One of my favorite movies of all time is The Matrix. In this film Keanu Reeves stars as Neo, a young man who lives in a dystopian future where most human beings live in a simulated reality world designed to keep them unaware that machines are harvesting their energy. Neo is “unplugged” from the Matrix by a group of rebels and he is able to ‘see’ the world the way it truly is – a desolate wasteland controlled by machines. Neo’s purpose then becomes to fight this system and awaken the rest of humanity. I have been thinking about this movie a lot recently as I contemplate the state of education today. Some of you may think that I am reaching by comparing a movie about the possible end of humanity with the state of education. However, as a major proponent of public education, I feel that we are at a desperate point in our history where we are at odds with what seems like a conflicting force against our education system.
As most educators (and some non-educators) are aware, education is controlled by standardized testing. We are trapped in a system where we are judged solely by how well students perform on an end of the year test. No one is questioning whether we should be utilizing assessments. Assessments are an integral part of education and must be used to help guide our instruction. Formative assessments are certainly the most beneficial to what we do, as they are given throughout the teaching and learning process and assist in knowing if our students are indeed ‘getting it’. Summative assessments in the form of standardized testing are crucial to ensure that we have taught specific standards and to determine how well our students have mastered them. The issue that arises is that the results of these assessments are not given until near the end of the school year or after the school year has ended. At that point it becomes impossible to do anything with those results. The other concern that I have is that most people assume that assessments are only of the pencil and paper variety. However, there are numerous forms of assessments, including performances, conferences, exit tickets, creating advertisements, and so many more.
The trouble that lies within our current system is that standardized test results have become so much a part of education that it seems like we might never break free from it. There are so many amazing things happening in schools right now and there are awesome teachers doing everything they can to help make their students’ lives better. However, the general public has been taught not to care unless those students are attending an A-rated school. The media, politicians and school districts have focused attention on school grades. What has happened is that exceptional educators lose their spark because our system tells them that unless their students do well on the end-of-the-year test they haven’t accomplished anything. Isn’t that unfortunate? We will end up driving more individuals away from the teaching profession. Many of our schools are in danger of becoming ‘compliance factories’ – schools that only live to assess so that they can report progress to the school district. What a shame that we are turning what I believe to be the most meaningful career into one filled with fear and mistrust. What should be a field of creativity is (or has become in some cases) one in which teachers and schools are mandated on what to teach and how to teach.
So how do we break away from this mindset? How do we ‘unplug’ from our own version of The Matrix? Sadly, I’m not sure if that it is possible anymore. The use of standardized tests to rate schools and teachers has become too ingrained in all of our thoughts about education. We would not be able erase this connection, especially because the testing companies control so much of what is said and done in education. I’m sure that you have heard or read about school districts that are making a stand by saying they will not have their students take standardized tests. I wonder how many of them will stick to this plan once they realize that they will not receive certain state funds for non-compliance.
What I do have is hope. Hope that things will turn around and teachers and schools will be judged by the qualities we instill in our students and not only by one test score. Hope that the public recognizes that when we help our students discover their passions, we are helping them find themselves. I want my students to remember me as the person who brought them love; who created learning experiences that enabled them to discover their path; who allowed them to see themselves as the amazing individuals that they are. My wish is that more people outside of education see things the way that those of us inside do. My message to those people comes from Dr. Seuss at the end of his book, The Lorax:
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
Help us care more about kids and less about how they perform on a test. My students are definitely more than a test score.