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.

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2 thoughts on “Doing Time in Schools

  1. Maria Moreno says:

    I liked this post very much, because it addresses what my students so yearn for (and so desperately need): guidance from their teachers about what life will require of them, how to be full-fledged members of society who aren’t bystanders, how to act conscientiously, what they can offer to society and to themselves, etc. Here I am, a ‘Social Studies’ teacher, and none of this is ANYWHERE in the standards, whereas Andrew Jackson’s spoils system and Washington’s Farewell Address are considered important enough to be emphasized standards for my students to be tested on. Isn’t one of the main reasons why we have public education to establish a true democracy that enables/empowers all of its citizens to actively participate?? By the way, you made excellent points about who should be measuring our students’ success- when someone stands to profit financially from this process, it puts the whole process into question.

    • yes, sometimes it seems like the more distant our reference points the more curricular weight they hold. What you’re saying makes me wonder if you can’t educate for democracy without foregrounding most of all what is immediate and uncertain and debatable, using historical figures and issues only directly to help us understand, question, and deliberate over what’s happening with us and around us (and against us!) right now. Thanks for your powerful commentary, Maria!

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