M-Step Fail

“Do or do not.  There is no try.”

I understand why advocacy is so hard. I understand how people quickly become apathetic in the face of pushback and resistance. In less than 24 hours I have gone from a highly motivated canvasser to a mom shrinking in the corner. Given this fact, it is unlikely I will find the gumption to stand up the next time I witness an institutional wrong.

So here it is. I am perturbed. I seem to be one of the few willing to step into the murky waters of educational politics, to speak up on an issue that is patently wrong. Here it really is: I am surrounded by sheep (or are they ostriches?) and it’s bringing me down. Perhaps I am being unfair. You decide.

This week and next children across the state of Michigan are taking the M-Step, the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress. According to letters I received from our Principals: Our children’s “performance on the M-STEP becomes a part of their permanent academic record and is also used to measure our Schools’ progress toward important school improvement goals.”

My issue is not that my kids will spend up to eight hours (over several days) taking the test (last year it was a whopping 16) instead of spending that valuable time learning something, my issue is that my kids are being tested on material that has NOT YET BEEN COVERED in this academic year. And in case you missed it, their score will become part of their permanent academic record. What? In point of fact, in many cases our teachers have not been able to complete the units contained in the test. For example in my child’s school, 5th graders are being tested on the subject matter contained within eight units of math despite the fact that their teachers have only completed the first five units (and in some cases, less). For further clarification, my 5th grader will be tested on geometry despite not having HAD one iota of geometry. Outrageous.

I went looking for answers. I started by asking those who occupy the front lines: teachers, those we largely hold responsible for educating our kids. Here’s what one had to say: “I have to be very careful. My opinions could get me fired.” Whoa. This does not sound like one who lives in a democracy, let alone one whose occupation is education. Should not the free exchange of ideas be part and parcel of this teacher’s environment? And what of the curriculum? Should not those who administer it be allowed to comment on it? Are they not in fact in the best position to critique it?

Said another, “I can’t sleep at night. I worry about how I am going to get through all of the material, knowing I won’t, knowing there isn’t enough time for them (students) to absorb it at the rate I have to teach it.” I recall a scene from the old sit-com “I Love Lucy.” In it Lucy is working at a candy factory on the assembly line, packaging candies as they come along on a conveyer belt. She is struggling to keep pace and quite predictably, she falls behind. In an effort to catch up, she starts cramming chocolates into her mouth until her cheeks are puffed full and her eyes bug out. There are so many metaphors here, where to begin? We can start with the obvious. Maybe the conveyor belt is going too fast? Or maybe there is simply too much product to process? And definitely, cramming has mixed and disastrous results.

“I have to teach to the test.” “Every day I experience constraint in my classroom; I cannot veer off course, even when a student’s insight beg us to go there. If it’s not on the test…” Oh the things teachers say, so illuminating, so crucial, yet no one seems to be listening.

Teachers are overwhelmingly frustrated. I have previously written about our State’s adoption of the rigorous Common Core Standards, standards meant to elevate our children’s math and English language art skills, to prepare them for higher education and eventually to translate those valuable skills into better careers. I have also stated that I support these worthy goals. My problem, our teacher’s problems, have everything to do with the implementation of those standards which requires them to cram a heavily compressed curriculum into the school year while knowing darn well they cannot adequately cover the material—if at all. Looming large always is the M-STEP, the single measure of a teacher’s, of a district’s worth. Why would our State set up our districts, our teachers and our students to fail?

I spoke to parents. I sought a community of like-minded mothers who I assumed would, at the very least, express support for my assertion that students shouldn’t be tested on material they haven’t been presented (IQ tests excepted). I was stunned at how quickly they surrendered all control to our beloved school district, who they assured me knows what is best for our kids. I was distressed that they completely missed the point. I was disheartened at how dismissive they were. I was even told to be careful, that I could get people fired, that it was all too easy to know just who said what. Whoa. Talk about a chilling effect. No wonder they are all too scared to do anything about anything. My rallying cry was ineffectual. I thought I was being an advocate for our kids, for our beloved school district, compelled by our passionate teachers whose voices are loud and clear in the shadows but dare not speak to truth in the light of day. I thought harnessing the collective voice of parents and reaching out to our elected officials—the ones who helped create and administer this problem—was a natural next step. But there are no voices.

So I took mine alone to Lansing. I wrote to my senator and to each and every one of the senators who occupy the Educational Committee. I asked them to speak to teachers, to visit their classrooms, to observe the constraints Lansing has placed on them. I asked them to acknowledge that attaching the results of the M-STEP to a teacher’s performance and/or to a child’s permanent record is wrong. I asked them not just for my kids, but for all kids, not just for my kid’s teachers but for all the teachers in all of Michigan’s school districts. The response? Canned letters assuring me that my concern is important, reminding me how very busy my elected officials are; promises they will get back to me…eventually.

This is why it is so hard to do the right thing. This is why so few are willing.