What if schools focused on improving relationships rather than test scores?

Would students enjoy school and learn more if the focus shifted from tests to relationships? HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

University of Georgia education professor Peter Smagorinsky wrote a piece last year about a promising young teacher who chose to leave education. She has now returned to the classroom but in a different Georgia district.

In this column, Smagorinsky explains how her new district, with a focus on enhancing relationships rather than test scores, has revitalized her enthusiasm for teaching.

By Peter Smagorinsky

A year ago I wrote a Get Schooled essay about an outstanding early-career high school English teacher in Georgia who had become so frustrated with testing and scripted curricula that she decided to leave the profession. She had been a participant in a study I am doing of the career development of teachers, with interviews each semester since 2010, when she was still at UGA education major.

I’m happy to say she contacted me in the spring with the news that working in the private sector for a year had produced a yearning to be back in the classroom. Her job had been quite pleasant, and she had appreciated the way her day began at 9 and ended at 5, and did not involve late afternoons and evenings filling out forms, tutoring, grading papers, planning classes, recovering from exhaustion, and consuming her life until she started over again the next day.

It was a nice respite from what had become a grind in the classroom. But, ultimately, to her it was unchallenging, a bit boring, and unfulfilling. It was time to get back to the kids.

We talked for about 90 minutes recently about her first semester back at work. She did not return to her old position, her old school, or her old district, all of which she had found stultifying to her creativity and her relationships with her students. Her former district relies on test-driven curriculum and instruction, determining teacher effectiveness by test scores, no matter what kind of shape the kids are in. It was exactly what she wanted to avoid.

Her new district provides quite a contrast. At the school’s orientation before classes began in the fall, her superintendent spoke about the importance of human relationships, above all else. Not test scores. Not real estate values tied to test scores. No, he spoke compassionately about how everything follows from developing and fostering productive relationships within the district.

The emphasis on relationships was the central driving force in her return to teaching and in her happiness with this new position. The school is not perfect, of course. She has quibbles with some of the policies, for instance. But she loves the fact she has tons of latitude in what to teach, and how to teach it. And she loves her students and the idea that her main task is to ground her instruction in the relationships she develops with them.

Many of the kids come from low-income households, are immigrants, have personal challenges, and, in general, represent the demographic groups whose test scores often reflect poorly on a faculty and administration. But here was the superintendent telling the faculty to tune out the noise about test scores and focus on making the school feel positive to kids, teachers, counselors, principals, and I’m sure the cafeteria staff, grounds crew, and custodians as well.

What, then, helps teachers form these relationships? It’s useful to contrast her current district with the district she left a year ago in frustration. Her previous district administration had created a lot of barriers between students and teachers that produced alienation of each from the other.

The school’s scripted curriculum had reduced her flexibility in teaching on the basis of what she believed her students needed most. A curricular barrier of this sort assumes all students in the district (and other districts that purchase the same materials from edupreneurial corporations) have the same interests and needs. Anyone who has raised two children in the same household knows even the most closely bonded youth have different needs, however, and those needs are probably quite different from what a remote corporate textbook writer provides for them.

Making instruction responsive to the textbook’s materials and accompanying assessment products, rather than to what teachers understand about kids, alienates teachers from kids, and kids from both teachers and school. In a school like the one that now employs this teacher, with a predominant population of students of color whose heritages get little representation in these corporate products, the likelihood of estrangement from the institution of school is great.

The testing mandates further damage the possibility of constructing and cultivating strong relationships with students. These bonds in turn may lead to instructional insights that produce relevant, on-target instruction. Tests intervene in relationships by warping instruction toward the most reductive, least compelling ways of thinking: picking the best of four multiple choice items in response to a question the test-taker has little interest in answering.

The teacher I interviewed asserts this emphasis discourages teachers from teaching in any way that is not ultimately tested. This requirement means shutting down all open-ended, creative, constructive thinking and focusing on how to pick the best of four possible answers to irrelevant questions, posed only for diagnostic purposes. Kids see through this sham pretty quickly. It’s a shame policymakers are too dim to understand what any teenager could tell them in a second.

Relationships are not developed by limited-choice options. They follow from genuine interaction, mutual listening, generosity, care, responsiveness to emerging needs and hopes, and constructive thinking in relation to shared challenges. These processes are fluid, not restricted to four choices. By presenting teaching and learning as static, with fixed answers to immutable questions, the possibility of growth into active citizenship in a tumultuous social world is damaged.

I often hear administrators lack the will or fortitude to buck the assessment movement and its grounding in business-style accountability measures that reduce complex actions to single numbers. There’s at least one district in Georgia, however, where the superintendent has rejected the premises behind that assumption and has insisted good teaching begins with forming relationships with kids.

I wish there were a whole lot more school systems with leadership of this sort. I suspect most teachers would agree with me, and that kids would buy into education much more if such alienating barriers to the building of relationships were removed.

 

 

 

 

 

Reader Comments 0

52 comments
POV1948
POV1948

Metrics-based, bureaucrat-driven education is an abject failure. 

RamonMendoza
RamonMendoza

Discipline is a key missing ingredient in most schools I visit. Some parents provide no discipline to their children, but even those parents who do provide it often fail to realize that their children behave very differently when the parents aren't around. Unfortunately, in either instance, the teacher's hands are often tied. Forget corporal punishment; many schools don't even allow teachers to eject an unruly child from the classroom.

It's amazing to me that parents will trust a teacher to babysit their children for eight to ten hours at a time, but not trust them to discipline their children as well.

As long as the kids know that there's no real consequence to their behavior or lack of interest in education, we can berate teachers until the cows come home, nothing is going to change.

bubbaroy
bubbaroy

Thought I would read a nice article about how to improve the schools and ways to educate. It (the article) was just that. Then I read the comments - OMG!  Most of those commenting seem to come from the "unleashed Trump bunch" - and that is not a good thing.  :(

Jacob Kirkland
Jacob Kirkland

This is the job of families. Then again, when the welfare state encourages men and women to not form and develop families....

proudparent01
proudparent01

Schools, teachers and principals have an impossible task. They feed, bus, counsel, teach, and yes they help with relationships. Too much work that should be done at home is forced on the schools. Kuddos to american educators for doing so much for our children. 

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

Thank you for supporting educators, proud parent01. However, I believe that students learn more effectively in a nurturing, not businesslike, environment. That is the point. It is not a matter of teaching students what parents have failed to demonstrate at home.

It is a matter of creating the best working environment for students and teachers to accomplish their academic goals.

Moreover, corporations would do well, also, to create a more cooperative, harmonious, and egalitarian environment for their workers.

Marty Sheppard
Marty Sheppard

We need intelligent innovators for future eo teach in school what will get them contributing to America. GOD can work on the relationship part.

Ricky West
Ricky West

Wish schools would get rid of common core and go back to teaching kids what they really need to succeed.

Jody McCormac
Jody McCormac

How about teaching kids to read, write and do math????

feedback1
feedback1

Do you think test scores played no role in Peter Smagorinsky sending his own children to private schools? If you do, he has a bridge he'd also like to sell you.

Parents (and other taxpayers) rightly expect public schools to prepare children to compete in the global economy—not just to cater to the teachers' unions Smagorinsky regularly shills for in this space. 

Not all parents have the financial resources he used to escape failing neighborhood schools.

Ken Taylor
Ken Taylor

What if school's actually taught needed knowledge and career guidance?

Jai Dubbz
Jai Dubbz

It starts at home,if parents taught the kids self respect at home,they will perform better in school an make better decisions in life !!!

Mike Pregon
Mike Pregon

So you can’t read or do basic math but you “ feel your buddy’s pain because neither of you are employable “ .

Josh Webb
Josh Webb

Perhaps if schools realized they lost their way when they decided to start tackling social problems instead of educating children we could get our country back on track. They used to teach Latin and Greek in high school. Now they teach remedial English in college.

Alicia H
Alicia H

The tech remedial english in college (where i happen to be employed) because schools just push kids through. Administrator expect certain outcomes from teachers (if the teacher wants to stay employed), and teachers dont have the time to focus on students they way they used to. These are kids, not robots. Some are from low income homes where the only meal they get is from school lunch. Dealing with divorced parents. Dealing with hormones and the changes that just arise from growing up. Growing up I excelled in everything but math. I would be so stressed and in tears because I just didn't get it and my teachers rarely had after school time to spend with me. Not everyone learns the same way. I'm just fortunate my parents could afford tutoring. Many cannot. 


It's crazy the ignorant comments on this thread. Makes me wonder if it's because they have a Black kid as the only photo for this article... 

atlmom
atlmom

My grandmother came from a low income home. They didn't speak English. Her parents weren't involved.

She barely got dinner and so I suspect she didn't have lunch.

She dropped out of school probably in 7th grade.

One of the smartest people i ever met. Raised her two young children after she was widowed. Didn't take any govt money.

How did she do it?

Why do people patronize those who are poor?

Connie Zessack
Connie Zessack

Agreed. So much knowledge at fingertips. No way to navigate life and use it.

Michael Eby
Michael Eby

We would have lots of nice kids making minimum wage.

Lynn Mcdonald
Lynn Mcdonald

Proud to say that my school does this. ❤️ #The7Mindsets Chelsea Buchanan

insideview
insideview

Life as in school is about relationships

BurroughstonBroch
BurroughstonBroch

What if the public schools focused on educating students instead of everything else?

weetamoe
weetamoe

I think we should all grant this education teacher "tons of latitude" to avoid upsetting anyone here. 

jerryeads
jerryeads

Well, "milo", my wife taught 26 years. I'll admit I only played college perfesser (never did learn how to spell it) toward the end of my career. Much of my career was wasted running another state's testing program, ruining kids' lives - and driving good teachers away - with the gawdawful cr-p states foist off on schools in the name of "accountability." In full disclosure, Pete was one of my wife's professors during her work towards her Ph.D. in English Ed. 

I'd offer that helping schools and teachers become better doing their part creating successful citizens is likely a bit more complex than "just" fostering relationships. But the reality is the dregs of the business model (that businesses don't follow anyway) that fostered using horribly-made simplistic multiple-guess tests to judge school and teacher quality just dragged schools down further. State accountability testing provides simple answers for simple minds, but provides little toward helping kids grow into successful adults. 

Had the great honor a few decades back to do a three year study of this state's "alternative" schools - often just a dumping ground for poor kids. What became the great truth of that work was that if a good leader was a the helm, kids were successful - and teachers LOVED working there. With lousy leaders, the places were little more than prisons. Regular schools aren't any different in that regard, and ALL too often the people put in charge of a school are there for little more reason than they couldn't handle a classroom.

The pressures from states on districts and schools to become nothing more than test prep machines has been enormous, and that's made for really boring, useless places. Let them become places worth being at and kids will learn more, and good people will become and stay teachers.

Astropig
Astropig

@jerryeads 

" Much of my career was wasted running another state's testing program, ruining kids' lives - and driving good teachers away"

You seem to have a pretty mercenary attitude toward testing-Pay you and you approve,support enthusiastically and defend.When the checks stop,you become an opponent.

Hard to discern your real beliefs here.

D'Lee Pollock-Moore
D'Lee Pollock-Moore

It absolutely is the school’s job to build relationships. What motivates kids to learn?

Page Lassiter
Page Lassiter

That old way of thinking doesn't work anymore. I've seen the decline in effort and attitude over the past 29 yrs as standardized test scores have become the primary focus of what we do.

Kim Claros
Kim Claros

I'd like to know what district this is?

Cindy Smith
Cindy Smith

What is the school district the teacher refers to since returning to teach?

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

Professor Peter Smagorinsky's educational insights have been a blessing to this blog and to the quality of education in Georgia. He is "spot on" once again in his understanding of quality educational delivery in his essay, above.

A Happy New Year to all!

Milo
Milo

Says someone who never taught a day in her life. 

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

I had taught students within Georgia's public schools for 35 years before I became a retired teacher, Milo.

Milo
Milo

@MaryElizabethSings

Yet not one former student has ever written in here to mention you in any way. Either they cannot read and write, or you are..., well, you know...

Abby Lett
Abby Lett

I'd like to know what district this is. I love my district, but I'd love to know what not teaching to the test looks like as well.

Sue Levine
Sue Levine

A complicated but worthwhile topic. Smaller districts can be more agile and make these types of student centered decisions as they can also provide the proper PD and support so perhaps they could get on board and serve as models. Larger districts adopt models and then somehow think, through magical thinking that it will all work out even if it is not deployed with complete fidelity. On the other hand, if individual schools or regional clusters within a large district look to adopt the SEL (Social & Emotional Learning) framework, it would enable teachers and student to build strong relationships and everything would flow from there. Also, productivity and creativity would go up because SEL teaches "self management" as one of the competencies. By explicitly teaching children to learn how to mange themselves, teachers are free to implement creative ideas. I witnessed these competencies taught in the NZ classrooms when I was there on my Fulbright and it was what I took note of the most, even though I really had not realized that until commenting on this post. https://casel.org/what-is-sel/

Susan Morlan
Susan Morlan

In my school, the teachers who excel at relationships with difficult teenagers are the ones who have been criticized for low test scores. Some of the teachers with good scores have been criticized for their strict demeanor. We try so hard to do both, but it’s very difficult.

Sarah Stream
Sarah Stream

Pam Lanford Bibik Thank you for bringing this to our school! They go hand in hand in my book and it’s awesome.

Thomas Bruce Hilliard
Thomas Bruce Hilliard

Not what the politicians want ... they want something to meddle in and run in the ground.

Page Lassiter
Page Lassiter

This article is perfect. Testing sucked the life and excitement out of teaching and learning.