Recently, I had a conversation with a teacher who is actually sad that she will probably be ranked “Highly Effective” using the new metrics for teacher evaluation in New York State. She lamented over the dampening of enthusiasm and curiosity in one of her students this year, and I could not help but wonder what are the unintended consequences of this misguided system of “reforming education.”
No, it does not matter that this child had come into 3rd grade reading at a level of 2.9, and now as the test results were released she scored a “4” and is reading at a 5.10 level, what matters is this student stopped wanting to do self initiated research outside of school learning about “slugs,” or “how to build a fence.” The curiosity that was evident during the first half of the year had been washed away with her desire to highlight text and use strategies that would boost her reading level and thereby cause her test scores to increase. The unforeseen consequence was excessive homework that caused the child to contemplate quitting her dance class. Lest anyone suggest that she is simply an overbooked student who should not be programmed in too many after school activities, may I suggest that honoring a child’s desire to participate in something like dance is part and parcel to a healthy exposure to those things that make childhood fun and exhilarating.
What a travesty that in classroom after classroom, and school after school, our overly intensive focus on testing is diminishing the joy of learning in 9 and 10 year olds. The consequences for future problem solvers that can be extrapolated from this little anecdote are untold and perhaps incalculable.
How can it be that so many little boys and girls throughout an entire state could be driven towards such a focus, and away from the natural order of what young hearts and minds should be considering? Perhaps the larger question is how much longer can we bear the responsibility of acting as coconspirators to this “crime of the 21st century.” Yes, it can be considered a crime to rob our youth of their right to a childhood full of wonder and the simple delight of wanting to know more about things that interest them.
For all of the bluster about getting our students college and career ready, there is a better than good chance that we may be unwittingly inculcating exactly the wrong habits of mind in our students that they will need in the future. More often than not great thinkers, engineers, artists, and others benefited from a rich and diverse experience growing up. Narrowing the focus to scores on tests threatens such diversity, and with it the divergent thinking that will allow students (and educators) the latitude to take risks, stimulate growth, and make improvements. The seeds of future musicians, doctors, inventors, scholars and the like are sown in the daily musings that children have both in and out of school when they are little.
A diet that is far too weighted towards testing, and scripted primarily with data driven bits and bytes is no recipe for success. Teachers can and should monitor the progress of their students. Hard work, curiosity, accountability, and results are not mutually exclusive—though the broad brush, one size fits all prescription for “improving” schools would have you think so. For the sake of our students, and for the betterment of our collective well being we should nurture the spirit of inquiry in our classrooms and communities, champion quality lesson design, and attend to the full compliment of needs that our most vulnerable learners require for them to be college and career ready.