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Virginia Journal of Education

On Point

Too Much, Too Soon?

by Kay L. Dezern

I remember well my first year of teaching, 30 years ago. I found delight in the lives of my students. Yes, the Standards of Learning existed then, but the classroom teacher had much control over how and when they were taught. We could teach a skill until it was mastered. I looked forward to each day, as it brought something new from students. The proverbial light bulb came on often, and was a great encouragement. Respect was evident from most students and parents. Discipline was decisive and quick. There was a distinct knowledge that students were there to learn and teachers were there to teach.

My career has been one to cherish and yet, the focus in education has greatly changed. The new SOLs were introduced and, in 1995, “rigorous standards” became the buzz term. There were pacing guides to adhere to and new material to cover. This was not a bad thing. We welcomed an opportunity to help their students reach higher than before.

But trouble was brewing. During those early years, few saw the impairment that the approach to the new standards would bring. As I struggled to stay on target with my pacing guide, many teachers and administrators told me that I was taking the new standards all too seriously. This proved to be untrue in years to come.

In the beginning test scores were not very high. The tests covered skills never before taught. I rationalized that this was to be expected since that particular group of students did not begin with the new standards in place. This would change when sixth grade students arrived with math skills from kindergarten to fifth grade under their belts. That would be the class to shine. I was surprised to find the scores were not significantly better.

Students arrived without the knowledge of basic skills. The pacing of the new standards meant that teachers had to move on without mastery. Skills, including algebra and geometry, were introduced in the lower grades before students were developmentally ready. I thought surely the powers that be would see what I was seeing. More does not necessarily mean better.

However, the solution offered to us didn’t change the pace of instruction; it emphasized test-taking skills instead. I taught how to eliminate answers in a multiple-choice test. We were told to analyze the problems that were missed on the SOL test and teach those. All the paperwork and time to do it prevented the teachers from doing the important things like listening to students and helping them master the skills. In an effort to improve test scores, creativity was taken away from teacher. Everyone was to be on the same page on the same day. All of a sudden we were doing what had always been forbidden: We were teaching to the test. It worked. Math scores are indeed higher. But the knowledge base is not nearly as broad as it was before the new standards. Higher scores do not equate to greater knowledge of the subject.

I had always spent 60 or more hours a week on schoolwork. My hours didn’t change, but the way I spent them did. There was time spent doing item analysis, collaborative planning and team meeting minutes. A great deal of time was spent after school to remediate skills in which students were weak. All this took time and energy that should be spent focused on students.

The objective of public schools, according to the founding fathers, was to educate and create good citizens. This has become a difficult task amid the concentration on test scores. Teachers are pitted against each other, and school against school, to see who will get the higher scores. Of course, students are frustrated when all they hear is talk about SOL scores.

This has been the biggest disappointment for me. Am I creating lifetime learners or just teaching them how to pass a test? Aristotle said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” That is the valuable component left out in the push for higher standards. It is not the standards that are wrong but our approach to them. The introduction of difficult concepts at an earlier age is not what is necessary. It is mastery for which we must aim. Early in my career I would often hear students say they wanted to make a difference: I don’t hear that as much these days.

These are changing times which require students to be prepared for a diverse, global workplace. Are American children up for rigorous standards? I believe they are, but the focus must be on time for mastery. This shift will ensure positive test scores and a broader base of knowledge.

Dezern, a member of the Chesapeake Education Association, is an algebra readiness teacher at Deep Creek Middle School.



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