High Stakes Standardized Testing Sent Me to Jail & Saved My Teaching Soul
Last April (2014) I poured myself into a narrative that I titled, “My High Stakes Testing Story.” Within it I described the struggles that I encountered with testing and my 3rd grader at home. Then, I related events from the high school I taught at, which had morphed from a beacon of learning to a den of despair because of the burdensome emphasis on tests attached to unknown chimerical numbers that students were supposed to ascend to. I explained how I chose to return to the reason why I entered the profession almost 18 years ago: students. When I learned last spring of yet another standardized test that the district bought in order to gather student scores to represent 35% of my composite educator rating, I told my students to choose their favorite lettered bubbles, color them, and take a nap. My students complied. I was on the brink of leaving the profession entirely, and began applying for non teaching jobs all over the country. In June 2014, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) published my teacher rating on their website as “skilled” for seekers to view. Apparently, my students had met “average” expectations on their test in April. I have no idea how. I never saw the results. Students never saw the results. I have no idea what the expectation was. At that point, I was already committed, with a laser-like focus, on fleeing the asylum that had disguised itself as education and accountability.
Meanwhile, around the end of the school year, a rare opening occurred at the juvenile county detention facility school. Ohio has not figured out how to tie test scores to teachers who work at detention facilities (although they are trying to), and the curriculum is not driven by tests because county facilities serve multiple school districts, and the student population changes daily. Instead, there is a general curriculum based on state and district scope and sequences. After an application process, I was offered a position. For twenty percent less money per school year, I accepted an instructional placement at the county juvenile detention center in order to stay in a profession that I cherish. Now, each school day, I walk through sheriff security scan number one, swipe my ID card for the first door, go through sheriff security scan two, get “buzzed” through two more locked doors, and finally swipe my ID card one more time for access to the school part of the facility.
Concrete white block, by concrete white block, working with detained young men has rebuilt and renewed my vehemence for teaching. However, a persistent weight remains on my heart because the utopian conditions for my teaching are partially the result of the scarcity of research based, intelligently designed, properly funded, fully accessible schools in our nation. It is unfortunate for our country’s children that the most consistent place for an education, replete with all of the services and educational opportunities that students need, is in a detention facility.
What makes working at this juvenile detention facility so idealistic?
- On site medical and mental health services for students every day
- Physical Education class for an hour each school day
- Every student is fed
- Every student is clothed and warm
- Every student gets plenty of sleep
- Every student is escorted to school on time each day
- Students are free from non prescribed chemical influences
- Role models that they can relate to surround students
- A full time volunteer coordinator is on site
- Full time social workers are on site
- Full time activity coordinators are on site
- Full time 24 hour housekeeping staff (it is the cleanest place I have ever worked)
- Staff and students feel safe because of the high security and 24 hour detention officers present
- Class size does not rise above 18 students
- Campus administration not only trusts the teachers to navigate their instruction along the most beneficial course for the students, but they support any endeavors the staff presents that may help children
- Educators are trusted (This has been foreign to me for a while, so I have to reiterate.)
- A state of the art classroom with a smartboard, whiteboard, laptop, chromebooks, projector, WiFi, desk phone, and always-available supplies for students and teachers
What if this was how all schools were in underprivileged urban areas? Would there even need to be a juvenile detention center? Would states need to continue to spend four times more on incarceration versus education? Could that spending trend actually be reversed?
Many people give me an odd glance of sorts when I tell them where I teach. They have no idea how much these young men inspire me with their potential and the positive possibilities. They are, scientifically and legally speaking, still children, and their adolescent brains are malleable. If they are with me long enough to chip away at their walls built upon blocks of self doubt, tragedy, fear, addiction, and systems that usually fail them, then their curiosity, creativity, social skills, and confidence can be rebuilt. THAT is what school should be about! (Notice there is nothing about high stakes standardized tests in “My Ultimate School.”) If all urban schools were like mine, educators all over could be gathering blocks mistakenly labeled as “poorly performing,” “academic emergency,” and “failure,” and begin building steps, instead of walls, to a better future for these students, and for all of us.
Humans of New York Jan. 20, 2015
“Who’s influenced you the most in your life?”
“My principal, Ms. Lopez.”
“How has she influenced you?”
“When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”