One of the most difficult things to explain to students who are just now contemplating the prospect of becoming teachers is that the way things are now isn’t the way they always have been—and it isn’t the way they have to be.
I started this blog back in November with a reminiscence: back in my day, from 1979-1992, we spent a lot of time doing things that would probably be considered wastes of time today. We made those bird encyclopedias I talked about in that post. We listened to stories about World War II that came straight from the source. We watched the Challenger disaster unfold right before our eyes, huddled around a TV in the trailer that served as our classroom. I invented a fake historical newspaper, the Staunton Herald-Advisor, to tell the story of Woodrow Wilson to my classmates, and did an in-depth report on the historic architecture of our antebellum town by the sea. We watched Wordsmith—nothing will ever approach the pure genius of Wordsmith. In high school I took a class called Humanities, which was co-taught by a U.S history teacher and English teacher, and produced a project—I still have it—called “American Humor.” Most of it was about Mark Twain (I even memorized Hal Holbrook’s opening monologue in Mark Twain Tonight), but I also was encouraged to explore the work of Tom Lehrer. I’ll bet you’d have a hard time finding five school reformers anywhere who have heard of Tom Lehrer, which makes we wonder if maybe we’re focused on the wrong things. And, as I mentioned before, I did all this despite being a pre-school dropout. Not bad!
Oh don’t worry—it wasn’t all fun and games. We took ITBS tests, for one thing, those tests that used to set the standard for standardized tests. I had a science teacher in 7th grade, Mrs. Coaxum, who was tougher than a two dollar steak, but she taught us something. A lot, actually. And I still had to get into college, after all, which I did despite an unremarkable B average and more than one C in high school math. It was no picnic. Still, besides the ITBS, almost none of the rest of the stuff we did in school was standardized. Now I know I had a better school experience than a lot of kids did, but, for the record, it wasn’t in an affluent suburb and it was always in public schools. Small town schools where our teachers lived in the same community we lived in, as a matter of fact.
How things have changed. You’d have to be living under a rock to not know that school right now is about tests, tests, and more tests. More to the point, it’s about measuring knowledge with tests—although it seems, sometimes, to be about just giving another gratuitous test for the fun of it. The assessment craze has taken root so fully that it is reaching into colleges and universities, where “deregulation of the education marketplace” has gifted us for-profit education that is “competency based” and usually leaves students with a metric ton of debt to repay and no diploma to pay it off with. Since we believe in one-size-fits-all solutions to educational problems, of course, it only makes sense that we would use this as an opportunity to turn college into a close facsimile of the K-12 schools that everybody already has learned to hate thanks to No Child Left Behind. We could just shut down the shady for-profit institutions, but where would the fun be in that? And how would it show our “grit” in the face of this educational scourge?
A history lesson on the source of all this angst over accountability and the use of standardized measures to enforce it is probably best left for another post. But it’s worth noting that the long tentacles of standardized accountability are reaching in all directions. They may have started in the elementary and middle school, but they’re headed toward college and, if you weren’t aware, are setting up shop in pre-school too.
That’s right, pre-school.
About a day after our first grader brought home his report card last week, our youngest daughter, Annabelle—who is 4 and attends a private pre-school (because there are no public pre-schools here; many districts in our area still don’t even offer full-day kindergarten)—followed suit. I hope you’re sitting down because I’m about to tell you about that report card.
You may be wondering: why are we sending home report cards in pre-school? I’m wondering that too. You’ve also probably guessed already that these aren’t report cards focused on what a good friend she’s been to her classmates, or how well she shares with others. This report card has three sections: one asks her teacher to describe Annabelle’s “strengths in social-emotional, physical, language, and cognitive development"; one asks for an assessment of her “strengths learning literacy, math, science and technology, social studies, and the arts” (none of which, I should add, have anything to do with science, technology, social studies, or the arts—though I did include the picture to demonstrate her skill in the arts field...it’s a portrait of me!); and the third is a list of bullet points with suggestions to help us “plan for” our daughter’s “development and learning.” There are 15 bullets in that section. For example, we are encouraged to “support” Annabelle to do each of the following things:
- Begin to engage in complex, lenghty conversations
- Use acceptable language and social rules while communicating with others (here there is an added note: “may need reminders”)
- Begin to plan and negotiate complex role play; join in detailed conversation about roles and actions (“play may extend over several days,” we are warned here)
- Begin to use a variety of strategies to solve problems with more than 10 objects
- Plan and then use drawings, constructions, movements, and dramatizations to represent ideas
Negotiate complex role play? Join in detailed conversation? Use a variety of strategies? I have to say: Annabelle is four. She doesn’t use a variety of strategies to do anything. Her go-to strategy is call and response—she calls, we respond. I half-expected to see “Support your daughter to begin to collect relevant research for an original dissertation about the most significant five minutes of the late afternoon of the first day of the battle of Gettysburg,” or, more hopefully, “Support your daughter to discover a cure for cancer and/or a formula for world peace,” but these were not apparently given as choices. And let’s be clear: these choices were pre-written, meant to be mixed and matched like refrigerator magnet poetry. Only with less inspiring results, apparently.
All of this just underscores how far we have to go as parents to get our daughter college and career ready. One of her described strengths in literacy, math, science and technology, social studies, and the arts is “decides whether two words rhyme.” How’s she going to join a detailed conversation to cure cancer with that? She is also “beginning to match beginning sounds of some words.” Go ahead: try negotiating complex role play with somebody who can’t even match the beginning sounds of some words. Then cry yourself to sleep, because it’s not happening. Was there ever a more amorphous statement than that, by the way? She’s not matching beginning sounds of all words with similar sounds, just some. Actually she’s not even doing that; she’s just beginning to, whatever that means. I guess this could be a key building block for youngsters hoping to plan complex role play and join in detailed conversation about roles and actions, but—well, is it really?
The serious question is: how can her teacher possibly assess these things? We adore her teacher—both of her teachers, actually. Annabelle spends her days in a caring environment with two young women who studied education, obviously love being with children, keep a good sense of humor about their work, and make barely more than minimum wage. In the fifteen years that my wife and I have been paying for daycare (at a total cost approaching $100,000—no, that is not a misprint, and, no, we couldn’t afford it), we have seen more pre-school teachers enter and exit our children’s lives than there are stars in the sky. At this school they stick around, and we’re very grateful for that. But many of our kids’ teachers did not have the academic background in early childhood education that Annabelle’s teachers now have (a background, I might add, that is probably entirely unnecessary—our first priority when evaluating a pre-school has always been whether or not the staff make our kids feel comfortable, not how well they understand the latest “breakthroughs” in educational psychology and psychometrics), and even for the ones that do: is all this stuff even knowable? I visit that classroom every day, sometimes twice a day. How these poor teachers, grossly undercompensated for the invaluable work they do, find time to assess every child’s social-emotional, physical, language, and cognitive development is beyond me. I couldn’t evaluate those things in my own students, and I have two graduate degrees and 15 years of teaching experience.
So, to recap: we have a system that demands that adults making poverty wages assess a range of complex psychological and emotional traits across a range of academic subjects, for which we charge the parents of those children something roughly approximating college tuition—a charge that is so prohibitive for many mothers that they choose to forego work and stay home instead. It shouldn’t have to be said that many working parents aren’t so lucky to even have that choice. And yet we watch commercials at tax time instructing us to “Get your billions back, America.” Just saying.
Of course there is always hope: one of the strands under Annabelle’s “strengths in social-emotional, physical, language, and cognitive development” is “changes plans if a better idea is thought of or proposed.” Maybe instead of supporting her to plan to negotiate complex role play, her mother and I will focus on encouraging Annabelle to grow up and make education policy. We could surely use a few more people with THAT skill. And we can say it all started in pre-school, with the daughter of a dropout.
The opinions expressed in The K-12 Contrarian 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.