Bush's education plan gets an 'F' from this teacher
June 21, 2001
In my 20 years of teaching inner-city kids, I've worked with all kinds of fifth graders: from homeless kids to middle-class children, from immigrants who don't speak English to 11-year-olds reading at a high-school level. My students have varying needs, and I try to teach according to what will serve them best.
But one thing my students don't need is more standardized tests, especially the rote, fill-in-the-bubble tests that the federal government will soon mandate.
President Bush's education plan -- which has passed both the House and Senate and just needs a few finishing touches to become law -- requires states to test students in math and reading every year in grades three through eight. Both the House and Senate versions also require states to use test results as the single measure to evaluate and possibly penalize schools and districts.
I strongly support a federal role in education, particularly in providing additional resources to low-income students and schools. And because education is one of our country's top priorities, the national government must be involved.
But Bush's plan will not take us where we need to go.
If he were serious about improving our schools, he would focus on proven reforms such as smaller classes, more money to cash-starved districts and ensuring that qualified teachers fill every classroom. He wouldn't penalize schools that are not doing well; he would provide them additional help.
We should remember that schools are part of a broader community. I work with children every day and constantly see the effects of inadequate healthcare, low-wage jobs and substandard housing. If Bush wants to improve learning for my students, he should make their life conditions better outside of school. Is that too much to ask of the world's richest nation?
The testing craze presents several problems.
First, teachers will begin to teach to the test. Some subject areas that aren't on the test -- such as social studies, science, the arts and physical education -- will be neglected. Even in math and reading, teaching will be constricted to what bests meets the needs of the tests, not the needs of the students.
Second, standardized tests rely on memorization of isolated facts rather than encouraging students to think critically. If we want our kids merely to regurgitate dates and names, we should give them all Palm Pilots. It would be a lot cheaper and easier.
Third, students, teachers and even schools and districts will be judged by a single standardized test. The pressure will be enormous to do well on the tests regardless of how they may distort teaching and learning. Increased cheating is sure to follow.
Finally, and perhaps most disturbing, Bush's testing plan will further limit equal educational opportunities for students of color and for poor children who tend to perform less well on standardized tests.
Supporters of standardized tests say that they are designed to improve chances for students of color because schools will know who is falling behind.
This argument is nonsense. Teachers already know which students are doing poorly from interacting with them daily.
Kenneth A. Wesson, a founding member of the Association of Black Psychologists, wrote an essay earlier this year in Education Week about standardized tests. "Let's be honest," he said. "If poor, inner-city children consistently outscored children from wealthy suburban homes on standardized tests, is anyone naive enough to believe that we would still insist on using these tests as indicators of success?"
What we need are multiple measures of assessing achievement. Standardized tests should supplement other factors: attendance, graduation rates, racial and gender composition of special education classes, the number of Advanced Placement and honor classes, grade-point averages, reading levels, teacher qualifications, scores on performance assessments and portfolios, levels of parental involvement and school evaluations by visiting teams of experts.
Bush's plan is not about setting high standards for all students. It is about standardizing all education and treating children as if they were uniform products on an assembly line.
Bob Peterson teaches fifth grade in the Milwaukee Public Schools and is an editor of Rethinking Schools (www.rethinkingschools.org). He was Wisconsin Elementary School Teacher of the Year in 1995-1996. He can be reached at email@example.com.