When students return to Montgomery County Public Schools in the fall for full-time, in-person learning, educators want to provide them with the support they need, and that includes a classroom experience that should be transformative and healing - not a return to the status quo.
As a teacher of middle and high school English, I’ve seen my students thrive most when we go “off-script” in our lessons. We met with their state senator to share students' views on state-sponsored gambling, so they engaged in a meaningful way in a unit on persuasion. We invited a foster parent on staff to share her experiences, so students were able to better connect to the novel The Great Gilly Hopkins. We attended plays at the Folger Theater, so students found greater pleasure and relevance in Shakespeare’s works. These lessons ignited students’ natural curiosity and brought the learning to life, but none led to easily measurable outcomes.
For too long, we’ve worked under the false premise that our classrooms should be “data driven.” Our teachers and students are under constant pressure to follow a standardized curriculum and move scores on standardized tests. In fact, we know that standardized teaching and testing has served to disproportionately label and punish students of color rather than close the gap between African-American students and their white peers. The focus has been too much on test preparation and not enough on meaningful learning.
That’s because people far from the classroom and with no direct knowledge of individual student needs and interests are pushing standardized tests and curriculum.
This corporate-backed teaching model of establishing metrics to determine whether students are meeting arbitrary goals was brought on by years of misguided thinking that schools should be run like businesses, and even by businesses. It’s not working around the country and it’s not working here in Montgomery County - not for educators, and certainly not for our students, especially when there is no evidence that standardized testing improves overall student achievement and outcomes. Educators know that smaller, frequent, formative assessments created by teachers for the students in their care are what work to fully assess a child’s progress.
Such testing also unfairly punishes teachers of under-performing classrooms, rather than providing them with the resources they need. Several decades ago, educators partnered with school officials in Montgomery County Public Schools to build a Professional Growth System (PGS). Central to this system were consulting teachers, providing one-on-one support to new and under-performing teachers. The best practice is for consulting teachers to have 16-18 clients per year, but ratios have averaged 22 or more in recent years. This means consulting teachers have significantly less time to provide support, but the need for this support has grown as the county increasingly hires teachers who lack training and certification. Moreover, the MCPS Center for Skillful Teaching and Leading that promotes excellence in classroom practice has been scaled down to only two full-time instructors for a workforce of well over 20,000.
During the pandemic, parents, students, educators and school officials came together to say no to high-stakes testing and yes to meeting children and families where they were, navigating mental and emotional trauma while doing their best to keep learning. This is very familiar territory to the educators and students of under-funded public school classrooms across the nation. Here in Montgomery County, COVID-19 paused some of the testing, and everyone sighed with relief.
Let’s not go backwards. Let’s end high-stakes testing, which has continuously facilitated racial and socioeconomic inequities in education among our students.
MCPS has a new acting superintendent. As we return to in-person classrooms, this is a moment of opportunity to re-energize our county’s educational culture by rebuilding and reinvesting in the craft of teaching.
Let’s seek guidance from students and parents — from all backgrounds and neighborhoods — about what’s working and what isn’t. Let’s strengthen our schools as centers of community and caring so that every child can learn and thrive.
Educators stand ready to bring back joy to our classrooms. We’re ready to build back better. And our children are depending on us to do just that.