Recently, I ran across an editorial in the Denver Post that was written by a former English teacher. I am also a former high school English teacher, so I was intrigued when I saw the title of the article – “O CSAP! MY CSAP!” The article discussed one of my favorite films, “Dead Poets Society,” and used the contrasting teaching styles of Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) and Mr. McAllister (the old Latin professor) to make a point about our education system and one of its unintended effects on our students.
In the film, Mr. Keating is a teacher who inspires his students and helps them develop a love of learning. He creates lessons that are relevant to his students, teaches them to make the most of what they’ve been given, and encourages them to “Seize the Day!” Mr. McAllister teaches his students to memorize Latin verbs and vocabulary and drills his students repeatedly. He believes students succeed if they can recite back what they have been taught.
The editorial’s author made the point that our current educational system is working so hard to make sure that our students are “Proficient” on CSAP’s (Colorado State Assessment Program) and other standardized testing, that we’ve lost sight of the difference between “proficient” and “educated.” Mr. McAllister sees proficiency as an end, but Mr. Keating sees proficiency as a beginning – a stepping stone to allow students to expand their horizons and discover and understand a much wider world.
Is proficiency good enough? Should our efforts stop there? The author of the article says no, but he worries that our preoccupation with test results might unintentionally send the message that “Proficient” is all our students (and our teachers) need to be. His premise is that the relationship between the student and the teacher is what makes the difference between a child being merely “Proficient” and a child being a critical thinker, problem solver, and self-directed learner. Our students need to learn to read, to write, and to do math – that isn’t a question. They need to learn those skills, however, not to earn a certain test score, but so that they can better understand the world around them and contribute to that world in a meaningful way. A great teacher who has enough time and freedom in his or her day to create unforgettable learning experiences will make a huge impact on students. The same cannot be said for teachers who spend most of their time preparing their students for a test that does not reflect what is truly important.
I was fortunate to have some amazing teachers when I was a student, and I’m happy to say that my own children enjoy school and have been challenged and motivated by their teachers. I do, however, have questions about our educational system putting so much emphasis on testing as a demonstration of what students know and, even more disturbing, judging the effectiveness of our schools and teachers by the scores their students earn on the CSAP or other testing measures. The thought of basing a school’s funding or perhaps a teacher’s performance pay on the level of “Proficiency” of their students (as defined by a test score) frightens me. I’m all for accountability, but teaching to the test to ensure a “Proficient” rating, does little to encourage a love of learning and a development of critical and independent thinking. A “Proficient” rating and the subsequent funding or performance pay do not necessarily correlate with better-educated students.
I fully recognize that CSAP testing (or other standardized testing) is a reality and not something that we can or should ignore. As a parent and a former teacher, I just don’t want better test scores to become the “be all and end all” of what we want for our students. Like the author of the editorial, I encourage parents and teachers to build the kind of relationships with their students that Mr. Keating had with his. Teach your kids to think outside the box, to take learning “proficiencies” and apply them to new situations, to discover what they’re passionate about, and to share their excitement with others. As Mr. Keating would say, “Carpe Diem!”
Debbie Leibold is a former teacher and the mother of two sons, ages 13 and 10. Debbie is passionate about education and youth development. She works as a writer and copy editor for Steve Spangler Science.