Dear Education System:
Do you know whose voice I don’t hear very often in the great educational reform debate?
But why should we listen to students? They don’t know what they need, do they?
Maybe not, but they do know what’s happening to them. They know that school makes them miserable. They know that the purpose of learning things is to pass tests so they can go to college where they will pass more tests and then graduate school and/or career where they will at last reach the finish line and be able to start living their lives, hopefully that is, because if they do badly on any of these tests their lives might be ruined.
I talk to students all the time – college students - and this is what I hear from them. Many of them are either wracked by anxiety or totally disengaged, having done the only sane thing and opted out of the race.
These are good students, accomplished students, nineteen-year-old students who are – and I am not exaggerating – already looking forward to the day they can retire.
You’re probably aware of the letter home from the Harley Avenue Primary School in Elwood, NY cancelling the Kindergarten show because they were too busy getting these Kindergartners “college and career” ready.
Is this anything but madness? What is the experience of those five year olds when they were told there’s no time for singing and dancing and playing because we’re worried about their paths to college and career.
Did they cry? I bet some of them cried.
The comedian Louis C.K. reported via Twitter that the Common Core-aligned math curriculum is making his kids cry.
He’s listening to his children. He’s looking at his CCSS-aligned curriculum and wondering “WTF?”
Tough crap, right? Life’s hard kids. Sure, we’d like to have time in class to have you all butcher Frere Jacques on the recorder while your parents levitate with stupid pride, but we’ve got college and career to worry about. I know you think you’re going to be an astronaut, or a prince, or a princess, or unicorn wrangler, or operate one of those awesome steam shovels you’re so fascinated by when we drive by a construction site, but that doesn’t happen by accident.
No, you’ve got to fill in a shit-ton of bubbles on paper first. Soon, you’ll click buttons while you stare into a computer screen, and we’re going to call that reform and progress.
Louis C.K.’s experience with his children doesn’t carry more weight than anyone else’s just because he’s famous, but I also know that he’s not alone in seeing his daughters’ enjoyment of learning being destroyed in the name of efficiency and “accountability.”
How many of you have children crying over their homework?
When did their interest in learning in school switch to the off position?
Maybe cancelling the Kindergarten show will be the incident that breaks this fever, the ultimate illustration of how far we’ve fallen down the testing rabbit hole.
I do know that if we’d listened to students more than ten years ago, we’d know what a disaster No Child Left Behind was going to be and that the testing regime required by the CCSS will be no better, and likely worse as more and more districts attempt to tie student performance on these tests to the retention and compensation of teachers.
Rich Haswell and Glenn Blalock, professors at Texas A&M – Corpus Christi, tried listening to students. As far back as 2001-2002 they were surveying high school students on their experiences with the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), the progenitor of all high-stakes standardized assessments to come.
This was the question they asked:
“What was the TAAS experience like for you as a student in English classes? Describe your activities and feelings as you prepared for these exams, took them, and learned of the results. Overall, was it a good educational experience for you? If you didn't do TAAS, you can write about any standardized test preparation and testing that you have experienced in school--SAT, AP, etc.”
Sixty-three percent of students’ comments were judged “completely negative.” These are just a random sample of the verbatim responses.
“Basically that is what all High School was, just a big camp preparing you for TAAS. And it wasn’t just English ether, every class for about the first twenty minutes that is what all of our efforts would go to”
“Don’t get me wrong the TAAS test was not a bad test and the classes did prepare me for it, but we had taken the practice test every year and it drained us out. Starting from the 2nd-12th grade we had been taking it. Every time we heard the TAAS everyone would get all depressed and mad. I was just tried of taking the TAAS test. I think that test just holds people back, when you can be learning other things in school. We had to stop everything we were learning just for the TAAS. We even had a TAAS class at our High School. It was a childish test. It was so easy.”
“Having to take the TAAS test every year was one of the biggest hassles, even at a young age. Every year my teachers would tell me that this would be the last time that I would have to take this test and every year I would end up having to take it again and again. I hated it and it made me feel as though I wasn’t learning enough.”
They go on and on and on. There’s over 800 of them. Read them for yourselves and see that the disaster was not only foreseeable, but foreseen.
When I look at my college-age students and I ask them about their experiences in grade school and high school, and they talk about how school was somehow simultaneously easy and stressful, as well as pointless, except that success has brought them to college, I realize that we don’t have low standards, or an achievement problem, or a “grit” deficiency, but an enthusiasm gap.
We have a joy deficit. A curiosity crisis.
So I have a different plan for assessment for grades K – 5. I want us to start measuring enthusiasm, because if kids are enthusiastic about school, they will learn stuff. They will also learn to enjoy learning and when they get to college they won’t be so cynical.
To measure the degree of enthusiasm, we will ask two questions every day:
1. What did you do in school today?
2. Are you looking forward to going to school tomorrow?
The first question will be measured by total number of words spoken. The more words the better. If the teacher or parent administering the assessment has to cut off the child mid-stream because they can’t take the babbling anymore, we know things are going well.
The second post-test question is a yes/no answer. If at any time more than 20% of students are saying “no,” we will intervene with an immediate injection of fun, like say...writing poems about steam shovels fueled by unicorn poop.
The notion that there should be “stakes” to what children are doing in grade school strikes me as quite literally insane, but the way things are going, maybe I’m the crazy one.
 We will not ask students what they “learned” in school because we will actually trust teachers as the dedicated professionals the vast majority of them are. We won’t worry about the specifics of what the teachers are doing because good teachers make students enthusiastic about learning stuff because children love love love to learn stuff. Good teachers who are relentlessly measured by standardized assessments don’t have an opportunity to be good because they are too busy making sure their students will do well on the standardized assessments.
 Please remember that by design, the CCSS are to prepare students to “succeed in college, career, and life upon graduation from high school, regardless of where they live.” Cancelling the Kindergarten show isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.
I wouldn't have known that Louis C.K. is also frustrated about this stuff if not for Twitter.