Doing Time in Schools

In a recent op-ed, Henry Giroux criticizes the message communicated to and about students in returning them to classes after Hurricane Sandy: they are doing time, and the focus is on the numbers  as usual: counting days of attendance and test score data, not engaging in education about what most matters, like the disaster and its impacts and on social and educational conditions that are shaping students’ lives.  What are students returning to?  Schools in the vice-grip of tests.

Caught up in a market-driven notion of pedagogy that emphasizes testing, competition, and enshrines a kind of pathological individualism, public schools are being emptied of public values … that allows students to think about what it means to be critical citizens and civic agents willing to help others.  [High stakes evaluation of students and teachers is] basically a full-fledged attack on schools as places where students learn the knowledge, skills and values that enable them to be reflective about themselves, their relations to others, the history that informs who they are and their relationship to others and the world. 

Policy-makers’ fixation with test scores is a failure of intelligence and imagination that is unworthy of this country.  High-stakes testing is imposed and used as a sloppy expedient, because so many school communities have been too destabilized to allow for meaningful measurement of learning and growth.  People within schools, communities, and families know that learning and growing are long-term matters, requiring sophisticated modes of assessment.   Evaluating students and teachers by numbers only, over short periods of time, is educationally unsound.

Now, as the students at the private school I teach at are in the midst of their college application process, I’m thinking about the measures that accompany their learning.  In particular, I’m thinking of a core piece of the college application, the “All-school recommendation” that faculty and staff collectively create for each student.  The “All-school” is a three-page letter that tells the story of the student as a learner — and as a human being.   Not only does the letter highlight students’ strengths and offer context for their weaknesses, it follows them over the course of all their years in the high school. It is written by teachers who have known the student and who articulate their respect for his or her work.  And though our students are still stressed out about the college application process, they know that they will all have the opportunity to go to college.  In part this is because the measures that shape their lives are connected to who they are, and express abiding belief in who they will be.

At our school, assessment measures are continuous with the rest of students’ education.  They are created by educators, who know what knowledge and capacities are needed in the world, and who have had the freedom to prepare students accordingly.  This relationship of mutual trust and respect  is a solid foundation for learning, and for building a life; it should not be available only to privileged students.

The continuity and integration that are at the heart of quality education are incompatible with the evaluation measures that are threatening learning in the public schools.  If the measurements can’t support learning, they should be held back until they can demonstrate success.

Standards vs Audience, or: what good is a student, anyhow?

I wouldn’t fit in very well in a public school.  I don’t do benchmarks and I draw up rubrics haphazardly.  Nobody has ever asked me to work with externally imposed standards, nor did I, when I was English Department Chair, ever ask anyone else to do so.  Our school is old-fashioned: we don’t talk about standards but about students.  We talk about what they’re thinking about, and how different young people think and how different adults think and what’s the relationship between us.

When I was asked to participate in a forum on testing in Chicago schools, for some wider representation, I asked my colleagues, “how do we assess at Parker?”  (Here’s another blogger’s report on the event.)  Here are a few snippets from their responses:

“I don’t give traditional seated exams of any kind in my classes, with the possible exception of in-class essays.  Normally, I do projects, papers, and presentations that are heavily scaffolded in class.  There is a lot of guided work, revision, peer feedback, and one-on-one guidance from me.  Generally, I try to focus student assessment on analytical work and helping them refine their ability to effectively express themselves.”

 “In my classes, assessments come in multiple modalities — analytical writing, multiple-choice reading comprehension exams, performance-based research projects — and are rolled out in a sequence that employs assessment as a teaching instrument to support skill-based expectations in precise and rich language usage.”

“I ask myself: What’s going to be useful in the world they are inheriting, and that leads me to:
Exposing them to multiple perspectives as readers, then supporting them as thinkers, speakers, and writers to bring forward their thinking in diverse contexts for a diverse audience. So I assess on the basis of clarity and polish and thoughtfulness of expression so that they may gain an audience as speakers or writers, and I assess on the basis on whether or not they have cast their language and their writing in a way that will gain the audience they seek and deserve.”

Each teacher takes a different approach, and this is encouraged in an environment where teaching is understood to be an art, not a trade.  Yet I see a common theme across the board in my colleagues’ responses: a view of students as subjects.  In these remarks, my colleagues don’t even mention teaching and learning.  Their orientation is unequivocally toward what students do with the material, experiences, and ideas they encounter.  They talk about how young people express themselves and about audience.  When we think of people as subjects, we talk about their audiences – who their words affect and how – this is part of living in a democracy.  Members of democratic society are always understood to have an audience – what we say and do is not separate from other people; always must speak to other people.

When we talk about standards, however, we’re using industrial terminology; and if that’s all we’re talking about, we risk relating to people as objects, not subjects.  When students’ value is measured by standardized tests, this means that students are not seen as actors in the world, responsible, thinking contributors to democratic society.  What is valued is the standards.  The genius of democracy – a world not just lived in but shaped by all members of society – is not served by an exclusively standards-based education.   Young people – in all school environments, not only private schools — are valuable and necessary contributors to society.  The policies of our democratic society must be grounded in this recognition, and unless standardized tests directly foster democratic citizenship, their place in the education of our children should be strictly limited.