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DC Schools: Skip Learning From Lincoln, Just Cram For Tests

Ford's Theatre will celebrate Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday next week with a day of performances and educational programs featuring recitations of the 16th president's greatest speeches by students from District and Maryland schools. Seven charter and private schools will participate in the day's activities; not a single D.C. public middle or high school accepted an invitation to join in.

Two D.C. public elementary schools will take part, but the middle and high schools turned down the invitation from the theater because "the public school principals told their teachers not to go on any field trips from February to April so they can prepare for standardized testing," says Liza Lorenz, the Ford's director of communications and marketing. Lorenz says the theater approached the school system's head of social studies to offer a variety of opportunities for D.C. kids to come downtown and join in the programs about Lincoln's life, death and legacy.

"The original call to participate went to every D.C. social studies teacher," she says. "We did have a much larger response from charter schools than from DCPS."

This is, sadly, not a new story: Just last spring, a memo went out from the central office to all principals banning all field trips for the seven weeks before the system began its annual round of testing.

This time, according to system spokesman Dena Iverson, "There does not appear to be an overall directive of any sort prohibiting field trips." But she said it would not be surprising if principals steer clear of trips during the months leading up to the testing period.

The tragedy of all this is that it is the D.C. system's kids who might benefit the most from a chance to get out to see some of the cultural amenities that students in more affluent parts of the region may take for granted. Ford's, like some of the city's other theaters and museums, offers an extensive education program, in this case offering the D.C. school transportation assistance and waiving the fees normally charged to school systems that send kids to participate in their programs on history and drama.

The theater's education director met with the D.C. system's social studies chief, who said she wished more city schools could have taken part in the Lincoln commemoration, but that it simply wasn't possible given the emphasis on test prep, Lorenz says.

The grim, short-sighted approach that the No Child Left Behind regimen envisions for schools tends, paradoxically, to be taken most literally and imposed most inflexibly in exactly the schools that most need a more creative kind of teaching. The good news is that some D.C. schools are trying to break free of the one-size-fits-all thinking behind the No Child straitjacket. The bad news is that the system continues to send the message that the test comes first, even before the experiences that could help infect children with the love of learning that in turn could propel them to push themselves toward higher achievement, without the constant whip of the test preparation brigade.

By Marc Fisher |  February 2, 2009; 8:50 AM ET
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Comments

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what do you expect, Marc? does the Post publish a list of the schools, by grade, that learned how to write essays and history papers about Lincoln? that learned to do research, to make coherent arguments, to debate? that wrote poems? or does the Post publish the list of schools that passed or failed on their standardized tests?

when your performance is published for the world to see (as it should be) you focus on what you are judged on. since teachers and schools are judged solely on standardized tests, that's what you have to focus on, even if it's to the detriment of learning.

and yes, test practice does help scores for almost all students. I can teach your kid to score higher on any standardized test. I have been paid very well for that service (better, indeed, than as a DCPS teacher) look at your own employer, where's the money being made at Washington Post Company? it ain't content like you, it's the people teaching how to take tests over at Kaplan.

so why are we complaining that schools and teachers are doing exactly what their customers have consistently demanded they do? work on improving test scores.

Posted by: joshuaostevens | February 2, 2009 11:07 AM

Indeed Marc, I find that there is almost no strategic thinking and planning in DCPS. They have none of the educational finesse of MoCo or Fairfax and comparable per-student budgets. Overall I find that about 40-50% of DCPS teachers are completely devoid of good ideas. Simply put, they are faced with the DC-CAS testing and all these principals can do is limit field trips rather than ask the teachers to really teach to the level that all other teachers are doing in surrounding jurisdictions.

Before I had a child in DCPS I blamed the central office 100% of the time! Once I had a child in DCPS and once I volunteered with DCPS teachers I realized that so man Barry-era political crony hires are nothing like what you and I knew teachers to be. It's like watching the checkout clerk at the CVS try to teach a class. There are a few excellent teachers in DCPS but at least half express no more intelligence than you'd see from someone at the Safeway. They may be nice people, they may care, they may come to work every day, but they are NOT REAL TEACHERS.

Posted by: bbcrock | February 4, 2009 2:17 PM

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