Saturday, March 18, 2017

"The Biggest Loser" and Education

I have been watching reruns The Biggest Loser on Hulu.  I don’t know why I like this show, but I love it. However, there is an unsettling theme in the show. Each week, the goal is the maximum weight loss, not working as hard as they can, eating healthy, getting enough sleep, or getting healthy. Maximum pounds lost is the only measurement of success.    

I see the same thing in education.  Instead of pounds lost, however, the goal is great test scores. Test scores mean everything just like the number on the scale - the final product.   Administrators live and die by scores numbers which makes teachers have to live and die by the product - test scores. But how much of our time is consumed by these numbers?  According to Cindy Long, author of "The High-Stakes Testing Culture: How We Got Here, How We Get Out," “No one knows for sure the average time students spend on test prep. A recent survey of the Colorado Education Association found that teachers spend 30 percent of their time on prep and testing”  (2014).   We teachers give practice tests and scour our data of how the students are scoring on the test:  Who is scoring what?  Who needs to be scoring higher.  Who do we need to workout more? Who needs that “last chance workout”  before the ultimate weigh-in for education - the state standardized test.

There is no doubt that there is a time and place for testing.  According to Melissa Lazarin, author of Testing Overload in America's Schools,” “three out of four parents think that it is important to regularly assess whether their children are on track to meet state academic goals, according to a poll conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Support for regular assessment is even higher among Latino and black parents.” (2014).  There is parental support for testing.  Plus, there is validity in testing.  “Proponents [of testing] say standardized tests are the best objective tool to hold teachers and schools accountable” (Strauss, 2006).  Numbers are the easiest way to answer questions:  Is there overall improvement in the school?  How school A is doing compared to school B?  Did student X gain this year from last year? But the bigger question is how much testing to do we need to be doing in order to get these numbers?

However, there is a cost to all of this testing.  Obviously it costs money to test.  But there is a bigger cost.  We are losing sight of the process of education.  Things that can’t be measured by a test are being lost  - how to learn, working hard, positive attitude, motivation,  and learning in the moment.   “Testing . . . eliminates the richness of the curriculum, eliminating subjects like art, music, even social studies, are cut so that more time can be spent on drills in reading and math.” (Long, 2014).  There is also a personal cost. “But it is important to acknowledge that for some children, testing exacts an emotional toll in the form of anxiety and stress.” (Lazarin, 2014).   Students feed off the stress teachers unknowingly exude. Students feed off the stress the parents put on them.  More than once I have heard parents say something to the effect “You better do well on this.”   Except for the money, most of the costs of testing can’t be shown with the numbers.

So, should our students be evaluated like the contestants on The Biggest Loser? Sometimes yes.  There really isn’t an efficient and equitable way to assess millions of students once a year for comparative scores.  Should our classrooms look like and feel like the pressure cooker that is the The Biggest Loser?  Absolutely not!  We need to balance the tests with the other aspects of education that can’t be tested - creativity, motivation, perseverance, inquisitiveness.   How do we get this balance?  In the classroom, we can work on creating a learning environment instead of a testing classroom.  We can encourage learning through other activities like music and art instead of using skill sheets.   We teachers need to advocate for change as we are the only ones that can bring change to our classrooms. We need to help the state school boards what is in the child’s best interest, not just the district’s best interesting.  It all depends on what the state school boards and legislators want for their students in the classroom- the pressure cooker or the learning classroom

Lazarín, Melissa. "Testing Overload in America's Schools." Center for American Progress.

Long, Cindy. "The High-Stakes Testing Culture: How We Got Here, How We Get Out." NEA

Strauss, Valerie. "The Rise of the Testing Culture." The Washington Post. WP Company, 10 Oct.

The Biggest Loser, NBC. (2004-Current).

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