On July 30, 2011 a few thousand teacher union activists descended upon Washington D.C. for a “Save Our Schools” rally. The keynote speaker that day was actor Matt Damon, who took the occasion to bash standardized testing. You know, virtually the only thing used to assess student achievement and a tool for teacher accountability.
“I said before that I had incredible teachers,” Damon told the crowd. “And that’s true. But it’s more than that. My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep — this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning.”
He added that teachers should help kids fall “in love with the process of learning” rather than worrying that students are filling “in the right bubble on a test.” Damon, a proud leftist, was repeating an oft-heard criticism from the left that standardized testing harms student learning. They argue that “teaching to the test” creates student automatons who are only capable of regurgitating factoids deemed important by the government.
Many Americans reason that if the test covers the essential things kids need to know, then “teaching to the test” makes sense and wonder what all the fuss is about.
Frankly, I wondered that myself – until I came across “Teaching About Global Warming in Truck Country” by Jana Dean, an eighth grade science and social studies teacher in Washington state. Dean’s article is included in “Rethinking Our Classrooms: Teaching for Equity and Justice, Volume 1.”
In the article, Dean recounts the difficulty she had in selling students on the dangers of man-made global warming. Dean teaches in a rural community where most families still use trucks in their everyday activities. Early on in the global warming unit, one student asked if Dean was telling him he could never drive a truck like his father does.
“ … When Alex first crossed his arms, I began to realize that indicting our beloved motors for global warming before building a ton of background would be like petting a cat in the wrong direction. At the same time, it was a sign that I was going in the right direction: Change doesn’t happen without resistance. … My upfront commitment to action had activated in my students a fear of losing a way of life they’d been raised to inherit. … I decided to carefully sidestep any mention of the causes of global warming until we thoroughly understood the effects.” (emphasis added)
In order to sufficiently scare the children, she used a curriculum developed by the Union of Concerned Scientists that links global warming to floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires – basically anything weather-related. Then students learned how global warming is melting the polar ice caps and causing an increase in malaria and other diseases in tropical Africa.
Believing she had sufficiently primed the pump, Dean then “asked students to write about what concerned them most about global warming. As they shared aloud, I wrote down their worries on poster paper hung at the front of the class. The mood was somber. My students sat so still and silent we could hear each other swallow.”
“I thought that by then we might have been ready to look again at the causes of climate change,” Dean writes.
But instead of reaching for a science textbook, she reached for a video produced by Greenpeace that “bombards (viewers) with a message about our cars, our trucks, our factories, our consumption.” The film did not go over very well:
“As he put his notebook away, Ron slammed it shut and said, ‘I don’t get it. What are we gonna do? Stop driving?’ Consternation ran through the class. ‘What about my quad … my motorcycle … how will we get to school … too far to ride my bike.’ I had no answer.”
Dean “spent the next two weeks building science background,” which amounted to having students learn about greenhouse gases and how the manufacturing industry spews more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere with every product it makes. Dean writes:
“By the end of the period they saw greenhouse gases everywhere – in tailpipes of tractors, in stockyards, in the power behind the pump, in oil wells, in the manufacturing of hydraulic fluid, in the coal that powered the cement kiln.”
Like a good propagandist, Dean issued a call to action to her students, instructing them to find ways they could “combat global warming” within their families, their school, their country and the world at large. The class identified a variety of possible actions, from taking shorter showers to urging the passage of international treaties “to decrease dependence on fossil fuels.”
The lesson culminated in a recycling program Dean’s class established for the school.
“But the recycling project helped my middle school students see … how the actions we take collectively speak much louder than words. And I want my students to see themselves as agents in our world, rather than subject to it. They made a change in their school that will last much longer than their short stay in 8th grade. And they’ve established a climate of concern in their school that I can take further next year.” (emphasis added)
Not only has Dean crossed the line that separates teaching from propagandizing, but she spent almost a month’s worth of class time on her global warming unit, with the grand result being a few recycling bins placed around the school and a “climate of concern” among the students.
It is doubtful that Washington state’s standardized test asks students to explain how owning a truck helps contributes to global warming. That means in a nine-month school year, Dean only has eight months to teach the rest of the 8th grade science curriculum – the stuff that kids will actually be tested on.
It is clear that “teaching to the test” leaves less time for their social engineering lesson plans, which cramps the propagandists’ style in a major way.
Here’s how one social justice educator summed it up:
“Teachers who are pressured to teach towards an exam, or to teach from a textbook that their school district has chosen, find it very difficult to try anything non-traditional in their classrooms for fear of reprisal from their administration and concern that their students won’t pass high-stakes tests.”
Parents and taxpayers want kids to leave school with the knowledge and skills that will allow them to succeed in life. That stands in contrast to the progressives’ goal of creating a generation of good global citizens who are equipped to identify and combat the suffering caused by capitalism, which is the driving force behind most of the world’s greed, inequality and pollution.
Standardized tests are designed to measure math and reading skills, but they cannot measure a student’s commitment to social justice or disdain of the free market system. Suddenly the left’s hatred of standardized testing makes sense, doesn’t it?