“Toxic Testing is Taking Its Toll”: An English Almost-Teacher’s Despair Is Our Shared Anguish

by Dawn Kirby

Picture of a pencil lying on top of a test answer sheet with bubble in answer options. One of the questions has test as the options instead of the traditional ABCDE

In a recent post to the NCTE Teaching and Learning forum, a student teacher sent out a poignant plea for encouragement. The pressure she feels in her school to teach and test reading, writing, and other literacy abilities  scares and demoralizes her.  She explains that she’s felt these pressures before, and now she’s also watching the despair teachers in her school are experiencing. The pressures have increased more than ever before to an unbearable level. She asks for advice: “Please—I am truly desperate . . . this time.” What experienced teacher, informed parent or principal, or knowledgeable PTA leader does not feel her anguish?

Her concerns are emblematic of what many K-12 public school teachers face under current restrictive testing and teaching mandates:

The lack of support that teachers experience is staggering. Emotional support is lacking when the public seems not to realize the essential role literacy teachers have in education. Practical, concrete support is lacking when teachers face increasing class sizes and salaries near minimum wage despite their level of education, experience, and plain hard work. The negative atmosphere persists and demands for toxic testing of literacy and other learning amass.

Shifting Trends

This not-yet teacher pleading for encouragement is not alone. Some school administrators are beginning to see that testing is harming education and are saying so, publicly.  Some teachers are resigning to protest their pay and an over-emphasis on testing, and are saying so, publicly. The student teacher writing desperately for advice may find solace in these trends. I hope so because we have no magic wands to wave and correct what ails education. What additional thoughts might be relevant to desperate, demoralized, and concerned teachers everywhere?

Considerations for Frustrated Teachers, Parents, and Administrators

As I consider how to respond to this plea for encouragement from a fellow English teacher, several ideas come to mind.

First, educators and those who support true education must speak with their vote. We are a divided nation in many ways, including politically. There is no one “correct” way to vote. Each citizen has the obligation to vote for the individual, not a political party, in an effort to elect school board members (if they aren’t appointed), superintendents, governors (who appoint educational officials), congress members in states and nationally, and others who know education as a profession, not just as something they endured as a child. Those with experience, integrity, and grit need to be in charge of educational policy. An ongoing bias against teachers as lazy and culpable won’t get educational reform anywhere useful.

Second, we all need to read.  What are the issues? What facts do we need to know to enter the conversation with more than righteous indignation, regardless of our stance? What is the language of reform, policy, accountability, and assessment? Start with Diane Ravitch’s recent articles, books, and blogs. She has shifted her opinions lately about educational policy, and for good reason. Let’s read to learn.

Third, educators need support from colleagues, parents, and governmental and educational officials. The vast majority of teachers work hard to adhere to sound instructional literacy practice; they benefit from parents and administrators who support their efforts. So much occurs that is beyond a classroom teacher’s control. For example, educational officials decide to cut class time and give teachers more students to educate daily. What’s a teacher to do? I advise adopting a “less is more” philosophy: Spend more time teaching well with quality materials and less time in senseless grading. Grade final papers, not first drafts. Students don’t need to define a noun in order to write well. Work with the big questions, not the minutia of itty-bitty trivia. These are strategies that have worked well for me and other teachers in both high school and university English teaching.

Fourth, educators need the support to speak out on issues vital to quality education. The vast majority of teachers are working hard to provide rigor and excellence to their students. Although tenure is a controversial topic right now, the security of not being fired without strong justification (tenure) allows beginning and experienced teachers to voice new ideas, enter the professional dialogue, try innovative instructional strategies, and find their terra firma as professionals. Education is a dynamic, not static, complex process that deserves careful consideration and exploration. If you think your job is on the line for disagreeing with your boss, how free will you feel to express new ideas? Most of us can answer that question easily.

This atmosphere of toxic testing, lack of public support for teachers, and uninformed policy and practice mandates is having an effect not just on individual teachers and their students trying to learn to read and write, but also on our national education rankings. We are not the global educational leaders we once were.

The World’s Top 20 Countries for Education

The U.S. educational system once led global ratings. No more. What happened?

Sometimes the emperor simply has no clothes. Having standards and accountability makes sense; but what started out as a potentially good idea veered off track badly, as despairing teachers illustrate. How will we know where we went wrong if no one raises questions and proposes alternate ideas? In a democracy, free speech and the exchange of ideas are crucial. Part of what literacy education does is teach students how to reason, think critically, and engage in dialogue. In our rush to assess, to hold teachers accountable, we’re losing sight of these literacy goals.

Which countries’ educational systems are  top-rated now and why? We benefit from looking at other models through which students’ achievements and learning soar.  Telling ourselves we have a great educational system doesn’t make it so, no matter how loud we get or how much we want simply to believe it.

Teachers of the Future, The Future of Teaching

We all need our best teachers to stick with the job, to do what they do better than anyone else: educate.

If we have an educational system in which the submissive and downtrodden are the only ones who survive working in it, we all lose. If our best and brightest aren’t becoming teachers and staying in the profession, who will the teachers of the future be? What will happen to our students’ literacy abilities–and to all education–in the future? These are troubling questions.

Let these questions simmer in your brain a while.

In 1971, long before our newest teachers were born, we learned from Neal Postman and Charles Weingartner that teaching is a subversive activity. It is true now more than ever in ways the authors couldn’t fully envision. We have the responsibility to speak out and to do what is right to educate our students, to give them authentic literacy experiences in the classroom, and to assess their achievements in meaningful ways. If students are to write well, they need the opportunity to write often and receive feedback on their writing. Teachers struggling with restrictive testing, huge classes, and demoralization simply cannot be expected to teach writing as they know they should, as they know students need to be taught. Our entire national educational standing is suffering, in part, because our students and teachers are not receiving support for teaching with authentic literacy experiences.

When we all do our part to support teaching and learning in general–and to support especially the essential teaching and assessing of writing in authentic, not just pragmatic, ways–maybe we won’t see any more pleas for encouragement from “truly desperate” English teachers. What a good thing that would be for us, for our children, and for literacy learning.

Dawn Kirby is Senior Associate Dean and Professor of English in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Utah State University. She began her career as a high school English teacher and has held faculty and/or academic administrative positions in AZ, CO, FL, GA, and now UT. Her books offer a plethora of innovative strategies for teachers actively to support literacy, teach writing, and follow best practices without selling their souls.

7 thoughts on ““Toxic Testing is Taking Its Toll”: An English Almost-Teacher’s Despair Is Our Shared Anguish

  1. Locally, this weekend marked the halfway point of the school year. Your post, Dawn, is a great halftime pep talk. While we will face the testing opponent in the spring, we have more that we can do besides grumble.

  2. Pingback: “Toxic Testing is Taking Its Toll”: An English Almost-Teacher’s Despair Is Our Shared Anguish | edukention

  3. Pingback: “Toxic Testing is Taking Its Toll” - Literacy & NCTE

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  5. Pingback: A Formula for Failure: The Problem with Formulaic Writing | Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

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