March 13, 2016

Education “Reform”

One of the things that I love most about my friends, (true friends, that is), is that we can talk about anything, from our favorite pies to politics. The other day, one of my close friends and I were talking about the presidential candidates, and she introduced me to the world of John Oliver (if you haven’t seen his recent popular video, you must). John Oliver, like Jon Stewart, tells it like it is – he’s critical, honest, and hilarious; he sheds light on some pretty pressing issues but is able to do so while successfully keeping an audience entertained, allowing him to be so powerful in getting his thoughts and opinions across. So after watching that recent video, I immersed myself in the world of John Oliver, watching his videos into the midnight hours. In one of my favorite videos of his, Oliver discussed the issue of standardized testing in the United States, which complements with many recent conversations with friends and former teachers alike.

K-12 education has undergone drastic changes -- perhaps for the worse, from what I’ve witnessed and experienced first-hand. From my eighth grade to end of high school experience, I not only experienced unfair or pointless changes but also heard the frustrations of educators around me. Even as I’m no longer a part of the K-12 system, I still hear quite a bit about it and still talk about it with others, so I want to organize/express my thoughts here, in a blogpost. (hint hint  - that means that you probably shouldn't expect grade A writing here because disorganized thinking doesn't really lead to organized writing)

So where do we begin? Well, I think that Oliver made a really great point by tracking down the origins of the recent changes in the education system -- well-intended, government efforts to close gaps between education systems across the country are definitely linked to the exponential increase in standardized testing. In theory, setting achievement standards, like the “Common Core”, holds state governments accountable for ensuring that all students achieve a certain level of skills and knowledge after each grade. Unfortunately, standardized testing seems to be the only feasible and efficient way for the federal government to receive proof of students’ progresses in order to actually hold state governments accountable.

However, the problems with standardized tests don’t really lie in the act of taking a test. Granted, many people, including myself, don’t do well in test taking circumstances, but the real issues at hand include, but are not limited to: the tests themselves, the unfair test graders, and the current orientation of education.

Many standardized tests are obscure and confusing – many of my friends were required to be “guinea pigs” for the PARCC test, a test that is associated with the Common Core. They all reported that the test questions were unbelievably confusing, and worst of all, a respectable and experienced former teacher of mine was fired because she discussed the test with her students to help them better understand tough questions. Two problems with this situation – number one, standardized tests are written to confuse and trick students, not to fairly and accurately determine what they’ve learned in school. Why waste precious time and make students feel bad about themselves by administering mandatory tests that aren’t designed for a normal human being? In his show, Oliver played a clip of a teacher who reported that he couldn’t even do well on one of the standardized tests he gave to his students…that’s not okay. Number two, teachers are not allowed to discuss tests with students, so there is absolutely no way for teachers to know what students struggled with, and ultimately, no way to know how to help them and to help prepare future students. In essence, “reform” isn’t achieved because educators have no means to know what to “reform”! But Hannah, what about the reports that the testing corporations release? Given the obscurity of most standardized tests, there’s no promise that the reports will accurately reflect what students actually need help with. Additionally, by the time the reports are released, it might be too late to help the class that took the exam.

Let’s move on to the graders themselves. I’ve had a few teachers who have in fact graded AP tests and SAT essays while teaching the courses; it makes sense to have a teacher who prepares students for the very same exams to grade them because they are knowledgeable about the exam and know what to look for. Unfortunately, not all graders are currently teaching, and many graders are required to give out grades based on a distribution curve mandated by none other than the testing corporation. It’s not ideal to have someone who’s not as involved with the current education system to grade these exams because they lack that first hand, current experience. And when the testing corporations set limits as to how many students can get certain score levels, the entire test itself becomes very skewed and does not fairly nor accurately depict the current state of the education system.

Graders also have little to no time to grade each exam due to the high volume of work they have. Think about the SAT essay – any decent English teacher will tell you that it’s the worst piece of writing out there. The SAT essay is unbelievably generic, formulated, and uncreative because students have to write based on the assumption that the grader will only read the first sentence of each paragraph and give a grade with the essay length in consideration. What kind of assessment is that? Because of the nature of grading standardized exams, students have to learn and practice bad habits in order to ensure a high score, which leads us to the third issue: education systems now have become test (and therefore college) oriented/preparatory. Students don’t learn because they want to explore a subject– “that’s what college electives are for”. Rather, students learn because they want to get a high score on a test and their teachers want them to get high scores on a test. To a student, a high score is another check off of the college preparation list; to a teacher, a high score is a check off of their annual evaluation. That’s right – teachers are judged based on how well their students perform on tests. To a degree, it makes sense that a good teacher would prepare students well for exams. However, this theory stops short when the tests are not fairly designed and when you enter struggling, low income areas. Sometimes, circumstances are out of the teacher’s hands. You can have an amazing teacher who tries as hard as possible yet have students who do not achieve in school because of socioeconomic situations and environmental barriers. Unfortunately, the government (federal and state) does not recognize this gaping limit, and education systems continue to modify their curricula to meet the criteria of standardized exams. In short, kids go to school to prepare for exams that will help them get into college…they don’t go to school to learn the fundamental skills and knowledge that will help them become responsible citizens of the world capable of making changes.

So how do we fix our broken education system? Maybe we can start by putting the power to change in the hands of the people who actually interact with students. Many of the district wide changes in my brother’s school system, including “no homework nights” and banned midterms/finals, were instantiated by higher ups who, to be very honest, do not know what is actually going on within the walls of the schools. The aforementioned changes were aimed to “eliminate stress”, but they actually don’t target the real problem of stress. “No homework nights” sound like nice breaks in theory, but the days surrounding “no homework nights” are filled with extra homework due in advance because teachers have no other way to stay on track with their time-sensitive lesson plans due to upcoming standardized exams. Banned midterms/finals are only bandages that temporarily keep students sane but will stress them out when they do not know how to prepare for midterms/finals in college.

I have not met a single teacher who agrees or supports these changes, so why are they being forced upon schools/teachers/students? No offense to administrators and superintendents, but they are insensitive to the education system because they lack the first-hand insight into what goes on in schools, in students’ lives. They don’t know why students are stressed, they only hear biased reports from a select few individuals. They are also judged based on the volume of changes they implement during their career, so sometimes, changes (even large-scale) occur because somebody needs a resume booster, something to prove that they were of use/were productive while serving as a leader. On the other hand, teachers who work with students on a daily basis and who are in the classrooms have a much more comprehensive view of the issues that make the U.S. education system inferior to competing nations’ education systems, and are more likely to have an intrinsic desire to help students, not slap a sticker on their resume. Of course there are limitations and exceptions in all situations, but generally speaking, teachers will know how to improve the education systems better than the education system leaders and certainly better than the federal government.  

With the rate of bad changes going on, maybe a greater population will shift towards the idea of home-schooling in the future…I sure learned a lot more from John Oliver’s YouTube videos than I did in some of my high school classes. 

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