On Friday, NYC School Chancellor Carmen Fariña sent out a message to principals, which a friend shared with me. In it, she recognizes the pressure principals and teachers (not to mention students) are feeling about the upcoming state tests, but urges principals to keep the tests in perspective. She reminds readers that engaging project, trips to historical sites, oral presentations, are what “make students enthusiastic about coming to school” and are still remembered decades later.  Test preparation tasks “may play a role,” she writes, but they do not “foster a sense of well-being and they should not be the heart and soul of the school experience for our students.”

It’s refreshing and relieving to hear a message like this one from an education leader.  I imagine, too, that this message would be confusing for principals, when schools have, for so long, been ranked, punished and closed based on test scores.  How can these two ideas be reconciled? Perhaps they can’t. One message prioritizes short term, standardized and measurable goals, and the other is about long term, human and mostly intangible results.

Fariña gestures toward a claim that the best test preparation is, in fact, a well-rounded education with lots of developmentally meaningful experiences.  She closes with a message that includes specific recommendation to continue teaching literature in schools, which is wonderful to hear:

“As educators, most of us know that the best preparation for the test is a rich, thoughtful, engaging curriculum that awakens curiosity in students, inspires them to ask questions, helps them explore complex problems, and encourages them to imagine possibilities. We understand that the best classrooms are lively places where students are immersed in conversation, debating ideas, and developing perspectives and viewpoints. And, because the single best way to improve reading proficiency is to read, and read, and read, students in these classrooms are reading plenty of authentic literature in addition to nonfiction. Literature is helping them to understand themselves, and to make sense of the world and their experience in it. They can lose themselves in books, and find themselves as well. And, research says that along the way, they are also becoming more empathetic human beings.” –NYC School Chancellor Carmen Fariña

I hope principals do pass this message along to teachers especially teachers of English in their schools. The children of NYC deserve trips, hands-on projects, debate, pleasure reading, and literature study.  There is no standard that cannot be taught in a meaningful and memorable way.  I also hope DiBlasio and Fariña come through on their promise to greatly reduce the emphasis on testing data as the gold standard measure of student learning, so that principals and teachers are not experiencing a confusing double message much longer.


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