When I first started teaching elementary school in Madison in 1997, things were different. My third-graders and fourth-graders took one standardized test. We had state standards and we were encouraged to use our professional discretion to adjust the curriculum to meet students' needs. We worked on interdisciplinary projects. We were encouraged to take field trips so that students could learn not just within their schools, but in their communities. And we were allowed to do things from time to time just for fun.
Teachers participated in many types of leadership committees. I was on my school’s math committee. We had the prerogative to attend workshops to engage in professional development that met our individual needs. We were preparing students to be the best people and citizens they could be. We were preparing lifelong learners for a global future in diverse communities.
All of this has changed. Each year, even in elementary school, it seems we add a new test. I administer two standardized tests to my second-graders. They take PALs, a reading and spelling test given one-on-one in the fall and spring, and CogAT, a cognitive abilities test, in the late fall. I also give my second-graders the Mondo Benchmark reading assessment, the Mondo Oral Language Assessment, and a math assessment — individually, three times each year. Next year, I’m told we will add a writing test.
PALs is required by the state. The rest are required by our district.
These formalized tests are incredibly time intensive. While some of them provide useful information about what students know and where they struggle, some are used solely to rate schools and provide no useful information for parents or teachers. Furthermore, mandated standardized testing decimates instructional time.
Today in Madison, much of what we teach and how we teach it is mandated by the district. We have a partially scripted reading curriculum, an obligatory math curriculum, a required science curriculum, and a compulsory social-emotional curriculum (Second Step). These packaged curricula were voluntarily adopted by the Madison Metropolitan School District and teachers are expected to stick pretty strictly to them. That is, we are told what to teach and when to teach it. But children are not widgets and schools are not factories. In education, one size never fits all.
Students who are not considered proficient often miss their special classes (music, art, gym) to meet in intervention groups. Recess time is disappearing. This happens more often in schools that are deemed struggling. This is a national trend that parents, teachers and students all over the country are rebelling against. In a recent Washington Post column, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia and National Parent Teacher Association President Otha Thornton state:
"We must also recognize that the misuse of test scores has had unintended negative consequences, especially for students at high-poverty schools. In service to high-stakes 'test and punish' threats, schools with the most limited resources have been most likely to cut back on history, art, music and physical education, simply because they aren’t covered on standardized tests. Those are the schools where test prep has robbed students of quality one-on-one time with teachers. Teachers have told us that students in their schools have had recess cut back in order to clear more time for test prep, despite abundant research showing that exercise improves learning. Under No Child Left Behind, the testing tail is wagging the dog."
Today in Madison, teachers do not have time to participate on committees because we have lost planning time and we are scrambling to keep up with initiative after initiative. New programs are foisted on staff with last-minute professional development and unclear expectations. Teachers are no longer allowed to attend workshops outside of the district.
Somehow teaching has become simply about getting our students to follow directions and take tests in the name of preparing them for college and career. Certainly, when I started teaching we were not meeting the needs of students of color or poor students. We must take responsibility for that, and an authentic focus on practices that are culturally relevant would go a long way toward making school work for all children. But the opportunity gaps that exist in schools are caused by a complex set of issues that are rooted in inequitable economic and social policies and practices. And treating students as if they are all the same, as if they will all learn and grow at the same rate, testing students day in and day out, taking all the joy and creativity out of learning, will not meet anyone’s needs.
All of these changes in what happens daily in our classrooms combined with the contempt expressed by some politicians and business leaders for public schooling have led to low morale. Let me be clear, teaching is a moral job. I came to this profession with high hopes for contributing to making the world a more just, humane, healthy place. I hoped to help my students find their passions, to show them that learning is lifelong, to help them be risk takers who never give up and who contribute to their communities. Morale is low because our focus is narrowing: I am not going to inspire anyone to dream of being our next president by using a packaged curriculum that has little relevance to the lives my students lead. Morale is low because we are forced to implement practices that are not in the best interests of the children we serve.
From time to time the administration tries to boost morale by recognizing our contributions to the education of our students. We are told our work is valued. It's nice to hear those words. We wonder, however, how genuine those words are when we know that a cut in our compensation is being planned.
After I spend all day attending to the physical, social, emotional and intellectual needs of other people's children, I go home to take care of my own two children. Pay cuts take away directly from my daughters. My 15-year-old is just two school years away from college. Her teachers at West can do everything possible to make sure she is ready and I may not be able to afford to send her to college. It won't be long before her 11-year-old sister is in the same boat. My children are also Madison’s children.
Thanks to our governor and Act 10, the School Board has the legal right to make this decision without bargaining with us. That doesn't make the decision right or just or moral. I urge the administration to make good on its word. Prove that you respect us. Don't balance the budget at the expense of your teachers and our families. Show that you truly value us and let us get back to what we do best — teaching.
Jennifer Greenwald is a Madison parent and Muir Elementary School teacher.
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