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Emphasis on tests destroys creativity

It was with dismay but not surprise that I read the recent letter to the editor from a group of teachers from Fayette County (“Why is this the worst school year?”).

I could immediately empathize with their sense of frustration, but recognized more importantly their loss of feelings of creativity and pride in what they do.

Education — and the educational bureaucracy — is a pendulum that swings to and fro continuously. When it reaches the edge of extreme it can stop or slow so that it no longer keeps pace with the times.

What has made the United States a leader in the world is innovation, independent thinking, creativity and resourcefulness. Are we promoting this in our schools?

Perhaps it is first important to get a handle on what are we really trying to accomplish in educating our students. Although this could be worded many ways, let me offer some thoughts. We want our students:

• To find a satisfying job or vocation.

• To have the knowledge to be able to handle life situations effectively.

• To have the skill sets necessary for productivity in the future.

• To know how to work cooperatively and effectively with others.

• To know how to go about finding solutions or ways of handling challenges.

Today’s emphasis on passing paper and pencil tests, supposedly as a measure of competence, is the death of creativity.

Ask yourself, how many times in your current profession/job have you been asked to show your worth by taking a paper and pencil test.

Yes, it’s the easiest way to try to “measure something,” but what relationship does it have to what our true goals are for students?

Micromanaging teachers is the death of innovation. In educational bureaucracy, administrators and those setting expectations try to control how and what teachers teach by having them document everything they do. This leaves little time and little energy for developing the innovative ways students will learn best. It also fosters regimentation and mediocrity.

I was talking with a 13-year-old Fayette County student today in my practice. He has a learning disability and I asked his opinion about the CRCT and all the other testing that goes on, from a kid’s perspective.

He told me how he is in a collaborative class, which is a regular class with an extra special education teacher in the class to help students.

He said that about half of the students were in the class because they had failed the CRCT and that the principal added even more teachers to that class setting so that these students may be able to pass the CRCT.

Perhaps that was a good decision in this climate. However, the energy and time that is being devoted to having students simply pass this test so that the school system (any school system) doesn’t look bad is a poor use of teacher talent.

He also told me about the pressure students feel to pass these tests, certainly giving me the impression that this was the most important thing he had to accomplish in school. He is discouraged, unmotivated and beaten down.

There is such a disconnect between what we know from neuroscience about teaching, learning and how the brain works and the current teaching climate.

There is an incredible disconnect between what the world will be like in 10 years and how we are preparing students for it.

It is impossible and foolhardy to try to cram information into students as the amount of information in the world is so huge and so quickly expanding.

The emphasis needs to be placed on teaching students “how” to learn, how to plan, how to find information and use it and helping them toward the true goals we really want for our children. To keep our place in the world we need to foster real problem solving, real creativity, flexibility in thinking, collaboration and independent decision-making.

Teachers need to be treated like the professionals they are. Give them the freedom to soar. I would choose a teacher who instills a love of learning, inquisitiveness, respect for creativity and respect for one another 10 times over that teacher who happens to have the best CRCT scores.

In order for students to really excel in what they will actually need in life, teachers need time to plan, improvise, collaborate, research and engage in reflection.

This is not a perk, it is a necessity. True improvement in real learning starts from the teachers up — not the other way around.

Administrators need to be learning experts and leaders in motivating and empowering students, teachers and parents.

Although most teachers (certainly here in Fayette County) are well-qualified and could and should develop exceptional teaching practices, those who are not and are not effective need to be moved to a different career path.

This needs to be fair, but easier for administrators to do.

It is also important to not get too complacent about the “good” test scores in Fayette County. All the research shows that there is a direct link between socioeconomic status and educational level of parents to achievement test scores.

So we would expect that given these variables Fayette County students should do well. I wonder how well they could do in life if teachers could really teach the way they could and should?

Although I am not a teacher, I have the utmost respect for them. Fayette County, with a new superintendent coming, has an opportunity to take a fresh look at how things are done. One can embark on a new, creative, innovative path or choose to remain on the never ending treadmill, which may look safe, but never truly gets you anywhere.

Lynda Boucugnani-Whitehead, Ph.D.

Fayetteville, Ga.

[Dr. Boucugnani-Whitehead says she is a neuropsychologist in private practice in Fayette County and was previously the director of psychological services and research and development for a major school system.]

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