Earlier this week I was on late bus duty in the gym. A bus had overheated, and while a mechanic worked on getting it running again students were sitting in the gym and waiting.
A second grade boy approached me and said, “I’m feeling tired. What should I do?” I asked, “Well, do you have a backpack?” He said he did. I said, “How about you use it for a pillow, lay down and get some rest?” I told him I would wake him up when the bus was fixed. He thanked me and said, “Don’t forget to wake me up!” and went to get his backpack pillow straight. It was a charming interaction that reminded me how much I love being a teacher because of all the ways I get to be a positive presence in the lives of others.
The very next day I found an envelope in my third grade daughter’s backpack. She recently took her first major End of Grade standardized reading test, and the envelope contained her score report. The report details for parents and students whether the child’s test result is on grade level and whether it meets what are called “College and Career Readiness Standards.”
Think about that for a minute.
Our schools are communicating to some third graders that they are not on track to go to college or have a career–at the same time that their classroom teachers are trying their best to encourage them to dream big and believe in themselves.
We’re telling the young man who is hoping to be the first person in his family to get a degree that it’s not looking good. The 9 year-old girl who was entertaining notions of becoming a doctor and then maybe even the first female president of the United States is now hearing that she is probably not destined for greatness after all.
The idea of measuring whether children are college or career material is rooted in the Common Core movement. That initiative to raise academic standards and strengthen accountability was originally started by state governors and business leaders who felt that schools were too often giving high school diplomas to students who lacked the skills they needed to be successful.
A few years after this group began work, the Common Core standards were introduced. Then, in 2013, North Carolina’s State Board of Education adopted College and Career Readiness measures which indicate that any student who scores a 3 or lower on a standardized test is not on a trajectory that will lead to college or a career.
This is the kind of thing that happens when the folks who are crafting education policy are hopelessly out of touch with what’s going on in our schools. An idea which may have sounded reasonable to a CEO, a career politician or a board member can end up doing real damage in the classroom, where professional educators who want to change lives for the better are doing the actual work with children.
Here’s what any good teacher can tell you: For students–and, really, for anyone–failure is painful. The way humans react to pain is generally to pull back and avoid it. So the reaction some of our children have to academic failure is to think, “Well, that’s really not for me anyway” and put their energy somewhere that makes them feel successful.
Now consider that this particular score we’re reporting to them is a one-time, hours-long, high-pressure test which is framed as the primary measure of their learning for the year. If their result on this all-important test says that they aren’t cut out for a career or for higher education, do we honestly expect them to be motivated by that information?
Standards are important, and teachers must set high expectations for students and push them to stretch hard towards their brightest future. And we do. But the messages that we send our students around their learning need to be nurturing, especially for those who most need support. Telling third graders that they aren’t going to college and they won’t have a career unless they get their act together should NOT be part of that conversation.