Originally published in Rethinking Schools VOLUME 29, ISSUE 4 — SUMMER 2015.Recently, we posted an article at the Rethinking Schools Facebook page that listed reasons why parents should opt their children out of standardized testing, including “standardized tests narrow the curriculum.” The article went on:
What’s on the test is what’s taught. PARCC and Smarter Balanced [versions of the Common Core tests] only evaluate math and literacy, and thus science, social studies, and the arts are lost to spend maximum instruction time on the tested material. There is no time for creativity, collaboration, and curiosity.
A Rethinking Schools reader, Texas educator Noreen Naseem Rodriguez, wrote to say: not so fast. Rodriguez pointed out that teachers are still “creative and collaborative, and encourage curiosity in spite of the high-stakes testing environment.” She argued that we need to distinguish between what teachers are being pushed to do and what they are actually doing. Yes, the tests have made it more difficult to teach critically and authentically, but Rodriguez pointed out that simply because people in positions of power want something to happen, doesn’t make it so.
Rodriguez is right. Teachers continue to resist the high-stakes testing machine by teaching what matters, by doing everything possible not to narrow the curriculum to test prep. And when we say that the corporate school reform agenda has killed critical, imaginative teaching for social justice, we have declared defeat while the fight rages around us.
Since its inception almost 30 years ago, Rethinking Schools’ mission has been the defense and transformation of public schools. These go hand in hand. Yes, we need to fight the myriad ways that the forces of privatization and privilege seek to discredit and destroy public education. But one front in that defense is the effort to revitalize classroom life, to ensure that students’ time in school is worthwhile—for students personally, and for the larger communities and society they belong to. As we argued in the first edition of Rethinking Our Classrooms: Teaching for Equity and Justice, back in 1994, classrooms should be grounded in the lives of our students; critical; multicultural, antiracist and pro-justice; participatory and experiential; hopeful, joyful, kind, and visionary; activist; culturally sensitive; and academically rigorous. We set ourselves the task of creating curriculum and finding teaching stories to bring these principles to life.
Teaching to the Tests
Is this kind of teaching made much harder by today’s standardized testing mandates? No doubt. Valuable classroom time has been hijacked by the tests and test prep. New legislation and policies threaten teachers with bad evaluations or worse should their students fail to perform adequately on the tests. In some school districts, armies of clipboard-carrying curriculum cops circulate through classrooms to enforce scripted teaching strategies. These are tough times, and we do not mean to minimize the power of this bullying to stifle good teaching.
The corporate school reformers’ vision of a successful classroom was on display this spring in a front page New York Times investigative article on New York’s Success Academy, the charter school chain founded by Eva Moskowitz. Politicians and millionaire philanthropists have championed Moskowitz’s program as a model for education reform. The article, by Kate Taylor (“At Charters, High Scores and Polarizing Tactics”), paints a harrowing portrait of classroom life, with every teaching move subordinated to standardized tests. An email from an assistant principal (a “leadership resident”) at Success Academy Harlem 2 to her 4th-grade teachers in the wake of disappointing results on a three-day practice test offers a glimpse: “You must demand every single minute,” she wrote. “We can NOT let up on them. . . . Any scholar who is not using the plan of attack (test-taking strategies) will go to effort academy (detention), have their parent called, and will miss electives. This is serious business, and there has to be misery felt [by] the kids who are not doing what is expected of them.”
Teaching for Life
Since Rethinking Schools began publishing in 1986, there have always been odious requirements that teachers have confronted and resisted: basal readers, detailed “scope and sequence” instructions, “competencies” to be met, “anchor assignments,” required textbooks, and overbearing administrators. Indeed, in the very first issue of Rethinking Schools, RS co-founder Rita Tenorio described how she resisted the imposition of a Scott Foresman basal reader on her kindergarten students. Instead she provided experiential, playful, and collaborative literacy activities far more appropriate for young children than a dreary succession of worksheets.
And today, in the midst of the launch of Common Core tests, teachers continue the resistance. Sometimes this is an individual who defies the system to teach toward her ideals. During a dinner conversation, a 2nd-grade teacher in New Mexico told Rethinking Schools editors how she brings authentic literacy lessons to her classroom: “They have taken over our literacy block with a mandated, scripted curriculum, but I use read-aloud time to engage students in reading and writing that matters.”
Sometimes it’s a collective effort. In Portland, Oregon, teachers at several high schools are collaboratively constructing and teaching curriculum. Social studies teachers at one school, for example, created a unit on the Russian Revolution that was taught in 14 classes. At another school, language arts teachers developed and taught curriculum on local school desegregation as a follow-up to reading Warriors Don’t Cry when a student asked, “So what happened in Portland?” After they taught the unit, the teachers traveled to each other’s classrooms to discuss revisions and adaptations, and to look at student work. Two articles in this issue of the magazine, Jerica Coffey’s “Storytelling as Resistance” and Stephanie Cariaga’s “Research as Healing,” are the result of an inquiry group created by teachers at a school in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles (see Collaborating to Capture Community Resilience).
Throughout the country, teachers are constructing curriculum that challenges students to think instead of memorize, to connect their lives to broader social and ecological issues. Through this kind of engaged scholarship, students discover the joy of learning—joy that rarely accompanies a lesson that starts “Today, I will learn. . .”
This resistance is fueled by networks of social justice teachers in groups like Teachers 4 Social Justice in San Francisco, the New York Collective of Radical Educators, Chicago Teachers for Social Justice, the Educators Network for Social Justice in Milwaukee, Teaching for Change, the Oregon Writing Project, and Free Minds, Free People. These organizations, and many others, inspire critical teaching through conferences, workshops, and inquiry-to-action groups—defying the corporate push toward standardization.
Rethinking Schools’ two latest books, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis and Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice offer further proof that teachers across the country are working with one another to address vital social issues at the same time they strive to develop academic skills. Howard Zinn famously said that “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” When it comes to the climate crisis, endless war, growing income inequality, and the disregard for the lives of people of color as shown by the regularity of police killings, the social train we’re on is headed off a cliff. Teachers need to do our part to stop and redirect that train.
As we oppose the hegemony of standardized tests, the budget cuts, the school closures, the pro-charter legislation, the infiltration of Teach For America, and other privatization schemes, we also should demand teaching and learning conditions that allow us to create an alternative vision of classroom life. In order to design curriculum that speaks to students’ lives, we need more prep time, more time for teacher collaboration, more professional development worthy of its name. We need to nurture a grassroots conversation about social justice teaching—one that refutes the notion that learning and high test scores are synonymous; and one that opts for joy over misery.
Rethinking Schools encourages teachers to continue to subvert the test-and-punish system by doing everything we can to teach for the benefit of our students—and the world. Every child-centered, socially aware lesson plan is a gesture of defiance to those who endeavor to make test scores the sole criterion of educational success. This kind of teaching that matters is part of the broader struggle to defend and transform public schools.