Posted by Kathleen Bowers | Posted in Advocacy, Children's Need, Individual Learning Plan, Interests and Abilities Map, Parent Experiences, Student Experiences | Posted on 10-03-2011
Just a couple of months ago, my daughter, Annie opted out of traditional high school to attend a charter school. It’s a great local charter school through which students learn at home: a sort of public school and homeschooling hybrid. Today she and I both have far more control over what, how, when and where she learns.
Annie’s advanced algebra class is based on a rigorous online system. She accesses it by sitting on her futon, keyboard in lap, facing the large-screen television that we have adapted for use as an oversized computer monitor. She can read her English assignments in book form or on her new e-reading device. She keeps up with her Spanish by reading the AP (Advanced Placement) recommended Spanish reading list, and she takes courses in history, anthropology, and PE.
Annie is considering a local college course in biology next semester. And she’ll take some classes at the local art center as well. But for most of her work, her classroom is now anywhere and everywhere: the local Starbucks, public library, living room couch, a nearby park. She is reading more and learning more than she was when she was attending the local, traditional high school, and yet she has more free time now. (Annie enjoys playing club waterpolo, volunteering, cooking, playing flute, and knitting.)
At first glance, it doesn’t add up. How can Annie be getting more learning done in less time? The biggest change seems to be the reduction in time spent on testing. We don’t focus on getting her ready for the next state-mandated standardized test. Instead, we follow her interests as much as the state standards. And this makes her a very happy student – happier than I have seen her since elementary school.
Annie has always been a straight-A student, and she was paying an increasingly large price. The higher grades seemed to be increasingly focused on testing, to the point that Annie spent most of her time getting ready for the next one. She was constantly “studying,” constantly anxious about multiple upcoming tests. And with college rapidly approaching, she felt the pressure of needing to get an A on every single test.
We’re done with all that now. Now, Annie is focused on learning. She has become excited about anthropology, and loved reading To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies. She is looking forward to more courses in the sciences, and she excels at math. She is fluent in Spanish and will soon be starting to learn German.
Her goal is Columbia University’s pre-med program, with Berkeley and Harvard as possible back-up plans.
I have no doubt that Annie will reach her goals because, in addition to learning all the subjects I’ve mentioned, she is learning to take control of her own education. Gone are the stresses of trying to guess what will be on tomorrow’s test. Instead, she has time to read more widely, write more frequently, and think more deeply. What’s more, she has a head start on choosing a college major because she’s already in the practice of asking herself what she’s interested in. She is becoming increasingly self-directed. She sits in on lectures at a local college and listens to Harvard and UC Berkeley lectures online.
While Annie’s new school is extraordinary, the situation that led us here is common. Today’s college-bound students are experiencing unparalleled pressures as the emphasis on testing in traditional public schools continues to grow. This pattern has been so gradual that I think most parents haven’t noticed. However, the radical change that Annie has experienced these last few months has made it crystal clear to me: too much testing gets in the way of learning. It takes up our students’ time – not just the time it takes to actually take the tests, but all the time that students spend preparing for the next one.
Too much testing does not serve anyone. In addition to the direct effect this has on students, it forces teachers to focus on test prep, administering tests, and grading, instead of actually teaching. Teachers are increasingly pushed to narrow their instruction – reaching the most extreme position possible when test preparation becomes the instruction, with instructional materials mimicking the formats and exercises that appear on the tests. This isn’t teaching. It isn’t learning. It’s madness!
I don’t know exactly how much of my own daughter’s time had previously been taken over by tests. But I can tell you that removing those artificial pressures, and replacing them with a program focused on her learning experience, has been nothing short of life-changing.