No More Time for Tooth Stories

 I am a teacher, and like all teachers, I believe that the goal of education is to empower every child to develop to his/her fullest potential.   I have always had high expectations for my students, but as a result of the mandated “standards” imposed by the state of New York and the relentless testing we subject our children to, something unexpected is happening inside our classrooms that threatens to compromise the things we’ve learned over the years about sound and effective teaching methods, and developmentally appropriate educational practices.  
Several years ago, a second grader happily displayed an empty space between her teeth, and I curiously squatted near her to hear the story of how it came out while she was eating ice cream.  The story prompted others to share similar stories, and an authentic writing experience resulted, the pre-writing stage having emerged naturally from the spontaneous exchange of ideas.
Today, as the day began, a student approached me with the same news, and as I flew around the room checking homework and reminding another child to hurry up in the bathroom because we had to begin the day’s first lesson right away, I handed him a “tooth certificate” and congratulated him.  There were no other stories; there was an assignment that needed to be squeezed in, and I was too distracted by the daunting task ahead: get everything in that I’m supposed to get into a very demanding day in second grade.
Elementary curriculum is bursting at the seams.  When the volume of curriculum climbs, the daily pace of the classroom quickens.  There is less joy and greater tension.  Seconds count.  Children are being expected to learn things with shorter periods of exposure, and in many cases, sooner in their development than they would otherwise be asked to do.  Under the pressure of increasingly tight time constraints, the nature of the teacher/student relationship is significantly compromised, and the quality of the learning experiences begins to diminish. 
I have yet to encounter a soul who isn’t sympathetic to these concerns.  We all want the most meaningful educational experiences our money can buy.  We say we are sensitive to these issues and to the developmental needs of our children, but as a society, we continue to behave as if we aren’t by forcing more into the education equation, earlier and earlier. 
So what is it that compels us to continually add more to the curriculum, and earlier than ever before?  The answer, of course, is standardized testing.  Not a bad thing in theory, it is one narrow means of identifying children who are at risk of failing later standardized tests, so that additional support can be provided early on.  Some districts use them to help make decisions about the effectiveness of their programs, although it cannot be assumed that there is a direct correlation between tests scores and the quality and value of a learning experience.  Nor is it necessarily true that test expectations are appropriate for all learners at any given age.  But regardless of the validity of an assessment, the focus and frequency of testing changed drastically once newspapers began to publish the scores.  It became a high stakes competition between communities, a race to the top of “the list”.
The desire to see our children excel is understandable.  Our effort to educate children who will be able to compete in a highly competitive world is commendable.  But using standardized tests as a measure of our success is a mistake.  First of all, it is not necessarily an accurate measure.  Second, the quality of education is suffering because of them.
As a state and as a nation, we must make careful choices about what we want children to learn, and when.  In this regard, education is headed in a dangerous direction.  We must understand that although a sound, developmentally appropriate academic program is desirable and produces well-educated, strong thinkers and problem-solvers, it does not necessarily produce skilled test takers.   Indeed, if being trained to perform well on a standardized test was the same as being well educated, we could focus our resources on the latter and be done with it.  But test-taking skills in the elementary years are beginning to emerge as a separate entity, needing to be taught in addition to the academic skills and understandings that the tests claim to assess.  High school students have known this for years, hence, SAT prep courses.
The question becomes this: Do we use our limited classroom time to teach well (yes, we do know how), or do we compromise those more time consuming but highly effective teaching practices to train children to achieve higher scores on tests that carry far too much weight to begin with?   Reluctant to totally abandon what we know about good teaching, we are trying to do both, and as a result, less and less of it is getting done well. What results is a school day that would make most adults’ head spin.
 It is time to look closely at what we are asking our children to sacrifice in the name of test scores.  We should never feel so overwhelmed by volume that we must ask our children to give up those moments when they show their class a picture of the fish they caught, or run to the window to see the first flurries of winter.  These are the things that connect children to the world around them, encourage inquiry, and make them feel excited about learning.  We must always remember that in the midst of a long, busy day at school, there should always be time for a tooth story.

Nancy Aranda
Long Island public school teacher

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