Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

130

Testing, 1 2 3

Hey, I know: let’s assume that the National Standards are a benevolent, well-meaning intervention, earnestly dedicated to closing a vast and unforgivably race- and income-based gap in educational outcomes. I know, it doesn’t come naturally. But try this: read the press release and globally substitute “health” for “education.” For reading, writing, and maths, think height, weight, and, say, healthy body temperature.

Why look, there are even nifty Plunket-style graphs to lend weight to my imperfect but bear-with-me analogy. And unlike overseas, where the numbers are generally anonymized into a snapshot of how the school is succeeding, this new data, like a Plunket book, will be tailored to your individual child, showing how they succeed or fail at adhering to a weighted average on their way to a Brighter Future (TM). They're even weaseling carefully on the question of whether by "testing" they mean actual tests, or just, y'know, not tests, not really, certainly not national ones based on, ooh, standards or anything. Perfectly harmless, perfectly well-meaning.

But, you object, haven't we already been weighing this particular baby for decades now? We know when it’s bonny, when it's sickly, and we have a hunch that fixing the latter will require supplements of some sort. We also have plenty of data from local sources, not to mention tons of useful feedback from the struggling UK and US experiments in numbers-driven educational reform on how not to do this measuring thing. So, why? Why on earth invest precious dollars in yet another nifty set of I-speak-your-fate scales, now with wi-fi and real-time digital readouts?

Oh go on. Roll up, roll up, children, and let’s be measuring you. Say aaaah. It’s painless, and the information is incredibly useful. What could possibly go wrong?

Really now: what’s the worst that could happen?

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Let me tell you some tales out of school.

Towards the end of his second year of public school in the US, our then 6 year old skipped two weeks of school to travel to New Zealand. One day we were visiting my brother, who lives over the back fence from a primary school. Picture my son jumping on the trampoline (a novelty: they’re virtually verboten over here, due to most home-owner insurance policies) and having a look over the fence at what a New Zealand school looks like.

It was noon. The children poured out onto the playing field and started, well, playing. They sat on benches, under the trees, out on the grass, eating their sandwiches and generally romping about.

Forty-five minutes later they were still out there, frolicking and chatting, and my puzzled child, still bouncing and ogling the charming Brueghel-esque scene over the back fence, asked what on earth they were doing.

“Lunchtime, what else?” I asked.

He thought he was witnessing the longest and most disorganized fire-drill ever seen.

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Of course he was no stranger to the concept of recess, but at his school it was a maximum of twenty minutes long and took place at the teacher’s discretion. In his first two years of school, this was officially every day, albeit dependent on weather -- and behaviour. If the children played up, they missed out.

This behavioural bar applied to classwork as well. One day I picked him up in tears: he had had to sit out the art lesson, he explained, because he hadn’t finished his maths in time. (He was just five years old, had started school a month before his fifth birthday). His “maths” consisted of writing the numbers from 1 to 100.

This is a child who could count to a hundred on his 4th birthday, and was used to performing complicated sums in his head. He had refused to finish the task, he said, because it was so boring that his brain hurt. His teacher, a kind and intelligent person, said she had tried everything she could think of to get him to just finish the job, but only withdrawing his participation in art class had gotten his attention.

Of course it did. He loved the art teacher, and they were in the middle of a fairly complex (for five year olds) art project, with multiple stages. This was the day they were meant to finish it.

I was stunned that a piece of math-work so mindlessly trivial could not only become a bone of pointless contention between a teacher and a five year old (admittedly part mule), but could also trump another part of the curriculum. Surely the task, if necessary, could be completed at home? Was it even necessary?

Oh yes, it was. It was necessary for the “portfolio.” Vague explanations were given about the weight that would be placed on showing that this particular accomplishment had been ticked off, and the dire consequences if a child failed to complete the task. Besides, there was already homework to be done: every night a page or two of random letter-practice, or a colouring exercise, or a small piece of math, usually printed from an online source, rarely connected to anything actually done in the classroom.

My child got excited about precisely one homework assignment that first year, which involved drawing a plant. He sat out in the garden and drew a tulip, making a cross-section that showed the underground part, and then a cunning flap that showed what we actually see. Every part of the flower was carefully labeled. I had never seen him so attentive to a school-related task at home. The rest of the time, homework was a slow-drip of torture for him.

This was a middling decile school, one we’d chosen from a list of magnet schools in the city because of its express philosophy of child-centred, inquiry-led learning. The school was home to children from an impressive cross-section of families, from newly arrived immigrants to doctors, managers and scientists. All of whom took education seriously, but with a vast range of means. It was part of what we liked about the place.

The school was surprisingy “crunchy” for a public school, at first glance. It featured mixed-age classrooms so that children could learn at their own pace, teachers were addressed by their first names, and each of the junior class teachers had a full-time aide to help. There were 22 children in the class, each of whom I came to know by name.

One child spoke little English, or, as the teacher’s aide put it in a not-very-whispered aside to my husband, complete with eye-roll: “He no speaka da English.” My son was very worried about this child, who had difficulty figuring out what was required of him. “Because he’s bilingual,” my child explained to me. What did that word mean, I asked, not having heard him use it before. “It means that his ears don’t work and he can’t really learn properly,” my child explained, sadly.

Little pitchers are fearsomely skilled at picking up the hidden curriculum, and it took me a while to convince my son that “bilingual” meant neither deaf nor dumb. What burned me up about this particular incident was that we had leaned towards this school partly on the recommendation of Belgian friends. Their children were also emphatically bilingual, but I doubt they were subject to the same implicit discounting of their intellectual abilities.

The hidden curriculum appeared in different guises. The classroom operated a “traffic-light” behavioural system. Each child’s name was on a clothes-peg attached to a cardboard sign. At the beginning of the day, everyone was on green. If you played up in any way, you moved to the orange light. If you made it to red, you missed out on “afternoon stations,” which was the free-play part of the day that happened after 2.

(In this respect, the school was extremely enlightened: children in the K-1 classrooms were encouraged to play with blocks, cars, paint, dress-up materials and so on, although even that was eventually curbed. The official ethos was mostly kind and encouraging, and my son never forgot the day he freaked out over the fire-drill, and spent an hour recovering in the office of the very sweet deputy principal, working on a soothing art project).

But when I arrived for pick-up in the afternoon, I would notice the same names on orange and red, day after day. No prizes for guessing the gender and race of these children. It seemed a terribly defeating, self-fulfilling prophecy rather than a useful crowd-control device. I mentioned what I’d noticed, and the traffic light was eventually discontinued, but not before a discussion in which it was explained that the ultimate goal was to help children learn to sit still during tests.

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The school moved from its scruffy temporary digs to a smart new building, and at the opening ceremony, the head honcho of public schools gave a speech in which he described the children as “VIPs.” VIPs, he explained, study very hard and do well on their tests, and they do not (among other things) vandalize their nice new school building. Once again, the expectations were underwhelming and at odds with the stated ethos of the school.

This was the year the school instituted a yogic meditation moment each morning, conducted via the PA system. I thought it was sweet, and the kids enjoyed it. It turned out to be part of a scheme to settle the nerves of the children in the higher grades as they prepared for the tests.

Recess still happened nearly every day, but was more frequently withheld for raucous behaviour in the classroom, in direct violation of the laws of cause-and-effect. I was surprised to discover that recess was not guaranteed until 2005, when the state we live in passed a law mandating twenty minutes of free-range time per day for grades K-5 (which could also be fulfilled by a gym class, or by stand-up exercises in the classroom). It struck me that prisoners, casual workers, and zoo animals quite probably had more generous fresh-air provisions than children.

--

Officially, the state testing doesn’t start until 3rd grade (the fourth year of school, given that schooling in the US starts with what is called Kindergarten year), but thanks to the mixed-age system at this particular school, the effects were felt as soon as our child moved into the Grade 2-3 classroom.

Recess dropped to three times a week, although the teacher often sneaked a fourth bite of outside time. Questions about this drew two answers: one, that the children had gym on the other two days, so it was all right (leaving aside the question of how the gym teacher was meant to feel about this, or what this meant for children for whom recess was a mental proposition as much as a physical one). And secondly, that there simply wasn’t enough time in the school week to cover the curriculum AND have daily recess.

These were seven-year-olds.

Homework was the same drip-feed of photocopied worksheets, enlivened by a new exercise, in which a simplified weekly “newspaper” from Scholastic was handed out with a set of questions to be answered. These drove our child to new heights of anti-homework frenzy, particularly the open-ended written response question, which always took the form: “What was the most interesting thing you learned about [snow leopards, Barack Obama, fruit, charity-work, whatever the subject of the newspaper was].

Like George Washington, he could not tell a lie. Nine times out of ten, he learned nothing from the simplistic text, and nine times out of ten, he wrote “Nothing” and got a zero for his efforts. I had known that I would have to teach him the art of pointless hoop-jumping at some point in his life, but I had no idea it would arrive this soon. “Just make something up,” I would say, and he would ask “WHY????!!” and drive his pencil through the paper to make a point.

At the parent-teacher conferences, we asked if there was a way around this. Could we rephrase the question? Could he, perhaps, write the most interesting thing he already knew, or write a question that the newspaper didn’t answer but that he would love to know? Surely the point was to craft a well-written sentence on the subject at hand, and to extend his curiosity on the topic, whatever it was?

Apparently, no. The question was phrased this way, because it was the way it would be phrased in the tests, and it was important for children to get used to it. The material was irrelevant. It was style over substance, and the style was drillingly dull.

We asked a lot of questions that year. We became “those” parents. At every step along the way, in every one of these conversations, teachers and administrators – intelligent, well-educated, well-meaning people – explained things in terms of the tests. Not in terms of what was good for the children, or what worked as effective classroom management. It was all about the tests. A spectre was haunting the school, and it was the spectre of the tests.

And at every point, our perplexed observation that the tests seemed to be driving the curriculum, and that the horse might be happier pulling the cart, was categorically denied. We wanted to be good supportive parents, but the gaslights were flickering.

--

I’m telling this story chronologically and anecdotally, from the bottom up, because that is how we learned it. At first, all I could see was the details, the illogic of the system, and the effect on my child, primarily, and the teachers, secondarily. The connection between the tests and every other facet of school became clearer and sharper as time went on. I repeat that it was a kind, well-meaning school staffed by kind, well-meaning people. Looking back, every moment that involved fluster, or bluster, or frustration, or fury could be laid at the feet of the tests.

Homework in kindergarten: because of the tests. The wording of the homework: because of the tests. The crowd-management techniques: because of the tests. The recess policy: because of the tests. The phasing-out of playtime in the classroom: because of the tests. Library time only once a week, even for readers who got through a book a day: because of the tests. Even the good stuff – the yoga, the ice-cream parties – because of the tests.

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That third year of school, it all became abruptly desublimated. The third graders in the classroom were preparing for the tests, and the second graders couldn’t avoid the subject. This was early 2009, and the art hour (half-hour, by this point) was spent making posters on the rather topical theme “Yes We Can!” – neatly harnessing our new president’s bold rhetoric for the tests.

The streamed maths groups (a bonus for our number-mad boy) were abandoned for the moment, because of test prep. Even the G & T programme (not a cocktail hour, but an hour a week of “enrichment” for kids deemed “gifted and talented”) was suspended for the 6-week duration of the testing and marking period.

A field trip to the art gallery was cancelled on the morning of the trip, in favour of more maths prep “for the tests.” This was a school that was rightly proud of the number of field trips it managed to provide on its limited budget, a bonus for children who didn’t necessarily have those resources in their home life. They were embarrassed about the last-minute cancellation and offered several different explanations, even though I was waiting with the docents for the bus full of children to arrive, and the voice over the phone explained the math situation.

Indeed, whenever we asked direct questions about the situation, we were told conflicting things. The teachers would say they’d been told to teach this way. The administration would say this was purely the teachers’ choice. I don’t want to blame the teachers or the administration, since it seems to me that’s precisely what this sort of policy is designed to do. But it’s hard not to be disappointed by the system-wide capitulation. We inquired, we lobbied, we even managed to call a meeting with some of the city administrators, but to no practical avail. The school lived and died by the test results, and so did the school’s spirit.

--

There were projects and classroom fun unconnected to the tests, of course. Our lad enjoyed the historical project, compiling a small book about a famous figure in history and then showing up in full costume. (We smiled as a rugged Ed Hillary mingled with Harriet Tubman, Betsy Ross, Susan B. Anthony, more than one Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and a Kennedy or two). The teacher took the pressure off the children with read-aloud stories every afternoon, and random craft activities for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the snowy season.

But the tests were around the corner, and the worry about the impending tests communicated itself from the top down. Children were advised about stress management techniques. The PTA got busy making “survival kits” for the tests (gum, tissues, water bottles). A friend with a child in a higher grade confided that she was torn between getting a doctor’s note for her brilliant but slightly fragile child, or upping the child’s medication to get her through the tests. Another high-achieving child of our acquaintance was freaking out, and worried that she might “fail” the tests; clearly the message that the smart kids should pull harder was getting through.

As the tests approached, anxiety permeated the school to a palpable degree. It was astonishing, upsetting, confusing, frustrating. If this school truly believed in its explicitly right-on mission, its mixed-age classrooms, its child-centred teaching and its inquiry-led curriculum (those latter two scarcely in evidence, now that we thought about it), then surely the quality of the teaching would prevail, and the tests would show that it was working? Why drill the children at all?

What we didn’t realize at that point was that the school was in a perilous position: never quite meeting its targets, year after year, and thus constantly in danger of never fully specified consequences for failing to make “Adequate Yearly Progress”. Details were hard to come by (unlike the test numbers, freely available on a handy web site where you could slice and dice the data by year, by subject, by comparable schools, by comparison with the city and the state at large).

The school was rumoured to have managed to have itself designated a “safe harbor” school – which is when you promise to change your approach, and thus can beg immunity from the consequences of failing to meet your target. In practice, the changes were incremental rather than qualitative – the turn of the screw. With the number of children succeeding “at or above grade level” hovering between 50 and 60 percent, occasionally higher or lower depending on class and subject, the school was simply treading water, year after year.

Indeed, the annual test results mostly varied by the margin of error. Given the number of children taking the tests each year, the loss of a single “safe bet” – a professor’s child, say – could make all the difference. No wonder the school was so eager to retain the children of the cadre of disgruntled parents who had begun to speak up about the invidious effects of the overpowering emphasis on tests.

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I sought advice from other parents, several of whom shared the concern but were determined to tough it out, others of whom were already making exit plans for their children. One mother, a teacher on “mommy sabbatical,” was a PTA stalwart. She was the one who would show up to class with a trolley full of art gear and lead the children in exhilarating, challenging projects that had nothing to do with tests. In second grade, she started homeschooling her child, after a teacher took her aside and advised her that she’d never get what she was looking for from this school. She said with a shrug, “they’re just trapped in this system.”

After seriously considering homeschooling, we managed to transfer our child to a public school within walking distance. It’s the in-demand top-decile school that we’d been told we should be aiming for all along. I’d resisted, partly just because the admission process seemed so baroque and capricious (our house fell outside the gerrymandered district, even though we lived literally over the road from the school’s temporary digs while the new building was being constructed).

I’d also resisted out of principle. It seemed like giving in, to send our smart privileged offspring to the smart privileged school along with all the other smart privileged kids. What could we possibly contribute to a school composed largely of the children of academics, when we could be bussing our social capital across town to a brave little school that, as it turned out, was holding on by its fingernails?

It’s the traditional liberal dilemma, and I didn’t want to be a cliché. But I also didn’t want my child weeping over his homework, and I didn’t want to be spun any more contradictory stories about why he was learning what he was learning, and what was wrong with him for not wanting to learn what they were teaching.

We weren’t alone in our exodus. Some of the families we’d been working with to try and rescue the old school from its tangle of anxiety stayed on, but many bailed out along with us.

At the new school, I still volunteer, but not as much as I used to. The children are older and need less hands-on help in the classroom; the teachers have it under control, and frankly, there is more than enough parental largesse – both practical and financial - to go around. It’s a more traditional place, with teachers addressed by Mr and Mrs, and fewer field trips. But there’s recess every day, and art and music are prized, and bilingualism is seen as a feature rather than a bug; the children learn Chinese and celebrate their international heritage.

At the dedication of the new building for this school, the same chief of educational services gave a speech. This time he didn’t mention vandalism or test scores. He spoke to the parents, praising them for their dedication to the school and promising to do whatever it took to keep the school a good one. He was, quite literally, preaching to the converted. To the saved.

The tests are a month away. At the new school, the homework has only just begun to be about test practice, with the multi-choice quizzes that bore my child and the rote questions that still drive him bonkers. But he's managing. The prep is presented as a necessary evil, not overemphasized; thanks to the student catchment and the uniformly stellar annual test results, the teachers can afford not to freak out about it.

They use the same pre-masticated preparation material as the other school, including the green booklet on Editing and Revising which (trust me, I’m a copyeditor) contains at least one unintentional error per page. The teachers have complained but to no avail, but the children, at least, can laugh about it.

For these happy, healthy children, the tests are a minor hassle, a mile-wide flaming hoop, a tedious rubber stamp, a set of boxes to tick. They don’t need pep rallies or survival kits. The only thing they really need to be drilled in is how to sit still for 45 minutes without going to the bathroom. They will be measured, according to the laws, and will come out tall, fit, and healthy, as expected. They and their teachers will be able to relax and get on with the year.

Meanwhile, I wonder about the kids on the other side of town who continue to trust in the school that failed us.

The quiet boy, an extraordinarily fluent early reader, from a family of nine who lost their house to a disaster one Christmas and who were helped by a clothing drive organized by the school. The stroppy little guy, half the size of my son, who tried (without significant success) to beat him up in the bathroom one day, to the despair of his single dad who was doing everything to raise him right. My favourite, an irrepressible little dude whose hard-looking and underemployed father was sometimes the only other parent on the field trips.

Those children will be sitting their first bank of standardized tests in a month’s time, and they will have been under the gun since the beginning of the school year. The test scores at their school continue to hover in the fretful hinterland of not-good-enough, with an ironic, self-defeating, self-fulfilling kicker: the emphasis on raising the test scores has driven out a number of children pretty much guaranteed to do that for free.

The result, as the teachers scramble to prepare their charges for the annual weigh-in, is presumably the usual roundelay of chivvying and drilling and calming and cheerleading. The educational equivalent of ice chips and cold-packs to cool their fevers, pennies in their pockets and wedges in their shoes in the hope of getting them to hit the right numbers on the Plunket graph.

Reading back over this, I’m amazed that we stayed as long as we did at the first school, bobbing around like frogs while the water boiled around us. We, like our child, were new at this school thing, and still figuring out how it all worked. But we also stayed as long as we did because of the people. Writing this piece made me sad and nostalgic for that hard-working, dedicated community of people – the children, the parents, and the harassed teachers, administrators, and staff doing their best amid the sticky web of justifications and statistics that, they believed, tied their hands and ruled their school.

They first taught us how to go to school in America. They also taught us when and why to leave.

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