Changes in the classroom are harming our kids

There are monumental and harmful changes happening at an alarming pace in education right now.

There are monumental and harmful changes happening at an alarming pace in education right now. As a parent and public high school teacher, I am concerned by the new teacher evaluation system and other mandates, and how they are affecting both teachers and students alike. Our school system isn’t perfect, but the state’s current attempts to improve our schools are causing more harm than good by implementing a massive, overblown system riddled with flaws.

Students in all grade levels, in every subject, are now taking state-mandated tests at the beginning and end of each school year — this includes written tests for art and physical education, and, of course, academic subjects. I spoke to an elementary school phys ed teacher who related to me the experience of seeing disappointment on the faces of elementary school children when, after sitting all day taking tests for every other class, they learned they would be taking yet another written exam instead of getting the chance to exercise, play a game, and blow off a little steam.

Why? So their teachers may be evaluated and deemed “effective” or “ineffective” based on the growth a teacher’s students show from the beginning to the end of the year. Testing such young students, statewide, in music, art, physical education and other classes, is an inefficient, wild overreach of government. Rating teachers may seem like a reasonable idea, as we all want good teachers in our schools. However, this system does not make sense and will not work.

Flawed system

In science or math, it does not make sense to test students in the beginning of the year on a subject they have not yet studied, but this is precisely what the state is mandating. Clearly, students who have not taken chemistry, for example, will not do well on a chemistry test, and will do better at the end of the year after they’ve taken the course. This is not a wise use of resources. In addition, it may very well discourage students (some of whom may already be losing faith in the educational system).

In English, the tests are not content-specific; they test a student’s general reading and writing skills, not specifically what the student was taught throughout the year. Many students are likely to not advance significantly in general reading and writing ability by the time they are in 10th and 11th grade, but that doesn’t mean they don’t learn anything in their English class. If the tests posed questions and asked students to give writing samples on the specific literature, vocabulary, etc., taught that year in the class, then they could be considered fair and accurate evaluative tools.

Currently, however, this is not the case, as the English Language Arts testing requirements only allow teachers to assess students’ “skills” (reading, writing, listening and speaking). Additionally, not everything learned through the study of literature can be tested. Students develop character, sympathy and empathy, and learn about the human condition and how to navigate the complexities of life through reading.

In no way does the new system being implemented measure any outside factors that may affect how a student performs, including student attendance, work ethic, family issues, socioeconomic status, or health. Students who don’t attend class, and then fail tests, shouldn’t reflect on the teacher’s performance. In this system, when students do not invest in their learning, the teacher is held responsible. This seems comparable to holding a doctor responsible for an unhealthy patient that smokes, drinks, and eats too much.

The amount of money being spent by the state on all these tests must be enormous. These new mandates seem to be driven by (or at least endorsed by) large outside testing companies such as Pearson. Just in this last year, testing has increased exponentially, and these companies must be raking in money. This does not seem ethical and is in no way helping students. Money shouldn’t be driving educational legislation.

Also, inexplicably, the state has changed the scoring chart on some Regents exams, making it harder for students to pass or to do well. Students who scored a 61 on the English Regents this year would have passed using the scoring chart for other years’ Regents exams. What is the rationale for making these changes? Why has it not been discussed or publicized? Students who performed similarly to past students on past tests are getting lower scores. It almost seems that there is an agenda to make our schools and teachers look like they are failing.

Another vast change, the new Common Core curriculum, in some ways contradicts a major tenet of my profession. The new tests they are designing and the new reading lists go directly against my teaching philosophy of helping students learn to enjoy reading.

In fact, the Common Core-suggested informational texts for grades 11 and 12 seem like they might be on a reading list for a class entitled “How to Make Kids Hate Reading.” They include the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Paine, the Bill of Rights, and Chesterton’s “The Fallacy of Success.” Not that these aren’t worthy works. I do feel they should be studied, but more appropriately in a history course or in college, not in a literature class.

The population I teach usually includes many students with lower abilities. I have to work energetically, diligently and creatively to encourage them to read even high-interest material. Two major educational goals of mine are getting students to be literate and to learn that reading can be enjoyable. It’s an idea they often find laughable in the beginning of the school year with me, but often embrace by the end. With the new changes coming down from the state and federal level, I fear this spark of interest will be extinguished in my classroom.

Please help turn these trends around. I am shocked and alarmed at what is happening in education right now.

Matthew Johnson is a high school English teacher who lives in Glenville. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

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