Transformational Teaching In Test-Crazy America

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I loathe state testing. It’s ridiculous and damaging when for much of the school year—but especially in the spring—caring, intelligent, and creative teachers are forced to “drill-and-kill” their students.

For this reason I work at Palmer Trinity, a great private school in Miami, Florida. Here, nobody is a slave to the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

I create my own curriculum, and I’m encouraged to embrace unique approaches to teaching and assessing. I don’t have “Big Brother” looking over my shoulder, nor am I beholden to how well students perform on one silly test. I have ample opportunity and flexibility not just to teach content, but to emulate how teens can lead virtuous and productive lives.

“There is no substitute for learning basic skills, enforcing academic rigor, holding high expectations for learners, and measuring educational progress,” writes Thomas R. Rosebrough in Transformational Teaching in the Information Age: Making Why and How We Teach Relevant to Students. “Teaching students to simply recall content, however, can be a stupefying experience for both students and teachers.”

Rosebrough goes on to reference the 1986 movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:

“Content alone will not create passionate learners, nor will it develop students’ sense of connectedness to the learning process or their communities,” Rosebrough writes.

I couldn’t agree more. It doesn’t matter how much a teacher knows—if he or she isn’t passionate about engaging in a shared learning environment, students will quickly lose interest. Moreover, it’s equally important for teachers constantly to demonstrate a genuine interest in their students’ lives. I’m honored to work at Palmer Trinity, where teachers spend their free time watching sporting events, attending plays, and supporting other group and individual student endeavors. When students become sick, teachers make visits to the hospital.

All of this isn’t to say that public school teachers don’t do those things, or that they are somehow less than their independent school colleagues. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, with significantly larger classes and a much bigger workload, I can’t begin to fathom what these professionals sacrifice on a daily basis—all for the sake of their students. But without a state test looming at the end of the year, I’m certain these great heroes would be even more effective.

“Not that assessment is bad, but when you standardize it and then you condition teachers to teach to the test, it takes away not only the teacher’s creativity, but it takes away the student’s creativity,” Rosebrough tells me.

I’m reminded of my time teaching AP United States History, the most boring, useless and soul-sucking curriculum I have the misfortune of knowing. Several months ago, I spoke with Patrick Bassett, who just finished a successful 10-year tenure as President of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS).

Bassett informed me how parents from the Chapin School, among New York’s most celebrated independent schools, conveyed strong disapproval of a decision to move away from the AP program.

In response to mounting criticism, Head of School Patricia Hayot gathered parents in the auditorium to share sample questions from the AP United States History exam.

Bassett says, “One was, what was the Taft‑Hartley Act? You had five choices. So you’re talking about the best‑educated people in the world sitting in that audience, right? Not one of them got the answer right. Not one of them got the multiple-choice answer right. Do you know why? Because, who cares?”

If you do care, The Taft-Hurley Act was a pro-business measure passed by Congress in 1947 that President Truman vetoed as a “slave-labor” bill.

Students are also expected to know excruciating minutia, which, according to John J. Newman and John M. Schmalbach’s United States History: Preparing for the Advanced Placement Examination, includes provisions “outlawing secondary boycotts (the practice by several unions of giving support to a striking union by joining a boycott of a company’s products).” The authors mention three additional provisions of the law, which students are expected to know.

Rosebrough writes passionately about what he calls “transformational teaching,” which involves great teachers not only calling students “to new levels of inquiry that build deep learning, but also model[ing] a social and spiritual authority that is missing in our students’ lives.” An education that places too much emphasis on a test  falls short of that ideal. For me at least, it was also difficult to model enthusiasm to my AP students for such inconsequential information.

“One of the things that I’m fond of saying is that teaching begins with an attitude,” Rosebrough says. “If we don’t pay attention to our attitude as teachers, then we’re not going to connect to and engage our students.”

I certainly didn’t engage with my AP students, or make them excited about material that I had to teach. I can only imagine how difficult it is for public school teachers to conquer this obstacle. The best of them are the true heroes.

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

1 Comment

  • Reply July 22, 2013

    Zachary Goldman

    I strongly agree that testing deadens learning and does more harm than good.

    However, as a student, I had a very different experience with AP US History, back in the day.

    My teacher was extremely passionate about history. I have a lifelong passion for math; it was in this history course that I discovered that it was possible to deeply explore and understand subjects outside of math (and science). My teacher helped us uncover connections between different topics we were studying and explore historical patterns from multiple perspectives. This was the first time I ever really did real research for a paper.

    The test was certainly there at the end, but not emphasized.

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