Wake Up! This Fantasy is a Nightmare

Susie pictureby Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a member of the national board of Parents for Public Schools. She hails from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where she is a community and public school activist and a longtime supporter of non-profits in the area.

Susie says: "It is possible to honor individuality and hold high expectations." Her message here is her own and is timely and clear, and we hope you will take the time to read it. Note: PPS has two chapters in Ohio: Greater Cincinnati and Streetsboro.

Put on your rose colored glasses. 

Imagine this fantasy. When it comes to academic success, all children are immune to: their parents, access to food and health care, vision or hearing issues, early childhood education or enrichment experiences, stress, self confidence, expectations for academic achievement, hope, the number of times they move in a year, trauma affecting people they care about, the learning conditions in their schools, skills acquired before entering school, language barriers, their ability to concentrate.

In this dream world, every child – regardless of their economic status, educational setting, or personal challenges – can be expected to learn the same amount, at the same rate.

In this fantasy, regulators have developed quick and inexpensive measuring tools that can gather the depth and breadth of growth that is significant of meaningful academic success. A machine can grade the measurement tool, and a fancy mathematical formula disconnected from real life experience defines the score that means you are “good to go.” Annual measurement of student progress – all through childhood – is the only “resource” that state or federal government agencies need to provide to make sure children are reaching the expected academic performance defined through a political process.

Here is the final piece of the fantasy: the only thing that matters to a child’s growth is their teacher.

Sadly, this totally unrealistic understanding of what affects academic success and what is possible to achieve by testing for it, is driving public education.

It’s time to call this daydream what it is: a nightmare.

In March and April children will be in the fitful final push to prepare for state and federally mandated tests. If all students perform as the fantasy says they should, they will prove that teachers are worth their pay. 

When students fall short, they will be labeled “failure.” Ohio high school students who don’t achieve the cut score on any one of multiple tests will not receive a diploma. Third graders will be retained. If too many students fall short the schools they attend and the communities where they live we be defined as “struggling,” “failed,” “buildings to close,”  “schools to flee,” “a place to avoid.”

For teachers it will mean a bad evaluation, and evidence that they are the lazy and heartless bad guys who let down the children.

This high stakes disaster is the creation of our state policy makers who are charged by the Ohio Constitution with creating a system of education that serves all children. The legislature seems to think all that is needed is to wish everyone could be alike, administer tests that show that they are not, and blame teachers.     

The architects of this system like to muzzle the opposition. Anyone who challenges the logic or validity of a system constructed on a mountain of flawed ideas and invalid measurement tools, is called an apologist who is guilty of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Children are individuals. How they experience each day, feel and function within the classroom setting, how they learn and when, what captures their imagination and ignites their motivation, how they react to a test, is unique. It is possible to honor individuality and hold high expectations.

Educators, parents and citizens believe in the vast wealth of potential that exists within each of us. We want education to give the diverse set of learners who occupy every classroom across our land, the chance to let their varied gifts come forward. We want education to help children develop the social and intellectual skills needed to be good citizens, to continue to learn, to make a contribution to our society, to work. 

Uniformity is not who we are or what we need. Our test-driven system, built on dangerous falsehoods, is simply killing education as a resource for a lively world of the mind. And it deflects attention from the messy issues that need to be addressed and real investments that can pay off if we are to truly want success for all.  Economic differences are growing, opportunities are shrinking, information is exploding, and the world is smaller. If schools are going to be successful they need to nurture learners who are ready for this complex environment – not test takers. Addressing segregation and concentrated poverty would be a place to start.

I keep hoping this absurd system will fall on the weight of its failure, but nothing changes without people speaking up.

I know I can’t continue to play along with something that is so wrong.