In the midst of a staff meeting, I decide to write an angry poem in order to retain my sanity:
They hand me stacks of binders
and I put on my blinders
to the chart and the graph
of our golden calf
so we can find who’s best
on the standardized test
They make me take it
I try to make it
But when I break it
I have to fake it
If I could . . .
And relate it
They couldn’t rate it
So they would hate it
I feel like . . .
Picasso with a coloring book
A chef as a short-order cook
Plato on a worksheet
Louie Armstrong with a techno beat
Until then we’re . . .
feeding children steroids
while the data whores
with their testing scores
are pimping out each brain
students go insane
from the indoctrination,
with no emancipation
Standardization can feel overwhelming. How do I, as a teacher, make any difference in a battle against standardization? I think the answer involves being part sage and part lunatic.
The sage is the one who calmly reshapes the system, gaining the respect of the power brokers and deal-makers. The lunatic, by contrast, rages against the system, speaking out boldly against what he or she sees as inhuman and unjust.
- Communicate Results: I hate the tests. However, I recognize that standardized teaching occurs at such a low cognitive level that authentic learning will almost always lead to higher test scores. People thought I was crazy for using customized and authentic learning strategies until they saw the test results. It gave me a bit of a “free card.”
- Be Sneaky: When told to create a word wall, I used the word “asinine” next to “standardized tests.” When told I had to use the math book, I had students examine the pseudocontext of the word problems.
- Use Their Language: I learned to talk about data as I explained the authentic assessments. I learned to structure customized learning into lesson plans under “enrichment” and “intervention.” I learned to find the standards that fit with differentiated instruction. In other words, I found a way to do what I wanted to do and use standardized language to explain it.
- Decide When To Conform: I tell my administration each year that I will not write referrals. I will refer to procedures are “shared rituals” and I will work within a philosophy of “the freedom to learn.” My class runs smoothly, precisely because I abandon the system of punishments and rewards. However, I also recognize that I have to grudgingly follow silly rules like shirts tucked in, straight lines and silence during tests. I explain to the students why I disagree with these rules and why I choose to conform on some of the small things. I use the following litmus test: Will this ruin learning? Will this dehumanize students?
- Find Common Ground: Often the proponents of standardization are not mean-spirited people who hate kids. Instead, they want students to thrive and fear that a progressive approach will water down standards. A sage is able to build a bridge between traditional reformers and authentic reformers so that people see a rational side to our argument.
- Reconfigure your class: I use groups, allow for movement and create specialized centers that students can go to at any moment. My students paint classroom murals and works of art on classroom canvases. All of these are small, subtle steps toward humanizing our classroom environment.
- Teach the Reality of Tests: I tell my kids about the rigged system they are up against. Many of them have written letters speaking out against these injustices.
- Speak Out: I talk to parents, district office representatives and the larger blogging community about my feelings regarding standardization. I’ve written a book and a guest article for the Washington Post blog.
- Be Bold: When people told me that students needed to hand-write all drafts before using our classroom blog, I defiantly refused. When a curriculum specialist once told me that we couldn’t do a documentary, because it wasn’t “real learning,” I told her I would rather lose my job than give up the project. There is a time when teachers need to stand up and say, “Okay, write me up. Fire me. Go ahead. This is too valuable of a learning experience to give up.”
- Provide an Alternative: While it’s easy to bust on professional development, the lunatic can articulate a crazy vision of a better method of teacher learning (such as a PLN). Similarly, a teacher who hates standardized tests needs to have a list of alternative assessments that work better. In a Waiting for Superman world, it’s key that we create a non-standard, alternative story that will be more compelling, authentic and inspiring than what’s currently being peddled by the press.
John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at johntspencer.com. He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero.