Test-Focused System Gets Failing Grade

  • Michelle Morgenstern '09  

Perhaps the greatest benefit of a Franklin & Marshall education is that it teaches students to view the world as a laboratory of learning. Michelle Morgenstern ’09 found her laboratory in an elementary classroom in Lancaster.

The typical elementary school curriculum is designed to teach facts, figures and critical-reasoning skills.

However, Michelle Morgenstern ’09 noted that students also are learning implicit lessons about language and education—such as a relationship to written English that is characterized by a lack of fluency and the idea that the Spanish language is nonacademic and inappropriate for the scholastic realm. These implied lessons, she said, have implications for broader issues of social inequality.

Morgenstern believes the imposed importance of standardized tests, with their emphasis on quantifiable skills, forces schools to focus on a narrow range of reading and writing activities, effectively shortchanging students.

“Language is learned as something to be feared and to make mistakes in, not something that is part of you,” she said. “That’s the message students are getting from their public school curriculum.”

Morgenstern observed students in local elementary school classes for her honors thesis. She presented her findings at the Closer Look Research Fair on April 21 and defended her thesis on May 6.

During the spring term she observed instruction in the first and third grades at an undisclosed elementary school in the School District of Lancaster. The hallways of the school, which she designated “Churchill,” are plastered with posters reminding students about upcoming standardized tests.

“The students obsess about it,” she said.

Classroom instruction prepares them for the test.

“The literacy block is sacred,” Morgenstern said. One first-grade teacher told her that while science and social studies lessons can be shifted around or left out completely, the teachers have no such flexibility to adjust the literacy schedule.

“It makes sense because of what standardized testing evaluates, but the problem becomes that they don’t teach it in a way that allows the children to succeed and build fluency,” she said. “The readings are overly simplistic, and the written word comes to be seen as no more than periods, capital letters and correctly spelled words, as opposed to a conduit for meaning.”

“I met an entire group of teachers who have little leeway to teach any other way,” she said. “They, too, are frustrated.”

In the Spanish classes at one local elementary school, Morgenstern noted the Spanish language was barely used.

“While Spanish-language classes are an attempt to legitimize the language and those who speak it, because the actual use of Spanish in the classes is so limited, it sends the opposite message,” Morgenstern said.

Churchill is not a bad school, Morgenstern stressed. She observed that staff members are competent and dedicated to their students. She takes issue not with the teachers, but with the way the curriculum is constructed. Due to the influence of pervasive ideologies of language and education, the curriculum is not able to produce the universal scholastic success it strives for.

“Ultimately, language is not taught as a communicative activity. The curriculum presents language in decontextualized, regulated parts. This fosters a relationship to language that is distanced and awkward—a relationship that is not conducive to success with language in scholastic settings,” Morgenstern continued.

Next year, Morgenstern will continue her study of education at the University of Pennsylvania. She hopes to earn a master’s in teaching in elementary education and eventually pursue her Ph.D.

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