A defense of creative writing in the age of standardized testing

*This piece first appeared in Teachers & Writers Magazine

Ask any English teacher what he or she could use more of, and chances are you’ll get the same answer.  Classroom resources are great, more money would be nice, but what we really need is more time.  Just like in any other discipline, English teachers have way more curriculum than we can cover in a year.  Time constraints force educators to prioritize by order of what feels most important, and all too often that importance is determined by what’s going to be on the test.    Our students pay the price as activities that cultivate essential real-world skills such as collaboration and creativity and provide them with a much more engaging and well-rounded education are eliminated from their classes.

Educators are under enormous pressures stemming from a data-driven culture most recently rooted in No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, in which the ultimate measure of professional and academic success is a standardized test score.  As a result of this standardized testing culture, many of our English students spend way too much time reading random passages which are completely detached from their lives and answering multiple choice questions in an attempt to improve test results.  In many classrooms, writing has become little more than an afterthought.  Creative writing, in particular, is seen by some as a frivolous waste of time because its value is so difficult to justify with data.

Two decades before the advent of No Child Left Behind, the research of influential literacy professor Gail Tompkins identified seven compelling reasons why children should spend time writing creatively in class:

  • to entertain
  • to foster artistic expression
  • to explore the functions and values of writing
  • to stimulate imagination
  • to clarify thinking
  • to search for identity
  • to learn to read and write

The majority of Tompkins’s outcomes of creative writing could never be measured on today’s standardized tests.  Indeed, over the same period that standardized reading tests have pushed writing in English classes to the sidelines, efforts to evaluate student writing on a broad, systematic scale have dwindled.  Measuring student writing is expensive, and accurately assessing abstract thinking requires human resources most states aren’t willing to pony up.  It’s much cheaper to score a bubble sheet.

Measurement and assessment aside, the soft skills that we cultivate through regular creative writing with our students have tremendous real-world application as well as helping to promote the kind of atmosphere we want in our classrooms.  After many years as an English teacher, I’ve found that carving out regular time for creative writing in class provides benefits for me and my students that we simply don’t get from other activities.

One of the benefits of creative writing in the classroom is how engaging it is for our students.  In general, much of our curriculum follows a one-size-fits-all design and allows little room for freedom of exploration. For young people who are at a time in life when many of their decisions are made for them, this lack of power can be very demotivating and can negatively impact their interest and effort.  To do their best work, students need to feel that school is about them, and they need to feel connected to the content on a personal level.   When students are given opportunities to experiment with their voices and create through their own original work, they feel a sense of place and they are able to feel in charge.  That’s when they shine.

A former student and talented writer told me the following about her relationship with creative writing in the classroom:

Creative writing is important to me because it gives me a way to express myself. There are not a lot of ways, as a young teenager, to be able to freely express ideas and emotions. Many are personal feelings you wouldn’t really want to share with others. But in writing you can put all of those mixed emotions into words. Next thing you know, you’ve created an entirely different universe, with characters close to your heart. Everything is under your complete control. That is not something that you can experience in reality, even reading a book. The feeling that you have created something, something that you can call your own, is what makes it incredible.

When we empower our students to create something that is only theirs, to make big choices in their writing, it can transform attitudes toward learning and school in general.  Having students who are motivated to work to their full potential is a dream scenario for any teacher.  Regular creative writing can help us to move in that direction.

Another very real benefit of creative writing in the classroom is that it can help to develop a sense of community among our students.  In our bitterly polarized society, any activity that fosters empathy and collaboration is well worth our time.  Students can share writing with each other at the drafting phase, working together to hone their individual stories.  This teamwork allows our students to support each other and work to understand each other’s perspectives.  In addition to peer editing, having students co-author creative pieces, whether as an informal ‘chain story’ type activity or a longer, more polished product, can go a long way in nurturing the skills required for effective partnership.  Sharing responsibility in the creative process serves as a powerful motivator for our students, often leading to better quality writing.

It’s unlikely that our English teachers are going to get the additional time they so desperately need.  What we’re left with is the task of prioritizing class content in such a way that we’re truly meeting all the needs of our students.  Data is an important tool in helping us to measure how well we’re meeting those needs, but our definition of data must be broad enough to include outcomes that can’t be captured with a standardized test.  We must trust our English teachers to plan instruction that is in the best interests of their students and to know when they’ve succeeded.  As a regular part of that instruction, creative writing can empower our students and give them ownership so critical to their motivation.  It can provide them essential practice at partnering with their peers in a world where more effective collaboration is sorely needed.  At its most powerful, creative writing can help turn our English courses into the life-changing experience that all educators want their classes to be.

An open letter to Secretary DeVos about arming teachers

This letter was also published by The Washington Post

Dear Secretary DeVos,

Last month my 7th grade students and I huddled on the floor of my classroom during yet another lockdown.  As the minutes ticked slowly past, I made eye contact with each student, one by one. I could see on their faces the absolute trust that I would guide them through whatever challenges we faced.

In the wake of the horrific gun deaths of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL last Valentine’s Day, the White House convened a school safety commission with you at the helm.  The Federal Commission on School Safety’s task was a really important one:  to find ways to keep us safer in our schools.

While your commission deliberated, the public did too.  Here’s what we came up with:

  • Teachers said they don’t want to carry guns.
  • Parents said they don’t want teachers to carry guns.
  • Teens said they don’t want teachers to carry guns.

Notice a trend?  

We did have some alternative suggestions, which we offered at every possible opportunity.  We asked for stricter firearms laws, including raising the age limit for gun purchases.  We wanted access to the assault weapons so frequently used in our nation’s mass shootings to be restricted.  We wanted increased resources for the chronically underfunded mental health supports that our students need to be socially and emotionally healthy.  

This week your commission released its final report.  

Among other things, your recommendation is that school systems consider training and arming personnel, including teachers, as ‘an effective tool in stopping acts of school violence.’  You considered raising the age limit for gun purchases but determined it ‘unlikely to be an effective method for preventing or reducing school shootings.’ The report did not discuss additional federal funding for mental health.

When our students are having trouble mastering a concept, we find an alternative way to teach it.  Since clear public polling didn’t seem to impact your commission’s decision-making process, let me explain my thoughts on the issue another way.

Like so many others, I have dedicated my life to public education and believe deeply in its potential for changing futures.  Our schools must be safe and nurturing spaces for those paths to develop, and occasionally they are not. I often play through the mental scenario of an armed intruder bursting through the classroom door, and I have no doubt that, if it came to that, my colleagues and I would lay down our lives for these students that we care so much about.

But I would quit teaching before I’d carry a gun in school–or even work in a place where my colleagues were armed.

What makes the magic in our public schools possible is the positive culture that professional educators work so hard to establish.  The relationships we build with our students help them see our classrooms as a safe harbor, a place where they will be respected and given the support they need to succeed.  That’s why, during a lockdown, I can look at each individual in my care and see the trust written on every single face–despite the fact that I’m unarmed.

We can’t keep that all-important culture intact while militarizing our classrooms.  It’s as simple as that.

I understand that your lack of experience in education makes it much more difficult for you to understand the nuances of national gun violence and school culture.  That’s why it’s so critical for you to listen to educators and to parents who, unlike you, have chosen to entrust their children to public schools. Hear us when we say that adding more guns to our buildings is not going to solve school shootings–it will only make things worse.  Statistically speaking, our schools are still very safe places to be.  The notion of a pistol-packing badass teacher taking out a villain in a blaze of gunfire sounds like the action movie fantasy of an out-of-touch, NRA-purchased politician.  

Let’s leave the firearms to law enforcement professionals.  


Justin Parmenter

7th grade public school teacher

Charlotte, NC

North Carolina’s teacher bonus scheme isn’t working. Let’s put that money into something we know does.

Next month a select group of North Carolina teachers will earn sizable bonuses–potentially more than $9000–for student performance on standardized tests.  The bonus scheme was conceived by Senator Phil Berger and implemented by state lawmakers in the 2016 budget.  Teachers first received the payments in January of 2017.  

That first year, only third grade reading teachers and some high school teachers were eligible to receive the additional money.  Legislators have since expanded the program to include reading for grades 3-5 and math in grades 4-8 in addition to high school AP, IB, and CTE courses.  This year a total of almost $39 million will be spent on the annually recurring teacher bonuses.  

Since we now have three years of data to compare, let’s look at the impact the bonuses are having on student learning in the subject that was first targeted:

After a very slight uptick the first year bonuses were paid out, third grade reading proficiency dropped almost two full percentage points in 2017-18.  Those results are consistent with research on the impact of financial incentives in education which finds that, not only do bonuses fail to increase student achievement, in some cases they even decrease it.  Introducing a spirit of competition among educators that you are already underpaying isolates teachers and damages the relationships that are critical to maintaining a positive school culture where collaboration and learning can flourish.  When the thousands of dollars in extra pay means those teachers may be able to pay off medical bills or quit their second job and have more time with their family it’s difficult to blame them.

Another fundamental flaw with the idea of offering teachers significant bonus money for standardized test scores is that this approach assumes that teachers aren’t already trying their best, that they are sitting on some excellent techniques which they will only pull out when they’re coaxed in the right way.  That’s not true of the teachers I know. We do our best to teach every single day despite low wages because we are committed to this job, and because we understand how crucial our efforts are to the futures of the students we serve.

Finally, we have to acknowledge that there are a whole host of other influences besides teaching quality that go into standardized test results.  But that is a topic for another blog post.

If state legislators are really interested in helping teachers to grow professionally, they need to restore funding for professional development which was cut from the budget during the height of the recession a decade ago and has never been restored.  Unlike monetary bonuses, effective professional development leads to higher student achievement.  When teachers are given the opportunity to collaborate, share best practices, implement new strategies, and receive ongoing support over time, they actually get better at teaching.  Unfortunately, those opportunities are few and far between.

North Carolina’s teacher bonuses are an unimaginative scheme hatched by state legislators who don’t have a clear understanding of what works in schools.  Rather than continuing to waste millions of taxpayer dollars and harm teacher morale, let’s focus on paying a decent base salary, go back to the drafting table, and find a path forward for teacher development that can really help students grow.  And this time invite some actual teachers to join that conversation.

New study finds that stress caused by high-stakes testing disproportionately impacts students of poverty

New research has established a physiological link between levels of stress prompted by high-stakes standardized testing and performance on those tests.  Researchers at Northwestern University, Texas A & M, and the Naval Postgraduate School found that the more economically disadvantaged students were, the more likely it was for their test results to be negatively impacted by test-induced stress.  The results call into serious question the wisdom of using standardized test scores as a primary measure for school achievement and as a critical driver of education policy.

Researchers measured levels of cortisol–a stress hormone found in saliva–to arrive at their findings.  They found that, during standardized testing, levels of cortisol increased an average of 15% over non-testing weeks.  Comparing results on the exam with other academic measures, they were able to document that those with the largest changes in cortisol levels scored much lower than expected on the exams.  Students living in the highest-poverty and highest-crime neighborhoods demonstrated the largest swings in cortisol. Researchers surmise that those changes in cortisol levels disrupt concentration and lead to disengagement with the testing environment.

This study has important implications for education policy everywhere, but particularly in North Carolina.  Our state relies heavily on standardized testing results to determine so many things: sizable teacher bonuses, placement in advanced courses (which can alter a student’s life trajectory), school report card grades and more.  Despite overwhelming community opposition, the NC State Board of Education is currently considering the addition of Wayne County’s 90% economically disadvantaged Carver Heights Elementary to the Innovative School District, a program which takes control of schools with chronically low standardized test scores away from the state and gives it to charters and other private organizations.  The school has earned an ‘F’ school report card grade for the last three years based on high-stakes testing results.

We’ve got to stop using one flawed measure that disadvantages students of poverty to drive so much of our policy.  Any good classroom teacher will tell you that broad and varied measures lead to the most accurate picture of student ability.  It’s high time we started using that approach at the state and federal levels as well.