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Where I Stand – Standardized Testing, Civic Education, and the Bottom-Up Approach to Educational Justice

I think it’s important, before I embark on this journey of educating myself, to elaborate on my 3 biggest philosophies on education and educational activism.

—1—

The high emphasis on standardized testing is destroying real education.

Seriously, high stakes testing needs to leave, like, yesterday. I wrote a 10-paged paper on this my sophomore year of high school, and I can still go on and on about it. Simply put, students are more than test scores. There are numerous dimensions to learning and education, and the standards don’t even begin to capture most of them. Test scores simply cannot objectively capture true learning, because education can’t be standardized or forced into a single definition.

These tests, which claim to measure student performance, are destroying our schools, turning them into factories where anything but reading, math, and writing is pushed to the bottom of the priority list. Now don’t get me wrong, math, reading, and writing are important and valuable skills but would you really consider someone educated if all they knew how to do was answer multiple choice questions about those 3 subjects?

  • What about looking at the past and understanding the present?
  • What about understanding society?
  • What about global perspective?
  • What about diversity?
  • What about civic education?
  • What about appreciation for the arts and music?
  • What about exploration and discovery of exciting ideas and topics?
  • What about intellectual freedom?
  • What about critical analysis?
  • What about applying concepts across disciplines?
  • What about problem solving?
  • What about creativity and innovation?
  • What about lively discussion and collaboration?
  • What about experiential learning?

Are any of these questions ever asked? Not on a standardized test, that’s for sure. The machines that grade these tests don’t care about how students came to their answer, if they used critical thinking, or if they can apply their knowledge in practical settings. All it wants is that one right answer. And how many times in life is there only one right answer?

Because of standardized tests, enthusiastic, creative, and dedicated teachers are placed in an impossible paradox where their job is to educate their students, but they have to make sure that their students’ scores are high so that the school can appear “accountable” and they can continue teaching. This leads to teaching to the test, which deprives students of the well-rounded and real education that they deserve. Testing should be used as a tool to support learning, perhaps for diagnostic purposes from some subjects, but unfortunately it has become the core of educational culture (thanks a lot, NCLB and RTTT). It has gotten to the point where learning has been obstructed in classrooms because of the very high emphasis on test scores.

Students deserve better. They deserve an education that fosters creativity, curiosity, critical thinking, an education that civically engages and empowers, an education that says a great big, “YES!” to all those questions above, and most of all, an education that celebrates rather than excludes all kinds of students and styles of learning, whether or not they align with the so-called “standards.”

—2—

Social justice and youth civic engagement are incredibly important components of education.

Students should not only be taught how to become good students, but also good people. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best when he said, “The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”

Education should foster open-minded, civically aware, and caring members of society, not create robots that know how to regurgitate facts. Every aspect of a person’s education needs to be paid attention to, and currently civic education is simply not given enough weight. Civic education is not simply just important anymore, it’s absolutely necessary. The issues of inequality and injustice in our world will only continue to remain unresolved if we don’t have socially and politically conscious people who are equipped with the tools to stand up for themselves and the oppressed in their communities. Students need to understand what happened in the past, how that has affected the present, and how they can contribute to a brighter future for all. Civic education not only builds respect, consideration, and character in students, but it also builds their analytical and problem solving skills.

And it’s not hard! The essence of civic education is all about relating to students, engaging students in dialogue, tapping into what makes them sad, angry, happy, human.  It’s a great tool for motivating students to learn because it reawakens what is natural to them: emotion, experience, creativity. It enriches learning by weaving passion, discovery, critical thinking, and compassion in their education, and tells them, “you have the power to make a difference.” Wouldn’t you care more about your education if you could relate to it? If it was engaging? If you believed in yourself and your own potential? If you knew it could help you do things or act on issues you were passionate about?

Once we realize the importance of social justice education for our students, then our students’ education will become more exciting, applicable, and real for them, and they will be able to learn more than they ever did before.

—3—

Stephanie Rivera (a great advocate for student voice) and other students protesting the Chicago school closings.

Any approach that aims to achieve educational justice must take students’ voices into account.

Okay. Pause. For those of you who don’t know Stephanie Rivera, go look at her blog right now. She is an advocate for student voice and educational equity, and one of my newly discovered heroes. She’s absolutely amazing, courageous, full of passion and drive, and definitely a force to be reckoned with. I hope we get to talk soon because that would be a complete honor.
The reason I’m bringing her up as I discuss my 3rd philosophy, is because she wrote this brave and controversial (but hey, what can you expect when you voice a unpopular opinion) post about how she stands against Students for Education Reform (SFER), a group that I was a member of. Was. As in past tense… I left before I found Stephanie’s post, but reading her post now definitely helped me put words to the discomfort I felt with the group. Basically, my experiences with SFER reinforced my passion for elevating student voice and involvement in the education revolution.
During my freshman year of college, I was definitely that starry-eyed aspiring educator, eager to join any movement I could that had to do with education. When I found out that USC had a club called “Students for Education Reform”, I was ecstatic. I was so excited. At the USC EdMonth conference, I went to the workshop led by SFER and got to talk to the president. He was explaining SFER, basically making a case about why I should join. I didn’t think I need to be persuaded, as I was really eager about education reform, but let’s just say… I didn’t expect to be dissuaded.
After explaining that I wanted to be a teacher and that I believed in a bottom-up approach to education “reform” (because “I don’t think you can truly fight for people unless you know them and fight with them”), he basically didn’t treat me seriously. He said that at SFER, they were taking more of a top-down approach, and while the girls at Whittier College focused on “babies” (yes, he referred to students as “babies”), USC SFER was all about “real policy work” and working with adults to make policy changes that will affect the “babies.” He then turned his attention to the political science major at the table, who he probably felt would not be so typical female aspiring teacher obsessed with “babies.”
Still, he wasn’t able to stamp out my eagerness. I came to a meeting, hoping that maybe after some stimulating discussion my faith would be restored, but lo and behold, teachers and teacher unions were bashed and once again I was made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, and excluded because I just didn’t agree with the top-down approach. The whole atmosphere of the conversation was all so condescending towards the students, and so counterproductive to the change that needs to happen. So I decided to stand by my opinion and leave the group. I said it once above and I will say it again: Any approach that aims to achieve educational justice must take students’ voices into account.
Stephanie Rivera brings to light a lot of issues about SFER (I will link it here again because I urge you to look at her thoroughly researched and very well-articulated post), but one that I will emphasize here is that there is no room for working with and mobilizing high school and middle school students in the fight for their rights. Their stories are ignored and their voices are silenced. Sure, it will be mentioned that hm, maybe we should talk to the students we are essentially fighting for… but no… they’re too young and busy with a school system that fails them to understand or even care about the complex, “big kid” policies at hand. And this is exactly the attitude that makes students never want to speak up in the first place. 
We cannot simply fight for students from the top down. We cannot ignore their experiences. We cannot claim to fight for education and then simultaneously exclude students in a fight for their rights. We must make the effort to involve students in the process. We must collaborate with them, shed light on their experiences, and help them realize their power in the movement. We need to fight with them.
The students have a story to tell. The injustice in the education system is not something they just read about in news articles; it is their every day reality. These issues affect them directlyAny large social or political change movement in this country started when the oppressed spoke up about what they were upset about. It all starts with a voice, a story, a cry for help. Real change begins when the oppressed realize their power and use it to end their oppression.
Yes, education is a very complicated issue, but then why don’t we simplify it for students? Why don’t we equip them with the knowledge they need to fight for what they believe in? Why don’t we at least change our mindset and start believing in students? Why don’t we give them a chance to care about this issue and to take appropriate action?
Believe in the power of student voice and invest in that power. You may will be surprised.
Thank you for reading! I can’t wait to continue writing about what I care about and sharing my thoughts on such an important issue.
Blessings,
Hannah