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
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
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.
Long Island public school teacher