“My students are not behind. Behind what?”
I saw that quote from a respected teacher and instantly knew it to be true. I believe it with everything in me. But here’s a confession: I know by heart what they’re “behind”–even if I also know that it’s arbitrary. I look at that data all…the… time. Is it just me? It’s possible that I’m just talking to myself and other teachers out there have found a way to settle this conflict within themselves. But I certainly know that I get lost in the same data that I fully believe holds no authentic value. I fear for my students’ well-being when a large percentage of my class tests under the fiftieth percentile, in math, reading or both. It’s a competition-based mindset with a mysterious hold on me as I’m anxiously dissecting data behind closed doors, while I preach growth mindset and various forms of learning in front of my students.
But we have these terms built into our everyday teacher talk. They aren’t “on target.” They’ve “fallen behind.” They didn’t “meet their goal.” (We say, as if they had any idea of what that AR or STAR scaled score goal meant.) We have the terms built into societal rhetoric. “Schools are failing.” “Test scores are down!” “There’s so much learning loss!” “Students in the U.S. are not keeping up with the world.” It’s the narrative that I hear constantly and work to actively reject in my head.
But in search of a silver lining, one appears. There is no better time to free myself from this conflict than pandemic teaching.
These benchmarks are bunk. They’re imaginary. They don’t account for the unique ways in which students acquire knowledge. They don’t celebrate a students natural gifts or multiple intelligences. These benchmarks don’t respect the astounding social-emotional growth achieved. They don’t account for the responsibilities taken on for the people around them. The benchmarks don’t care about surviving trauma. They don’t care about small, steady, gains if they don’t show up on a multiple choice test. These benchmarks don’t measure discovery or curiousity or compassion.
Now, of course, I want my students to learn. I want them to grow. I want them to set goals and design a path to conquer them. I am in no way advocating that we throw away data. I, among many other more accomplished educators, am arguing that we throw away unhelpful data. We commit to thinking and talking about students in terms of their growth rather than their deficiencies. State testing springs to mind, but it’s not just that. It’s a culture. It’s a pressure. It’s an entire testing industry designed to push all students through skills as fast as possible to outdo the lower fiftieth percent of the student population. But really? Why is every teacher pushed to rush every student through that race? That’s just not how bell curves work.
“Everyone learns differently.” It’s an idea widely-embraced. So then why does “learning differently,” always refer to the means and demonstration of acquired knowledge, rather than the pace? When I think of a students learning “differently,” I see a kid who does a STEM project to demonstrate learning rather than one who writes an essay. Why can’t “learning differently” also mean pace? What happens if we let go of these oppressive pacemaker goals and let kids learn on their own terms and in their own time?
The answer is some magic. Some magic happens when your students are motivated by the learning itself. Teachers know this. I know this because it’s what I try to do every day. We know our learners. We know the pace and practice and the time they need to master a concept or skill. We frequently give extra time to our students who need it. We work a little longer with a group who is right on the edge of a conceptual breakthrough. We provide choice. We celebrate growth and we never, ever compare our students to one another. We know that comparison of two students is impossible with all their intricacies and uniquenesses. Why ever compare? It’s apples to oranges and Jaydens to Jordans. They’re all different. They’re all special. They must be allowed to learn in the exact way they learn.
I want my students to thrive. So I’m working to remind myself of the definition. Does “thriving” mean above the fiftieth percentile in math and reading on whatever corporate-funded measure we’ve decided we’re using? Is it “thriving” if we squeeze in twenty minutes of Social Studies and suffer through a grueling, intensive 90 minutes of math? Is it “thriving” if their Science skips the hands-on experimentation and is only reading and summarizing nonfiction texts?
To thrive is to feel fulfilled. To thrive is to feel accomplishment. To thrive is to share what you love. When I pause phonics and take the time to hear about that time they went to Grandma’s cabin and they saw a rabbit-they’re thriving. When we read a story and laugh at the pure goofiness of the characters-they’re thriving. When we make time to play a game that builds up our community during every morning meeting-we’re thriving.
Our students, our classrooms, our schools, and our communities are so much more than how they rank. Someday, with enough talking, enough advocacy, enough counter-narrative, our students will be seen. Until then, we’ll keep teaching and creating moments of wonder in our classrooms. We can stop to remind ourselves that our teaching isn’t encompassed by the numbers. They can’t measure what we do. They can’t measure the brilliance or our students and the growth they make in any area other than reading and math.
These students grow every day in our care and they have already succeeded in learning through a global pandemic.
Once again, for the sake of building this mantra:
These benchmarks are bunk.