Friday, July 13, 2012

Perspectives in Education: Mary Nolan

Posted By on Fri, Jul 13, 2012 at 4:00 AM

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As a teacher in an IPS magnet school that HAS BEEN one of the most progressive and least test-oriented in the city, not to mention the country, we are being squeezed every year to do more to help our students pass the tests, but have less art, music, PE and field trips.

It is terribly frustrating to hear people who are NOT teachers talk about reform, and add to that the term "accountability," because that is a euphemism for standards and tests. Everything having to do with accountability — teacher evaluations, student evaluations, student retention, standardizing curriculum, teacher pay — is ripping off education. If teachers don't get paid more soon, there won't be anyone going into teaching, especially if the pay is dependent on administrators who don't have time to really do fair and balanced evaluations by getting to know a teacher and his/her students each year.

All that testing does, besides give us a very narrow indicator about a student's literacy in math and reading, is make students feel like they are failing or, conversely, "achieving." Both of these are untrue statements coming from a standardized test score.

If tests are used by teachers to see what their students might need to fill in some gaps, they can be helpful. Using test prep to edge out the really rich curriculum that comes with creative and thoughtful, fun, energetic teaching and learning activities is the basic problem that all our schools are having that are under the microscope because their test scores are low. WE KNOW they are low and WE KNOW that many of our students are underskilled. WE ARE WORKING hard to try to get them up to speed so that they don't struggle in school and so that they can feel confident and happy as lifelong learners.

There seems to be this general assumption that teachers who are working at the so-called failing schools are not trying and don't know that their students are struggling. If anyone spends a couple of weeks in our classrooms, you will see how hard it is to motivate and inspire students who are struggling so much, either because they have a terrible life at home, they have fallen behind somewhere in school, they are hungry and tired and stressed when they come to school, or they have special needs — or, all of the above. This is not to say that we think they are un-teachable or that our students can't learn. But, it takes A LOT of time and individual attention, as well as counseling and good nutrition (which schools do not provide), to help our students get up to speed, to care about their education and to, finally, be motivated enough to keep moving forward.

Giving more tests that many of our students fail because of the above reasons does not lift their self-esteem, does not give them time, does not help us teachers to help them over time. It punishes them and us and their schools and administrators.

My school, which is an excellent program with many enriching aspects to it, but that has low test scores (for the moment — they have gone up and down), is being punished by taking away some of our most successful programs and classes (that are not measurable with a test) and it will harm our students who have found their strengths in those areas.

We are losing many teachers and administrators. At least, for now, we are not being closed. The atmosphere at our school is one of insecurity, sadness, resentment, passion, and insurgence. We like to fight, but we are being told that we better not. We are being told that, unless our test scores go up significantly NEXT YEAR, we don't mean much to IPS and we will probably lose more of our program, more jobs, more students displaced.

Finally, contrary to what David Harris has said, most schools that have a majority of poor children and that are getting good test scores are ABSOLUTELY teaching to the test and doing lots of test prep. So, instead of getting enriching curriculum, they are getting the basics only and sit in class all day doing seat work. This is boring and will not motivate them to stay in school.

Mary Nolan is a 14- year teacher in IPS - English and English as a new language. She currently coordinates an innovative apprenticeship program for seniors in high school at Key Learning Community. She has worked in magnet and traditional boundary school programs and sent three children through The Key Learning Community, K-12 . An advocate for true reform in education, not corporate-sponsored, or high-stakes standardized testing and curriculum.

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"Perspectives in Education" is meant to be an open and continuous forum through which the people of Indianapolis can contemplate the present and future of the city's educational landscape.

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