Standardized tests punish successful teachers: A plea for Orono’s Waldo Caballero

Posted Aug. 03, 2014, at 9:30 a.m.
Last modified Aug. 04, 2014, at 10:08 a.m.

Recent years have been hard on teachers. Parents vilify them for not making tractable scholars out of their indifferent — and often out-of-control — children; they are assailed for their summer vacations; and their “modest” salaries are chronically suspect. Even Gov. Paul LePage regards public schools as dumping grounds for children whose parents cannot afford to send them to a private academy. I would think a successful teacher would be held up as an example of what can be hoped for in our classrooms.

Apparently, not in Orono. As I write, a drama is playing out in my hometown: A beloved Orono High School teacher of 14 years, Waldo Caballero, is threatened with termination because he has fallen two points short on an accreditation examination. In other words, he has successfully taught music, coached soccer and inspired legions of students for 14 years but is to be undone by two miserable points on a standardized test.

This is bureaucratic myopia at its worst. It reflects a system that punishes success and rewards mediocrity, and its salient characteristic is the hand-wringing obsessiveness with order: the unrounded decimal, the sharpened pencil, the justified margin. It thrills to the sight of a sea of response bubbles filled in with a No. 2 pencil on a mass-produced test.

I wonder what question Caballero got wrong. Perhaps it was the capital of Idaho. In which case, are we to believe that, had he correctly answered “Boise” for two points, he would have automatically gone from persona non grata to master teacher?

Caballero has amply demonstrated all the skills of the successful teacher: mastery of subject, dedication to his students and the ability to inspire. But in the eyes of the Maine Department of Education, all of these virtues are trumped by a crippling “credentialitis” that rates competence and success far below the push-button need to find a damnable missing two points. This is missing the proverbial forest for the trees.

We are living in an age when we have finally come to realize standardized tests are, on the whole, poor prognosticators of a child’s potential. It seems ridiculous to administer a test after a person has demonstrated the skills the test is designed to assess. Yet, we continue to shoehorn both students and teachers into the tight confines of standardized examinations, which gives joy only to those who seem to have little idea of what constitutes a successful teacher.

In Caballero’s case, I witnessed his gentle and reassuring hand on the shoulders of my two sons, both Orono High School graduates. He was instrumental in seeing two strong-willed teens through the shoal waters of their education.

Upon reflection, I suspect it’s not merely two points that are missing. What’s missing here is something precious. It’s called compassion — the acknowledgement of another person’s worth, the desire to ease his way and to enable that soul to continue along a productive and happy path that has had the effect of illuminating the lives of so many others.

During the past couple of weeks, both students and parents have erupted with praise of Caballero for the beautiful way he has touched their lives. But sentiment is not the fodder of bureaucracy, and it is clearly difficult for those bureaucrats to see what honest emotion has to do with the search for two points on the accreditation exam.

What the system is doing in removing, or threatening to remove, a successful teacher from Orono High School is not productive, helpful or compassionate. But there is another way to describe this behavior. It is, in a word, cruel.

Robert Klose teaches at the University of Maine Augusta at Bangor. He is the author of “The Three Legged Woman and Other Excursions in Teaching” and is a four-time winner of the Maine Press Association’s annual award for opinion writing.

 

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