Now that the Houston Chronicle has released its annual lists of grades given by the state to the hundreds of schools in the dozens of districts hereabouts, I feel compelled to reprint an op/ed piece in that fine paper’s editorial section some years ago about the big state test administered every spring that has become the one bellwether that districts, teachers and students are judged by. The name of the test has changed, and to be fair I think it is factored in with a few more variables now, but giving it its lofty weight still causes the problems I tried to hit upon in the article. It won’t do any more good now than it did then. But shouting out in the darkness seems better than not shouting at all.
“As King, I would banish TAKS from school” (May 9th, 2009, Houston Chronicle):
Having spent my entire life in public education — first for what seemed to be an eternity as a student, then for what has in fact very nearly been one as a teacher — I’ve decided that if I ever get to be king, some changes will be in order.
First off, I will not only discontinue the use of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (the infamous TAKS test), but will forbid, upon penalty of fine and incarceration, the very mention of it ever again. That test was born in the Texas Legislature — the birthing ground of many a vile creature — and was allowed to grow into a particularly ugly and unmanageable ogre. Now, flying in the face of everything logical and right, it rules supreme when it comes to how school districts, administrators and teachers are evaluated.
In desperation we in the school business have had to shift gears. Or, more accurately, we’ve thrown the whole vehicle out of gear and are rolling haphazardly off to wherever it is we’re going. Jobs are on the line, so we spend an inordinate amount of time teaching just the things that are on that test. And by inordinate I mean, at several grade levels, practically all of our time.
So it’ll be goodbye TAKS when I am king. We’ll evaluate students the old-fashioned way: through assessments of what is actually covered in their courses. But, you are about to say, how about when an abysmal teacher doesn’t actually teach anything and gives everybody high marks anyway. When I am king, abysmal teachers will be shown the door promptly, because the education of young people is much too important to be put in the hands of anyone not sufficiently interested to take it seriously.
But when TAKS scores are the only measuring stick, a truly fine teacher who is assigned disinterested students — who have about as much interest in nailing the big test as they have in flying to Saturn — is put into a no-win situation. Because that poor soul’s job might depend on his or her ability to lead unwilling horses to the proverbial water and somehow making them want to drink.
That category of students, by the way, whose behavior — usually a heady mixture of arrogance and apathy — absorbs most of principals’ and teachers’ time and resources, is a big part of the problem in education. To accommodate them we’ve lowered the bar to such an extent, regarding both academic and behavioral expectations, that many courses now are sad, watered down versions of what they once were and our hallways and classrooms are sometimes dangerous places to be.
When I am king I’ll put the lion’s share of our focus back on the students who, if not always hungry for knowledge, are at least not belligerent when it is offered.
Finally, there will be more academically challenging elective classes for students who are college bound and more vocational courses for those who aren’t. And every high school in my kingdom will have classes only on Monday through Thursday. Teachers will use Fridays to prepare lessons, have parent conferences, staff meetings and professional training.
Students won’t come to school on Friday unless they have been assigned to detention hall or if they have extracurricular practices or contests. I’ll make an inviolable decree that no student or teacher can miss any class at any time to attend a contest, since all extracurricular events must take place on Fridays, Saturdays and weekday evenings or not at all. Meaning no instructional time will be lost.
Of course, I will never be a king, or even a member of the Texas Legislature. But leaving that aside, I do feel strongly about this. By allowing the academic curriculum in our schools to get lost in the plethora of extracurricular programs and activities, and by letting vocational education pretty much slip away entirely, we have wandered dangerously away from what the primary objective of education should be: the very real preparation of students for a very real world.
And the use of a single test — not an especially good one at that — as the sole benchmark for school districts and teachers is pure folly, and reflective of nothing relevant or practical.
By marching lockstep under the billowing banner of “No Child Left Behind,” we’ve managed to leave them all behind.