Edward Udel: MCAS killing all the joy in teaching, learning


DALTON >> Mark Killjoy is an English teacher at New Millennium High School. His five classes meet in Room 123, a space he has occupied for 15 years.

During his first year of employment, he hung up posters depicting Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, John Donne's poetry and Edgar Allen Poe's macabre short stories. He exhibited students' projects and writings on his bulletin board. His vivid posters stood in stark relief to the off-white cinderblock walls. Those same walls are now covered by laminated lists of MCAS terms, schematic drawings of the five paragraph essay and models of high scoring MCAS essays.

This transition began after Mr. Killjoy's first set of students received disappointing MCAS scores. He was told to transform his room and instructional approaches. Mr. Killjoy began to use MCAS data to guide his teaching. Previously used MCAS questions became the bedrock of his instructional program. He would be permitted to squeeze in a couple of "creative" assignments occasionally just to make the case that MCAS had not entirely seized the day.

Resistance is futile

Having grown accustomed to food, shelter and sufficient income to pay his college loans, Killjoy swallowed hard, dismissed his core beliefs and reigned in his creative instincts. Of necessity, MCAS became his raison d'etre.

He apologetically explained this dilemma to his students. They shrugged their shoulders and informed him that they had heard it all before. Eventually, many of them came to accept test preparation as their path of least resistance. Most of them were willing to complete the practice assignments each day. A few drifted away and amused themselves with their cell phones. As with the Borg, most students determined that resistance to MCAS instruction was futile.

Mr. Killjoy began to liken himself to a teacher called "Ditto" in the Nick Nolte film "Teacher." Ditto's students were automated, accustomed to distributing and completing ditto sheets each and every day. None of them noticed Ditto's dead body in the back of his classroom for several hours after he had passed. Mark chuckled, "I have become Ditto."

Mr. Killjoy's second year produced remarkable improvement on the MCAS. His students were taught to write and to think the MCAS way as they memorized and applied the formulaic writing approaches that squeezed out the most points. They learned how to phrase "grabbers" the MCAS way and how to structure, order and compose each paragraph the MCAS way. That meant the invariable five paragraph essay. Mr. Killjoy used effective strategies to achieve MCAS success. His job was secure.

At one point, his school's scores climbed dramatically and the governor visited to celebrate its new Level 1 status. The school band played as a banner celebrating the school's success was unfurled during an assembly. You would have expected that Mr. Killjoy might have felt some satisfaction from all this hoopla, but he did not. He could not square the improved MCAS scores with his observations of students' declining skills and diminishing commitment.

He began to think back to his own high school experience and what motivated him to become a teacher. He remembered how his sophomore English teacher, Mr. Ridley, would arrange for personal conferences to review essays and arrange for revisions. His class would quietly read novels, write essays or work on projects while one student at a time was invited up to Mr. Ridley's desk.

This process was unrushed, thorough, individualized and highly motivational. Class discussions were conducted the same way, allowing ample time for students to argue a point about a novel or share a personal observation about a character's dilemma. From Mr. Ridley and a few others, Mark discovered the joy of thinking and writing. The teaching seed was planted.

Painting by number

He had enjoyed the luxury of developing and shaping his ideas first and then figuring out how to write his arguments. Each assignment called for a different approach and he felt a sense of creative satisfaction. His experience as a student and as a teacher is the difference between composing a painting and painting by number. Mr. Killjoy was now teaching his students to paint by number.

He became disgusted with himself, but he was trapped. Each year, he had to raise test scores and the proven methods to accomplish this could not be abandoned. As far as his school district was concerned, MCAS scores took precedence over everything else.

At one point, he became so frustrated that he began to search for an alternative. The local charter school seemed like a possibility, but during his initial interview, he learned that the "innovative approach" they offered consisted almost exclusively of MCAS and PARCC preparation. Their priority was to outscore the local traditional schools to claim academic superiority over them. Mark Killjoy had no desire to play the data game even more intensely in another setting.

Though Mr. Killjoy is an imaginary character, his frustrations are very real and representative of thousands of public school teachers, many of whom feel powerless and defeated. Their loss has not translated into our gain.

Edward Udel was a long-time teacher in the Pittsfield Public School System and former chairman of the Taconic High School English Dept.


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