Since the summer of 1998 when I first moved to Florida, our state has been possessed by the notion of testing and accountability. Jeb Bush based much of his gubernatorial campaign on the idea that public schools were in need of reform, and that by assigning grades to teachers, schools and districts, they would foster a new era of accountability.
The FCAT came and went, creating much consternation at every level in the K12 sector. Kids were–and still are–stressed out by all the high-stakes testing; teachers felt–and still feel–micromanaged and betrayed by our elected officials who claim to know what’s best for our students, despite the fact that they have had no classroom experience and little to no input from the professionals who serve our children every day.
But here’s the thing: I get it. I get where they’re coming from. I think many teachers do try to understand our legislators’ motives, because we all want what’s best for our kids, and that begins with holding our students to high expectations and measuring them against standards. The Legislature wants the same from us, but it has largely gone about it the wrong way. Testing kids in the way that we do is no good for their academic welfare, let alone their well-being.
If we look at the top two education systems in the world, Finland and South Korea, they both have similar approaches. There is very little–if any–standardized testing. Students are given multiple pathways to demonstrate mastery of their subjects, much of which is evaluated holistically through student portfolios that capture the big picture of the child’s learning. It’s a window into how the student’s mind works, how he or she is learning to think critically about the world and be engaged with it in a meaningful way. Standardized testing, by contrast, essentially tells us whether or not a student is good at taking a test relative to other children taking the same assessment.
The teachers in these systems are also radically different. In those countries, there is significant cultural esteem to being a teacher. They are revered precisely because the future generation and the fate of the entire nation have been placed in their hands to shape for the better. Teachers are also culled from the university’s top graduates, often ranking in the top two percent of their respective graduating classes. These people could be doctors or engineers, but they are handpicked to be teachers. Finally, they are seen as consummate professionals who need no significant oversight from outside forces.
While a valid critique of these systems’ successes may hinge on their cultural homogeneity, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to adopt a similar path here in the Sunshine State or the entire U.S. We need to treat kids like human beings again, not cogs in a machine to churn out test results. Every teacher needs to forge ahead and start building a more humane education system. It begins with us, the professionals in the classroom, and it ends with those who matter most–our kids.