Monday, June 22, 2015

Why do All Those Kids Have Brown Skin?: Hard Questions from My Kids

“Mommy, why do all those kids have brown skin?”

I got this question from my 10-year-old when we were pulling up to a field trip at the Georgia Aquarium recently and my first reaction was just confusion. What in the world was she talking about? Then I realized that she was looking at a class of children from an inner city Atlanta school and I followed confusion with horror—am I somehow raising a racist kid? And then my mind finally rested on the most likely meaning of her question:

“Do you mean, ‘why are there no other races in that class?’”

“Yeah. My classes always have kids with light skin and brown skin. And Friana’s family is from India and Eliza’s family is from Vietnam. There are lots of colors. Why doesn’t that class have different races?”

So I took a deep breath and started to formulate an answer that was both accurate and age appropriate and possible to get out of my mouth during the time it took us to get into the parking deck and meet her class at the Aquarium.

I bet a lot of my mom friends have been in that same awkward, and yet incredibly important, moment of parenthood. When your kid asks you a question without an easy answer, or a short answer, or even an answer one could give to adults.

Why are there still all-Black elementary classes? Good grief. That just makes my heart heavy with the responsibility to get this one answer right.

I have been thinking about how to talk about race relations with my children a lot recently. We were in Baltimore about a week before the Freddie Gray death and subsequent riots and my daughter asked me about that. She saw me looking at pictures of the Orioles playing in an empty stadium and asked what was going on in that picture.

We had just driven by the stadium and pointed it out to the kids. We found Charm City to be lovely and gracious and everyone we met was so welcoming. To see parts of it burning and hurting was painful and sad. And my children, who have been taught that police are the good guys, were very confused by the violence.

We have toured the Old Slave Mart in Charleston and seen the tiny shackles made for little children and listened to the stories of men and women sold on the auction block. I did not take pictures because it seemed too awful to have smiling white children posing for photographs where human beings were bought and sold for the wealth of others. My children know of our country’s history with slavery and are shocked when they realize that it happened in our home town, in our state, in our own family’s history.

It is shocking. Still. I don’t think we can ever let it cease to shock us.

When something like the shooting in Charleston, or Trayvon Martin, or the riots in Ferguson happen I am again confronted with the awful, “what in the world do I say about this to my children? What are they capable of understanding? What role do I, a Caucasian woman, play in healing this terrible wound?”

As usual, when I don’t know what to do in a parenting moment, I play back the advice of my mother. If we still lived in a world with “wise women,” my mother would be one. She has an innate ability to see the world from other people’s eyes and act with understanding and compassion. Honestly, it is convicting and inspiring all at once.

Mom says that when a child asks a hard question you answer honestly, without your own emotions getting in the way, and answer only the question asked. Then you wait for more questions.

I have some experience with this because Jay experienced the death of a parent at a young age. I have been asked various questions about “what happened to Daddy’s Daddy” and it is always hard. I have had to say, “yes, mommies and daddies can die, but it is not very common.” And, “yes it is very sad for Daddy that he doesn’t have a daddy anymore.” I answer the question they ask and wait for a follow up.

Thus far it has been solemn and heavy and difficult, but I can’t ignore their questions or gloss over the hardest parts or tell them that they don’t have to worry about their parents because I don’t know if that’s true. It wasn’t true in Jay’s life.

So while mulling over my sadness at yet more death and racial pain in our country I had this challenging thought: I cannot avoid the question of parental death because it is a real part of our lives and our history. And if I’m avoiding the hard parts of the questions my kids ask about race inequality (and they DO ask) I’m acting as though it’s not a part of my life and my history. And that makes me part of the problem.

So in the Aquarium parking lot I made myself say, “Well, honey, students come from the neighborhood around the school, and that neighborhood has mostly African-Americans.” And when she said, “Why? Why don’t people of other races live there?” I replied with, “our city was segregated for a long time and certain neighborhoods were Black and certain ones were White.”

And as the “whys” kept coming, I slowly outlined the concepts of changes to laws without changes to people’s hearts and perceived property values and social mobility all in short, halting sentences as best I could in a tiny amount of time. Clearly, I could not do this topic justice in the situation and possibly not even if I’d had all afternoon and a map and a timeline at my disposal (which I would have loved, by the way).

I don’t need to attack my kids with information about every frightening news story I hear, but can’t shy away from mentioning a church bombing in Birmingham or a protest downtown if it answers a relevant question.

I cannot fix our nation’s painful history. I cannot cause crazy people to choose murder victims by some other means than the color of their skin. But I can tell my children the truth about our ugly past, I can do my best to explain our racially murky present, and maybe I can raise adults who will be better equipped to create bridges in our society than we are.

Monday, June 1, 2015

How I Keep from Going Crazy all Summer (A Half-Assed Plan)

You count down the days. You may even have a paper chain or a calendar to cross off. You fill up water balloons and super-soakers to meet the bus. You plan a bar-b-cue at the neighborhood pool with popsicles and icees and it's like one big town-wide party for everyone with school-age kids.

No more poster board projects your kid remembers at 10:37p.m. the night before it's due! No more mountains of papers requiring your signature that you sign away hoping that none of them gave over the deed to your house! No more convoluted list of "90s day" and "sports day" and "wear blue for whale/earth/clean-water-for-all day" because, God forbid, your kid wears green (unless it's St. Patrick's Day and then your kid had BETTER wear green or he will get PINCHED. And, also, make sure your kid knows that pinching is sometimes called assault and if he does so you will be called to come get him from school.)  Hooray for SUMMER!

And then you're slammed upside the head with the reality that your kids no longer have an exhausting 8 hours of school to attend that will mellow them into normal(ish) people and you are solely responsible for finding SOMETHING, for Pete's sake, ANYthing to do all day long.

For two months. Two WHOLE months. That's the same amount of time you spent feeding the little buggers every 2 hours at the beginning of their lives and you knew at the time it would NEVER END and you would always be tired. And it did end, but you were right about the tired part.

How can summer be so much fun and also make you want to send your kids to boarding school?

As the daughter of teachers and, eventually, as a teacher myself, I have spent my entire life counting down the days to summer. By the time I quit teaching, I had school age children myself and so the counting has never stopped.

When summer finally came during my teaching years, I wanted to lie in bed until 10 and then do all the household projects that I never had time to do for the other 10 months of the year. And I did do that for the first several years.

But then I had kids and they kept waking up at 6:30 and expecting to be "fed" and asking "what are we going to do today?" That's when I realized that I had to actually come up with something to do today.

During school, kids don't have much free time and they are, therefore, obsessed with the "plan" for each day. I found myself rather exasperatedly yelling "the PLAN is to finish your laundry, make a grocery list, and pick up the dry cleaning! What do you people want from me?"

Clearly, they wanted a plan and I did not really want to make one all that much.

Which is unfortunate. There are the weeks when the kids have various day camps or we go on vacation for a couple of weeks and there will be some time spending the night at grandparent's houses, but the rest of the days are up to me and I need to make the all-important plan.

Here is where, if you want some really cute craft ideas or an adorable calendar, you should go to Pinterest. There are wonderful tutorials on all sorts of crafts and creative games. You will not find that here, because my plan is not like that. My plan is half-assed and it goes like this:

I make a check-list. Each kid has to complete their check-list every day. That's it. That's the whole plan.

Each kid's check-list has the following items:

  • School Time
  • Clean Something
  • Go Outside
  • Read Something
  • Creative Time
  • Help the Family Team
  • See Someone Else
  • Make Your Bed
  • Exercise

And I don't even tell them what the specific activities are. Bwa-ah-ah! It is evil parenting genius.

See, I don't like being told what to do even if I am the one making the assignment. So if I plan our weeks out hour by hour I am just as likely to rebel against our detailed plans as the children are. I don't like to be pinned down to one particularly activity or itinerary days and weeks ahead of time. I am fully aware of how immature that is, but so what, you're not the boss of me and I don't care what you think!

So I made a check list. If we go swimming with some friends at the YMCA pool we can check off Outside, See Someone, AND Exercise! If a kid can't think of anything to do they can clean something. I get to vasssilate between Benevolent Dictator and Best Mom Ever and the children stop asking me what we're doing next.

I say it's reading time--I'm the Benevolent Dictator!
We take a surprise trip to get frozen yogurt--Best Mom Ever!

Really, the children just want to know that there are some rules and some sense of direction when there is no school. I do actually buy workbooks for them to work through and make them do the work regularly enough that they know how and when to do them during School Time. I give them cleaning tasks they can accomplish without me--laundry, sweeping, dishes, etc.

Creative time means we spend some time making art or music of some sort. I have a craft box that I put on the kitchen table and tell them to go nuts. Or we have a dance party. It depends on whether or not I want to sweep the kitchen again.

I have found that if I try to implement too strict of a schedule that it falls apart because there are so many odd days--visits with friends or trips to see family or a late night out all mess up any plan I may have. My creativity also peters out as the summer wears on and our activities become a lot less exciting--what was Water Olympics in June becomes "getting hosed down before you're let inside the house" by the end of July.

So the checklists work for us--some structure, but a LOT of freedom. And if for some reason, I don't make them wipe down a bathroom, they are just happy they didn't have to clean (Benevolent Dictator strikes again).

Happy Summer!

Sally the Benevolent Dictator (aka Best Mom Ever)

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

10 Ways to Waste Less Time on a Guy You'll Never Marry (advice for my single friends)

Jay and me taking our own Easter pic because kids suck
Summer is approaching and that means it’s time for my anniversary, which obviously makes me grateful for making a really good choice 17 years ago.

And it’s wedding season for all my friends in their 20s and that makes me think about that time in my life when it seemed like every weekend from May to September we had another wedding to attend.

It’s also time for graduations and that turns my mind to the two groups of beautiful girls I got to walk with for a season of their high school years—one group is a year out of college and the other is a year out of high school at this point. They are just entering those years of wedding fever and never-ending “save the date” cards.

And then I thought, wouldn’t it be fun if I could help my single-girl friends in some small way with what I’ve learned from my marriage and the marriages (both successful and not-so-much) of my friends and family. 

So, for all my singletons, here are my suggestions on how to keep from wasting too much of your time on a guy you won’t end up marrying.

1. Be a really good friend

You should be a really good friend to all the guys AND girls in your life, whether or not you’re thinking of dating them. When someone needs to talk, you listen. When someone needs help moving, you bring a label maker. When someone is having a hard time, you offer encouragement.  Don’t talk about your friends behind their backs. Don’t judge them for whatever ridiculous (to you) problem they have going on.  Don’t attempt to solve their (or your) problems with tequila. It does not ever make anything better.

Do you know what happens when you’re a good friend? You become a better person. And you’re better able to identify the people in your life (male and female) who help make you a better person. Because I married my very best friend, I have run marathons, and made paintings we hang in our house, and spent the summer in Europe. Jay spurs me on, makes me better, and encourages me to do great things. I’d never have had that kind of love in my corner if I hadn’t been a good friend first.

2. Watch how he treats other people

When you spend time with a guy pay special attention to how he talks to and about the other people in his life. Does he gripe about his mom always being on his case? Does he badmouth his roommate? Does he complain about his boss all the time? That is not going to get better with age. Even if his boss sounds like an evil minion from the Hell of Retail Inventory Night and his mom makes Martha Stewart look laid back, he has a choice. He could choose a different attitude, he could choose a different job, he could shut up about his mom because she gave him life, for Pete’s sake.  If his bad mood is always someone else’s fault, don’t bother.

A corollary to this one is to pay attention to how he talks to strangers. If he is rude or dismissive to wait staff or acts annoyed by all the other people on the sidewalk, he is not a nice person inside.

3. Compare your goals and values

The goals one is kind of tricky because he (and you) may not exactly know what all your goals are. You might, but you are just as likely for those goals to shift as your life changes. So I’m not talking about things like “we both want to be attorneys.” I mean way more broad things like “I’d like to have a family one day” or “I’d like to travel with my kids” or “I want to work with a non-profit.” Even if life doesn’t exactly work out that way, these dreamy kinds of conversations reveal a lot about what is important to a person. If he says he never wants kids (and you do), believe him and move on—there is no middle ground on children. If he says he wants to spend his 20s really focusing on his career, but you want to get married, trust that he means it and check back when he’s 30. If he says his current goal is to buy the newest Xbox whatever, he is not yet a grownup and does not understand the concept of a goal. Back away slowly so as not to startle him.

His values should be ones you value. He should be loyal and faithful to his family. He should be loyal and faithful to his friends and controlled substances should have no effect on that. He should finish what he starts. He should work hard and save money and not waste what he has. (Side note: if you are having a hard time valuing these things you should not be in a serious relationship. You are not yet a grownup and it is his turn to back away slowly.) 

You should share the same faith and not because one of you requires it of the other. Although I certainly know couples who have different beliefs and live happy lives, it is much easier if you don’t have to navigate that particular landmine. At some point in life, you and your husband are not going to feel in love. If you both love the same God, then at least your hearts are still pointing in the same direction. This is a much easier reason to walk away before a deep relationship starts than it is after.

4. Look for his commitment level (and not to his fantasy football league)

Marriages only succeed if divorce is not an option to both parties. If one of you is just “hoping for the best,” I have news:  No one’s marriage ever involves only “the best.” At some point, the worst or the not-so-great or the horrifyingly mundane are going to occur and you need someone who understands commitment. So if he flits from job to job without giving reasonable notice or his friends make jokes about how he never shows up on time, he is not ready for a serious relationship.

5. Do something you both hate

Jay and I once volunteered to help build a Habitat for Humanity house and we had a terrible time. It was 147 degrees, it was an all day commitment on a Saturday, and we are apparently very bad manual laborers. We were tired and cranky and really disappointed to discover that we are, in fact, incredibly selfish jerks. But we also made each other laugh (when we passed briefly on our way to another mind-numbing task) and encouraged each other and have joked about how miserably we failed to be altruistic for years. So fold laundry or do your taxes or babysit some horrible children.  A lot of life is doing tasks you don’t want to do and someone who can make the experience better, even if neither of you is having fun, is a person worth keeping.

6. Talk about something controversial

Pick a topic—abortion, police brutality, marriage equality, war, famine, the mess that is the Big Ten (it does NOT have 10 teams)—and ask what he thinks.

You’re not actually looking for the two of you to agree—you’re looking for how he talks about topics with emotional responses. If a person can’t see the other side of a situation or if their own feelings bring out severe language or anger, that person is probably not going to fight fair when he’s upset. And you need to be able to fight fair in a grown-up relationship. You have to be able to look past your own feelings and try to see what your partner is saying. If a guy can’t talk about a political topic without cursing and derogatory language, then be prepared to be cursed at and insulted when you get into a fight.

7. Meet his family. All of it.

You are, too, marrying his family. I don’t know why people say “you’re not marrying his MOM” or whatever, because you totally now belong to another family and all their crazy once you are married. And every family has crazy. I’m not going to offer examples because my family might read this—just know that I have wonderful in-laws whom I love very much and yet, the crazy stories are there. They always are. Clearly, you are not likely to hang out with some dude’s family before you have a relationship of some sort, but before you decide to get hitched forever you should see how he interacts with his family and whether or not you’d be willing to have your kids call that woman Grandma. They certainly don’t have to be perfect, but he should be able to be kind and loving to them while still acknowledging that they are (at least a little bit) crazy.

8. Want to have sex with him (later)

Notice that I did not list one this first. Our culture tends to make this “spark” the first checkmark on the dating possibility list and then tries to wade through the other qualities in a person later. But the reality is that finding someone attractive is really not that hard. I can think of several people I wouldn’t mind having sex with and not all of them are Ryan Gosling. Although I’m not sure I trust anyone with abs like that so maybe Chris Pratt… or Indiana Jones (not Harrison Ford, the actual treasure-hunting professor)… I have a thing for swashbuckling goofballs…o.k. I’m losing the thread here...

The point is that the “spark” is possible with lots of people in your life so, yes, it should be there, but it shouldn’t be given as much weight as our society tends to give it. All sparks have their ups and downs and a lot of people equate that feeling with love. When their spark is on a downturn for days or weeks or even months, they say they’ve “fallen out of love” or “grown apart” and notice that spark in a coworker or old friend and over time a marriage ends. So, yeah, want to have sex with him, but make sure you’re paying attention to all the other points before you do anything about it. 

9. Discount his willingness to have sex with you

For some reason women tend to read extra meaning into a guy’s desire. It makes us feel beautiful or sexy or wanted and that has value to us. Just like it is not all that special for you to be attracted to a guy, it is not all that special for him to be attracted to you. Clearly, he should be into you. And if he asks you out, he is. But all that means is that sex is fun and you seem willing, not that he is the one true love of your life. Don’t confuse the point.

10.  Pray

Right before my wedding I was sitting in the bridal room in the narthex of a little church listening to guests enter and be seated and I had a near panic attack. I sat there thinking, “what I am doing, this is ridiculous, marriage is forever, oh no, oh no, oh no. Alright, this is your last chance to back out—do you want to leave?” So I prayed and asked God, “is this right?” And then I remembered that I was promising myself to Jay, my best friend, the person with whom I wanted to do all the tasks of my life—silly, adventurous, mundane—and I smiled. Marriage is scary. Marriage to Jay just sounded fun. Prayer lets you take a breath and listen. Prayer lets you find focus. Prayer keeps you in love when you don’t want to be and keeps you married when you’re mad and keeps you sane when your family grows. Start before you are a couple by yourself and continue it together when you get serious.

So there you go. Ten ways to help weed out the guys who could suck you in and waste years of your life before you finally go, “wait, why am I still here?” and then have to move all of your stuff. And if you’re not in a place where you want an actual adult dating relationship, just tuck these thoughts away and practice the non-sex related ones on your friends. Good, kind people who make you better and lift your spirits are always the best ones to be around anyway.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

A Love Note for Moms on Mother's Day

This is the time of year when we moms kind of awkwardly accept cards and flowers and breakfasts in bed because, somehow, this is what men and children think moms want. And it is sweet and we love our families and we appreciate their kind words. But we also feel a little silly. Because we are Mom and it’s our job and who knows if we’re even doing right?

No one knows, really, if you’re doing it “right.” But there are some things I do know about you just because you are called mom.

I know that you were surprised by how freaking hard it is to have a newborn. Not only were you sleep- deprived and covered in goo, but you couldn’t figure out how you might ever find your way out of the darkness that is the newborn cave and crawl your way back toward your old self. 

And I know that at the same time, you were petrified of leaving that baby with anyone else because even if you had no clue what you were doing, you were also all in and crazy protective of that tiny lump of humanity you made.

I know that you sometimes think things like “I would like just one day where no one says ‘mommy’ 187 times in a row without taking a breath.”

And then, late at night after the kids are in bed and you have chocolate and/or wine, you think of your friends and family who couldn’t or didn’t have children. Or, even worse, the ones who’ve lost a child and then you take back all those frustrated thoughts and maybe even sneak into their rooms just to watch them take one more breath.

I know that when people at work without kids complain about how tired they are, you think, “oh my GOD, you have no idea. If only you could see what my night is like.” But you don’t because you are a grown-up and a professional and it wouldn’t matter anyway. You just do your job with a vague sense of mom guilt and then make dinner and supervise homework and fall into bed.

I know that when your husband comes home from work and you’ve just finished yet another round of Stay-at-Home-Mom chauffer/maid/volunteer roulette, you wonder if anyone will ever respect you again if you only wear yoga pants for the rest of your life. But you don’t ask anyone what they think because you are a grown-up and you own your life choices and it wouldn’t matter anyway. You just take care of your household with that same vague sense of mom guilt… and then make dinner and supervise homework and fall into bed.

I know you mentally berate yourself for your extra-jiggly parts or your deflated parts or the parts no longer in the same place. No one should be aware of fat on their back, right?

But I also know that when your kids were asked to fill out their mother’s day lists they said you were “snuggly” or “gave kisses” or “hugs me.” Which is kid-speak for “you are a soft place to land, to find comfort, and to feel unconditional love.” Not one of them mentioned your back fat.

I know that you cannot let go of that time you yelled at your kids for their behavior in a store or at their grandparents’ house and you worry that they will remember it forever. And they might. But they will probably think it’s funny and only bring it up to mess with your head. Because children are like that.

I know that, logically, you recognize that your kids’ youth soccer ability as having little to no relevance in their lives. But I know that you are also ridiculously proud when they score a goal on the kid who was making a daisy chain.

I know that you don’t really want or need any more school-made cards or ornaments or works in clay. And that you are trying to find a way to dispose of them without breaking anyone’s heart. Except that then you sigh and think of how they will grow up and leave you so you put them somewhere safe where you can look at how tiny they once were. Stupid school crafts.

I know that every single day you love your babies. They drive you crazy and they test your limits of patience and they destroy everything nice in your home. And yet nothing lifts your heart more than a pudgy hug that leaves handprints on your shoulders.

I know that when your child is sick your world stops. And that when they are just a little bit sick, you revel in the sweaty head tucked under your chin and the particular heavy weight of a child who is really, really asleep.

I know that sometimes, when you think about the future, all of the fears and unknowns of their lives almost overwhelm you and you feel short of breath for a few minutes.

I know that you would give anything to ensure their future health and happiness, but that you also know that isn’t possible. And somehow it is all worse that you would gladly lay down your own life for theirs, but no one is ever going to ask you to do so.

I know that there is no one on earth over whom you will ever have as much influence as you do over your children.

And I know that that thought both terrifies and inspires you all at the same time.

I know that you had no idea what you were signing up for when you became a mom, but that you cannot imagine the person you would be without ever having kids. I know that is true even though you have absolutely no problem imagining being alone…on an island…with chocolate…and a drink with an umbrella…for maybe a week or so.

I know that you are trying. Really, really trying to do this whole mommy thing exactly right. Except that there is no right and the fact that you’re really trying is the biggest part of getting it as close to right as possible.

I know that you need other moms--for advice, for commiseration, and just for a break from talking about Jake and the Neverland Pirates. And every now and then, you also need them to tell you you’re doing a good job.

So, here it is from me. You are doing a good job, your babies think the sun rises and sets on you, and you are exactly what your kids need.

Happy Mother’s Day

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Why I'm No Longer a Teacher (and why you should care)

The short answer, if I’m asked why I’m no longer teaching, is that after a successful, decade-long foray into the teaching field, I failed a multiple choice test about how to behave in a school and was banned from the Fulton County Schools Teacher Applicant Pool.

The long answer is a bit more complex and echoes the frustrations and fears of teachers all over the nation as our public schools move deeper into the realm of high-stakes testing and dubious oversight and application of those same tests. 

I know that for most people, the level of interest in the topic of testing in schools is directly related to the current involvement your family has.  If you have a kid taking a week’s worth of tests, you care a lot that week.  If not, it is yet another thing among a long list of depressing news topics that feels too large to tackle while also paying bills and feeding kids and basically living a life. It's about school...ugh. It's about tests at school..ugh. And it's about statistical interpretation and application of tests at school..ugh once again.

But I care so much about the state of our public school system, and I so badly want people to have a better understanding of what the Common Core/testing/opt-out debates are about that I am willing to share the most humiliating moment of my adult life in an effort to explain it all in a tangible way and to, hopefully, spur some of you to action.

There are really two items currently at the forefront of educational reform discussions. The first is the implementation of the Common Core Curriculum that has been adopted by the bulk of the nation in recent years. The second is the series of tests that are being implemented with increasingly higher stakes attached to the results of these assessments.

National Standards

The Common Core, while frustrating to many parents attempting to help their children with newly popular methods of solving math problems, is not actually the devil. Standards are not a new concept and have been used by school systems across the country for decades. Before the Common Core, Georgia had the Quality Core Curriculum (QCC) with the Georgia Performance Standards (GPS) as a kind of bridge between the QCCs and the Common Core GPS.  As teachers, we were taught that the standards were the “maximum tested” not the “maximum taught.”

The idea, of course, was that standards create a base level that every student should learn in a given grade or subject and that the teacher could then expand upon topics based on the interests or abilities of the students. Unfortunately, the Common Core was developed as No Child Left Behind and, later, Race to the Top were implemented. These highly publicized political programs required school systems to give assessments and report test scores in order to maintain their federal funding. If the tests were going to become such a large part of determining success, the standards needed to be incredibly detailed and more rigorous.

The result is that, in an effort to create rigor, some Common Core standards may not be developmentally appropriate, and almost all of them eliminate the option of any expansion or fluidity in the classroom. Any “extra” moments of time are now used to prep for the ever-looming tests.

So, if it’s not the Common Core that is sucking the joy out of teachers and students alike, what is it?

It is the use of statistical data as the one best indicator of student and teacher success that really has me frightened.

Numbers—Are they lying to you? How would you even know? Can you even trust them?

My undergraduate degree is in Economics and my Master’s degree is in Social Studies Education. The one thing I learned over and over in my Econ classes were that statistics can be used to say whatever you want them to. The numbers don’t lie, but the person telling you what the numbers mean might very well be lying and you’d never know it.

When the list of SAT scores by state comes out it always makes the news. I remember one year when the state with the highest SAT scores had fewer total students take the test than there were seniors in the one Atlanta-area high school in which I was teaching. In Georgia, the PSAT is given to every Junior and college tuition is free to any student with a B average who can get into a public university. Students who may not really be contemplating college are aware of the test and encouraged to try it if there’s a chance they could continue their education.  Comparing 400 college-bound students in one state to thousands of students who may or may not be interested in a 4-year degree in another is pointless even if it makes great political speaking points.

When Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) was implemented the incredibly wealthy school at which I taught was in danger of failing our AYP and having our name printed in the newspaper as a failing school. Why? Because one assessment category included the percentage of classes failed by students on free-and-reduced lunch. Our school had fewer than five students on assisted lunch which meant that if any of them failed more than one class, we were in trouble. 

That same school had a visit from the Governor of Georgia for the next two years in a row as a reward for “most improved SAT scores.” I should note that as a new school, juniors and seniors were not required to transfer from their old school to ours so our scores improved simply because we added full junior and senior classes over the next two years.

My point is that, while these scores reveal some useful information, they don’t necessarily mean anything earth-shakingly significant.  In fact, they generally reflect the relative success of the community in which the school resides rather than anything the teachers or students are specifically doing. We might as well just make giant signs that say “This is an upper-middle class neighborhood with well-educated adults and you want to buy a house here.”

Testing, Testing, 123

Much like school rankings and Newsweek lists (traditionally another random stat based on number of AP tests given divided by number of seniors at a given school) individual test results only share part of the story.

Tests in and of themselves are not bad. I have written, given, and graded thousands of them. Tests are a tool. And like any tool, they have their limitations. Politicians and real estate agents like test scores because they are easy to understand and they make people want to live in those districts. Teachers use them because they offer feedback and a way for the teacher to assess his or her techniques for that unit. They also reveal some, but by no means all, of the material a student understands and the areas in which that student still needs to work.

However, no test, no matter how well thought out, can be perfect. A committee I was on once analyzed a test question where the correct answer identified a Native American group as being “violent.” Although the 8th-grade students knew that the tribe was a war-based group, they equated “violent” with “bad” and “Native Americans” with “good” and so they did not choose that answer. Their black-and-white thinking (which is fairly normal at that age) hindered their ability to answer correctly.

One year I had a student called out of an Advanced Placement (AP) exam to take a call from her mother even though the mom knew the student was in testing. I found the student crying in the hallway in between sections of the exam. She wouldn’t tell me what was wrong and she went back in to finish her test, but she did not do as well as I projected that she would.

A test score can reveal what a child has learned. But it can also reveal that a child is hungry, or tired, or confused, or worried. I’ve taught children who’ve lost a parent and come back to school the next day. I’ve struggled through lessons with entire classes in tears on September 11, 2001 and in multiple other years because classmates had died that week. These are human children and their test scores are not who they are or even what they necessarily know about the subject over which they are being tested.

So what does any of this have to do with my failing a test and the current plight of teachers? Two things: the culture of testing is eliminating common sense from our schools and our children’s test scores are being used to judge their teachers.

We’ll Let the Test Decide

In my case, I failed because I did not understand the purpose of the assessment. In July, 2013 I was considering returning to teaching after a few years at home with my young children. Part of the online application was a section of 25 or so multiple-choice questions about school scenarios. In a moment of naïve optimism I thought that these questions would be used as interview talking points or perhaps as a teaching-style assessment similar to a personality test. As such, I consistently chose the answers that allowed me to gather more information about each scenario since a large part of working with the adorable messes that are teenagers is being able to be sensitive to their thoughts and point of view.

Unfortunately for me, it was actually a test with a mandatory minimum score that determined whether or not I was even eligible for an interview. I didn’t know any of that until nine months later when a former supervisor wanted to hire me to teach in her department.  She couldn’t find my application in the system and eventually, after about a month of back and forth nonsense, I got an answer.

It took me googling news articles about the new application process to find a name. It took me guessing at an email address based on email naming conventions in the school district to find a contact. It took several emails wherein I basically demanded to know how I, a fully licensed teacher with an exemplary record for this same district, could be considered unfit for an interview. I finally received a phone call (which made me feel good until a less naïve friend pointed out that the district didn’t want it in writing). The woman on the other end told me I failed the test I didn’t know I was taking and that I had therefore been blacklisted from the applicant pool for a period of one year.

When I again protested and asked that she call my references at any of a half-dozen local schools she said, “it’s an automated process and there’s nothing I can do.”

That sentence it why I am writing this.  The school district was not attempting to be cruel and, to be fair, after my increased complaints to the superintendent and a school board member whose kid I taught, the process has been changed.  In fact, when I again had access to the questionnaire a year later the example question I used to explain my complaints used my suggestions almost verbatim—I wonder if I can claim a contractor fee?

The problem is that, intentional or not, there are very real human consequences to educational testing being used as a decision-maker instead of as an informational tool.

When a child has the possibility of being retained a grade due to their score on one test, without the input or recommendation of his or her teacher, we have a problem. Georgia is implementing the new Milestones tests and, right now, the tests are not being used as “gateway” tests to the next grade. The possibility exists, however, and teachers and students are feeling the strain of “taking the test seriously” on a regular basis.

They also create unintentional wastes of time (if you’ve already taken the test that determines your success, what do you do for the last three weeks of school?) and force teachers to make sure students practice test-taking skills in class (instead of, you know, actually reading a book or conducting an experiment or something educational).

A child’s educational future should be determined by the child’s parents, teacher, and school working in partnership. Test scores should be part of the data that informs those decisions rather than the ultimate word on any student.

Your Survival Depends upon Your Child

At this moment, teachers nationwide are struggling with the idea that their students’ test scores could be used as part of their own assessment as educators. Good teachers don’t mind reviewing their processes and reflecting on what they could have done better. These are the things educators think of in the shower and in traffic and when they zone out in church. Teachers want to get their scores back and take pride in how well their students did and look to see if they guessed right for each individual student.  The scores are a piece of information that can be useful, but again, they don’t necessarily mean something significant.

Every parent knows that learning is not linear. When your children learned to walk, they’d take fifteen steps forward and then suddenly fall on their backside. Occasionally, they choke and land on their faces. What if your success as a parent were determined by how often your kid fell down based on a projected number of falls gleaned from last week’s fall count? Did the kid get new shoes? Did she have a growth spurt? Is he carrying his baby brother by the neck?

You see my point. Students are children, even the teenage ones. What they know or understand or can accomplish under the best of circumstances is not likely to be what you see on a random Tuesday in May. It might be. But to decide that a teacher’s ability to teach is reflected in that number is not good science.

Like doctors, teachers have specialties. An oncologist specializing in rare forms of cancer is far more likely to have patient deaths than a general pediatrician. If we compare patient mortality rates, the oncologist is going to look like a much worse physician even if he’s the one developing revolutionary treatment options.

A teacher might specialize in students with reading problems or teach English language learners.  High achieving students are not likely to improve much on a standardized test from year to year because their scores are already incredibly high. And although most schools do not actively “track” students into groups of like-ability classes, it inadvertently happens all the time. Scheduling realities can box teachers in and influence the resulting test scores.  For instance, if all the really bright kids are taking advanced English 1st period and advanced chemistry 3rd period and the year-long electives like yearbook or newspaper are in the afternoon, whoever teaches 2nd period history just got all the gifted kids in a “regular” history class.  The teacher teaching history 6th period won’t have any gifted kids or any students taking band. 

These are somewhat silly examples, but the reality is that teachers are not doing the same job even when they are teaching the same subject in the same school. There are too many variables to compare teachers to one another or to assume that their test scores are primarily a reflection of the teacher’s efforts. In addition, not all grades and subjects are tested and that creates an even stranger component.  Is art irrelevant? What about World History? Or first grade? Georgia is currently testing grades 3 through 8 and some, but not all, high school subjects.  What sense does that make?

Teacher Teachers—It’s all their fault

Somehow in this mess of testing craziness, the idea has come up that in order to achieve greater student success, teachers need to be held accountable and our schools need better teachers. And somehow THAT has translated into judging teacher preparatory programs based on the student test scores of the teachers they trained. I can’t even begin to explain how silly this is, so I’m going to give you a real-life example (with fake names because I did not ask for their permission beforehand).

Emily, Mike, and I all graduated with Bachelor’s degrees from the University of Georgia and all taught public high school. Emily received her educator training at UGA and Mike and I received ours from Georgia State University. I primarily taught in suburban Atlanta in very affluent schools. Mike teaches in inner-city Atlanta and his school has been known to have a riot or two. Emily taught in a Yupik Eskimo fishing village on an island in the Bering Sea before teaching illiterate teenagers in Baltimore. I am just going to point out now that Emily and Mike are better teachers than I am if for no other reason than that they are still fighting the good fight and I have tapped out. But also because they are clearly doing a harder job than I ever did.

There is no way that comparing our students’ improvement on test scores could remotely reflect accurately on our teacher preparatory programs.

What I Want You to Do

I could go on forever about this topic. The company who makes the PARCC test, the Common Core test being given to students in multiple states, is the same company that sells textbooks, practice test materials, and teacher training to the schools districts in which their test is given.  The teacher assessment tools and models (like the assessment I failed) are created by software companies who also develop substitute teacher management systems for the districts in which their products are used. It is convoluted and frustrating and we got to this point in the same way you can boil a frog. The water has been slowly heating up for over a decade and dedicated educators have continued to keep their heads down and hope for the best.

Politicians decided that our schools as a whole were “failing” and that the cure was increased academic rigor and teacher accountability. I’d argue that our schools were not failing—our society is.

The root cause of schools that fail is poverty, not standards or teacher accountability.

No one wants to talk about those issues, however, so we’re creating a system that will continue to marginalize the poor while conducting a rather elaborate and probably irrelevant experiment on the rest of the population.

Meanwhile, teachers are sad and just want to be given some small measure of the freedom and joy that got them into this job in the first place.  Teaching is a calling. It is beautiful and meaningful and interacting with students can make even the worst day worth getting up for. If we allow the proposed ideas about the use of testing scores to continue we are going to lose every passionate teacher who felt this call and wind up with a generation of educators who stay for 3-5 years and then get out before they lose too much of their earning potential to a job that requires a degree, but does not treat its employees as professionals.

This week is teacher appreciation week. If you really want to show the educators in your life some appreciation you will contact your national and state representatives and ask that state and federal laws should reflect the following:

  1.  Test scores should not be used with “mandatory minimums” required to promote students to the next grade, at least until high school. If a student fails a grade it should not be just because of one test score.
  2. Test scores or improvement on test scores should not be used to assess teachers. Data from student tests should be used to improve instruction, but pressuring teachers over their students’ test results means too much classroom time is focused on testing rather than actual learning.
  3. Teacher preparatory programs should not be judged based on the test scores of their graduates’ students. There are far too many variables for that to be relevant information.

Feel free to copy and paste my words into your email if you’d like to. Share this with anyone you’d like to encourage to take action. Our public schools belong to us and to our children and to every child who comes after.  To make sharing your opinion easier, I’ve included links to the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate so that you can find your representatives’ contact information. Many high ranking politicians, like Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, are also on twitter and can be contacted that way. I added direct links to relevant Georgia politicians for my district. You can also contact your local or state school board or superintendents. Your actual local school (and in many cases the entire school district) has no control over any of these decisions. 

One final note—I truly have so many more things to say on this topic so if you had a question or comment that I didn’t address feel free to comment, email, or tweet it at me. I’d be happy to respond.

Contact Links Specific to Georgia: