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"Poverty Is the Problem" With our Public Schools, Not Teachers' Unions

Education expert Diane Ravitch and New York schoolteacher Brian Jones discuss the real problems with--and real solutions for--our public school system.

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JUAN GONZALEZ: Brian Jones, you’re a teacher in the trenches. Can you talk about the pressures on teachers these days with this emphasis on standardized testing and what it means actually to the kind of work that you do?

BRIAN JONES: Well, to me, the students are cheated even before the test is taken. Look, the cheating, the real social cheating, happens in the way that the high-stakes standardized testing distorts school itself.

Let me tell one story. I was doing a science experiment with a group of fourth graders. We were in the middle of a week-long science experiment, and we had—everyone had trays out on their tables, and they were pouring and mixing and investigating. We were having all kinds of rich discussions. And an administrator came in and said, "You have to stop what you’re doing right now," handed—put down a pile of workbooks and said, "You have to begin doing this right now." I begged her, in front of the students, "Please, let us just finish this experiment right now, in the next few minutes, and then we’ll do that." She said, "No, you have to put all this away right now and get working on the workbooks." So, the kids are cheated ahead of time. It teaches teachers to jump through these hoops, to not encourage critical thinking. It teaches all of us that knowledge is somewhere produced by Pearson or by one of these test companies, and you can’t create it, you can’t investigate it, you can’t do any of that. All you have to do is, more or less, remember it.

Here’s another way students are cheated. In elementary school, which I teach, we tend to go through genre studies. We take a genre of literature at a time and go through it. Well, now what more and more schools are doing is teaching the test itself as a genre—that is, studying the features of a test, as you would a novel, or as you would historical fiction or mysteries. You’re laughing, but this is very serious. Any teacher watching this knows what I’m talking about, that you, in elementary school, in many schools, especially the schools where that gun to the head is already cocked—in the poorest schools, in the schools that teach the most disadvantaged students, students of color, in schools in Harlem—you have to teach students how to take a test. You have to tell eight-year-olds about multiple choice, right? And the thing that gets me is that the, you know, wealthy individuals who promote these policies send their own kids to schools that look nothing like that, where inquiry is promoted, where they don’t spend all day obsessing about how they’re going to do on someone else’s test.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In the private schools, where athletics starts in the third grade—

BRIAN JONES: Of course, right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —with teams of all kinds of intramural teams that the schools have.

BRIAN JONES: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: When does testing start?

BRIAN JONES: Well, it depends on the school, but I’ve seen schools that begin right away, that begin the first week of school, where they begin with pretests to try to, you know, tell the kids—if you ask a kid in Harlem—go to any school in Harlem and ask a young elementary school student, "What’s the point of school? Why are you here?" They’ll tell you, "It’s to pass tests, so that I can get a job."

There’s nothing about—you know, I heard Jonathan Kozol speak at the Save Our Schools march, and he said something that really stayed with me. He said, at the wealthy schools, at your Phillips Exeter and Andover Academies, you know, those kids get to feast on the treasures of the earth. They get to enjoy literature and savor it. And they get to savor their savoring of it. And in our schools, too often kids are given these kind of cardboard passages that are meant to show them what a noun is. But there’s no joy in it. And there’s no—I would argue there’s no real learning.

 
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