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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 2, October 2007

Testing obsession undermining learning

By Susan Lambert

Ila Chapman, a Burnaby teacher, recently wrote a letter to the editor. She described "the stress, pressure, and added expectations and responsibilities laid on teachers" that are exacting a terrible toll. I know Ila Chapman. She is a consummate teacher--always examining her own practice and always willing to share ideas and units with her colleagues.

When Chapman says she is stressed, you know the whole system is stressed. Her letter listed the expectations that she says are crowding out her ability to teach: new report cards, assessments that require inordinate amounts of time, a crowded curriculum, the lack of support for children with special needs.

She is eloquent about the devastating effects when FSAs are unable to differentiate between the individual needs of children. "They’re supposed to be a small ‘snapshot’ of achievement." But they don’t take into account "...if a child lost his dog the night before, had a horrendous fight with a sibling, or is hungry or simply refuses to put forth a good effort." Chapman’s school has been chosen to pilot the FSA and for her this is the last straw. "Does anyone at the ministry care at all about the logistical nightmare they have caused us?"

Chapman concludes "At some point we won’t have any energy left with which to solve all the problems and demands put before us." She is speaking for thousands of teachers across the province who are enduring what Andy Hargreaves, in his new paper, "The Long and Short of Educational Reform," (2007) calls initiative overload.

Ironically, government initiatives to reform our public education system are largely responsible for the anxiety and stress that is characteristic of schools today.

The public education system in BC is arguably one of the best in the world. We do better than most countries, coming second only to Finland on international measures even though we have a much more diverse population. And yet there has been over recent years an attack on public education that is truly puzzling. Why does Michael Campbell write in a recent Vancouver Sun column of the crisis in public education? What is the basis for calls for reform, the flurry of legislation, the hastily crafted public policy initiatives and the relentless testing?

Reform efforts, like the accountability/achievement policies, which use FSA scores to publicly pit schools against each other, undermine public confidence. These policies have been tried (and have failed) in the United States, England, and New Zealand all of which fall far below us on international measures. Rather than emulating these jurisdictions, Hargreaves suggests we learn from Finland where there is almost no testing, and where:

"...trusted teams of teachers [write] much of the curriculum together at the level of the municipality, in ways that adjust to the students they know best. In schools characterized by an uncanny calmness, teachers exercise their palpable sense of professional and social responsibility in their efforts to care especially for children at the bottom, so as to lift them to the level of the rest. This is achieved not by endless initiatives, targeted interventions, or constant crunching of numbers, but by quiet, professional co-operation among all the teachers involved."

Here in BC, reform efforts come with funding cuts. Our spending on education as a percentage of provincial GDP fell 16% between 1998–99 and 2004–05, and as a result we are the only province that has increased its pupil/teacher ratio. We now have the highest PTR in the country.

Reform efforts in BC encourage the privatization of public education. The funding of private schools has increased to the detriment of public education. Now parents can apply for reimbursement of fees for educational courses, assessments, and services bought from private sources. These reforms increase the disparity between the rich and the poor and will undermine the quality of the public system.

It is difficult to comprehend the motivation behind reforms that appear to undermine a system that is recognized as world class. Hargreaves warns that these well-intentioned reforms "...run the risk of emphasizing only the performance numbers, of skewing the curriculum toward testable achievement, of launching endless initiatives, and interventions from the top. ...it’s important to grasp that human capacity is enlarged not only by increasing the supply of training, materials, and resources but also by reducing demand of unnecessary and excessive external initiatives."

Teachers across the province are facing tough choices. Some like Sooke’s Kathryn Sihota are asking themselves, Do I follow my professional conscience and refuse to administer a test I know will not benefit my kids and is causing them stress? Some, like Victoria’s Tara Ehrcke are acting to protect their right to control their own professional development choices. And others, like Ila Chapman, are saying I can no longer stand by silently watching the learning conditions in my classroom worsen.

Each is asking in one way or another for the space and time to learn and to teach as a professional. The frantic pace of change, the underfunding, and the top-down surveillance are all getting in the way of good teaching practice. It is time for a change--away from reforms that undermine teaching and learning and toward sustainable change informed by those closest to the teaching and learning process. A return to a considered, thoughtful, and calm approach to educational change that respects and values the voices of teachers.

Ila Chapman ends her letter with a request. "I love my job. I just wish I was allowed to do it—go into my classroom and teach my kids."

Susan Lambert is the BCTF’s first vice-president.

Suggestions for sustainable, attainable authentic educational change

  • Putting learning first, before achievement and testing–rather than equating achievement with tested attainment.
  • Distributing leadership widely and wisely so improvement becomes a shared professional responsibility rather than the object of top-down government control.
  • Ensuring improvement lasts beyond the tenure of one school leader or the government of the day’s election agenda by encouraging schools to work together.
  • Connecting future changes to past achievements, of which experienced educators can be proud, rather than rushing through short-term reforms that dismiss or demean the past.

– Andy Hargreaves is the Thomas More Brennan Chair in Education at Boston College.

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