Sarah Lemanczyk, St. Paul, is a writer and independent radio producer. She teaches radio production at the University of Minnesota's Radio K.
Imagine your third grade teacher in a jumpsuit and crash helmet. Now plop her on a motorbike, wheel her up to a steep incline near a good-sized shark tank, rev it up and see what she can do.
Because if we're testing the teachers, let's test the teachers. The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (or MCAs), in the elementary grades, aren't for the kids. The tests don't affect grades. They don't qualify students for gifted services, as the Naglieri test does.
The MCAs are used to determine how well the school is teaching the state academic standards. They're part of the No Child Left Behind legislation. In a rudimentary sense, they exist solely to place a school into one of two categories: those making AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) (this is good), or not making AYP (this is not good — think "failing school").
Dollars are, of course, attached.
In the weeks leading up to the testing periods, my sons' elementary school begins to hum, to vibrate with a sense of panic led by a group of men and women who are usually calm in the face of everything from vomit to vitriol. Weekly updates include pleas for math practice in increasingly large fonts. Inspirational quotes disappear from the school billboard, replaced by "M - C - A." Curriculum switches from Ancient Greece to test-taking strategy.
And it all culminates in an April cacophony of: Please! — make sure your kids are at school that day! Please — get them to bed on time the night before. Please, cooperate with me so that I don't lose my job, even though I'm entirely competent if not incredibly awesome and I love it. But seriously — go over fractions one more time.
And my children's school isn't even in danger of not making AYP. It's not a school with a large English-Language Learner population, or a transitional student body, or really any problems whatsoever. And still, flop sweat.
See, the whole thing relies on kids performing their best. Not on their knowing stuff, not understanding larger concepts and contextualization, but performing. And if you've attended an evening of elementary theatre, you're aware that not everyone is — say — entirely vested in the re-creation of the John Henry legend or singing "Puff the Magic Dragon" or even being there.
And surely there must be a way to test a teacher's ability to reach a student without relying on the joint performance of 30 third-graders.
Third-graders, on average, are 9 years old. And 9-year-olds, on average, are not entirely competent in a lot of ways. I live with one, so I spend lots of time with 9-year-olds. I don't want them hiring contractors to build bridges, I don't want them ruling on stadium referendums, and I don't want them determining how much money our school districts should receive. These are people who can't even determine their own bedtime.
Whether No Child Left Behind is good legislation or not — or whether standardized testing is a fair measure of academic achievement or not — I have a hard time looking my boys' teachers in the eye during April. These are people who have more education than I do, have been teaching far longer than my children have attended school, and who are responsible for shaping the wonderful minds that I come home to every day.
And now my son (remember the bedtime thing? he's now awake and thinking about Pokemon, the Twins' starting line-up and, when there's room in there, fractions) — this 9-year-old is in the driver's seat. I'm assuming it's only a matter of time before he's asked to vote on the stadium referendum (approved) or award a light rail contract in Eden Prairie. He's likely to become mad with power and levy a highly controversial $7 a week universal allowance.
Of course, if our goal isn't to empower our underage overlords, we could test the teachers' skills.
Do they know fractions? Can they wield a semicolon safely — and more than that, do they know how to reach a child falling through the cracks? Can they read the signs when a child is struggling with issues beyond the classroom? Do they know how to reengage a student who has fallen behind? And can they inspire that child to do more, to be more?
This is who teachers are. This is what they do — and they do it because they love not just their own children, but my children. Your children. The least we can do is provide a chance for them to be judged on their own merits.