Teachers, parents and students are pushing back against high-stakes testing, over-testing and the fantasy that education is made better by preparing for, conducting and evaluating tests.
As American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten says: “The current accountability system has led districts to fixate on testing and sanctions, has squeezed out vital parts of the curriculum that are not subjected to testing, and has sacrificed much-needed learning time. That is not what high-performing countries do, and it is not what the United States should do.”
That’s an increasingly common sentiment, even among former advocates for testing-obsessed initiatives such as George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama’s Race to the Top. Diane Ravitch, who served as Bush’s assistant secretary of education, now says: “I had never imagined that the test would someday be turned into a blunt instrument to close schools—or to say whether teachers are good teachers or not—because I always knew children’s test scores are far more complicated than the way they’re being received today.”
How then should we “evaluate” teachers and schools?
The truth is that many measures exist, some structural and some practical.
America asks a great deal of teachers. And while carefully developed and cautiously implemented testing can tell us a little, incidents and events can tell us a lot.
Take, for instance, the response to the winter weather that last week brought the Atlanta area to a standstill. State and local officials—led by Georgia Governor Nathan Deal—neglected warnings and failed to respond appropriately. Thousands of children were stranded overnight in schools, on buses and in firehouses and stores. Teachers and school employees were faced with an unexpected, and in some cases overwhelming, new demand on their time, their energy and their ingenuity. And they rose to it.
There are plenty of tales of humanity and heroism from last week. A cafeteria manager at an Atlanta-area high school made it home and then learned that hundreds of students were stranded at the school. Unable to drive a car on the gridlocked roads, he walked back to the school and prepared 800 dinners. The next morning, he prepared 800 breakfasts. Bus drivers cared for and comforted children.
All the stories mattered. But this one from an Atlanta Journal Constitution article published the morning after the storm stood out:
At Centennial High School in Roswell, about 33 students—most of them with special needs—slept in classrooms or on wrestling mats in the school’s media center after only five out of 50 buses arrived and students relied on their parents to get home.
Fifteen teachers and staff members that work in the special needs program stayed with the children, some of whom are in wheelchairs or require special medication.
For some of the children, it was their first night away from home, and teachers kept worried parents informed through cell phone calls and text photos. One group of teachers walked through the snow to a nearby Kroger to get emergency prescriptions filled, including seizure medication.
Few of them got any sleep, and they’re not sure when or if they’d be able to get home.
“I’d love to go home,” said teacher Traci Coleman. “But this is where I need to be right now. This is like my second family.”
All the students made it home, thanks to teachers and bus drivers and cafeteria workers and custodians.
“That no children died or were even seriously hurt is testament to the caring and resourcefulness of those frontline workers,” noted the Journal Constitution’s Maureen Downey.
That is right. We will always expect more of teachers than just getting children home safely. But the response from teachers like Traci Coleman when the storm hit offers a measure of an essential commitment that will never be measured by standardized testing.