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The Ruinous Culture We've Created in Elementary Schools

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Holiday breaks are periods of transition for many educators, both in K-12 and in higher education. Even persons outside of educational professions mark their time with holiday seasons. Are we necessarily better off than we were a year ago at this time? What have we accomplished and what is in store for us in the year ahead? As a teacher educator, the switch sort of flips for my students and I as we emerge from a limited clinical experience to the obligatory full-time student teaching internship. At its culmination, pre-service teachers earn the needed imprimatur to survive their first year in their own classrooms.

Over the last decade, in particular, extended holiday breaks in elementary schools mark another kind of unholy transition from teaching to something that could be called preparation. I wanted to take the time in this post to make this abundantly clear because I do not think it's acknowledged enough in the mainstream. Let me also clarify that this transformation occurs to varying degrees in nearly every elementary classroom I've seen over the years, so there can be no denying it from my perspective. Especially in intermediate grades, schools and teachers do not teach -- they prepare for tests, all day, every day. That's it. And this is not limited to schools that "underperform." There is a commensurate amount of preparation that occurs in "higher-achieving" schools because, well, they have a reputation to uphold.

Throughout January and beyond, social studies, science, and other expendable subjects stop. That's right, they stop, for months at a time. Schools become mobilized as math and reading academies. And no, it's not this idealized culture of inquiry and intellectual curiosity; students are not reading and discussing literature of their choosing or building mathematical models to simulate concepts. Students as young as eight years old read endless short passages about random topics like dolphin echolocation or volcanoes. They answer multiple choice or short essay questions for just about everything. Any and all pieces of paper are evaluated. Cassette tapes play excerpts of larger texts and are followed by an unyielding stream of worksheets and questions.

What you call math is simply a line-up of procedures and algorithms. Packets and worksheets teach the procedures. Packets and worksheets reinforce and assess the procedures. There is no discovery. There is no modeling, simulation, building, or anything that I can define as solidifying conceptual knowledge of math. No chance that a struggling reader is going to find any solace in math; half the subject now requires almost as much reading as reading itself.

In schools where I've worked and observed, "higher-achieving" students are largely forgotten. "You finished the odds already, well do the evens now." Maybe they get an extra worksheet with a random word search or crossword puzzle on it because, you know what, those students are going to earn their school great test scores. It's those blasted "fence-sitters" that ruin Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). The solution then is to take students who are having some difficulties for whatever reason and give them more school. That's right, you think you hate class now, well how about we take all of your "specials" away, establish working lunches and recess, and then force you to come in early and stay late? It's all in the name of student achievement -- and our funding stream.

The transformation from teaching to test-preparation makes me absolutely furious. It should make every so-called education reformer just as furious, but I'm not sure it does. With high-stakes standardized testing, this is the educational culture we've created; there's no sign that it's going to stop given where the money is flowing. Seeing schools in test-mode is an observation in an atomistic and disheartening obsession with quantitative values.

Perhaps some reformers will state that this is the administrators' and teachers' collective doing. All we did was establish some accountability measures. It's not our fault that schools responded in such a manner. Well, when you attach money and even employment to a test score, what did you think was going to happen? Was business going to go on as usual and then we'd just dip our toes in the water from time to time, take the school's temperature, so to speak?

Come January, students in many schools throughout the United States will be treated to weeks worth of test preparation and drills. Students as young as eight will be affixed to their seats for hours at a time, denied everything reasonable people could argue as also part of a well-rounded education, all in the name of a test score. Will teaching resume after the test? Perhaps, although it's unlikely, there's content in the current year that needs to be taught to prepare them for next year's test. Enjoy your race to the top.