May has been an educational ‘dead zone’ for years.  Because of our national obsession with standardized test scores, teachers–particularly in low income areas–spend class time showing students how to guess at answers, giving practice tests, and even teaching children how to fill in bubbles for the standardized, multiple choice ‘bubble’ tests that await them.  These activities come with a huge opportunity cost for students, because they are of no educational benefit whatsoever and probably set their learning back; for teachers, they are an insult to their profession.  And school districts spend billions of dollars buying, administering, and grading the bubble tests required by their states and the federal government.

When I was reporting I occasionally heard people  complaining–in song–about  “the morbid, miserable month of May,” riffing off an old Stephen Foster tune, “The Merry, Merry Month of May.”  As I recall, the expression surfaced in 2003 or 2004, which is when the unintended consequences of the 2001 federal “No Child Left Behind” law became apparent.  Because NCLB penalized schools that didn’t achieve what it called ‘adequate yearly progress’ on standardized tests, many districts eliminated art, music, drama, journalism, and even recess in order to concentrate on ‘the basics.’ 

That’s when the month of May became a ‘morbid’ dead zone, educationally speaking. 

I don’t remember where I first heard the expression. It might have been in the suburban North Carolina elementary school that held ‘pep rallies’ in advance of the upcoming state exams, or in Richmond, Virginia, where a veteran middle school teacher told me “Teaching and learning are done; now it’s all test prep.”  Or perhaps it was the Chicago high school teacher who confessed that he vomited in his wastebasket when he saw his students’ scores, or the custodian in a Success Academy charter school in New York City who said he rinsed out classroom trash cans every night because students regularly threw up in them during testing.  Another possibility is the Washington, DC, parent whose young son couldn’t sleep because his teacher said she’d get fired if they didn’t do well on the tests.  

The good news is that May 2020 does not have to be ‘morbid,’ ‘miserable,’ or ‘malignant.’  Because schools are closed and state standardized testing has been cancelled, May is a blank slate–and an opportunity for us to make it ‘magical’ and ‘memorable.’   

News reports indicate that many parents are unhappy in the role of ‘teacher at home.’  (They are also coming to realize just how hard it is to be an effective teacher!)  Teachers are frustrated because nothing in their training prepared them for teaching remotely.  And so, because the March-April experiment in ‘remote learning’ hasn’t been a rousing success and because May is a tabula rasa, let’s embrace ‘out of the box’ thinking. Stop thinking like educators whose jobs depend on high test scores.  Think differently!

(An earlier blog post about librarians, swimming instructors,  highway engineers, and gardeners is here.)

Imagine for a moment that you don’t have a captive audience (because right now you don’t).  IE, think like a librarian. Public libraries are different from schools in one important way: they do not have required attendance. But even though no one is forced to attend the library, library usage continues to climb.  To survive and prosper, librarians have had to identify their audiences and find ways to draw them into their buildings and electronic networks.  For the most part, they’ve succeeded without pandering.  That’s what’s called for in education at this moment.

With school buildings shuttered, students do not have to ‘attend’ anything.  They can log on to classes to get credit for ‘being there,’ but there’s no way for the teachers to know who’s paying attention and who’s FaceTiming friends.  More than 25% of students in Los Angeles, for example, aren’t even bothering to log on, and even parents who are monitoring their children’s efforts cannot be certain that they’re paying attention.  

So the parents and teachers might consider asking questions, instead of simply giving assignments: 

          What would make this material appealing to you? 

          What would persuade you to invest your energies in this subject? 

          What else are you interested in?  

For example, perhaps focusing on one subject at a time might be more appealing than trying to study five subjects every day.  The block schedule of 50-minute periods may work inside school buildings, but that doesn’t mean it can transfer to the home.  What if we compressed the semester of American history or American Literature into the month of May? Would a series of deep dives be more engaging?  For openers, try asking the students.

However, students shouldn’t get to make all the decisions about what they’re studying.  After all, a central purpose of the early years of school is the transmission of knowledge, and so the basics are also part of the deal.  Children need to learn spelling rules (“I before E, except after C”), the multiplication tables, how to divide and carry, and other basics. They need to know that letters have sounds associated with them (i.e., Phonics and Phonemic Awareness).  Someone has to teach them that, if you put an E at the end of words like ‘ton,’ the O sound changes from ‘short’ to ‘long.’ While that may seem like heavy lifting for parents who haven’t trained to teach, they can relax.  Free resources like the Khan Academy, ReadWorks, and Zearn are available to help children and parents with basic skills. Resources are plentiful: PBS is making all of Ken Burns’ documentaries available for screening, and former first lady Michelle Obama is on line, reading stories to young children, to cite just two examples.

Young people must be deeply involved in setting the learning goals and in figuring out how results will be measured.  It makes no sense to wait for bubble test results.  Teachers, parents, and students should assess progress frequently, take a clear-headed look at the results, and adapt accordingly. That also means that leadership must abandon the all-too-prevalent “Gotcha” attitude toward teachers. The new thinking has to be Assess to improve,” and not “Test to punish.”

Plan teaching with that in mind. Don’t take it personally when the student/your child doesn’t get it the first time, or the fifth. Explore the reasoning behind the error, but not punitively. Celebrate wherever possible.  Parents can teach their children valuable skills through family activities like cooking, playing board games, and planting a spring garden.  Above all, parents should recognize that they are learners too, because that makes it perfectly OK to say, “I don’t know, so let’s find out together.”   And leave plenty of time for play……

Accept that it’s a journey.  Be comfortable making mistakes. Teach children that failure is a huge part of learning–and learn along with the kids. 

Projects, done alone or with other children, are an important part of learning, but in May 2020 projects are essential, because they give working parents extended time away from the kids.  While creating the projects will take some time, once underway, the children can work alone, or with their friends and classmates on Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, or Google Hangouts.   For some suggestions about worthwhile projects, go here, here, here, here, and here

If they are connected to the internet, that is.  The huge gap in material resources that existed before this crisis is now front-and-center.  By some estimates, more than one million California students do not have connectivity.  While some tech companies are stepping up to provide broadband access to low income communities, more needs to be done because all students have to be able to connect with the world beyond their homes.  

While traditional school involves a lot of consumption of information–like memorizing state capitals, the Periodic Table, or the formula for the volume of a cube–the suspension of standardized testing has created a tabula rasa for the rest of the school year.  It’s an opportunity to turn young learners into producers of knowledge. Not video game players, but creators of Apps. Not watchers of films, but producers of their own documentaries.  Not drudges, but dreamers.

Education is much more than knowledge transmission. Much of what goes on in the teenage years in particular is the development and creation of the individual.  What Jacques Barzun called “Building a Self” involves discovery and trial-and-error, and that journey becomes much more interesting when kids are creating knowledge, not just giving back the right answers in order to get good grades.  

So, how should learning be assessed while schools remain closed? California flirted with the notion of giving all students A’s but abandoned that when its higher education system objected.  “Pass/Fail” may end up being the popular option, although hard-working students and dedicated teachers will object, because that ‘one size fits all’ approach discounts their efforts.  Randi Weingarten, the sensible President of the American Federation of Teachers, believes teachers and students should design ‘capstone projects.’  “We’ve got to trust educators and students to come up with meaningful projects that demonstrate student learning, and to do so in ways that minimize the inequalities of the digital divide,” she wrote in an email. “Before the pandemic, most students had seven months of learning, so let’s end the year with meaningful projects.” 

Will we resume our obsession with standardized testing once the Covid-19 pandemic begins to fade? Certainly there will be pressure to return to “business as usual” from entrenched economic interests and the powerful ‘school reform’ lobby, but it should be obvious that ‘business as usual’ just ain’t gonna happen in education or in a lot of other activities.  I hope we come together to reject the current ‘test to punish’ approach and replace it with systems that ‘assess to improve.’  Schooling cannot be a ‘gotcha game’ or a sorting system.  We need all hands on deck to rebuild our shaken economy.

As we plan for a better future, let’s stop spending billions of dollars buying, administering, and grading bubble tests and use the money instead to lower class size, improve access to technology, and raise teacher salaries.  

I believe that education’s “New Normal” has a good chance to become child-centric. This is our opportunity to create schools that pose a new question–”How Is This Child Smart?”–and then ensure that the answers determine how she/he is taught.  

This isn’t a pipe-dream of a feverish mind going bonkers in isolation.  The brilliant Andy Hargreaves has also been speculating about education’s post-Covid 19 future:

“Well-being will no longer be dismissed as a fad. Before this crisis, there were murmurings that student well-being was a distraction from proper learning basics. No more.  It’s now clear that without their teachers’ care and support it’s hard for many young people to stay well and focused. Being well, we’ll appreciate, isn’t an alternative to being successful. It’s an essential precondition for achievement, especially among our most vulnerable children.”

Before Covid-19, parents might ask their children, “What did you learn in school today?”  Going forward let’s ask, “What good questions did you come up with?  How’s the search for answers going?”

The goal of education, wherever it’s occurring, is not to get correct answers. The end game is life-long curiosity.

6 thoughts on “WILL MAY BE ‘MORBID’ OR ‘MAGICAL’?

      • Thanks, John….most often that very difficult question is better asked of a group.

        Make the grandkids into a puzzle-solving group. See what happens….Let us know!

        All of us are smarter than any of us.

        Cheers, Tom


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