High stakes testing puts teachers at risk

There is mounting evidence that many of the strategies broadly adopted in response to high stakes, low quality testing around the country are shrinking the curriculum and actually causing U.S. students to regress rather than progress intellectually. More subtle, yet equally disturbing, is the growing realization that those same ill-conceived reforms can ruin good teachers (those that aren’t driven out of the system entirely).

Consider these vignettes from two of my Teacher Leaders Network colleagues that highlight the pressures faced by teachers at different ends of the instructional spectrum:

From L.N. — “High needs schools tend to have much more rigid requirements in terms of curriculum and instruction. There is considerably less trust of teachers’ abilities to positively impact student learning. As a result, there is less opportunity for teachers to demonstrate that they can tailor instruction to student needs because they are not allowed to do so. It is not unusual at all to see scripted curricula and/or rigid planning guides that are closely monitored by higher ups that try to ‘teacher proof’ education.”

From M.R.– “While I wish it was as easy as many people think it is, teaching in the suburbs comes with its own specialized skill set. Without that skill set you are shark bait. Except in my environment it is the parents that will eat you up. They are accomplished professionals in their own right and they are used to their children performing at the highest levels. If the kids stumble, there is heck to pay. They want technology integration, differentiated instruction and individualized lesson planning everyday, every hour…(T)his is how they lead their professional lives 24/7, and they treat teachers just like someone they would interact with on a business deal. You better know your stuff, be able to explain it, defend it and advocate for it. If you can’t, they’ll demand that their student be moved (and the request will always be honored) to another teacher’s classroom who can…

“When the teachers from high-needs schools transfer to my environment, they don’t know how to react to micro-managed parental involvement. They don’t know what to do with parents that question why you assigned 6 problems instead of 5…why you did this or did that….how you decided this assignment was worth 20 points in the schema of the quarter, etc etc etc. They hate the fact that the administrators want to see item analysis for every test and want you to explain why more kids are not ‘successful.’ They hate it. They rail against. Mostly they’re angry that someone would dare to question their professional judgment….”

These scenes suggest that just as students who move from narrowly focused, test-centered instruction tend to flounder when they move to situations (postsecondary education, workforce) that require applied use or higher order thinking, so too may constricted teachers have to regain their professional balance if they move to a less restrictive environment. These mind-numbing, scripted curriculums are one reason some great teachers have become even more reluctant to work in high needs schools.

My own ancedotal observations support this theory, but I’d like to hear more from others.