November 4, 2015

The headline in the NEW YORK TIMES last week said it all: “Obama Administration Calls for Limits on Testing in Schools.”

Theodore Sizer would have been pleased.

In a long career, Dr. Sizer (now deceased) was, among other appointments, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Chairman of Brown University’s education department.

Dr. Sizer’s view of education reform — “with a premium on classroom creativity, bottom-up innovation and multiple measures of student learning” — opposed the movement toward state standards, achievement testing and school accountability that culminated in the 2002 No Child Left Behind law.

Dr. Sizer belittled public policies that elevate multiple-choice testing to central importance while neglecting the physical and academic environment of our schools.

“It is a radical idea that all children grow at the same rate and in the same way and thus can thereby be accurately classified and ‘graded’ in narrow, standardized ways,” he said.

“It is a radical idea that the power of a child’s mind can be plumbed by a single test and reduced to a small clutch of numbers. It is a radical idea that people of any age can learn well in crowded, noisy and ill-equipped places. It is a radical idea that serious learning can best emerge from a student’s exposure to short blasts of ‘delivered’ content, each of less than an hour in length, and unified by no coherent set of common ideas.”

His book, “Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School,” condemned the rigidity of school systems: “Hierarchical bureaucracy stifles initiative at its base,” Dr. Sizer explained, “and given the idiosyncrasies of adolescents, the fragility of their motivations, and the needs for their teachers and principals to be strong, inspiring and flexible people, this aspect of the system can be devastating.”

Sizer wanted to place an emphasis on depth of study, enabling students to learn key subjects, develop reasoning skills and demonstrate mastery.

While “standards” testing may have some relevance to such subjects as science and mathematics — it is woefully inadequate when attempting to measure many other academic disciplines.

More problematical is the “learning by memorization” pressures placed on our public education teachers. Where is the emphasis that should be placed on “thinking skills,” reasoning and familiarity with great ideas?

If our children are given short shrift in these most important areas of a good education, the consequences will be severely damaging — to the children and, ultimately, to our nation.

Memorization has its place. So, too, do thinking and reasoning. They’re all valid slices of the learning pie.

And, Sizer was spot-on when he maintained that top-down approaches to fixing schools were seriously lacking. “The political establishment doesn’t say, we have to look at the thing and take it apart root by branch and put it back together again. There is utter silence on that issue. To me that means that the political establishment is not really serious about reforming schools.”

Maybe President Obama is onto something!

More on Monday – – –

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


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