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July 2, 2013

Teachers, Are My Tests All Done?
Students reported feeling overstressed and underprepared—meeting the tests with shock, anger, tears, and anxiety. Administrators requested guidelines for handling tests students had vomited on. Teachers and principals complained about the disruptive nature of the testing process and many parents encouraged their children to opt out. —the Editors of Rethinking Schools (The Trouble with the Common Core)
When I was in college, we used to have a saying, Those who can't do, teach; and those who can't teach, teach teachers. Somewhere along the line, I decided to become a teacher. My teaching philosophy was straight-forward: If you don't know it, you can't teach it; but if you understand it well enough, there will always be a way to teach it.

It's a good thing I didn't go into teacher education. With a philosophy like that, I wouldn't have passed the first course. Actually, I barely got by as a teacher. I used to tell my students, if you don't like the way I teach, find another teacher.

Fortunately at the time, computer science professors were very much in demand, so I wasn't fired outright. But as you might imagine, I wasn't the most popular teacher on campus.

Toward the end of my final semester of teaching, the chancellor circulated a long list of teaching thou shalts and thou shan'ts in an effort to standardize teaching across the campus. Most were diametrically opposite to the way I taught. As I recall, I suggested to the chancellor that since I was retiring, he could replace me with a robot that could easily do everything he thought a good teacher should do. Two years later came No Child Left Behind.

My first foray into K-12 education was as a graduate student volunteer. They sent me to an inner-city school where I met the 3rd grade teacher I was to work with. After a short conversation, he confided in me that he really didn't understand the mathematics he was supposed to teach; and maybe I could help him to understand. I agreed; and he handed me a book that looked suspiciously like an illustrated version of my abstract algebra textbook.
You teach this to third graders? I asked.

Well, I'm supposed to.


I don't know. It's what we're supposed to do. It's called New Math.

New Math? This stuff's been around for centuries. You must have a class of 3rd grade geniuses. I'm just learnin' it now in graduate school.

I have a good class; but I don't think I have a lot of geniuses.

Can they add, subtract, multiply and divide? I asked.

Some, he replied.

I'd stick to basic arithmetic, and leave the set theory and abstract algebra until they get to college, I advised.

I think that was exactly what he wanted to hear.

There's a philosophy of education exactly opposite to mine. It's called: If you know how to teach, you can teach anything. I once discussed this with a friend who worked for a seminar company.
What kind of seminars do you give? I asked her.

Anything that anyone wants us to.

Anything? What if you don't know the subject matter?

We learn it.

How much time would you spend preparing to give a seminar on something you knew nothing about?

Maybe three weeks.

Suppose I asked you for a seminar on David Hilbert's 23 problems?

We'd do it.

In three weeks?

I'm happy to say that teachers, children and parents are finally getting sick of standardized corporate-style education and pushing back against the self-proclaimed education gurus.

Last year Seattle witnessed a full-scale revolt against the standardized MAP test. Chicago and Philapelphia are resisting the closing of public schools and the corporatization of education. Expect to see a lot more schools in revolt this coming school year.

The push to put more guns in schools really has nothing to do with Sandy Hook Elementary or stopping a loose wingnut from shooting up a school. There are far better ways to do that than filling a school with guns.

The push to put more guns in schools has everything to do with intimidating uppity teachers, parents and children who might question the wisdom of education gurus, standardized tests, corporatized education and school closings. Don't believe me? Just wait and see.

What really gets me about the education gurus is that as soon as one of their pet theories bites the dust, there is always another one waiting to replace it, usually worse than the previous one. No Child Left Behind was a monumental failure. After a decade of NCLB, half our nation's schools were failing with the other half ready to follow. Then we had Race to the Top and now, Common Core.

Perhaps, what we really need is a few less theories of education; and a little more old-fashion teaching. My experience as a teacher tells me that each class is different. Nothing ever works the same two years in a row. Each student is different. What works with one, won't necessarily work with another. Teaching is constantly adjusting to circumstances; You can't do that unless you know your material well and have the flexibility to try new things until you hit on something that works. You can't do that if you must be concerned with high-stakes testing and whether you'll be labeled a failing teacher.

Since my retirement, I've been volunteering in schools — reading to preschoolers and kindergarteners and listening to older elementary school age children read to me and trying to help them over some rough spots. Those are good ages — ages when kids want to learn — before the desire to learn gets tested out of them. As a volunteer, I'm in the best of all possible worlds. I don't do discipline; I don't give tests; I don't give grades; I don't evaluate anyone; since I'm not on the payroll, I don't have to worry about losing my paycheck; and since I'm not going anywhere, I don't have to worry about a promotion.

I work with some outstanding teachers in two outstanding schools; and I don't need to give a test to know how outstanding they really are. And each one is different — not better or worse or more effective or less effective — just different — the way they should be. So maybe we ought to just get off their backs and give them the freedom and resources they need to teach our children.


The title line of this article, Teachers, are my tests all done? is adapted from a line in Leonard Cohen's song, Teachers. The entire verse (again adapted) is:
Teachers, are my tests all done?
I cannot take another one.
They laughed and laughed and said, Well child,
are your tests all done?

Other writings and cartoons on education by author:
The high cost of higher education and the high cost of militarism (slide presentation)

No Child Left Behind (position paper)

Missouri S&T's Nuclear Forum (a Rollover 'N' Retch exclusive)

No Child's Left Behind (cartoon)

Test Congress, Not Schools (cartoon)