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Wednesday, Mar 20, 2019
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‘This is not an education problem. This is a government problem’

The world needs more teachers like Susan Bowles. The kindergarten teacher at Lawton Chiles Elementary School in Gainesville risked her job to stand up for what she believes in.

What she believes is that conducting standardized testing three times a year, some of it required to be computerized, is simply not in the best interests of the kindergarten students she teaches.

Despite the risk of losing her job after 26 years of teaching, Bowles felt compelled to speak out.

And something amazing happened. Instead of her being fired or reprimanded, the policy was changed. The community rallied around Bowles after she took a stand. Now, K–2 grade students will not be required to take the FAIR tests that Bowles refused to administer.

In the letter Bowles wrote to parents, she explained that even though she would be in breach of contract, she couldn’t in good conscience give the test to her students. The FAIR testing would have meant kindergarten students being tested on a computer using a mouse, Bowles said.

Although many of her students are well-versed in using tablets or smart phones, most had not used a desktop computer before. Once an answer is clicked, even if a mistake was made and a student accidentally clicked the wrong place, there is no way to go back to correct it. This means the data that would have been collected would not have been accurate.

“While we were told it takes about 35 minutes to administer, we are finding that in actuality it is taking between 35-60 minutes per child,” Bowles wrote. “This assessment is given one-on-one. It is recommended that both teacher and child wear headphones during the test. Someone has forgotten there are other five-year-olds in our care.”

The problem is not with the people she works for, Bowles said. “This is not an education problem. This is a government problem,” she wrote.

Bowles was not directly named in the letter to parents from officials changing the testing policy, but the letter does mention the recent attention surrounding the issue.

Bowles was brave in facing down the school administration, state and local officials, and teachers unions who continually protect the status quo and each other. She stood up by herself with no way of knowing what the consequences would be.

Bowles told me she feels lucky to have had the opportunity to speak her mind, because her husband was supportive and her children are grown. After hearing the policy had changed, Bowles said, she “hugged, laughed, cried, and did a happy dance” with other teachers who had been waiting outside her classroom because they had already heard the news.

“I was surprised and pleased that they actually backtracked on the FAIR, suspending it for one year,” said Bowles, noting tension over standardized testing has increased because of Common Core. “Of course, the fear is it will be back next year with a few tweaks.

“This fight should continue — not just regarding the excessive testing that takes away from our children’s learning, but also for the standards that have been adopted that are not developmentally sound, at least for elementary students,” said Bowles. “I can speak for the elementary grades that any developmental psychologist or early childhood educator would tell you that these standards are inappropriate.”

Two bills have been introduced recently to decrease the federal footprint on standardized testing. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has spoken about the possibility of over-testing.

The hope is that these changes aren’t just lip service. Parents, teachers, and legislators will have to continue to fight for students and against the education establishment. The contrasting approaches of the federal government and Susan Bowles regarding how children should be educated suggest we all should support more local control rather than failing federal mandates.

Heather Kays ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute and is managing editor of School Reform News.

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