January 14, 2015

Two interesting items form the basis for today’s blog — one, general and the other, more specific.

The current AMERICAN SCHOLAR features an article by Mike Rose, “School Reform Fails the Test.” In 1995, Rose had published a book, “Possible Lives: The Promise of Education in America” and now has chosen to revisit many of the teachers he had, years before, interviewed for his book A couple of quotes will illustrate some of his new findings:

“To update ‘Possible Lives,’ I spoke to each of these teachers again about 10 years after my visit and found that all of them shared a deep concern about the potential effect of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 on the classrooms they had worked so hard to create. No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration’s 2009 Race to the Top initiative are built on the assumption that our public schools are in crisis, and that the best way to improve them is by using standardized tests (up to now only in reading and math) to rate student achievement and teacher effectiveness. Learning is defined as a rise in a standardized test score and teaching as the set of activities that lead to that score, with the curriculum tightly linked to the tests. This system demonstrates a technocratic neatness, but it doesn’t measure what goes on in the classrooms I visited. A teacher can prep students for a standardized test, get a bump in scores, and yet not be providing a very good education.

Organizing schools and creating curricula based on an assumption of wholesale failure make going to school a regimented and punitive experience. If we determine success primarily by a test score, we miss those considerable intellectual achievements that aren’t easily quantifiable. If we think about education largely in relation to economic competitiveness, then we ignore the social, moral, and aesthetic dimensions of teaching and learning. You will be hard pressed to find in federal education policy discussions of achievement that include curiosity, reflection, creativity, aesthetics, pleasure, or a willingness to take a chance, to blunder. Our understanding of teaching and learning, and of the intellectual and social development of children, becomes terribly narrow in the process. . . .

Not long ago, a teacher I’ll call Priscilla contacted me with a typical story. She has been teaching for 30 years in an elementary school in a low-income community north of Los Angeles. The school’s test scores were not adequate last year, so the principal, under immense pressure from the school district, mandated for all teachers a regimented curriculum focused on basic math and literacy skills. The principal directed the teachers not to change or augment this curriculum. So now Priscilla cannot draw on her cabinets full of materials collected over the years to enliven or individualize instruction. The time spent on the new curriculum has meant trims in science and social studies. Art and music have been cut entirely. “There is no joy here,” she told me, ‘only admonishment.’ . . .

A further issue is that a test that includes, say, the writing of an essay, a music recital, or the performance of an experiment embodies different notions of learning and achievement than do the typical tasks on standardized tests: multiple choice items, matching, fill-ins. I have given both kinds of tests. Both have value, but they represent knowledge in different ways and require different kinds of teaching. . . .”

I urge you to read the many other articulate insights in Rose’s article.

From the general to the more specific, THE WASHINGTON POST published last week: “Poor, Hispanic school focuses on test prep, sees huge gains. But can it be replicated?” by Moriah Balingit and T. Rees Shapiro. One observation clearly stands out:

“A grim picture of academic performance was emerging at Carlin Springs Elementary (when test results came in after the 2012-2013 school year). Fewer than half of the school’s third-graders had passed the reading and math portions of the Virginia Standards of Learning exam, and numbers for history and science weren’t much better.

. . . third-grade teachers devised a strategy for the following fall: They led six weeks of daily test preparation lessons, tracked students’ progress with a new computer program and provided extra tutoring for students who seemed at risk of missing the mark.

Teaching to the test had remarkable results: While the rest of the school continued to flounder under Virginia’s tougher testing standards, Carlin Springs’ third-graders saw double-digit gains across the board . . .

As the teachers celebrated the gains, some soul searching began: They felt uncertain about the accomplishment and its educational value.
“I just knew it’s a part of the game,” said Carissa Krane, who taught third grade during the two years the test scores plummeted and then soared at Carlin Springs . . .

Even the Carlin Springs principal expressed angst, saying she was dubious about what the numbers actually say. “I don’t think it tells the whole story, and I don’t think it shows you what kids know or do not know,” Principal Corina Coronel said. . . .”

The principles taught by Peter Drucker to business and manufacturing are not the principles we should be applying to our schools.

Shouldn’t our emphasis be on the many facets of learning and not on mere memorization?

I, for one, will be most happy when the SOL is but a distant memory.

More on Monday – – –

— Bill Walton: co-Founder, ITC Learning
(Mondays & Wednesdays)