Barth Keck photo
As the school year swiftly approaches, my thoughts turn towards — gulp! — the Common Core State Standards. Connecticut is among 45 states to adopt CCSS, curriculum guidelines that will first be tested in the fall of 2014. This year marks the final tune-up before that national test.

Question is: Who will really be tested, the students or their teachers?

It signifies one more way that teaching has changed. What used to be a noble career that attracted optimistic people who loved helping kids grow intellectually and personally has turned into a profession that is “scientifically” evaluated by “metrics” whereby “success or failure” is directly tied to children’s scores on standardized tests.

I’ve been at this gig for 22 years now and I still love teaching. I got into teaching after six frustrating years in the private sector. Ever since that switch, I have been passionate about the job and I have never doubted my ability to succeed.

Until now.

It’s not because I question my skills; I know that I possess the knowledge and desire to reach high school kids. My daily interactions with students remain as positive and spirited as ever. However, I’m unsure about teaching now because what I know in my heart to define successful teaching has changed in the eyes of others.

The new evaluation system in Connecticut is one example. Lauded as a “performance-based measurement,” the system places a premium (45 percent) on “student data” such as scores on standardized tests. Too bad these test scores reveal little about actual teaching or learning.

Study after study has shown that standardized test scores consistently reflect the general economic status of the students more than their individual abilities. Even middle-class students are increasingly identifiable by their lower scores.

“Before 1980, affluent students had little advantage over middle-class students in academic performance; most of the socioeconomic disparity in academics was between the middle class and the poor,” wrote Stanford professor Sean F. Reardon in The New York Times. “But the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor” .

What’s behind this poor performance?

“With a college degree insufficient to ensure a high-income job,” explained Reardon, “[rich] parents are now investing more time and money in their children’s cognitive development from the earliest ages. It may seem self-evident that parents with more resources are able to invest more . . . But even though middle-class and poor families are also increasing time and money they invest in their children, they are not doing so as quickly or as deeply as the rich.”

As a teacher of high school students, how can I possibly have any influence on such factors? Can I somehow increase parents’ educational investments in my future students? Of course not. Curiously, many “education reform” ideas are a reaction to the myth that American schools are “in decline.”

“In fact, average test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called Nation’s Report Card, have been rising since the 1970s,” according to Reardon.

“The average 9-year-old today has math skills equal to those her parents had at age 11, a two-year improvement for a single generation. The gains are not as large in reading and they are not as large for older students, but there is no evidence that average test scores have declined over the last three decades for any age group or economic group” [my emphasis].

I understand that parents and politicians are tired of whining teachers. Nowadays, they demand results. I only wish I could match my own “data-based results” with the intuitive feeling I get when I know a lesson has worked.

But I can’t. Good teaching cannot be reduced solely to numbers on a spreadsheet.

So while I enter the new school year with genuine curiosity regarding the Common Core, I vow not to forget other essential elements of teaching — like the actual kids in my classroom.

Barth Keck is an English teacher who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School in Higganum.

Barth Keck is in his 32nd year as an English teacher and 18th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

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