By John Wodnick
For over twenty years, I’ve taught high school English, and I’ve always tried to make my classroom a place where students might experience the joy of intellectual exploration and discovery. I teach literature because I have felt the transformative power of great novels, plays and poems on my own consciousness, and I’m eager to give young students that same inspiring experience. Such experiences are slowly but surely being rooted out of our current educational system, mainly because they’re difficult to measure, and the PARCC is just the latest and most potent weapon yet designed to eliminate them, mainly because they can’t be monetized.
Taking the PARCC on Sunday here in Montclair in the company of many other thoughtful adults, I experienced the confining and artificial nature of trying to read literature closely in the context of standardized multiple-choice testing. What I figured out in the course of this experience is that the PARCC’s main value is to create more market share for itself. It certainly isn’t to inspire in students any great love of literature, or to get them to think very deeply about the world they live in. This is because it is a measurement tool, and not an educational tool, and the manic desire to measure every aspect of learning is, sadly and ironically, depriving students of much of what makes learning valuable.
This mania for measurement has political and economic consequences, as well as educational ones. The more we measure a school’s success by its standardized test scores, the more we disempower the community that school serves, disempower the educators serving that community, and ultimately, harm the students we’re trying to serve. Measuring educational success through test scores is anti-democratic, and anti-student, and anti-parent. It fosters an attitude of distrust between administrators and teachers and pushes all decision-making authority upwards towards a centralized power, often one that resides outside the district. You can read heartbreaking stories about how this process is playing out in Newark by reading Bob Braun’s Ledger, or by following the facebook page of the Newark Students’ Union, or even by reading the national coverage the situation in Newark recently received on salon.com.
Those at the top of the power structure these tests help to preserve use many strategies to maintain their authority. Questions are perceived as threats, and these threats are eliminated insidiously, by reframing the debate in ways that marginalize them. Skeptics about the value of standardized tests are labeled as being against academic rigor. Those who wish to maintain democratic control over their local districts are dismissed as rabble-rousing radicals. Marketers learned these tricks long ago; politicians understand them. They are very powerful and very effective– they just aren’t all that worthwhile if your goal is to create profound learning experiences that make great classrooms and great teachers memorable to real individual students. In seeking to root out mostly mythical bad teachers, those who use tests to control education are also rooting out greatness, risk-taking, adventure, and the inspiring experience of discovery. They are enforcing mediocrity for the sake of making outcomes easy to measure. Tests imposed from above are self-perpetuating and self-justifying devices of social control. Why must we test? Because we need to make sure students are doing well on tests. This is not education. But it does ensure that gullible districts who think that only measurable outcomes matter will become great customers for the makers of the PARCC.
Don’t believe that this is about profits? Don’t take it from me– here’s Glen Moreno, Chairman of Pearson, quoted directly from Pearson’s own 2013 annual report: “As the world’s leading learning company we are in an increasingly strong position to take advantage of this demand and deliver products and services that measurably improve learning outcomes for our customers and learners. I am also confident that this will positively impact shareholder value.” Measurably improving learning outcomes means testing testing testing, and that means positively impacting shareholder value.
Ultimately, what the designers of the PARCC are proposing is to replace many hours of valuable class time with many hours of oppressive testing. They are eliminating countless hours where students might be encouraged to confront deep questions about their own existence or discuss with peers the social and political issues raised by the literature they’re grappling with together, and replacing them not only with hours spent on the tests themselves, but also hours spent on preparations for those tests. This deprives students of crucial educational experiences, and makes it more and more difficult to teach them well.
PARCC does this by seeking to narrowly redefine educational success for all classrooms and all districts as success on this one test. Teachers who wish to inspire, to connect, to move their students forward in terms of their relationships with their communities and their understanding of their place in the universe are looked on with suspicion while those who can develop flashy ways to drill students into mastery of relatively simple skills are lionized. What does not immediately and obviously improve test scores is scrutinized, while any classroom activity that serves those scores is glorified. We have to ask– who is served by this? Are students served by this, or are the test-makers? Jersey Jazzman, a favorite blogger of mine, has a pretty thorough answer here.
So, if students’ mastery of PARCC-imposed skills is not a true measure of a successful school, or a successful education, what is? Schools that are truly democratic in nature help students imagine a better future not only for themselves but for their larger community, and the education they offer favors critical engagement and inspiration. A powerful democratic education involves experiences of discovery in collaboration with classmates, a celebration of creativity and insight achieved through the mastery of coherent subjects explored and examined with autonomous, trusted and energized mentor teachers. Contrast this vision with the world imagined by PARCC, which favors the mastery of discrete skills through constant individualized monitoring and submission to a testing regime it is uncivil to question, where success has only one measure– what is your number?
Which is the sort of education you want for your child? Which do you think a curriculum driven by testing will achieve?