school with another perspective. They may feel that their teachers and administrator cared, but they also believe that testing and performing on tests is really all that matters, when we know it is not.

In the End
For those of us who were fortunate enough to experience the longhouse, we know that all we need is a little more freedom to meet the needs of all students. The students will always remember when they made the longhouse or for those students in the other grades, they will remember a time when they walked through the longhouse.

As we tore down the structure limb by limb, we knew that we were tearing down more than a longhouse. We were tearing down the very essence of who we are, and felt sad as we did it. No one wants to tear down the dreams and hard work of students.

However, we were happy that we had the opportunity to experience a week, where it didn’t matter whether a student was a 1, 2, 3 or 4. During the building of the longhouse, the 1’s, 2’s, 3’s and 4’s worked together. Working together is sadly, something that doesn’t happen enough in education. As educators try to find ways to be creative within these new parameters, those who are really in power are finding ways to tear us down.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.