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Wasted Talent

What if the best trumpet player in the world wasn't playing in a band?

What if the most gifted writer was not published?

What if talented young educators are dismayed early and turn away from the profession?

What do these have in common? They each represent wasted talent.

Traveling recently from a short vacation in Southern California, I met a young flight attendant on our flight home. Somehow, I overheard that she had a degree in education. Fortunately, her duties allowed us a few minutes of conversation that afforded the opportunity to talk about education and her experiences. We enjoyed an honest exchange, while, hopefully, not ignoring the diverse needs of her other passengers.

I learned that she earned her degree in education from a prominent Texas university, the culmination of a life-long ambition to be a teacher. She felt fortunate to secure a position teaching secondary students in an urban charter school, and was resolute in her genuine affection, and compassionate understanding, of the unique and collective challenges her students faced, while maintaining a focus on the content standards of the disciplines she was teaching. It was clear that she is intelligent, committed and dedicated, clearly articulating the critical importance of education; especially for the population that she served. Clearly, she is an educator. Her gut, and her heart, are genuinely invested in making a genuine personal and educational difference in the lives of some very needy and deserving students. As we talked, I recognized that this young woman would exemplify the characteristics that I would have sought as a hiring administrator. I easily knew from our conversation, our "interview", that she is precisely who I would hope to have as a member of my teaching faculty.

This bright young woman quit teaching after two years. As she explained, it definitely was not about the students she was serving. She genuinely expressed "I loved my kids." Rather, she became quickly disheartened as it became abundantly clear that her primary duty was to prepare her students to perform well on the state tests. Period. Her content expertise was secondary. Her desire to get to know her students, and to support them personally as well as academically, was not considered important. Rather than energizing, her work felt routine. She did not feel appreciated for her talent or her commitment to her students. Test prep was not what she signed on to do. So, like the 17% of new teachers who quit the profession within the first five years, this capable young teacher abandoned her long-held desire to teach. Wasted talent.

It is a sad commentary on the current state of public education that we have become so obsessed with standardized testing, frequently at the expense of other critical factors that should inform and shape what education looks like in this country. I write about this extensively in my book The Education Kids Deserve. Blogger Brandon Busteed, in his March 6, 2018 Gallup post agrees with my thinking. He writes: "For the past several decades, America (and the world) has dramatically ramped up its focus and reliance on standardized testing as a means of judging students, teachers and schools -- from kindergarten through college. No question, there will always be an important place in the education system for testing, including standardized tests. What should be questioned, however, is how much emphasis we put on tests as well as what kind of testing we should have and for what purpose. Despite an increased focus on standardized testing, U.S. results in international comparisons show we have made no significant improvement over the past 20 years, according to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The U.S. most recently ranked 23rd, 39th and 25th in reading, math and science, respectively. The last time Americans celebrated being 23rd, 39th and 25th in anything was … well, never. Our focus on standardized testing hasn't helped us improve our results! . . . What if our over reliance on standardized testing has actually inhibited our ability to help students succeed and achieve in a multitude of other dimensions? . . . schools overly focused on standardized tests (and on teaching to those tests) actually kill dreams and independence -- they're no fun, they're deflating and they zap kids' energy. We may now be facing the unintended consequences of our zest to test.The education system has long asked students to excel on standardized tests. It's high time we asked whether standardized tests have passed our collective test of what should stand as the "be-all and end-all" indicator of success in American education."

The seat belt light went on. Our discussion ended. Duty called and she resumed her flight attendant responsibilities. Clearly, the patrons of this airline have benefitted from her decision. She performs her assigned tasks with the grace and competence that I could easily imagine would have characterized her teaching. As the plane descended, I couldn't shake the feeling that American children were short changed by the unfortunate experiences that shaped this young professional's decision. We need teachers with passion, energy, commitment and dedication in our classrooms - talent. Children need teachers who are invested in educating the whole child, not merely their ability to score well on a standardized assessment.

The Education Kids Deserve demands nothing less.

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