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Monday, March 28, 2011

Testing kids good, feeding kids bad: the corporate reform of education

From the blog Peg with Pen

by Peggy Robinson

Dear President Obama, Mr. Duncan and The Billionaires' Club:

I recently looked up the definition of child abuse and found that neglect is a component of it. We are neglecting children if we do not provide them with food, adequate clothing, and an environment which allows their health to thrive. I would take this a step further by saying we neglect a child if we starve them intellectually by depriving them of books and other reading material.

Let’s keep this simple. I know you like statistics, but we don’t need to throw a ton of numbers into this conversation and measure them, fling them in the air, regroup them, eyeball them and spit them back out in a way that makes me want to throw dishes. Let’s just call a spade a spade.

We have almost 25% of our children living in poverty. The United States government is neglecting them; this is child abuse. We have a national crisis that cannot be measured. We have an almost 10% unemployment rate. During this crisis, you are planning to increase student testing under Race to the Top. We will be investing 4.5 billion dollars in this new testing extravaganza. I say “we” because if we continue to be silent, this will indeed happen and we will all be responsible for it. My voice, and the voices of all Americans, matter, and we need to speak up. Children will be tested at the beginning of the year, the end of the year, during the year (could be monthly, daily, this remains to be seen) and they will be tested in many subjects – not just reading and math. We plan to Race to the Top, quantifying our students' achievements as we go.

Talk to a hungry child and try to quantify how the child feels. Talk to a sick child and try to measure the short and long term effects of untreated illness as they trudge to and from school. Visit a child in a school without books and you just try to tell me how you’re going to measure those spiritless, vacant eyes.

You wanna measure those eyes at the beginning of the year, during the year and at the end of the year?

Do you have the stomach for it Corporate Ed. Reformers? I’m trying to stay calm, but it’s hard.

As a teacher, I never found a standardized test to be useful in telling me about the needs and strengths of my students. I already knew these things. I am a teacher, I am a professional. I knew these things because I observed my students every single day. I listened to them, asked them questions, read their work and evaluated their work. I talked to them, watched them, and saw how my students changed from day to day.

I also noticed how poverty effects student learning. I worked in very wealthy schools and very poor schools, so I have been able to watch how wealth and poverty play a part in a child’s education.

Let’s look at poverty first. When a child came to school hungry, I noticed that they couldn’t pay attention. When a child came in dirty and smelled bad, I noticed that they turned inward and avoided their classmates and avoided my eyes. When a child came in tired because he had been babysitting his younger siblings while his mom worked the night shift, I noticed that he fell asleep at his desk. I noticed that when a child spent the previous night hooking up a long extension cord from the neighbor’s trailer to their family’s trailer, in order to have electricity, the child was filled with anger, unable to concentrate and had an impulse to lash out at others. I noticed that when children were poorly clothed, they were uncomfortable; often cold, sick and lacked confidence and the ability to even consider their own potential. I noticed that a child who browsed a school library that was filled with only old, tattered books was less likely to read, and more likely to get involved in gangs.

I noticed that the standardized test did absolutely nothing to support the child, nor did it do anything to support my ability to meet the needs of the child. I already knew what the child needed. And I knew that the standardized test was the least of my students’ worries.

I have also watched the children in the wealthier schools. I have seen their clean clothes, their well-packed lunches, their light skip as they enter my classroom. I have seen their independent reading books fall out of their desks due to lack of room to store the surplus books that the parents keep buying. I have seen their keen, excited glances as they talk, share and brainstorm new ideas and creative thinking. I have heard their laughter fill my classroom and spill into the hallways and the playground. I have seen their parents go off to work where they make money to provide food and shelter for their children. I have heard the parents discuss the child’s college fund and the unlimited opportunities in the child’s future. The standardized test was completely useless in improving achievement in these schools as well. I already knew what these students needed, because once again, I am a teacher and I am a professional.

I can tell you my students’ strengths, their needs and their attempts without looking at the results of a standardized test. I evaluate my students during the school day, at home and in my sleep. I assess them as they read, write, talk, move and breathe. Krashen states, “The repeated judgments of professionals who are with children every day is more valid than a test created by distant strangers.”

I am highly offended, President Obama, Mr. Duncan and the Billionaires' Club, by your lack of respect for me, and your audacity in assuming that you can help me evaluate my students. You don’t know my students and you don’t know what I know about teaching, learning and children. You see, I studied education and actually did extensive teacher training, as well as completing my master’s in English as a Second Language and pursuing additional doctoral work in Multicultural Education. I am a teacher and I am a professional.

I have read Stephen Krashen’s article entitled “Children need food, health care, and books. Not new standards and tests.” It is crystal clear, in this article, that we do not need state standardized tests to tell us how America’s children are doing within the public school system. In addition to the teachers’ observations, we also have the NAEP, (The National Assessment of Educational Progress), which “is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas. Assessments are conducted periodically in mathematics, reading, science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography, and U.S. history.” The NAEP is given to a sampling of children across our country and is then used to show how the results would look within larger groups. As Krashen says, “If we are interested in a general picture of how children are doing, this is the way to do it. If we are interested in finding out about a patient’s health, we only need to look at a small sample of their blood, not all of it.”

I would also add that if the child is hungry, sick, tired or mentally deprived of intellectual stimulation - therefore abused – therefore neglected - that blood sample won’t look too good. And….I can dance, laugh, sing and do somersaults in my classroom as I teach, in an attempt to help the child pay attention and do well on the state test. But, if a child is hungry, tired or sick, I doubt that the resulting test score will reflect and enhance what my student really needs and really knows. But I will tell you, the wealth of knowledge they have about life leaves me speechless. You should read one of their reading logs. Now that, President Obama, Duncan, and Gates, is an evaluation that would be useful.

I am standing up for these children, almost 25% in our country to be exact, who live in poverty and know how to problem solve and maneuver through life in ways that would leave me crying alone in a corner if I attempted to do the same. They are brave children and how dare anyone neglect them and punish them with a standardized test, which labels them a failure. How dare America do that to our children, to our schools and to the teachers who are spending their own money feeding and clothing our students, while filling their classrooms with books they personally bought.

As Krashen states, we can protect our children from poverty by feeding them, providing them with health care, a clean environment and school classrooms and libraries filled with books. Studies state very clearly that fewer books mean lower reading scores. Since scores are what you’re looking for, why not take that test money and buy books instead? The books would remain in the library for years to come and be read numerous times – not held under lock and key and placed on students’ desks at designated times each year. And imagine how much time our children would have to read if teachers could quit teaching to the test.

Our children not living in poverty score extremely well on international tests. We score at the top internationally when you look at the scores of children not receiving free or reduced lunch. Our children living in poverty are the children scoring poorly on the tests. Poverty is the problem.

If America would quit neglecting its children, by providing our poorest children with healthy food, school nurses, clean school environments and books, we could easily score at the top of the world. We wouldn’t need to race to get there - such a foolish notion. We could confidently and easily find ourselves at the top by providing our students with the basic needs necessary for any human being to move forward in this world.

Krashen suggests a way to protect our children from poverty. We aren’t able to provide all of the parents with jobs overnight, but we can provide students with basic needs simply by ditching the standardized state test. That’s right. Ditch it. Admit the mistake. Let it go, move on, and remove the effects of poverty for 25% of America’s children.

The test is not necessary. We already have the NAEP. We have our teachers, who are professionals and are able to assess and evaluate their students on a daily basis. If we took the 4.5 billion and invested it in healthy school breakfasts, lunches, nurses and books, we could improve student achievement faster than I can hand off the relay stick in this race to the top.

We would no longer be neglecting America’s children. We would achieve the greatest achievement of all. No more vacant eyes, but rather, eyes filled with ideas, dreams and possibilities. I cannot quantify this achievement either. Maybe you should talk to America’s children to find out how that would feel; that’s what our teachers would do.

Peggy Robertson

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