Why “Teaching to the Test” Is Shortsighted, and Necessary

The profession of teaching has been undergoing a crisis over the past fifteen years. In universities, there has been a move from tenured professors to part-time faculty, to the point that approximately half of university faculty are part-time, and probably don’t make a living wage.

In public schools, teachers are losing ground, with both their economic stability and classroom autonomy constantly being eroded. Essentially, teaching is being moved from a professional model to a factory-production model. Teachers are being moved from respected members of the middle-class into less stable and more regimented jobs.

Teaching to the Test

A Teacher and His Pupil by Claude LefèbvreIt’s become critically important for schools to “teach to the test.” This hasn’t been done for any reason associated with actual teaching. It relates to changes in the cultural value of the actual teaching experience, and also to the changing needs of our culture.

The move toward “teaching to the test” is tied to more and more limited educational funding, the increased power of administration in education, and the need for resources to be used to adjust to a changing economy and increased globalization.

Education funding has, in many states, not recovered to its pre-recession levels. Further, what education funding does come through is often offered with requirements for “measurement” that may or may not reflect actual teaching.

With this increased measurement, power (and money) is being moved more and more away from the actual teachers and toward administrators. Yet administrators are not the “big bad” here. Like police who must enforce an unjust law, they are caught between doing their duty and their commitments to education. And, like the teachers they administrate, opening their mouths to complain is a surefire way to end up on the unemployment line.

Digging Deeper

But if it’s not the administrators who are driving the changes, then who or what is? Two external factors are at work here.

First, the lower levels of education funding available force administrators to make decisions about who goes and who stays. Even if no one likes the decisions, a lack of cash requires that these decisions be made. The rising pressure on this area of the workforce means that people who increase an administrator’s stress level are walking a thin line. Some of them are pushed over it.

Second, an increased reliance on teaching technology requires more capital investment, and that money has to come from somewhere. We might complain about unfair treatment of teachers, but we’re also loathe to pay more taxes. We’re “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” and both of them are responsible for training our children. It’s a shortsighted maneuver that we’ve forced onto the administrators.

Needed Changes in Education

Like many other areas of the economy, education is undergoing changes that are linked with the digital revolution. The very real pains of teachers, the brutal and sometimes nonsensical decisions required of administrators, and the incessant testing of students are all part of a huge effort at social engineering.

No one seems to talk about education as necessary social engineering. But if we look below the surface, we can quickly recognize that we’re trying, successfully or not, to adjust to a Brave New World. Whole swaths of jobs have evaporated and are not coming back. Management has been streamlined, paperwork has been automated, and face-to-face relationships with customers have been priced out of the market.

The changes in teaching aren’t separate from this radical shift. As a culture, we’re making teaching less personal, and investing in technology. In other words, we’re reflecting the rest of the economy. Students are becoming less “people” and more “collections of numbers.” This isn’t a shift in education. It’s a shift in the meaning of “personhood” in the digital economy. Serving students comes more and more to mean making sure that they have the “right” numbers.

Are these changes going to benefit us, as people and a culture, in the long run? Probably not. But we can’t just react to these changes in the world piecemeal. The massive changes in the American education system haven’t been adopted because of some primal drive for standardization and efficiency. They’re a reaction to a changed, and changing, situation.

Creating an education system that will prepare us for this uncertain future is going to require commitment, cash, and a clear vision of what America not only wants to be, but needs to be, in the coming years.


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