Mr. Stephen Franklin has been teaching at Sun Valley Middle School in Sun Valley, Los Angeles, CA for 10 years. Shortly after his arrival, Mr. Franklin convinced his principal and the school district to allow him to implement an innovative elective class and to utilize unusual teaching techniques. As a result, Mr. Franklin has won some prestigious awards. He was honored with “Teacher of the Year” for grades K – 12 for the entire Los Angeles Unified School District for the 2004/2005 school year. This put him in the running for an even higher award “Teacher of the Year for Los Angeles County”. Mr. Franklin competed against every teacher in the entire county of Los Angeles, including multiple school districts and private schools. Mr. Franklin won, and thus was recognized as the best teacher in the entire county. In 2007, he was granted the Bank of America Local Hero Award for his contribution to the community as an outstanding teacher. Mr. Franklin is a shining example of the direction that teachers and schools should be moving in to bring a better quality education to our students. This is part one of an on going series.
Q: I keep hearing teachers complain that they can’t “teach well” because they have to “teach to the test”. Exactly what does that mean?
Q: Why is this test so important?
A: Since grading standards are set by the teacher, you can’t use grade point averages to rate a school’s quality as the grades are subjective. Observing classrooms is also a subjective measure. The standardized tests are an “apples to apples” objective test to compare exactly what kids know in each school.
The problem, though, is that it doesn’t rate the quality of education. I like to use the cooking analogy to explain why. Someone can be the best chef in the world, but if he has poor ingredients, then his food simply won’t be that tasty. Someone can be a mediocre chef, but with good ingredients can turn out wonderful meals. My school is the perfect example. Our student population consists of a majority of students who are of low socio-economic status, and who are English language learners (ELL students). Many of our students struggle with basic English language skills, and face the barriers that come from an inner-city environment. Many of our students have non-English speaking parents or family who are unavailable (due to employment issues) or unable to help them with their homework. Our school has a phenomenal teaching staff, but because of the kids’ handicaps, we may never have the same kinds of test results that you see in schools with a more “academically equipped” student population.
Q: If the test doesn’t rate quality of education, why is there so much emphasis on it?
A: In the mid-1980’s, standardized tests started to gain popularity as the prime educational measuring standard. “No Child Left Behind” magnified the testing mentality by linking federal funding of schools to the test scores. Today, many administrators feel that it is important to have high test scores. Some of these administrators will apply pressure to teachers by implying that their pay and/or employment status will somehow be affected if the students don’t perform well.
Ironically enough, the schools that tend to be more adversely impacted by teaching to the test are schools like mine. In schools where the students are more academically equipped, the students tend to learn the test material fairly quickly and the teacher can move on to curriculum that is more engaging to the students. But since our students are less academically equipped, it takes a lot longer to teach them the material. This creates a bad feedback loop. The drier the material, the less interested they are in learning it, and the harder it is to get them to learn it, the more time we spend on the dry material. And, as I implied earlier, I don’t view rote memorization as a quality education, so I believe “teaching to the test” is counter productive to the skills that are more important in life, such as critical thinking and essay writing.
Because of the scores, many would assume that the quality of education is only mediocre in my school. In fact, it is quite the opposite, with excellent learning taking place. The problem is this type of learning doesn’t translate easily into standardized tests.
Q: What does “academically equipped” mean?
A: A lot of things can be factored into “academically equipped”. I already mentioned English language skills and parents that can help them with homework as two tangible examples of what helps a child perform better academically. But, there is an intangible factor in the equation that is often overlooked when discussing “academically equipped”. Both parents and students must value education as a priority and be actively engaged in making the most of the education available. A child can have the best teacher on Earth, but if he isn’t interested in learning, there is not much the teacher can do to make him learn. Likewise, a parent may not be able to help his child with homework, but if the parent is able and engaged, he will find a tutor for the child. “Academically equipped” has a lot to do the child’s desire to learn and excel, which is often inspired by the parents. Unfortunately, in a school like mine, socio-economic barriers often impede on the family’s ability to put education as a high priority, and the language barrier magnifies the problems. We have many students who are willing and able to learn but don’t have a support network to help them.
Q: You don’t “teach to the test”, though. How can you get away with that?
A: I teach history and an elective. While history is on the standardized tests, it is not factored into the school’s rating scores. So, I don’t have to worry about test scores and can teach what I feel is important for the kids to learn. I can assign fun and interesting projects that engage the students and make them want to learn, instead of making the kids simply memorize facts.
In the future, if the history portion is included in the scores, I would consider altering my style to teaching to the test. It really depends on how much pressure I get from the administrators to do so. But, as long as I am not pressured, I am not going to change my teaching techniques.