In the February 1, 2103 issue of Soundview Rising
Gun control laws were recently strengthened by the New York State legislature shortly after 20 school children and six teachers were killed in a nearby Connecticut school. Almost simultaneously the public school districts in the State of New York rushed to initiate new teacher evaluation plans to meet a deadline for Federal grant money. Should the public now stand back and examine some possible unintended consequences of both these actions?
One person already took action in Yonkers by getting a violent arcade game where young people were shooting with realistic sized guns removed. But it is evident that in our society young people are also exposed to violence in lots of other ways: movies, television, many other video and computer games.
No amount of sorrow can bring back 20 innocent children who died at the hands of a disturbed person. Limiting guns in our society, and prohibiting them in schools is a step in the right direction. Governor Cuomo's initiative to have tighter restrictions on assault weapons and greater penalties for having a firearm in schools is noteworthy. There is also a new, probably controversial, requirement that health professionals should report patients who "may" show possible violent behavior. But is future behavior predictable?
Compassion is a key characteristic of a teacher who must deal with a mix of personalities and abilities daily in the classroom. New York State has forced an evaluation system onto the teachers to gain federal money. However, to rate teacher performance a key element is using students' test scores.
This year students and teachers have not only viewed school violence, but have also felt pressure for student achievement. To improve schools, Governor Cuomo in his state of the state address offered a plan of action: either lengthen the school day, or add days to the school year. Five states already stated they would add 300 hours to some schools' year. Yet even this has not proven to be a crucial factor since not all countries with high achievement have extended school hours. Classroom teachers vary greatly on their practices in the classroom and a crucial factor, time-on-task, is often not addressed in a way that will increase children's achievement. Time-on-task will not be effective if it means extending a lesson by just telling students to write out answers to a set of questions or to read a passage. Students need to be motivated to want to explore beyond minimum requirements. Is time-on-task now concentrated on getting students to pass certain required achievement tests? There is little time left in the school day for other subjects because of the concentration on language arts and mathematics testing, especially in early grades. Now teachers' main priority will inevitably be to teach to the tests so they can survive in their job and not be fired.
United States, once a leader in innovations, now is concentrating on teaching students the basic skills needed to pass standardized tests. Add to this pressure on teachers the threat of guns and violence. A recent article (New York Times, 12/25/12) looked at post traumatic stress. Situations that are stressful can't be avoided, but ways to make changes in the environment to ease stress were suggested. In the experiment when baby rats were separated for a period of time from their mothers it was the mother's experiences that determined the amount of stress in her children. When the mother was in an unfamiliar area, the children reflected the mother's stress in finding her way back to them. But when the mother rat was in a more controlled environment which could be unfamiliar, even though she was not near her children, the young rats showed less stress when the mother returned. Will the pressure on teachers who are now facing unsatisfactory ratings if their classes do poorly on standardized tests drain needed emotional support for their academically deficient students? When children have a great deal of stress in their background and have difficulty concentrating, is it fair to use a test score to rate what they have been taught? Students who have experienced violence in their schools, or even their neighborhoods may develop stress symptoms. Children come to school from a diversity of backgrounds, and meeting their needs is not easy. For example, many school systems use pacing charts by grade and subject and deficient students may not be given sufficient time to learn a topic.
There are no easy answers to improving education. But the emphasis on rating teachers based on test scores is unfortunate because it does not put meeting all the academic and emotional needs of students first. It is worth noting that the teachers union and the school board in the city of this recent massacre has asked the state for a waiver so that students in grades three through eight will not have to take the spring's standardized exams. Isn't this the right thing to do?