Guest post by Rog Lucido.
When I came home yesterday my wife told me she received a phone call from one of my former students whom I had in my physics class in 1998-99. My wife said he was excited to connect with me as he has just finished his student teaching and would begin his first full time position in the fall. He will be teaching at-risk students. I called him and set up a time we could meet the next day.
Going to my computer to check my e-mail I found this e-mail he had sent me prior to our conversation:
Hi Coach, In writing my master's thesis: a policy position change proposition about transitioning away from the archaic and completely ineffective system of standardized tests in favor of a practice more in line with your physics mastery assessments, I stumbled upon your blog in Ed Week titled: Student Learning Can Only be Described, Not Measured. Immediately I knew I had to re-connect with you, since I have modeled many of my teaching practices after what I learned in your class. My students call me coach, we do not "test" concepts, we master them so we can explore and explain them backward, forward, and every other imaginable direction...I cannot begin to describe the tremendous impact you have had on my life and how much of my teaching repertoire can be traced directly back to you. It would mean a great deal to me if we could meet up for a cup of coffee and I could pick your brain.
My memories may be sharp, but in all of the classroom excitement I'm sure some stuff passed me by...probably because I forgot to tell you "my elevator was full" at the time. I am off to try and find copies of your books to use as sources for my thesis as you have already put in words my exact feelings. Thank you again for the lessons you taught me that had nothing to do with inertia, mass, or velocity, and I hope to hear from and see you soon.
P.S. I will never forget the day of the Columbine school shooting on April 20th, 1999, when we came in from the bomb scare we had during second period and upon hearing of the shooting you threw out your lesson to have a heart to heart with all of us. This tragedy needed to be discussed so that we could all make sense of the senseless violence that had occurred and try to find out how someone could think this was a possible course of action...your composure and insight was what allowed each of us to make it through the rest of that day. While we all tried to hold back the tears, it was your guidance that allowed us to see the light at the end of that oh so grim tunnel, mere words cannot express the lasting impact that has had on my life.
Something happened to me during our meeting. Something I did not expect. Something that has been troubling me for a long time. That ‘something’ drove me to retire in 2004 after 38 years of teaching students physics. I became an activist, helping to found Educators and Parents Against Testing Abuse (EPATA) and writing a book, Educational Genocide-A Plague on our Children, about the pain in so many of my fellow teachers as they were being forced to give up their passion for teaching to become robots in teaching to the test in a process of following externally mandated scripted lessons. Out went the teachers’ professional opinions of what their individual student’s needed. In that place was substituted the system’s test preparation requirements. Eliminated was the opportunity for creative lessons and a pacing that was focused on individual student needs. The professional instructor was taken out of the process. I saw and am still seeing the repercussions of that. Teachers were beside themselves with angst. Not really understanding that their expertise, experience and passion was being diminished far beyond anything they may have imagined when they began teaching. Their academic and affective freedoms were ripped from their hearts and minds while they were still alive. They were like sheep being led to the slaughter.
As we sat there at our small table in front of Starbucks, I was taken up with his unadulterated enthusiasm for his first full time teaching position. He was telling me the things he was trying to do during his practice teaching experience with his master teacher. This had come to an abrupt end when he realized that a paradigm rift between him and his master teacher had become quite apparent. While he wanted to encourage his students with some positive feedback his master teacher was of the mind that student errors should be punished with critical comments as well as the assignment of mindless worksheets. Even though just a student teacher in this small school, he had been selected by the student body as the exemplary teacher for that year. On the verge of quitting rather than continuing to work under this master teacher he took his case to his superiors who had the insight to change his assignment and recommend the full time position that he was now so excited about.
I was listening to his story, privy to his longings and also fearful of his dreams being squashed by those who do not understand what profound thoughts and feelings are at the heart of his desire to teach. It is more than a job or a possible career; teaching it is a calling of the most personal kind. It reaches deep into our souls as a desire to help and be of service to those children whose ignorance of the world would limit their ability to contribute to its enhancement.
What is the ‘something’ that this exchange awakened in me? Righteous indignation. This was and is my moral feeling response to not only what had happened to my former student at the hands of his master teacher but a projection on my part of what may happen to him in his future assignments. I was angry and justifiably so because it was personal to me as I saw so many of my fellow teachers giving up on what they knew were life-giving teaching practices and acquiescing to the high-stakes testing preparation programs that have infected so many of our schools. All they had wanted to do was teach their students using all their skills and experiences that produced a set of ‘best practices’ to the benefit of their students. When the light goes out of a teacher’s eyes, when their desire to teach is diluted by site and district test preparation practices, it is difficult to watch. It takes a lot to give up on a lifelong dream, especially if you have been able to see its effects on your students. What kind of force has been brought to bear to so thoroughly divest teachers of their highest aspirations?
For years teachers had been through educational trends that were here today and gone tomorrow. So, NCLB was viewed just another fad. Educator cooperation should be easy. But what was hidden from sight would be the insidious impact that fear and threats would have on teaching and learning as reliance on test score results and interpretations dominated school life from the classroom to staff meetings and teacher-administrator interactions. All of this was racing through my mind as I continued to listen to Chris’s hopes and dreams for his students in his new teaching position. While I wanted to protect him from the possible disillusion that might follow if his new principal would not allow him to actualize his plans, I kept quiet. I did not know what the future would hold for him and did not want to prematurely diminish his hopes and dreams. I held back expressing my angst over one possible future while silently hoping that he would find the right time and place to see his dreams realized.
The truth was that the career plans for so many new and also experienced teachers would drastically change. This new high-stakes test driven system had to be prepared to deal with any dissention within the educator ranks. And so was born ‘mean accountability’. This mindset is clearly portrayed in the article, “The Case for Being Mean” in 2003 by Fredrick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute- a pro-business, right wing think tank which includes this aggressive position:
Advocates of nice accountability presume that any line of work, most employees will resist changes that require them to take on more responsibility, disrupt their routines, or threaten their jobs or wages. To overcome such resistance, we need to make inaction more painful than the proposed action. In education, this means making a lack of improvement so unpleasant for local officials and educators that they are willing to reconsider work rules, require teachers to change routines, assign teachers to classes and schools in more effective ways, increase required homework, fire ineffective teachers, and otherwise take those painful steps that are regarded as "unrealistic" most of the time.... Today, district and school leaders spend their time pleading with their subordinates to cooperate because they can imagine no other ways to drive change, but they are mistaken. We can drive change by requiring educators to meet clear performance goals and attaching consequences to success or failure.
The strategy was clear: frighten educators into compliance, “If we can’t get education to be what we want it to be we will use suitable painful policies and practices to arrive at our goal.” And who is the ‘we’ heading up this attack on educators: those business leaders, legislators, school administrators and organizations who align themselves with this fear induced oppression.
So, what should I have said to Chris? Perhaps remind him of how Gandhi and Martin Luther King dealt with those who used force to deny civil liberties to so many? My righteous indignation continues to cause me to bristle at the thought of the loss of educators’ academic freedoms and responsibilities. These are clearly stated in both state and national professional teaching standards (draft) .
Teachers’ rights and responsibilities are routinely ignored when considering day to day educators work on school sites. Who wins out when teachers are handed site/district pacing charts that tells them what they are to teach on any given day (and sometimes hour!) but yet the professional teaching standards say it is the teacher’s responsibility to develop and sequence long-term and short-term instructional plans to support student learning? Should I have told Chris that his plans for any given day or unit may be usurped by the test prep program at his site? “Chris ,don’t get too excited about your plans for your students, someone else will know better.”
As if this isn’t enough most teachers keep all the threats of retribution from higher ups to themselves. They dare not tell parents how they are being hog-tied in their lesson preparations and the consequences for their children as students are daily led to believe in the cult of test prep.
What do you think? What ways do you see out of this quagmire? What do we say to all the other Chrises, parents and students? Is righteous indignation as far as one can go?
Horace (Rog) Lucido, now retired, taught high school physics and mathematics for over thirty-eight years as well as being both a university mentor and master teacher. He is the California Central Valley coordinator for the Assessment Reform Network and cofounder of Educators and Parents Against Testing Abuse (EPATA). He is the author of two books: Test, Grade and Score: Never More, 1993, and Educational Genocide: A Plague on our Children, 2010. He has written numerous articles on the impact of high-stakes testing as well as presenting workshops on Forgiving Learning.
The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.