Dear teacher

Thursday, September 5, 2002

I'm writing to you today to ask a big favor.

If one of my little yellow-haired, blue-eyed Vikings should turn up in your classroom, do this one thing for me.

Ignore George Bush, the new batch of federal legislation designed to "revolutionize" education, and especially ignore those standardized tests everyone is talking about as if they were the second coming.

Teacher, I'm not trying to be critical. In fact, when it comes to my little girl and my little boy, what I want isn't a high test score. What I want is your best.

I can only imagine the pressures you must face. Schools are being judged these days based only on their latest test scores. In fact, the president would take those that don't measure up and threaten to close them up, to be opened with new teachers and administrators.

To get those test scores, and their funding and survival, schools are going to be pushed to teach kids first and foremost how to take that test.

But teacher, that test doesn't mean as much as they think, does it? Learning is much more than that, isn't is?

I promise not to blame you if my kids don't get the highest score when they fill in those crazy circles on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. As long as you promise me something in return.

Don't tell me how my son measures up against Iowa. Or how my daughter's mind compares to the national composite median.

Tell me this: How are they doing compared to the best they can do? That, I have to know. Because I think the promise is all inside them, not in the test.

I sweated through those kind of tests myself. Remember the stress of stacking up to the numbers?

Strange though, my scores in vocabulary never came up somehow when asking girls for dates in college. The bank never looked for my percentile rankings in cognitive thought when considering a mortgage. And my neighbors and friends haven't judged whether I'm a good person based on my science test charts.

Teacher, could it be that these standardized test scores aren't so all-meaningful in life after all?

I read that schools in several states have changed their school calendars, designing them not for the best education, but to get an advantage over other states in timing and manipulating those standardized tests in hopes of pushing up the average score.

Teacher, all those things they measure on the test are important. But so are a lot of other things you can do for my wild things, and they don't have any standardized tests to judge a lot of what matters.

Look for that spark in them. I can see it, and how I hope you do, too, buried as it may be at times behind sheer orneriness. What can I say, they, um, got that from their mother.

I think every single kid has that spark somewhere - a great teacher finds and fans it for all its worth, a poor one watches it blink out and doesn't give a damn.

Teach them curiosity and a love of learning that will last them for a lifetime. Teach them to explore and challenge and question. Please.

Too bad that doesn't show up on the standardized test.

It's my job to teach them honesty and morality and caring and having the courage to reach out to those who need it. But feel free to reinforce it every chance you get, and fully expect it to show up on the playground, even if that isn't on the test.

Teach them to love music and art and literature. To covet ideas and keep an open mind. Teach them to read, but teach them to write long, juicy letters to good friends they can love forever, too. Long after their test scores are forgotten, as long as they may live, these will serve them well.

Teach them how to listen at least as well as they speak. Teach them to go for a walk in the woods, and not just read about the environment on the computer. Teach them to run and jump and hug and laugh, even if the tests ignore all of those wonderful things.

Teach them there's nothing they can't do. Teach them to be confident enough to try and fail and try again. And again.

I'm asking so much, I know. But you can do it. You - not the president, not the congress, not laws or even your school administrators. Teacher, you are the where the rubber hits the road.

There isn't enough pay in the world to compensate you for that, I know. Because if you don't reach them now, there won't be doctors, authors, artists, musicians, scientists - or teachers - years from now.

Testing and the new legislation is meant to assure that "no child is left behind." Maybe someday, we will instead pass an act to move every child ahead. A subtle difference maybe, but shouldn't our goal be more than just to have kids "keep up" with the crowd?

The best teachers I know push kids to find the best in themselves, not just to make test scores. Always have.

Teacher, I'm sorry that it seems like our national leaders can only think to measure your value in the black-and-white terms of standardized tests.

Don't blame them. They are trying the best they can. But as adults, maybe they have forgotten what a teacher once tried to instill in them.

Who was the best teacher you ever had? You remember her, or him, don't you. Now, were they the best because they administered tests well? Don't think so.

Teacher, I don't think those tests can begin to measure you. Sometimes, it takes years to see how your work comes out. I can hardly wait...

The parents can measure a bit better perhaps - they know if their child wakes up excited to go to school. But if you really want to know how you are doing, you need to ask the kids if they love to learn.

Thanks for what you do. You don't hear that often enough. Every hope we have is in your hands.

Teacher, what in the world am I asking for here? Just for you to be a part of the team that will gradually teach those yellow-haired, blue-eyed tornadoes of mine how to score well on the one test that matters most.