Attn: Dr. Candice McQueen
Tennessee Commissioner of Education
March 7, 2016
Dear Dr. McQueen,
I’m writing in response to the recent issues with the Tennessee educational testing programs. I will not nitpick the failures of TNReady, nor bother to compare its merits to TCAP or any other standardized testing program for K-12 achievement. There are experts who can likely analyze in great detail what the data has offered.
I will, however, ask that you consider the larger picture. In the long history of researching human development, we have heard enumerable voices that support the idea that children and adults are developmentally different. We incorporate new and old information in vastly different ways. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), for example, suggested that children are not empty containers or blank slates but have their own modes of feeling and thinking. They develop different capacities and modalities at different stages. He says that adults, however, are far too dependent on the opinions of others. They have forgotten how to see with their own eyes and to think with their own minds; they only see and think what society expects them to. Yet when we allow children to learn in a more developmentally natural environment they learn to trust their own powers of judgment.
This theory of child development has persisted for centuries, and represents a foundation for some of the most effective and respected educational methodologies. In William Crain’s Theories of Development he says about Ernest Schachtel (1903-1975), that he “told us more about how parents, teachers, and peers stifle the child’s curiosity than how we might protect and encourage it. Like Rousseau, he implied that the most important thing is to avoid negative influences. If we can lessen our tendency to close off their world, children themselves will take an open, active interest in it, from their own spontaneous tendencies.”
I believe Tennessee’s greatest failure in public education is the over-emphasis on the value of testing data. This is the greatest negative influence over creativity, exploration of ideas, natural child developmental processes, and ultimately our ability to grow into adults who can trust our own powers of judgment.
I’m not exactly clear on all of the details that caused our educational administrators and public officials to support test-based curriculums. Perhaps at some point it seemed a bold move to acquire data that would hopefully prove a best-practice methodology for educating our young citizens. However I believe it’s the act of building standardized testing-based curriculums that excludes the actual best-practice educational methods. The test does not measure creativity, the ability to explore or be curious, or the ability to collaborate in a healthy work environment. Yet these skills are directly linked to happiness and success in life. High test scores are not.
We know that children learn through play, that they integrate information through all of their senses, that certain important developmental skills are learned through role-play and creativity. Yet there is very little time allowed in classrooms for these types of learning. Very little. I know, I have four children in elementary education. I love our school. I love our administrators and staff. I love the teachers. I see them squeeze creative, expressive blood from the test-heavy schedule and turnip of a standardized curriculum. They work hard. They love every single amazingly different kid in the school.
And you want to tell them they won’t get a raise or have a job next year if the test scores are not right?
At a minimum I would ask that the move to tie teacher evaluations to testing scores be abolished. Unless of course, we could even the playing field by funding all schools in Tennessee equally and remove tax-based school zones. Allow all schools to be fully integrated and equalized with an even distribution of students from all socioeconomic, racial, privilege, and ability levels. Then allow each school administrative and educational team to customize their own best-practice curriculum to fit the needs of their community school. Perhaps then we could adequately compare the skills and performance of our many teachers.
Most importantly I ask our commissioners, government representatives, senators, and school board members to have the courage to really look at what we have done to our society by allowing standardized testing to hold such a prominent place in our educational system. We have for decades robbed creative and dynamic learning opportunities from our young citizens. We have raised generations of young people who have learned so little about being curious and exploring ideas. Then we mock them when they enter the workforce unprepared for success.
If we are at a low point as we stare at the failures of our statewide testing program this year, can you ask yourself, “What can I do to make it better, make it right, for the future of our society?” Now is not a time to save face, shirk responsibility, or ignore the elephant in the room. We can, and must do better. It’s time to be bold again, and do what is right for our children.