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John Thompson takes on Nyamekye's Defense of Testing

Guest post by John Thompson.

There is more to the job of teaching than encouraging students to relentlessly pursue knowledge. We also have to sign in and out, take attendance, teach capitalization and spelling, wash our coffee cups in the faculty lounge, and post grades on time. Above all, our job requires a respectful attitude towards everyone.

Perhaps that is why a recent Education Week Commentary, "Putting Myself to the Test," by Ama Nyamekye has been bothering me. Nyamekye explains that she had been an opponent of standardized testing until she had been challenged by her principal to prove that her students were "really getting it." Nyamekye started using Regents examinations to assess her students, and she concluded that the tests made her a "smarter" teacher.

I should start with the disclaimer that the following are the musings of a high school social studies teacher. Clearly, it is more important for elementary teachers to know with precision whether their students are mastering essential skills. With teenagers, though, can we even identify the "it" that we hope our students are getting?

I have no problem with any educator using standardized tests, as long as he or she doesn't impose that preference on others. Despite the evidence presented by Larry Cuban and others that data-driven instruction is not ready to compete with the professional judgments of veteran teachers in terms of giving timely and accurate feedback, young teachers, especially, might benefit from frequent assessments. After all, Nyamekeye was still new enough that she listened to her principal ...

Seriously, there was nothing in the commentary by this young educator that made me doubt her claims that testing made her a better teacher by forcing her to work on her weaknesses. Before embracing standardized testing, Nyamekye, "was teaching to her strengths instead of strengthening her weaknesses." Great! Her dedication is praiseworthy. But, what is so wrong with teaching based on her strengths?

Since NCLB, we have been constantly remediating teachers and students. We seemed to have abandoned the idea that teachers and our students should be primarily concerned with building on our strengths. Being a gardener, I have been increasingly dismayed that young educators were being socialized into being the type of stick-in-the mud who strolls through flower beds but only sees the weeds. But that could not be grounds for a valid criticism of this teacher's commentary, unless I also was developing too much of an eye for weeds ...

Nyamekye confesses to being better at teaching literary analysis, but testing improved her students spelling and punctuation. Fine. I am a critical thinking coach who rarely has gotten around to those tasks. Then, my suspicions were raised by Nyamekye's statement that she also, "discovered holes in my curriculum." Well duh. This is 2011. If we tried to completely cover our curriculum, and had a 100% time-on-task rate, our students might cover the high school curriculum by the time they are thirty!

Again, there was nothing in the essay to justify criticism of a fellow teacher. It did not bother me, I finally realized, that Nyamekye had access to prime educational real estate - the Commentary page of our profession's journal of record - and she used it to proclaim her support of standardized testing. What bothered me was that Nyamekye praised testing because it helped her learn, "my job wasn't simply to encourage students to relentlessly pursue knowledge."

Still, I could not articulate why it upset me that a dedicated young educator was so preoccupied with covering the curriculum. Then I read, Youngjoo Kim's "The Case Against Teaching as Delivery of the Curriculum." Kim had asked his Education School class about the role of teachers and a teacher/student "cheerfully volunteered 'teachers deliver the curriculum.'" Worse, Kim's class found that a valid definition of a teacher. One chimed in that a teacher is "the conduit to a curriculum." Kim was equally dismayed to learn that "one student after another" expressed the self-image of a "teacher as deliver of curriculum."

Now, I'm convinced that Kim's article should be a must read for teachers in an age of "reform." He worries that an educator who sees himself or herself as covering the curriculum is being socialized into a "Clerk of the Empire." Kim said we need teachers who are "letter writers," not "mail carriers."

Once a teacher sees the job as making sure that there are no holes in the material covered by the tests, how can they not "resist the experience of education in the moment?" If teachers are "conditioned to feel guilty" when they deviate from the curriculum, will they still learn how to take full advantage of "serendipitous 'teachable moments?'"

Kim frets that teachers who owe such loyalty to the curriculum will suppress student voices. I would never imply that Ama Nyamekye, or any other individual, has done such a thing. But, what if we backed off from "teaching the subject," and allowed educators who want to be free to "teach the student?" As Kim explains, "every child begins with a voracious thirst for knowledge." Every teacher is a former child with " hunger to understand." Should that not be the rock on which we build our schools? Teachers with one set of intellectual taste buds could build on their talent for teaching spelling and punctuation. Release teachers who hunger to be teach analysis, synthesis, and problem-solving to satisfy that appetite. The key would be recruiting teachers with the full diversity of strengths, in order to reach the variety of talents of our students.

What do you think? Is it possible to fill the holes in any secondary curriculum? Are we neglecting our strengths and our students' strengths as we focus on remediation? What would be wrong with seeing the teachers' job as simply encouraging students to relentlessly pursue knowledge? While pursuing that goal, would we not develop deep understandings of the individuals in our classes? Do we not need a more profound vision of teaching than delivering the curriculum, or have I been too hard on Ama Nyamekye's philosophy of education?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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