Teacher Wonders Why We Are Intent On Shaming Students

Launa Hall is a third-grade teacher in northern Virginia.  She has written an excellent essay for The Washington Post about her experiences with using data in an attempt to “motivate” students.

Here are some excerpts:

“My third-graders tumbled into the classroom, and one child I’d especially been watching for — I need to protect her privacy, so I’ll call her Janie — immediately noticed the two poster-size charts I’d hung low on the wall. Still wearing her jacket, she let her backpack drop to the floor and raised one finger to touch her name on the math achievement chart. Slowly, she traced the row of dots representing her scores for each state standard on the latest practice test. Red, red, yellow, red, green, red, red. Janie is a child capable of much drama, but that morning she just lowered her gaze to the floor and shuffled to her chair.

In our test-mired public schools, those charts are known as data walls, and before I caved in and made some for my Northern Virginia classroom last spring, they’d been proliferating in schools across the country — an outgrowth of “data-driven instruction” and the scramble for test scores at all costs. Making data public, say advocates such as Boston Plan for Excellence, instills a “healthy competitive culture.” But that’s not what I saw in my classroom.

That late night when I got out my markers and drew the charts, I rationalized that it was time to drop all pretenses. Our ostensible goal in third grade was similar to what you’d hear in elementary schools everywhere: to educate the whole child, introduce them to a love of learning and help them discover their potential. We meant that wholeheartedly. But the hidden agenda was always prepping kids for the state’s tests. For third-graders, Virginia has settled on 12 achievement standards in reading and 20 in math, each divided further into subsections. And once blossoms were on the trees, we were just a few weeks from the exams that would mark us as passing school or a failing one. We were either analyzing practice tests, taking a test or prepping for the next test. Among the teachers, we never stopped talking about scores, and at a certain point it felt disingenuous not to tell the kids what was really going on.

I regretted those data walls immediately. Even an adult faced with a row of red dots after her name for all her peers to see would have to dig deep into her hard-won sense of self to put into context what those red dots meant in her life and what she would do about them. An 8-year-old just feels shame.

The data walls made it harder for me to reach and teach my students, driving a wedge into relationships I’d worked hard to establish. I knew Janie to be an extremely bright child — with lots of stresses in her life. She and I had been working as a team in small group sessions and in extra practice after school. But the morning I hung the data walls, she became Child X with lots of red dots, and I became Teacher X with a chart.

Of course, I tried to mitigate the shame she felt. I let her loudly sing a song she made up, and I made time for one of our conversations on the playground. Did my efforts at reconnection help? Maybe a little. But she still had all those red dots for everyone to see.

And consider exactly who is being shamed by data walls. Janie is part of an ethnic minority group. She received free breakfast and lunch every school day last year, and some days that’s all she ate. Her family had no fixed address for much of the year, and Janie, age 8, frequently found herself the responsible caretaker of younger siblings. That’s who is being shamed.

When policymakers mandate tests and buy endlessly looping practice exams to go with them, their image of education is from 30,000 feet. They see populations and sweeping strategies. From up there, it seems reasonable enough to write a list of 32 discrete standards and mandate that every 8-year-old in the state meet them. How else will we know for sure that teaching and learning are happening down there?

Teaching the young wasn’t supposed to feel like this. When we imagine the ideal elementary school, we see walls covered with things the kids made. We see kids clustered around tadpoles and taking notes in crooked, exuberant handwriting. We hear “Oh, wow!” from teachers and children alike, and the murmur of many voices talking it over and figuring it out. We smell grass stains on sweaty little kids because they just ran in from a long romp outdoors. And why shouldn’t our elementary schools be what we wish for? The whole ideal of school, this particular means to pass our accumulated human knowledge from one generation to the next, is a construct we made up. Why not make it wonderful? Why not make it work?

We are failing our kids. The writing is on the wall.”

Some where along the way I learned that the farther from the classroom decisions are being made, the poorer the decisions.  Launa Hall understands this.  As do thousands of her counterparts in Alabama classrooms.  Unfortunately their voices are seldom heard.

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