It’s all about the tests and not about learning

New York has big problems educating its children. Almost everyone in the state knows that New York spends a lot of money on its schools but is nowhere near the top of state performances in education. It is really unclear why this is happening. Part of it is the deep scars left by the poverty of so many of its children. Part of it is the fact that politicians continue to blame each other for the lack of results. Part of it is the scapegoating that comes from some foolish people in politics towards so many of our heroic teachers who work so hard to make an impossible situation better.

Stop and consider what you would do if you were shoved with forty students into some classroom and expected to teach them. If your kid went to a ritzy private school there might be seven kids in a class. Then ask yourself just how you could possibly manage to teach thirty or forty children. What’s more, you might guess what it would be like to be a student in one of these classes.

I recently spoke to a young college woman who had to overcome these impossible circumstances who was very angry. As a child she would ask for help in understanding math and would just be told that it was important that she performed well on the standardized tests. Hey, I’m in my seventies now and I remember the New York State Regents exams as if it were yesterday. We all walked around with little books containing previous tests committing questions to memory.

I took a lot of Spanish from high school on. I learned a lot of idioms. I memorized a lot of words. Then I took Spanish in college and even in graduate school where I had to pass yet another proficiency test. I never learned to speak Spanish but I did learn how to pass the Regents and subsequent tests. We call this “teaching to the test.”

Now, along come our politicians and they insist that the only way to make us better is to give even more standardized tests. So far, the conditions in our schools have not substantially improved. As a result, the state came up with a new series of tests, and lo and behold, the test scores are even lower than an assessment test the year before. Of course, then all of the stakeholders from the education commissioner on down assured us that the reason for this is that the new tests were harder than the old tests. In other words, it’s all about the tests and not about learning.

Our teachers know this and are frustrated beyond belief at the clear scapegoating that they are facing. Instead of honoring them for what they do, some of our top politicians point the finger at them. Again, I ask you to imagine yourself in an impossible situation. Cuomo knows it. For the first two years of his tenure he courted the business class in the state and he made it harder and harder for localities to raise the extra money it might need to properly finance education in their area. In the third year of his tenure he started to act more like the liberal that his father was. He actually came up with some extra money for the school districts. Now we are told that he is going back in the other direction, swinging right to position himself for a run for president as a conservative like his mentor, Bill Clinton did.

As for me, I say this. Make smaller classes. Pay teachers what they are worth. I would make sure that the average salary of a teacher hovered around the hundred thousand dollar mark. If you pay salaries that allow for a decent standard of living you’ll attract the best and the brightest young people to teach and to stay in the system instead of bailing out. As for the politicians, let them understand that if you spend your educational dollars wisely, you’ll actually teach the kids what they need to know.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 8/13/14

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