A recent article on the NJ Spotlight website reporting on the release of school-by-school PARCC results generated a number of comments. As usual, the responses represented a cross-section of perspectives, demonstrating that we continue to get drawn into discussions and debates about doing the wrong thing better.
We are focused on test scores and accept without question the fallacy that they have importance beyond the system that rewards and punishes those forced to use them. The results may serve to allow us to extol/defend the wisdom of our own views of racial equality or inferiority, of sufficient/insufficient moral fiber, of tax equity or burden, and so forth, but they tell us nothing about the impact of schooling that we didn't know 30 years ago.
Since the 1983 publication of “A Nation At Risk,” we have accepted the commitment to ever more rigorous standards and accompanying assessments. We've been doing this now for 30+ years. And the result? Flat NAEP scores, precipitous declines in student engagement, and persistent achievement gaps. And this year the Department of Education discovered that rich kids outperform poor kids and defined it as a civil rights issue. I suspect many of us could have provided that bit of wisdom without adding a penny to Pearson's bottom line.
What the policy folks seem to be trying hard not to hear is that human resources departments, business leaders and employers, higher-ed officials, and the like are saying that the areas of current instructional focus and assessment are not the things they need to see. We need (as defined by the consumers of the educational "product") graduates who possess skills of cross-cultural tolerance, perseverance, ability to function as members of a team, resourcefulness, resilience, creativity …
These items are not tested and are rarely taught with the same level of intentionality as those things that are tested. We continue to teach and test the things that are most easily assessed, expending huge amounts of money to tell what have known for decades. Students perform on these tests by ZIP code.
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But perhaps it is the comments offered in response to the article that provide us with insight. It's apparent that we are living in a time when facts and truths are only valid if we choose to believe them. We can choose to act on these facts or we can choose not to believe them. A few examples:
We know far more about learning than we did in the 1890s when the basic structure of our schools was developed.
We know that kids no longer need schools to provide them with information that is now available 24/7 to the vast majority of our children. In the battle for the dissemination of information between teachers and Google, Google wins every time.
We know that kids do not learn at the same pace and in the same way: They persist in being different.
We know that carrot-and-stick approaches work better for lab rats than humans.
We know that the approaches based on standards and high stakes assessment lead to standardization, not the best performance in each kid.
We also know that schooling as it exists in our country is not meeting the needs of far too many customers and clients. But according to the “reformers” we don’t have a system problem. We have a teacher problem. We have a standards problem. We have an accountability problem.
Enough already. The structure of schooling that was designed in the 1890s and worked for many of us in the 1900s no longer works. It doesn’t work as well as it should for kids in the suburbs, and it certainly doesn’t work for kids living in poverty. It is precisely these conclusions, facts, and truths that drove, and continue to drive, the school improvement/reform movement.
But here’s another, less convenient truth. Using the standards and assessment model to get closer to a good school for the 1980s isn’t going to cut it. Increasing the number of charters that, under the banner of incubators of innovation, more and more resemble the schools we remember with nostalgic fondness isn’t going to cut it. We decry the results of comparisons of academic performance between our country and other countries of the world. And while we want those results, we reject their systems as impossible to implement. We use the phrases “we can’t” and “we won’t” interchangeably.
Some of the most successful schools in the country are those designed to meet the needs of students who have not found success in the traditional structure. They involve learning in the community, strong internship/apprenticeship opportunities, highly relevant experiences, intentional levels of attention to the connection between relationships and motivation, days and years that do not follow structured bell schedules or calendars. And, ironically, we name them “alternate” schools.
In this campaign season it seems excusable and appropriate to hijack the title of a book by former presidential candidate, Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Could we consider the possibility that we are dealing with our own “Inconvenient Truth” — that the mission of providing each and every child with the kind of education that enables her/him to become a positively contributing member of our society and to have the chance to lead a full, safe, and satisfying life will not be contingent on who wins the argument over the relative moral fiber of the rich, the poor, the black, brown, or white? Could we consider that it will not be based on who argues most forcefully for the equity of tax burdens? Could we consider that it will not be based on the quest for the perfect metric for accountability?
Finding new and more expensive ways to highlight performance that is disappointing is not a plan. Continuing to promote the improvement of schooling, with its focus on compliance, structure, and standardization is not a plan. We have demonstrated repeatedly that we do not do large-scale problem solving and solution development well. See War on Drugs, War on Poverty, War on Terrorism, and so on.
WWWD (What would Walmart do?) — If Walmart were faced with 30+ years of flat sales and a 30 percent drop in customer satisfaction (the actual drop in student engagement between elementary and the end of high school), do any of us think they’d double down and do more of what they had been doing?
So what should we do?
We can expect/demand that the state’s Department of Education and members of the state Board of Education accept the responsibility of leadership, reject ideologically driven initiatives, move beyond the command and control mentality, and own the meaningful exploration of options.
We can act in our communities to empower local boards of education to reject a continuation of mandated programs which have been ineffective at best, costly and harmful to children at worst.
We can expect school leaders to accept the responsibility to inform their communities and their boards of education about the evidence and options for change.
We can suggest that professional educator organizations end their participation in department of education work sessions designed to insure the implementation of increasingly mindless initiatives.
We can remember that not one of the children in our schools asked to be born, whether they are rich or poor; black, brown, or white; in a traditional family or not. They should not be held hostage by our disagreements over moral fiber, life choices, tax burdens, and ideological differences.
Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty, one of our most revered and treasured landmarks reads:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
It doesn’t read, “… And I will blame them.”
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