"We Can't. We have an AP exam to prepare for."
Those are the 10 words I resent most as a high school student. In my multiple attempts to integrate essential, but lost, lessons into our curriculum, few have been successful. My teachers are smart, and they agree with my evaluation that some of the world's most important issues are left out of our curriculum. But they also know something else: the war in Iraq will not be on the upcoming AP exam.
My junior year in high school was one of the most significant years in world history. The Tea Party gained political ground in the midterm elections; Osama bin Laden, the face of global terrorism, was killed; the United States government nearly shut down; historic revolutions in the Middle East toppled oppressive regimes the world has known for decades.
Not one of those issues was ever brought into my classroom.
That startling reality, though, was hardly the fault of my teacher. The AP U.S. History exam, known as one of the toughest tests administered to high schoolers, loomed at the end of the year.
In memorizing the details of the Compromise of 1877 and racing through thousands of pages of our history textbook, we lost sight of the world right outside our classroom's windows. Most of my friends could easily recite the first 10 presidents, but few could tell you what a toxic loan is.
The issue I faced was one faced by students all around the country: standardized testing. The new legislation in New York state calling for more weight on standardized tests in teacher evaluations just feeds into a trend that encourages teachers to teach based on past years' exams, instead of shifting global issues.
Frankly, standardized testing makes plenty of sense: we give every child the same test, and thus hold every child to the same standards. That's the only fair way to do it, and the only way to ensure that our teachers remain competitive and meet certain criteria.
But children are by no means standardized, and treating them as such only undermines our diversity. Asking the same thing from every student completely destroys a teacher's ability to inspire kids and feed their aspirations.
The best teachers have the ability to gauge their student base and adapt to their needs. A classroom full of white students in an affluent suburb certainly has different needs than a classroom full of African-American children in an inner city.
In my experience, my classmates have valued discussion over facts. Our most productive discussion occurred during the 10 minutes my teacher devoted to the death of Bin Laden. Participation soared, and the discussion was denser than ever. But, to no one's surprise, the noose of the AP exam was lowered, and we were forced to table our lively discussion, and instead discuss the Missouri Compromise.
It's frustrating and damaging to see our system of evaluation cut off both the creativity of our teachers and the ambitions of our students. But if standardized testing is to be removed from the picture, alternative evaluation techniques will be needed.
In addition to traditional observations -- currently a small fraction of overall evaluations -- principals should be required to conduct daily meetings with different students to inquire about the effectiveness of their teachers. These meetings should be held individually to remove the stress brought on by peers. The kids are the ones we are looking to benefit, so why shouldn't they have a voice?
Meetings with teachers would also be beneficial. Teachers constantly work together, and students tend to complain about one teacher to another. In any workplace, the best way to investigate a particular member is to talk to their colleagues. Teachers are no exception.
Finally, the parents should be involved as well. If kids are coming home and picking up new hobbies and pursuing their interests, then clearly the school is having an impact. At home, most children will be more open about their issues, and too seldom are those concerns heard.
In my life, I have attended school in two very different locations: New York City and the very rural Woodstock, New York. My closest friend in Woodstock has a father who owns an excavating business; my closest friend in New York has a father who works for a large commercial banking institution. At home, they are very different; come testing time, they are expected to be the same.
It's time we stop hiding our diversity and reward the teachers that inspire us. After all, it may not be on the test, but it could be right in our backyard.
Follow Jess Coleman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jesskcoleman