When I first read this statement several years ago, I was blown away by Matt Damon’s personal assessment of the current education system in many (if not most) parts of the United States and particularly in my state. Job security for teachers should not be solely based on the performance of students on a standardized test. I believe that this is the most critical dilemma in education today.
Unfortunately, I have seen teachers criticized for the performance of their students on one test that is administered on one day. There are days designated for retakes. There may be summer school offered because of the low scores for a retake test. Unfortunately, the students lose confidence. The student may not advance to the next grade level. The teacher may not advance to the next school year at their school or be admonished to the point that they quit the teaching profession. I can name at least three teachers from just a few years ago who were employed at the school where I last taught. These teachers left the profession.
These were teachers who gave their best efforts to the school. These were not new teachers. These were teachers with experience and positive records. Their students were learning so much more than what was shown on the test scores. These were mostly students from impoverished homes…homes where the electricity might be cut off at any time. Homes where a parent or a cousin or a family friend or a grandparent perhaps spent regular time at the county jail. I can guarantee that these students had much more on their minds than a state test. They just wanted to survive. Most knew that they need a good education to get out of their situation.
What they currently need is a strong dose of guidance to move forward…to finish high school…in some cases to just make it out of middle school. And yet…these children who usually fluently speak two languages…these children who are polite and kind, but are fearful of the crime in their neighborhood…these children are normally given the very same test as the children from the schools in the most affluent areas.
The basic needs that are being met are very different from the basic needs that are being met in the affluent areas. We are talking about children who barely have their basic needs met compared to children who abundantly have their needs met. The children in the “better”, the far more “affluent” neighborhoods do not worry about their next meal. They do not worry that they have not taken a bath for four days because the water has been turned off. They do not worry that they did not get any sleep because they have to sleep on the floor.
How can they possibly be compared for test performance? It is a challenge, a thought provoker, a sometimes difficult road to get the children from lower income homes to highly achieve. It takes time and patience and continuity. To teach these children is the most fulfilling time that I have spent in any position that I held in my career. The teachers who were admonished for lower scores felt the same way as I did about the students. They were honored for the opportunity to help these children learn. Any amount of advancement should be commended and it is usually not commended.
The children from the “struggling” side of town need art and music and magazines and books. They may not have any of these opportunities at home. If the teacher spends the time needed to pass a high stakes state test, how much time do you think is spent on the joyful parts of learning? I say…precious little time.
This is why Matt Damon’s statement resonates so strongly with me. I’ve made the following statement before and I will keep believing my words:
I see the joy in my classroom when we sing songs, tell funny stories, dance like no one is looking, learn phonics in a totally different way, read book after book after book, share real moments from our lives, talk about fairness and goodness and responsibility, laugh loudly. We need to accept the fact that these children need security and love and direction more than they need higher scores. We need to take the time to encourage a sense of childhood happiness. This might be their first chance to see and feel true joy. Only then can we begin to move forward.