Standards Opinion

Paul Horton: A Teacher Writes to Arne Duncan

By Anthony Cody — May 01, 2014 3 min read
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Guest post by Paul Horton.

Dear Mr. Duncan,

I just wanted to drop you a note to let you know what sane teachers are doing these days.

I attended a rally last night at Union Square Fieldhouse that brought together concerned teachers, parents, and students to discuss standardized testing in Illinois.

We went over sample PARCC reading questions from their website, and most of us guessed wrong on most of the questions. All 80 of us would have failed the test. My guess is that we had a normal curve in the audience, but statistical norms did not seem to measure the results in our somewhat random sample: we had people of all ages, colors, social classes, and grit levels.

My guess is that CPS kids will do much better than us adults, but I doubt that they will do any better than what our state superintendent of education proclaims is our “cut score.”

I also shared some secrets I have learned as a teacher with thirty-two years experience:

1) Standardized tests do not measure anything important. In one of the questions we took last night, those kids who knew the arcane English use of “cross” would have answered the question correctly. In other words, the kids most likely to answer this question correctly were those who played with Thomas the Tank Engine and companion readers.

2) Many of my students who score the highest on standardized tests simply have the ability to solve puzzles. Many lack other essential forms of intelligence, and, more importantly, never learn to work hard. Extremely high-test scores might correlate more closely to lack of success, except perhaps in your typical financial or legal grifting.

3) Huge numbers of kids with huge potential simply do not test well. because standardized tests are not designed to assess their talents.

4) High-test scores correlate most with social economic class. Unless this country decides to enact policies to redistribute income, create meaningful work, and keep the market away from schools, opportunity for most students will remain scarce. The market will create scarcity of opportunity and distribute choice to those who can afford to pay a premium. This is why you charters that you support will never put a serious dent into the “achievement gap” for all kids, not just the few that you hope to “save.”

I am the parent of a high school junior who has just taken his ACT. My son is off the charts in reading, but he has a math learning challenge. He is not a great basketball player, so he will never make it into a very selective college. But, guess what: there are many great public and private institutions of higher learning that consider high school GPA and talents that are not measured by standardized tests!

My son will be a senior in a class next year that will not be subjected to the Common Core Curriculum. He is very fortunate to have attended your alma mater.

I worry about all of those students across the country that will not be so lucky. Many of their parents will pressure them to take the PARCC tests. Those who know more about the PARCC tests and the shoddy products that Pearson Education produces, those who are educated consumers, will opt their kids out of these tests because they understand how damaging the process will be to their children and to the very idea of public schools.

If you decide to come back to Chicago and enroll here, your kids will take no multiple-choice tests in my class. They will write paragraphs, speeches, short papers, and research papers. They will debate, take part in role-plays and simulations, write and enact plays and documentaries, participate in National History Day competitions, and create History period festivals. They will also read lots of history books and learn to love history.

Your children will thrive here because we will not drill to the test.

Education is about “lighting a flame, not filling a bucket.”

We continue to strive to achieve John Dewey’s vision of American Education as something that cannot be separated from the idea of building a democratic community:

“What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

All the best, even though I do not support most of your policies,

Paul Horton

Paul Horton has taught for thirty years in virtually every kind of school. He began his teaching career in a recently integrated rural Texas middle school. He then taught for five years in a large urban high school in San Antonio’s West side where the majority of young people were ESL. He has been teaching at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the country’s most diverse independent school founded by John Dewey, for fourteen years.

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.