Cambridge pre-K/K teacher: My job is about testing and data. I quit.

A sad commentary. - promoted by david

On Sunday, the Washington Post had a blog entry about veteran Cambridge teacher Susan Sluyter and why she quit her job teaching pre-kindergarten and kindergarten in the Cambridge Schools. I found it a fascinating read, especially since it goes into so much detail and confirms things I’ve heard as a parent from teachers and kids in our school system (at all levels, not just kindergarten).

Some choice snippets (but I really recommend reading the whole thing):

I have watched as my job requirements swung away from a focus on the children, their individual learning styles, emotional needs, and their individual families, interests and strengths to a focus on testing, assessing, and scoring young children, thereby ramping up the academic demands and pressures on them.

I have needed to schedule and attend more and more meetings about increasingly extreme behaviors and emotional needs of children in my classroom; I recognize many of these behaviors as children shouting out to the adults in their world, “I can’t do this! Look at me! Know me! Help me! See me!”

We found ourselves in professional development work being challenged to teach kindergartners to form persuasive arguments, and to find evidence in story texts to justify or back up a response they had to a story. What about teaching children to write and read through the joy of experiencing a story together, or writing about their lives and what is most important to them? When adults muck about too much in the process of learning to read and write, adding additional challenge and pressure too soon, many children begin to feel incompetent and frustrated. They don’t understand. They feel stupid. Joy disappears.

I remember one Sunday evening when I received an email from the principal of my school letting me know that I was missing one particular document from my assessment site. The missing document was a photo of a math assessment recording sheet that I had somehow failed to post. If I could post it by 9 a.m. the following morning, I would recieve “exemplary teacher” status. If I did not, I would get a label of “needs improvement.” I remember at that moment thinking, “Seriously? It has come down to this sort of nonsense?”

Again, read the whole thing.

Due to this article, Susan was on the Today show yesterday. Interestingly, Matt Lauer did a short segment with Michelle Rhee afterward. The Today show wasn’t really the place to hold her feet to the fire, but it looked like Lauer wanted to do exactly that. It was interesting that she brought up the low scores of the US verses other countries but didn’t entertain the idea that changes in education since NCLB might be a contributing factor.

It seems to me that if the forces that would destroy and eliminate public education failed via a direct attack, they are having a better result by calling it “reform” and even making some money off of it as part of the effort.

Recommended by jcohn88, keepin-it-cool, jshore.


31 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Had no idea she was a Cambridge teacher

    A lot of teacher friends in Chicago and Boston were passing that around on Facebook. Sad to see her quit and to have the system be so demoralizing. I can say as someone who graduated from Cambridge Public Schools that I didn’t feel it was all testing all the time until high school (when we lost two or three months to MCAS in 9th and 10th grades). I don’t remember middle school MCAS being treated as anything other than a diagnostic so we didn’t study or prep for it, but I also went to the ISP program 6-8 and an alternative elementary school route, neither of which are around anymore.

    It pains me to see parents pull out of the system and spend tons of dollars on area private schools that are arguably more progressive than the public ones. We need to truly restore progressive education in this country that teaches civic pride, democratic citizenship, and critical thinking. We also need to return to teaching the classics of literature and poetry, and we can do this without weakening STEM (never viewed it as an either or proposition). I am truly worried the next generation immediately after mine lacks the basic critical thinking and intellectual curiosity to make good citizens. They strike me as apathetic and materialistic, but I am sure that’s what most older people tend to say.

    • I can say as someone who graduated from Cambridge Public Schools that I didn’t feel it was all testing all the time until high school

      I have two kids five years apart, the younger one just finishing up 5th grade. The difference between the two experiences has been significant and most of the things I’ve heard from teachers that match up with what Sluyter wrote has been during these last five years.

      • That's depressing

        I really want to send my kids to good public schools-those should be a right not a privilege

        • Somerville and Cambridge

          I was very positively impressed with the experience my son had at Somerville High. Although he transferred in as a junior, his peers and their parents had good things to say about their earlier experiences.

          Not to fan any old rivalries (and with zero first-hand knowledge), but Cambridge has never enjoyed a good reputation for its elementary and middle schools in comparison to its neighbors (with the possible exception of Boston). A former employer of mine who is a long-time Cambridge resident started his child in public Kindergarten, and almost immediately moved her to (a very expensive) private school. Not all of us have that option.

          • What fuels "reputation"?

            I can tell you in the Springfield area, the reputation/perception is ultimately fueled by poverty, class, and race.

            If a school has “too many” non-white students, then its reputation is lower among whites. If a school has “too many” poor students, its reputation is lower among upper-income whites. If a school has “too many” lower-class students (i.e. maybe kids of white blue collar workers, not quite poor, but not professionals), its reputation is lower among upper-class people.

            Which schools are the most sought-after? Those in the whitest, wealthiest, most upper class towns.

            There is virtually no discussion about the “quality” of teaching, the methodologies, used, or even the resources put into the schools. Even test scores don’t play into the discussion. It’s almost all about the demographics of the families populating the school.

            • How did I know...

              …before scrolling down enough to see your name that you wrote that comment? I really think you too often assume motives that are too sinister. I think people look at outcomes, things like test scores, extracurricular offerings, where kids go to college to determine quality of education in a district. Most people I don’t think harp on class nearly as much as you seem to. Can you back up the assertions you have made?

              • Not sinister

                This is what people talk about when discussing “good school districts”. I have been in these exact conversations. I have heard people say “there are too many blacks in that school for me”. I have heard people say “that is a low-rent community, I don’t want to live there”.

                I have never heard anyone say “this community offers excellent extracurricular activities”. I have never heard anyone say “the test scores in that community were 5 points higher than the other community, so that’s why I chose it”. I am not even aware of statistics showing “where kids go to college” for a district.

                The definition of “good” and “bad” is primarily achieved by word-of-mouth, and it is primarily based on visual/superficial factors rather than on the “quality of education”.

                • Well OK

                  Any conversations to which I’ve been party do tend to focus more on actual merits rather than demographics.

                  • What merits?

                    When you talk about schools or districts with people, what merits do people talk about?

                    You’ve said “test scores, extracurricular offerings, where kids go to college”.

                    Are people really well-versed in the test scores? How did they know “good versus bad” before we started testing?

                    I can see extracurricular activities, though that isn’t an academic offering.

                    Again, is there information about “where kids go to college” published anywhere?

                    • Schools often brag about colleges.

                      The town in which I teach now has big signs in its schools saying where last year’s seniors were accepted. There has always been a way to assess school systems and state scores are published. Some towns do better than others in keeping their accreditation. Some offer bare bones courses while others have more offerings either in terms of subjects or levels. Some put a lot of emphasis on the arts. Some have better teacher/student ratios and smaller classes. Some have better facilities. I’m not sure why you are resistent to the idea of objective measurements. Yes, some of this results from what the district can afford, and it may mean some people avoid “low rent” communities, but it is precisely because our current system relies so heavily on local property taxes. I’m all for fixing that situation, but what I’m pushing back on is what seems to be your idea that people think they are going to catch cooties from being around poor people. That is most definitely not the motive.

          • It's reversed

            When I started a big selling point was the elementary schools ( we only just started I have middle schools it was K-8 until three years ago). Controlled choice was the envy of the country and the schools fueled a rise in real estate prices align with the demise if rent control. But the high school started to get a bad rep when my brother graduates in 91′ and the old house system (schools within the schools with distinct identities) was eliminated for homogenous classes and we lost our accreditation my freshmen year. Thanks in part to student activism and parental complaints, we restored AP and Honors courses and now have climbed the rankings again.

            Our weakness score wise is in the middle grades. And not to fan rivalry, but a former teacher of mine lives in Somerville and sends her kids to Cambridge friends since she thinks they have a bad rep.

            My take is, some students are naturally curious and will thrive anywhere. I thrived at CRLS when it was a “bad” school since I learned quickly how to direct my education which actually have me a leg up in college. No would say I was unprepared for college level writing (in terms of essay structure and citations) and my private school peers seemed to have a leg up there.

            But both cities seem to be having an easy time attracting young urban professionals but a much harder time attracting or retaining families. A venture capitalist in Kendall had a rant on Cambridge Day blasting controlled choice as the reason he moved to Brookline, but I would argue controlled choice has saved the schools from the economic and racial segregation the boston and suburban schools have. We don’t need busing or metco since our schools are designed to be diverse from the get go. But the OP and complaints I’ve heard show that we need to revive the progressive spirit in our schools and focus less on the numbers-it’s hard for cities to do since so much funding depends on them but well worth it. We are resource rich but plagued with poor middle management and bureaucracy. I wish ISP hadn’t been killed off but the Middle School model can hopefully fill the gap between K-5 and CRLS. There is also inequity in schools with some schools clearly being worse than others in terms of quality and that needs to be changed too.

            Needless to say if I could afford to love in Cambridge again I’d be eyeing a school committee run.

            • I thought love was free.

              I’m pretty sure you can afford to love anywhere you please, including Cambridge:) (Check typo in your last sentence.)

            • My children go to Cambridge elementary schools

              I have a kindergartner and a 3rd grader, and they love school. They read and write well for their ages, and they get along well with others from diverse backgrounds. I’m happy with their educations, especially the math education they have gotten. Their teachers routinely encourage them to think about math strategies, as opposed to merely memorize facts.

              That said, there is too much emphasis on standardized testing. The MCAS is a great worry for a lot of kids, and it never really gives us teachers (I teach at the high school, CRLS) any useful, timely information. We teachers get much more useful and timely information from interacting with and assessing our students. And there’s waaay too much stress about the AP exams.

              • If I could do it again

                I’d worry a lot more about my grades than my test scores. At the end of the day grades are still the best indicator of how someone is doing in school, and as you pointed out, is assessed from the teacher who agreed to a grading policy at the beginning of the term. As for AP, the universities really look at the grades in the courses and not the test scores for admission purposes and U of C didn’t count most of them towards classes anyway (not sure if other colleges do that or not-but important to look into before wasting all that money and time).

                • AP scores are definitely used for placement purposes.

                  At least they did when I was applying almost 20 years ago. Many of the colleges to which I applied would give you full credit for a 4 or 5 and waive a particular course but not give you credit for a 3. I took several APs in high school and my whole motive was to avoid taking them in college.

                • The number one thing colleges

                  want to see is how much a student challenged himself and how he did under that challenge. AP courses are often a proxy for challenging, though AP courses were not all created equal. AP Calc and most of the sciences are considered better than AP Geography or Economics. AP English Lit and Comp is considered better than AP English Lang and Comp.

                  AP courses taken without tests can theoretically fool some colleges if a student’s grades look good and they take the test after they’ve been accepted. But it won’t look good on a transcript to take a course in sophomore or junior year and skip the test.

                  AP scores are regarded differently by different colleges and even college departments. Some use them for placement, others as an marker for rigor. The more elite the college, the less likely it is to accept the courses for actual credit. Some college departments won’t let students test out of intro courses. Biology is an example. The college wants to teach students lab skills, not rely on high schools or an AP test.

                  • In my high school skipping the AP exam wasn't an option.

                    When you sought teacher and department approval to take an AP course you (and your parent, I think) signed a contract saying you would take the exam. Failure to sit for the exam would result in dropping the GPA weighting from AP (A+ = 5.0) to honors (A+ = 4.5).

    • Higher stakes in poorer districts

      The stakes are higher in poorer districts because schools can be closed down if the test results are not good enough. If Cambridge is doing OK in its lower grades, then it can afford to treat the tests as diagnostics. If there are a lot of poor kids who are not getting support at home, then the school is in danger of failing and everything must be set aside to prevent that from happening.

      • Correction

        the school is in danger of failing

        The school is in danger of being formally designated a failure. Whether or not it is actually failing won’t be any different a month before that test is taken, and may or may not be considered to be “failing” regardless of the test score. This is part of the challenge with the testing movement, no?

      • stakes higher in poorer districts, but the pressure is omnipresent

        We are in a district that is perennially at the top of the MCAS heap. So while there is no danger in getting a failure designation, for whatever reason all of the stress and waste of time doing test prep is still there in order to perpetuate the stratospheric scores.

    • It is what older people tend to say.

      Welcome to old. In pre-internet days I recall reading a collection of published versions of that exact sentiment, which had been published at generational intervals from the 1880s up through the early 1990s.

  2. Education reform is

    part of the capitalist tsunami that has swept over the United States in the last 30 years. I say “capitalist,” not because I want to sound like a commie, but because it involves both the direct efforts of multiple billionaires, the invitation of business into education policy, and an ideology that pretends that academic success is a matter of a matter of incentives.

    The Common Core is the perfect example of what has become of our education system. It was imposed by governor’s working with billionaire funding and next to no input by actual stakeholders.

  3. Process over product.

    Do we not see it everyday?

    Cop kills someone is cold blood. Chief says, “The Officer was only following proper procedures.”

    Poisoned food gets into the food supply. The bureaucracy announces that “all proper procedures were followed.”

    I need not go into defense agencies, social needs agencies, criminal justice.

    Oh!, to hide behind the veil of process that allows the measurement of time and resources and neglects the product. The systems that reward those that maintain the proper statistical demands – by hook or by crook – and allow the overall output to be corrupted.

    Is anyone surprised that the process over product philosophy is in education?


    “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”
    Albert Einstein

  4. So, Michelle Rhee was on the Today Show.

    And she cited that business group study with plagiarism in it–you know, the one that lifted Globe copy, and then gave it to the Globe, who noticed their own copyright work. Never forget that when Rhee was in charge of schools she buried evidence that some teachers had cheated. The woman is an avatar for dishonesty, and she’s chosen to make her fortune by interfering with the education of children.

  5. Standardized Testing Brings Out The Worst in Humans

    There’s been another scandal in standardized testing recently.

    “The testing and training environment was unhealthy. The drive to always score 100% when 90% was the standard–and the use of these scores as the sole differentiator on who got promoted and who didn’t–just seemed inappropriate…. Leaders lost sight of the fact that execution in the field is more important than what happens in the classroom.”

    This uCNN on why the USAF fired 9 nuclear missile officers who cheated on their standardized tests.

    • edit to comment

      This quote was not from educators but from the CNN story on USAF officers who have to take standardized tests regularly to qualify for their jobs managing the USAF’s nuclear missiles. The people who make the cut, within the military, to handle the nukes are mentally sharp, and very strong morally. But even these adults succumbed to the poisonous atmosphere of high-stakes testing. The way that America’s public schools emphasize more and more high-stakes testing is leading American schools the wrong way. And it is not helping the children.

  6. what is the goal of kindergarten?

    It seems that over time the definition of kindergarten has changed. Way back when I was a kid, it was a half day of school. The main goals were getting used to actually going to school and instilling in us that, if not the most fun place to be, it was a safe and generally OK place to be.

    It seems now that we’ve gone to full days and more academic rigor, we’re losing sight of those other important goals. Sure, lots of kids go to some sort of preschool beforehand these days, but that experience is usually a lot different that “real” school. Kids are going to have a lot of ups and downs during their school years and getting that initial base of safety and a “I don’t mind going” mindset is crucial – otherwise you’ll see the acting out noted in the article and first graders who hate school.

    What are we doing to our kids?

    • It's new and strange

      And I’m only 25. But I went to kindergarten in the exact same system that teacher taught in, and can verify I didn’t take a single standardized test. And it was a typical, heterogeneous classroom that seemed identical to the ones my friends were in, nothing progressive or accelerated about it, because it was, you know, kindergarten .

      • It started in 2nd grade

        And we took the Iowa and Prairie State exams and they were just assessments that had nothing to do with our grades, chance of promotion, or anything. We didn’t prepare for them, and it maybe took three or four days of class time and they gave us a longer lunch and break time to recuperate.

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