What Are We Doing to Public Education in the Name of School Reform?: High-Stakes Testing and the Demise of the “Artist-Teacher”

Vicki Cobb

Vicki Cobb

By Elaine Magliaro

Vicki Cobb, an author of nonfiction  books for children, is a former science teacher. She has published more than eighty titles “for grades K-8 that cover physics, chemistry and biology, biographies, geography and the human body.” In 2012, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

On her blog, Diane Ravitch, a Research Professor of Education at New York University and education historian who served as Assistant Secretary of Education from 1991-1993, said that Cobb had recently spoken at a children’s literature conference in Florida. Ravitch noted that Cobb said she was disturbed to meet a new breed of teacher–a breed that “had grown up in the era of high-stakes testing and scripted lessons.” Ravitch added that too many of this new breed of educators think that this is the way school is supposed to be, because it is all they have experienced. Cobb attributed the change in the new teachers “to the takeover of education policy by non educators.”

In an article that she published over at Huffington Post in March and updated in May, Cobb wrote about the demise of what she called the “artist-teacher.”

Cobb:

An artist is someone who brings his or her own self-expression to an activity. An artist expresses personal, closely held views, thoughts, images and passions with such truth and clarity that others immediately connect with this revealed humanity. Thus the personal becomes the universal. Therein lies its power.

Free expression is an essential right of a democracy. It becomes subversive in a dictatorship. I fear education in America is becoming a dictatorship. My evidence is admittedly anecdotal; I’ve been asked not to reveal names and places of people who have spoken to me about it because they fear they will lose their jobs. But I can start with a news story from Hillsborough County, Florida where I was recently invited to speak at a children’s literature conference. The Hillsborough Board of Education fired Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who had recently been named 2015 Florida Superintendent of the Year. She is also a candidate for National Superintendent of the Year. The vote to dismiss was 4-3. Why? Politics? Petty jealousy? She cared too much about children? Her selfless caring about quality education for teachers and students was subversive?

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Cobb took issue with the “business and government suits, who have hijacked educational policy in a top down approach”–and who are not professional educators.” She said, “Their knowledge of education comes primarily from what they themselves survived (endured?). Most do not know what good education looks like. Their idea of a well-ordered classroom is rows of desks with students quietly bent over a test.”

Cobb:

Now, the chickens are coming home to roost in the preparation of the next generation of Florida’s classroom teachers. Their professors tell me that they call them the “FCAT babies.” These young people are the pre-service teachers who have grown up in Florida’s test-taking climate. They have a “mother, may I?” permission-seeking approach to their own classroom behavior as teachers. They think test-taking and test prep is normal. They have seen nothing else. They are afraid to think for themselves.

Cobb said that during her presentation at the children’s literature conference she worked “with a group of children while the teachers-to-be observed.” Cobb asked the question “What can we do to show that air is real stuff?” She said children raised their hands and provided “one-word responses like, ‘Science!’ and ‘Gravity'”–which, she said, “were not responsive to the question.” She added that there were also other responses–such as “air is made of atoms and molecules” where they were showing me that they could repeat something they had learned.

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Cobb:

The number of hands going up with unformulated responses showed how dependent they were on adult attention (from me). They were also quick to give answers because giving answers is the culture that results from extensive test prep. No one spent any time thinking about the question, except for one child who said, “Air can’t be real stuff because you can’t see it.” I instantly reinforced attention to this observation and I repeated the question in several different ways. Suddenly there was a transformation in their engagement; they became quiet and thoughtful and started listening to each other. In other words, they focused on thinking rather than on getting attention for themselves.

Cobb said that while she was in Florida, she heard about the Springboard Education programs–which “are so scripted that all teachers must be on the same page doing the same thing at the same time.” She noted that Springboard Education “is turning teachers into automatons” at a time “when American education is crying out for the return of the artist-teacher.”

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Cobb defined the “artist-teacher”:

This is the teacher who takes one look at the textbooks and goes to the library to find much more powerful reading on the same subjects. This is the teacher who knows each student intimately and can write a poem for each one. This is the teacher who figures that good teaching trumps test prep and is not afraid for her kids’ test outcomes. This is the teacher who has the courage to justify what he’s doing and why he’s doing it to powers-that-be who are not fully equipped to evaluate creativity. It includes a lot of the “best teacher” awardees. This is the teacher who wants to spend more time creating powerful lessons and less time doing accountability paperwork. For the artist-teacher, teaching with autonomy, mastery and purpose is a subversive activity, much as art is subversive in a dictatorship.

In April, Cobb wrote another article for Huffington Post titled What Will Be the Legacy of Today’s School ‘Reforms’?. In the article, she told about an experience that she had when she was doing a program for 4th-6th graders at a local public library. She said the experience provided the “latest piece of evidence that something is rotten in American education.”

Cobb faulted people in positions of power who appear to “believe that education is too important to allow professional educators do their jobs because they have failed to produce a consistently excellent product of people who are college and career ready after twelve years of schooling.” She said these are people who “believe the way to excellence is to first write a law decreeing ‘No Child Left Behind’ or ‘All Children College and Career Ready’ to set a policy, without consulting anyone who actually teaches children. And then to test, test, test, to see if these impossible standards have been met.”

Cobb continued by saying that these people in positions of power were “creating a population of quietly submissive students and teachers who narrow the curriculum to what they hope will be on the test while administrators are cutting art, music, physical education programs and librarians to pour more of their limited financial resources into test prep and test grading.”

Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch

In The Lost Purpose of School Reform, Diane Ravitch spoke about the federal mandate for high-stakes testing in our public schools:

The annual testing mandated by the federal government has changed public schools in dramatic ways because they are now used to determine the fate of students, teachers, principals, and schools. More time for testing means less time for instruction. Students are the losers. The testing industry has benefited, especially the British giant Pearson. Not only did Pearson win the contract to write one of the federally-funded tests, it also now sells curriculum and textbooks aligned with the Common Core, owns the GED (which awards high school diplomas to students who did not graduate with their class), and has gained control of the teacher-certification process as well through a program called edTPA.

Parents and educators have noisily opposed the annual testing mandate, which they think places too much emphasis on standardized tests and causes schools to cut funding for the arts, physical education, foreign languages, history, and other subjects. Even now, many thousands of parents are refusing to allow their children to sit for the Common Core tests to protest them. The Common Core tests are not like tests that adults took many years ago; they require anywhere from eight to eleven hours and are “delivered” online. In the past, teachers wrote their own tests to find out what students had or had not learned. They could tailor instruction to help students who had fallen behind. But results from the new standardized tests are not reported until four to six months after the tests, and teachers are not permitted to see how students answered specific questions. Thus, everyone ends up with a grade—the student, the teacher, the principal, and the school—but the tests have no diagnostic value because teachers cannot learn from them about the needs of their students.

Despite widespread parent and teacher opposition to the law’s testing mandate, Congress seems determined to retain annual testing as part of federal law. Senator Alexander considered the idea of grade span testing—that is, tests offered once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school. But President Obama and Secretary Duncan insist on annual testing, as does Senator Patty Murray of Washington State, the leading Democratic on the Senate committee. And civil rights groups demand it as well, even though minority children have overwhelmingly failed the new Common Core tests. Apparently, the Obama administration has convinced them that their children will be overlooked unless their failure is demonstrated repeatedly by the tests.

Ravitch said it was ironic that it is the Democrats “who are most determined to preserve President George W. Bush’s legacy of high-stakes testing.” She added, “It is worthy of note that none of the world’s highest-performing nations—such as Finland, Japan, China, Korea, Canada, Poland, Estonia, and Singapore—tests every child every year; in that burdensome and expensive practice, the United States stands alone.”

COBBWhatstheBigIdeaCobb said that all human beings are “born to learn.”:

A baby is as smart as s/he will ever be. Through infancy every day is filled with wonder and discovery. And although there are hard lessons along the way, as learning progresses, so does mastery. We know from research that there are many different learning styles but eventually we all learn to walk and talk and think . As we get older, if we’re lucky, we discover a passion that drives us to master more skills and contribute to society. But the skill of high performance on a test, is not an essential skill. There are many other metrics for success — the number of patents held by Americans, for example. The current “reformers” for education are simply imposing ill-conceived laws of the state and federal governments on schools as if we were a dictatorship not a democracy.

Cobb said she knew “deep in her bones” that she “would not be creating science books for children if I had grown up in one of today’s repressive schools.”

I am familiar with Cobb’s work. I used some of her books in my elementary classroom and got ideas for class and homework activities from them. I agree with Cobb’s assessment that “school reform” and high-stakes testing are leading to the demise of the artist-teacher, to teachers acting like automatons, and to students not developing the ability to think critically and creatively.

I saw this coming years ago. I read the handwriting on the wall when high-stakes tests were becoming the focal point of public education in my state. Looking at children as individuals and trying to meet their needs was no longer of great import. Prepping them for standardized tests was becoming the most important thing. That’s why I left the classroom before I had planned. I knew I wouldn’t be able to teach the way I had been for years. It really saddened me then–as it does now. I am hoping things will change before my granddaughters go to school. I sincerely doubt it.

SOURCES

The Demise of the Artist-Teacher (Huffington Post)

Vicki Cobb: The Demise of the Artist-Teacher (Diane Ravitch)

Vicki Cobb (Huffington Post)

Vicki Cobb: How to Teach Children to Hate School (Diane Ravitch)

What Will Be the Legacy of Today’s School ‘Reforms’? (Huffington Post)

The Lost Purpose of School Reform (The New York Review of Books)

 

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