My students spend twenty five full school days a year taking standardized tests. That’s more than the combined total of hours for the bar exam, teacher certification and MCATS. In other words, the test we develop to see whether an eighth grader understands the Pythagorean Theorem is longer than the tests we create for doctors, lawyers and teachers.And yet . . .
The enemy isn’t the test. The enemy isn’t Waiting for Superman, either. Nor is it Rhee or Duncan or Gates. The enemy isn’t a single, solitary human or even a single, solitary idea. Instead, the real issue is the process of standardization.
I’m not sure it’s a new enemy, either. It’s the same enemy that forced hemlock on Socrates and the same enemy that killed Jesus and the same one that led to the excommunication of Galileo. It’s the confusion of uniformity for unity and efficiency for effectiveness.
Here in America, it began when we first created factory-model schools. We adopted the industrial model to prepare students for jobs in the “real world” (never questioning the reality we were creating), the German model (based upon militarism) and a social engineering model (based upon the perceived need for assimilation).
Standardization takes the idea of one-size-fits-all and pushes it toward one-fit-sizes-all, where an idea that fits one particular student is then used to size up all others. It’s a system where the processes and procedures are placed above the human reality, where the end results are a lack of respect for both collective cooperation and individual freedom.
I see it everywhere in my school:
- Discipline: Zero Tolerance discipline programs that do not respect individual student needs
- Behaviorism: Systems of rewards and punishments to coerce, bribe and threat students into a particular behavior. One example includes the awards assemblies that rank students based upon test scores. Another is a program that bribes students for reading books.
- Instruction: The use of “behavioral” and “observable” objectives driving the lessons rather than a cognitive process or essential question. Indeed, for all our talk of differentiated instruction, teachers create lesson plans based upon a rigid format (I do – we do – you do) with rigid categories that require students to do the same thing at the same time.
- Assessment: The excessive use of multiple choice tests and the time devoted to preparing for such tests
- Curriculum: Rigid curriculum maps with “common” assessments all based upon state standards
- Materials: The use of textbook resources from transnational corporations who create the tests, test preparation materials, consulting firms and tutoring programs for failing students. (The system is rigged worse than Vegas or Chuck-E-Cheese)
- Space: desks in rows, students in individual seats, walls separating all classrooms.
- Professional Development: teachers sit in one meeting, experiencing the same lesson in the same format, regardless of need.
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.