Is Test-Driven Educational Reform Sapping the Joy in Learning from the Nation’s Classrooms?

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Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book, White Boy: A Memoir, was published in the spring of 2002

Sometime during my childhood, probably before the age of eight, I fell in love with learning new things.  Maybe it was the trips to the Bronx Zoo and the Museum of Natural History I took with my parents; maybe it was the explosions I made with my chemistry set (which today would mark me as a future terrorist!); maybe it the wonder of reading about dinosaurs and how humans evolved from apes; maybe it was the excitement of memorizing the capitals of every state and the batting averages of major league players, but I became a person to whom the joy of acquiring and make sense of new information was as powerful as my love of food, sports, and music.

The public schools I went to, though students sat in rows and did more than their share of memorization, did much to encourage the intellectual curiosity of kids like me.  There were science fairs and spelling bees, regular trips to zoos and museums, science labs and arts projects, and an audio visual squad that allowed its student members, once they were properly trained, to show films for the entire school.  There were assemblies where we sang and put on plays, regular recesses where we played punch ball and Johnny on the Pony, and gym classes where we did calisthenics and played dodge ball.  Sure, there were fights with tough kids and bad moments with mean teachers—and I had my share of both—but I loved going to school.  So much so that I became a teacher myself, figuring that the best way to keep the joy of learning alive was to share it with future generations of students.

Today, with all the pressure on students to pass standardized tests, and the public humiliation, and possible loss of jobs, that awaits teachers and principals if their students don’t “perform,” I wonder if students who grew up in working-class neighborhoods like mine (Crown Heights in Brooklyn) are having the love of learning smothered and driven out of them in the schools they are attending.  The feedback I am getting from my former students who teach in such schools is not encouraging.  A huge amount of their teaching time is devoted to test preparation, and they are under close and constant scrutiny by school administrators whose own careers are now entirely dependent on student performance.  More and more, the principal has become like a high-level college coach whose future employment depends on their win/loss percentage, and they pass that pressure on to their teachers and students as surely as those coaches do to their players.  What disappears in that situation is joy—joy in playing, joy in learning.   Young people who should be experiencing the wonder of discovery are being told, in ways indirect and direct, that the jobs of the teachers and administrators who work with them are dependent on their performance on the tests they are taking.  No young person should be subjected to that kind of pressure at age eighteen, much less at age eight!  What you have is a situation where the time and space for creative playful thinking and experiential learning is being squeezed out of the school culture.  School is no longer a place for dreamers, for adventurers, for people who live in a world of the imagination; it is a place for people who dutifully follow orders, and respond to a fear of failure.

Unfortunately, things have gotten much worse since Barack Obama took office and launched “Race to the Top.”  Seven years ago, I was invited by a visionary school leader, Julia Swann, into thirteen Bronx elementary and middle schools to train teachers to do oral and community history projects with their students.  Ms. Swann had located a two-month window of opportunity in the school year where teachers were no longer under pressure to do “test prep” and she thought that community history projects would be something that would energize school communities and get parents more involved in the schools.

Ms. Swann’s vision proved prophetic!  The teachers leaped on the opportunity to bring the history of Bronx neighborhoods to life in the classroom.  Students interviewed their parents and grandparents, their teachers, and neighborhood merchants, and created amazing visual as well as literary records of what they had learned.  Some schools had day-long oral history festivals, to which the entire neighborhood was invited, which included poster boards, exhibits ( some of near museum quality), journals and newspapers, performances, student-made documentary films and food fairs highlighting the cuisines of the different cultural groups represented in the school.  One school, PS 140 in Morrisania, created an “old school museum” honoring the cultural and musical traditions of the neighborhood and decided to make community history an integral part of the school culture.  Everywhere I went (and I attended events at all thirteen schools!) I saw incredible joy on the faces of teachers, students, parents, and administrators when they showcased what they had done.  There was no pressure to meet an external standard or pass muster with an outside reviewer.  Rather, there was the joy of discovering that history lived right amongst them, in the stories told by the people closest to them, and in the material objects (immigration records, birth certificates, articles of clothing, recipes, records and tapes) that they had preserved.  I even wrote a little rap, which I performed at all thirteen schools, to honor what had taken place

Region 2 and Network 3
Are Rocking Oral History
Our 13 schools, in the BX
Are using daily life as text

We do food, music and immigration
To show how the Bronx leads the Nation’
With hip hop, salsa and R and B
The Mixing of Cultures is Our Family Tree

Working on this project, with these remarkable Bronx students, teachers, and administrators, may have been the best single experience in my forty years as a college teacher.

Unfortunately, it could never be done today. Why?  Because there is no longer a two-month period in the school year where teachers are free of the pressure of test prep!  Now, you are lucky if you could find a week in which classroom learning is not dominated by the pressure of student, teacher and school evaluation.

This, to me is a crime.  Not to the children of the wealthy, who go to private schools, or suburban public schools, where the arts and science and creative learning are still integral to the school experience, but to working-class kids like I once was who are filled with intellectual curiosity and are having the joy in learning replaced by pressure and stress that is being passed down relentlessly from school administrators to teachers to students.

Make no mistake about it, when we destroy the joy of learning in a large portion of our youth, most of whom are from racial minorities and immigrant backgrounds, we are doing our nation irreparable harm.

Will people please wake up and stop this travesty against the young people of our nation?  Let students learn, let teachers teach, let the joy return to our schools.

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james joseph butler - 2/16/2011

The sad truth is, "Let the students learn, let the teachers teach, let the joy return." is myth. When I was teaching in 100% minority Wash DC schools,1990's, it was standard procedure to show schlock Hollywood movies to entire grades. Kindergarten teachers had hour lunches where their children were supposed to remain asleep, "SHUTUP!" for the entire time.

The only thing worse than testing in inferior schools is not testing.

vaughn davis bornet - 2/14/2011

I am enthusiastic about this spirited essay. I think he is bound to be right as rain in his contention that teaching for the test, with the test somebody else's, is bound to drive fun, imagination, and creative activities out of the room.

I write partly on behalf of term papers, research and writing conducted for the excitement of it, on topics chosen by the student.

Always hopefully, these are papers completed without cheating in any form, of course.

I know how much I got out of my many term papers, freshman year on to those graduate seminar papers. That's what "history" was--to me.

I don't bring much knowledge to the world of secondary school teaching. I do know that as early as fourth grade in 1927 I did a paper (with my own illustration) about Archimedes and I still have it. There was joy in that.

At Emory in the middle 1930s we seldom had textbooks. We studied vertically (digging down) rather than trying to include something about everything. Is this part of the secondary school problem: you must know about standard events and so many of the allegedly famous--or else?

I do deplore outsiders having much to say about one's curriculum. Yet when zealot teachers warp the programs into memorialization of minorities (whoa--heresy!), or to dwell on America's failures, or push Marxism in some form, or extol other personalized hobbies and/or vent hatreds, the curriculum certainly would be bent. (Maybe none of that's really common these days?)

According to this article, the worst is inflicting standardization just to measure teacher performance. And give job security to bureaucrats. It must be hell out there in the high school trenches these days.... But is it, really? Motivation to join the profession just has to suffer, I would think.

Vaughn Davis Bornet Ashland, Oregon