Monday, April 21, 2008


As a retired NEA member, I get their monthly Works4Me e-newsletter, a cheery little number usually dedicated to small, homey tips and tricks for making a classroom run more smoothly—items on the order of inexpensive (but cute!) bulletins boards and what to do when those darned kids forget their pencils.

I skim W4M because I want to know what’s important to teachers, what they care deeply about—enough to share with a million of their colleagues. The well-established gap between practice and policy is usually on full display, but I hold out hope, every month, that Works4Me will feature a hard-hitting column on six ways to retain promising novice colleagues, or a creative lesson on inspiring civic awareness and responsibility in high school juniors. But no.

This month’s Works4Me left me slack-jawed, however. The lead article was titled “Peppy Test Prep.” Quoting:

"We have a pep assembly for the third and fourth graders a couple of days before standardized testing starts. Two teachers pretend they are cheerleaders and shake pompoms as they give a ‘pep’ talk about doing a good job on the tests, getting a good night's rest, etc. We have three teachers sit in desks and pretend to be examples of how not to take the test. One keeps turning around and bothering his neighbor, one cries, and one is not paying attention to directions.”

If I had any doubt about the piece being legitimate, the use of the phrase “bothering his neighbor” was pure teacher-speak. This was the real deal, sent from a teacher in South Dakota, who felt that a good dose of, unh, pep was the ticket to raising student achievement, and was generously sharing some bright ideas on effective ways to boost those all-important scores:

“Another teacher is showing the ‘right’ way to take the test. Breakfast is provided for the students and the teachers/helpers on testing mornings. We also borrow an archway from the local hardware store and put Christmas lights on it with a sign that says, ‘Entering Testing Zone’. We set it up in the hallway that leads to the third and fourth grade rooms. The lights are on whenever we are testing."

There’s a disclaimer from the NEA printed on the page—they’re just providing space for their members to “share” (and soliciting advertisers to pay for that space). Still—showcasing a member who feels that putting up the third grade equivalent of prom decorations and offering a special full breakfast on testing days is the right way to prepare kids for the rigors of standardized testing seems more than a little schizophrenic to me.

I live in union country. And I know that many—maybe most—of my teaching colleagues are marginally interested in the state and federal policies that shape their work. I understand--they’re busy. But blanket testing of kids beginning in the third grade has a major impact on the instructional cycle, curriculum development and resource distribution. We need a more thoughtful response than a pep assembly.

How about organizing members to demand that tests mandated by NCLB be spaced throughout the school year to minimize disruption to the instructional flow and actually assess progress? Why not lobby for teams of third grade teachers to write the tests, to ensure their alignment to reasonable but challenging third-grade skills and knowledge? And if a good breakfast makes such a difference in academic success, why isn’t the NEA sending out articles on rallying the community to feed kids every morning?

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