The United Teachers of Lowell, the bargaining union for teachers and retirees, has hundreds of bumper stickers which state that the children of Massachusetts are the best educated in the nation. The New York Times today released a story about Kentucky tightening their testing of young children and suffering from lower than their normal test scores. The Patrick administration has empowered principals to a degree never seen since, in my estimation and opinion, the 1870’s. The question is, are we advancing or going back in time? The answer, I believe, is that we are doing a little bit of both.
I have a book of speeches written by the great abolitionist, H. Ward Beecher. His wife, as you may remember wrote, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The president of the day, a man called Abraham Lincoln, got to meet her and said to her, if my memory serves me well, “So you are the little woman who started this massive war.” I may be off by a word or two, but that was the essence of the message. As a history teacher, I often run into adults who were my students. I ask them questions related to history. I ask them who Henry Ward Beecher was? They do not know. But, we covered it in class. I ask them who wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” but they do not know. Finally, I ask them who Abraham Lincoln was. That one they usually get right. History was not an MCAS subject so it was not given the strong push of Math, Engish, and the Sciences.
History may be an MCAS subject now, but that may be part of the problem, not part of the solution. MCAS training takes away the spontaneity of teaching. It is literally, “teaching to the test.” A student is made prolific in an aspect of a subject but not in the subject itself. The error of this was best shown in the English portion of the MCAS this year. Lowell and Lawrence taught persuasive writing this year only to give the MCAS and find that that subject was not on the test. A flawed test brought scores down. The MCAS is corrected by college students, basically, some of whom have little or no interaction with education as a major. It is theoretically possible that, should one of them have a bad day, scores could be affected.
Teaching is an art, not a science. There are good teachers and unfortunately there are bad teachers. Teaching to the test, I believe, creates bad teaching practices. In the first place, the teacher is bored, I know that from experience. Once, I took my students down to a computer lab. There, they were given persons to identify and write about in a 45 minute experiment. Many of them plagiarized. I determined that by just finding the subject, they had completed the major part of the assignment so I let the plagiarized part sit. Bill Samaras wrote on my review that year that I allowed students to plagiarize. I allowed them to take 45 minutes and come up with a description of an individual, Billy the Kid for example, or John Quincy Adams. They were not plagiarizing, they were completing the technical part of the assignment, find the historical person, and get some written information to pass in. The assignment was not to write about the person, the assignment was to find information about the person on the computer.
A good teacher, and I was one of them, would use his or her classroom to endear their students to their subject. If I was doing my job correctly, my students would list History as one of their favorite subjects. Many did. I used to enjoy stories about the early Congresses. One of my favorite was John Randolph’s hatred of Henry Clay. It went so far that at one point Randolph described Clay thus: “Like a mackeral by moonlight he shines yet stinks.” It was the perfect put-down. Randolph was so wary of Clay that he had himself buried facing the state of Kentucky because he stated, he wanted to keep an eye on Henry Clay. Those stories stayed with students but you would never find that type of story in a book today, or in an MCAS test.
From a classroom standpoint, mediocre educational management is what we have given to our teachers and students. A mediocre principal, given authority by the state, can do a lot of harm. They are being graded by their test scores, so many of them push the tests to the detriment of everything else. This leads to a classroom that is not supervised in a good way, but rather is supervised by micromanagement. Every move the teacher makes becomes suspect.
We need testing but we need to be certain that that testing is quality driven. If I was a teacher today, I would not believe in the system. I would believe that the principal is being forced to be a micromanager. We need spontaneity in the classroom. We need a bond between the subject and the learner as well as between the teacher and the student. Without those things education suffers and we are not really the best educated students in America, despite what the bumper sticker says.