Bulldozing the forests. . .

Cranky Blogger Warning:  Be aware that this entry was written after a long and miserable week!  While its topic is timely and true, its tone may be as much a result of timing as of anything!

Easily the most interesting book on my reading list right now is titled The Whale Warriors. It documents the voyage of a group of environmentalists whose sole goal is to stop illegal whaling in the earth’s waters—even if it means sinking vessels by ram or by mine.

Crazy stuff, for sure.

While reading today, however, I discovered that commercial fishing is—in some bizarre fashion—a lot like schooling in America. Here’s how:

Every year long line and bottom trawling vessels decimate wide swaths of ocean in a hunt for target species. While it is true that thousands of feet of netting dragged through miles of open ocean is likely to result in large catches of species prized by consumers and fishermen alike, it is also true that those same nets trap thousands of pounds of unwanted fish as well. Consider this quote from Whale Warriors:

“Weighted nets are dragged in and the target species are thrown into the hold, while all the rest are chucked overboard, dead or dying. Wasted…Between the longlines and bottom trawlers, 7 million tons of thriving ocean life is tossed as bycatch annually. Hundreds of thousands of sea mammals—seals, dolphins, sea lions—are dumped…

Bottom trawling is like bulldozing the forest, killing everything in it, to get at the wild turkeys. That’s what it leaves, a smoking waste.”


Pretty graphic image, right?

This passage moved me because, in many ways, I think that our nation’s embrace of standardized testing has had the same impact on teaching and learning. We’ve stripped our classrooms of anything that doesn’t have a proven connection to increased scores. Art and music are thrown overboard, along with lessons that emphasize creativity, collaboration or innovation.

We don’t reward students who think differently.  Instead, we create instructional plans that produce the kinds of thinking that is tested.

And like long-lining and bottom trawling, we’ve had enough success with our approach to schooling that we’re willing to overlook the unintended costs of our actions. We seem to take a blind satisfaction in numbers. As passing rates and SAT scores rise, we are comforted by the belief that we’re doing the right thing and unaware of what we’ve lost along the way. “As long as our children are successful,” we say—forgetting that our vision of success has narrowed remarkably in the past two decades.

But I’m afraid that we’ve bulldozed the forest to get to the turkeys!  At the very least, I know that my work has been bulldozed.

You see, I no longer drift very far from multiple choice questions at all.  Seminars—once a mainstay in my classroom because they encourage students to think creatively and to wrestle with deep ideas together—are now a twice-a-year event.  Why?  Because they take too long to teach, the skills required in a seminar are not tested (even though they are in my required curriculum), and I fall behind in our pacing guide.

Almost every lesson begins and end with practice questions.  We have pretests for every practice test and then we debrief after taking tests, recording the kinds of questions we have to master before future tests.  I’d guess that my kids answer close to 200 multiple choice questions a month.

Seems like a drastic reaction, right?

Not when you consider that–unlike the education professionals who work in non-tested subjects–I’m held accountable for one thing and one thing only:  the numbers my kids put up each year on end of grade exams.  While others are evaluated on slightly ridiculous, overly nebulous, warm and fuzzy difficult to measure contributions—like these “foundational common beliefs” set by the American Association of School Librarians  (I’ll give you 10 bucks if you can effectively argue that “Reading is a Window to the World” is a standard while keeping a straight face.)—- I’m judged by how many kids choose the right answer on a multiple choice exam.

That dichotomy is destroying buildings.    Consider my fall:  Our reading scores came back and they weren’t quite what everyone had expected.  In our “data debrief” meeting, my sixth grade LA team was called “decidedly average” in front of the entire faculty because our scores didn’t meet expectations—Never mind the constant “we’re all reading teachers” mantra making it’s way through the edu-sphere.

That leaves me bitter towards colleagues beyond the tested classroom.  I resent that teaching has become automated in my room and feel a sense of regret over what I’ve lost because I know that I’ve got another benchmark to give in a week.

While my peers beyond the classroom get to educate, I do little more than mechanically train my students to pass exams.  Much like the oceans, my work has simply been gutted.

I’m trying to take hope from the environmentalists who remain somewhat optimistic about our oceans, regardless of how dark the current situation may seem.  Consider this quote from The Whale Warriors:

“The good news is that half of the coral reefs are still in good shape and ten percent of the big fish remains. Sea turtles are not all gone, and some albatrosses still grace the skies above the world’s oceans. Best of all, people are becoming aware of the significance of the ocean to their health, their prosperity, their security and more importantly their survival.”

Like those that protect the oceans, I think people—particularly parents—are intensely aware of the significance of education to the health, prosperity, security and survival of their children. Never before have we lived in a time when a high quality education was as great a determinant in success as today. Quite simply, our children no longer compete with neighbors and friends for future employment—their competing in a borderless world with millions of driven children from around the globe.

That reality has forced us to be more sophisticated when judging quality—and to be more outspoken when we sense that something has gone awry. We’re beginning to question the merits of a system of education where creativity and a passion for discovery are replaced by test preparation. We’re learning—and beginning to actively redefine what successful students look like.

Perhaps resilience—paired with growing awareness and understanding—will inevitably lead to better public policies that balance the need to hold schools accountable with the desire to produce well-rounded students.