Sunday, September 25, 2011

Teaching to The Test

One of my readers wanted to know if there was a way to offer high school students the chance to learn “real life lessons.”  This is a very excellent question, as it seems many high school students emerge from school without a clue how to operate in the adult world.  The reader was careful to phrase the question in a way that didn’t suggest public schools should be the only responsible party for educating high school aged kids in real world issues; I agree.
One of the problems I always had in public education was the trend to teach to The Test, whatever The Test was.  For academics, The Test meant standardized testing - in Texas that meant the TAKS test.  Administrations push their faculty to make sure students are at a level where they can pass The Test.  Because the focus is on passing The Test, students in general are pushed to pass, not exceed.  
The focus is on numbers, making sure certain numbers in certain demographics (sub-pops in educationese).  Each school has to make sure so many of each group passes otherwise their overall numbers are affected.  Programs would be initiated targeting particular students in those sub-pops who were thought to be on the verge of passing.  If they could be pushed over the edge, then continued funding based on ratings would be guaranteed (oops, did I say funding).
See, the reason is all about money, not children.  With No Child Left Behind, funding has now been tied to performance.  Some districts have chosen to include bonuses based on class performance on The Test - which I applaud - but which doesn’t seem to go far enough by rewarding teachers who go above and beyond in their teaching (not necessarily their time or efforts) separate from The Test.
The Obama Administration has recently issued an order allowing states to opt out of the NCLB requirements conditional upon the state providing acceptable alternate requirements and programs to raise student achievement.  This is the Obama Administration’s way of side-stepping teaching to The Test, allowing states to determine their own path to student achievement.
In music, teaching to The Test means only aiming for the UIL contest, only teaching the kids the required skills to earn a First Division at marching contest, solo and ensemble, or concert and sight reading contest.  In programs that teach to The Test in music, students emerge from the program devoid of the ability to develop a practice plan, absent of individual motivation to better themselves, or without a strong appreciation of music that carries through the rest of their lives.  
No matter the subject area, teaching to The Test shows students that aiming for average is enough.  I think this is one of the “real life” skills high school students need to develop, and school is not the only arena for this skill to develop.
I began to learn at home that working “just enough” wouldn’t get me anywhere I wanted to go in life.  My parents pushed me to do well in school, helping me when I needed it, encouraging me to find my own way when appropriate.  I was involved in team sports to learn that working with others was important; learning how to work with others was primary to success.  I was part of sports teams that did both, and looking back now, can see the results reflected the coach’s philosophy.  I learned that individual hard work develops character through activities like competitive swimming and later, music.  One of my mentors - Dana Pradervand - taught me the value of hard work by drawing my name from a hat and then drawing the chromatic scale from another.  I hadn’t done the work and couldn’t play it in front of my peers.  I contribute the next twenty years of musical pursuits to this one moment - she taught me that hard work leads to reward.
I am not suggesting anyone push their child to the breaking point.  You have to know your children and you have to know your students.  Keeping track of their stress meter is important.  In today’s environment of zealous over-scheduling, parents and teachers have a responsibility to make sure their kids are involved, becoming educated, and developing life skills, but not so much that they collapse under the pressure to perform.  Finding the point at which you operate at your premium is important - we have to help them find it.
Other “real world skills” are learned outside of the home and the classroom.  I worked two jobs in high school - Ci-Ci’s Pizza and Tom’s Ribs Barbecue.  One was a corporate enterprise who seemed to only care for the franchise values and the cash in the register.  The other was a private venture, focused on high value, good service, and customer satisfaction.  At Ci-Ci’s, I was a sixteen year old who didn’t necessarily matter.  It seemed as if doing just enough was fine - so that was all I did.  At Tom’s Ribs, I felt like we were encouraged to develop our skills, and were rewarded for doing so.  We were aware there was a standard and we were expected to exceed it.  The owners and managers understood they were dealing with teenagers, but they treated us like proto-adults, helping to guide us through adult decisions as we learned our skills.
Students also learn “real life skills” from their social interactions.  As much as we would like to protect them from dangerous situations, they are nearly inevitable.  At some point in their life, every high school student will have to deal with issues involving sex, drugs, alcohol, or violence.  Arming them with the tools to make the best decision in each situation is the best we can hope for.  These “real life skills” can’t be practiced or rehearsed, but they can be discussed.
Finally, students will make mistakes.  They will choose the wrong path occasionally;  guiding them back is our responsibility.  Showing them how to find their own way later in life helps future success.  Those who have no one to help guide them will fall through the cracks.  Showing them how to deal with their mistakes and how to avoid making them in the future is key to their adult success.
If we only do enough to get by in the lives of the young people over whom we have influence, if we only Teach to The Test, we are guaranteeing an average future for them.  Only hovering near average means failure is always near, and success seems like a dream.  We can help those who are younger than us see that success is much closer than that if we only imbue them with the skills they need now.  Teach to The Student, not just The Test.

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