Sunday, September 3, 2006

I think we have lost our way

I have wrestled for quite some time with finding a topic on which to focus for this, my time to be the official poster. I thought I had decided last night, and then I opened up my Washington Post this morning to read a story by my friend Jay Mathews entitled National School Testing Urged (url is with a subtitle of “Gaps Between State, Federal Assessments Fuel Call for Change”. After some reflection I decided I would address this as evidence of my larger argument, and would do so by referring to something I had previously written.

Recently I had occasion to be the only teacher in my district (Prince George’s County Public Schools) to testify before a blue ribbon committee established by our County Council because of concern about the impact of Maryland’s High School Assessments. These will “count” for the class of 2009, and based on scores so far seem to indicate that our graduation rate will drop significantly. The County Council is involved because the implications of such a drop go far beyond the schools, to things like property values, willingness of employers to locate within the county, and so on. I was asked to testify for several reasons, among which are that I have some knowledge of educational policy matters and thus could provide some information comparing Maryland with other states. I am known to be an opponent of an approach which is effectively a reliance upon a single high stakes measure even if students are allowed multiple opportunities to pass the test (we begin given them the exams in 9th and 10th grade, depending upon the subject), and I have a track record of success in preparing my students to do well on the tests even as I refuse to “teach to the test.”

I began my presentation by talking about context, specifically the three recent major efforts at educational reform, beginning with A Nation at Risk, proceeding through Goals 2000 and finishing with our current focus coming out of No Child Left Behind. I then included the following paragraph (and Dr. Tompkins is the Assistant Superintendent for Accountability):
One definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing while expecting a different result. Santayana once wrote “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.” I prefer to describe what we are doing using something one of your panel taught me. When I was at Kettering Middle School, Dr. Tompkins, you told teachers they always needed to have a plan B, because - and I quote - “if the horse you are riding has died, beating it won't make it go any faster.” I believe what we are doing with HSAs is beating a dead horse.

This leads in to what I had originally intended to write today. I think our entire approach to education needs to be reexamined, nay, REPLACED. The model upon which we have been imposing generation after generation of reform is, in my humble opinion, badly flawed, cannot be fixed by simply adding more and more and stricter and stricter requirements. In the process of claiming that we need to leave no child behind we increasingly rely upon measures that of necessity are unfair to some children whose brains work differently, we narrow the curriculum so that the intellectual stimulation of our children is being diminished, and then we wonder why even the measurements we impose seem never to demonstrate that what we are doing is succeeding, beyond raising scores on tests whose measurement is of a limited nature.

My perspective is perhaps somewhat idiosyncratic. I am now in my 12th year of classroom teaching of secondary social studies. Four of those years were at the Middle School level teaching American History. The rest have been at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt MD, where for all except one year when we were changing our sequence of courses I have taught Government, a course which is a subject of the state-mandated tests for which passing is now a requirement for graduation. I have taught classes that were multi-level and for the second year I am teaching Advanced Placement to a group that is predominantly 10th graders. I believe I have sufficient experience across a range of abilities and previous success to draw some conclusions. For those who do not know me, I am also ABD in Educational Administration and Policy Studies at Catholic U, with a concentration of the policy side, although I have withdrawn from my program with my dissertation proposal almost ready to be defended. While in that program I was a co-author (with another student and Iris T. Rotberg of George Washington) of a monograph on the Bush education proposal before it was introduced into Congress to become the law we now know as No Child Left Behind (if interested, you can download a PDF of the work at this url: . Since leaving my doctoral program I have achieved National Board Certification.

I am also someone who participates extensively in online discussions about education. I was a regular participant in the old Bulletin Board of, am a longtime participant in the Assessment Reform Network ( url http:/ ) of Fairtest (url http:/ ). In the past two years I have written extensively on education for various blogs, most visibly at (at dailykos where as you can see many of my diaries are on subjects other than education). I organized the panel at the convention in Las Vegas last June for Yearlykos2006 (which you can read about here: and here: .

Much of what I have posted online about education has been in an attempt to help people understand the nature of education and teaching. At times it has been anecdotal, at other times I have tried to make people aware of some of the issues about educational policy that perhaps they did not understand. Underlying all of this was an effort on my part to defend public schools from being further undermined by those hostile to the idea of public education as a public good. But I am reaching the point where that is insufficient. I recognize that there is much wrong with our approach to schooling, and I would like to posit that we reconsider starting over.

I am not a scholarly researcher, nor am I that well versed in the history of education in this country to call myself an educational historian. But I believe that for far too long we have made a mistake in approaching education. We have had an insistence on a cohort approach, usually divided into discrete subjects, and - pace Frederick Taylor - at the secondary level using a model of fixed periods and the like derived from the “scientific” study of management in the early 20th century which to my mind over emphasize ‘efficiency” in the delivery of education versus efficiency in learning. Our periodic efforts at reform have all been rooted in such models even as we have evidence of other models that may be far more effective for at least some of our students, if not the vast majority (and here I acknowledge that there is insufficient data to draw conclusions as broadly as I might want). We have seen wars on educational policy that are as highly charged as those elsewhere in the political environment. And yet we seem unwilling to reexamine our basic assumptions.

We have a wealth of knowledge about alternative approaches. These include the early childhood model of Reggio Emilio, the extensive experience of a Montessori approach, the experience of Hungary in organizing much of their education around music using the work of people like Carl Orff. We have in our own country the evidence now more than half a century ago of the Eight Year Study that “progressive” approaches to secondary education seem to be at least as ‘effective” in preparing and evaluating students for post-secondary education as were more traditional methods.

As a classroom teacher and as a former school student I wonder about our insistence upon all students moving through curricular material at the same pace. I was ready to some subjects much earlier than my cohort fellows but in other domains I lagged (especially in writing, in which I did not become skilled until at least my late 30s). I was ahead of myself in school, and thus attempting AP Calculus when I was 15 in a day when it was exceedingly rare even for 17 year old seniors. I look at my students today and I see students like me, for whom math is easy but for whom written expression is something that seems more like torture.

Please note - I accept the idea that we have a responsibility to ensure that our students can read accurately a variety of kinds of texts and express themselves in a variety of written and spoken formats. But not all will achieve that by going through the same sequence of instruction, nor will all move through that or any other domain at the same speed. I believe that there is some validity to the work of Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences, and have found that students strongly oriented in one intelligence can use that strength to assist them when required to work in another intelligence. I watch as students who are not by nature either verbal-linguistic nor logical-mathematical struggle in a school environment in which perhaps 90% of their instruction and assessment in core subjects is the former with most of the rest being the latter.

I am not yet at the point of proposing a particular model or series of models of what education should look like. First, I am not sure having one model makes sense, given what we know of learning and of the differences among students. Part of what is wrong with our current approach to education is that we seem to be narrowing the choices of instructional models available for most of our students. I would argue that the approach we have been taking has been leaving many of our children behind, that the very idea of a national test will inevitably mean a national curriculum which will have several very important deleterious effects. First, such a national test will inevitably lead towards what will effectively be a national curriculum - anything not covered by such a test will increasingly be excluded from the instruction of many students, and the narrowing will be most profound for students of more limited backgrounds - we have already seen this to be the case with both the state tests that came from earlier rounds of reform and with the current round of testing due to NCLB: in the latter case I note that since Social Studies is NOT part of the testing scheme, I am increasingly seeing students arrive in high school with diminishing prior instruction in history and related subjects, even as they are now required to pass a test at the high school level in order to receive a diploma.

We will also see test scores used to further undercut support for education as a public good. And more and more of the financial resources will be shifted to for-profit organizations who will provide curricular and test-prep materials geared specifically to those national tests - we are already seeing this with the testing mandates imposed in the two most recent rounds of reform.

Ultimately I think we need a real discussion of the purpose of education and schools. If the purpose is to prepare a compliant workforce for large employers, perhaps we might be able to justify SOME of what we have been doing to our schools, although I would also note that such employers are increasingly moving knowledge-based jobs offshore for lower wages (employees being viewed increasingly as a cost rather than as an asset) so that there is ever less motivation for students to persist in their educational endeavors). But if our focus includes the value to and empowerment of the students, our instruction would of necessity be far different. We would not be eliminating instruction in the arts, for example.

I wanted in this posting to provoke some thoughts by others. This was not intended as a scholarly argument, for I am not a scholar, either by temperament or background. I am a classroom teacher who chooses to engage in discussion derived mainly from the experience of the classroom, and perhaps shaped around the margins by reading and participating in discussions of policy. One reason I wanted to participate in this forum is because I wanted voices from the classroom to be part of the discussion -- far too often our discussions about educational policy lack the voices of classroom teachers and of the students upon whom we impose our mandates. That may be one reason why many of our efforts at reform have not met our high expectations.

Let me close this far too long - and unfocused - presentation using the words with which I closed my presentation to the Blue Ribbon Commission, and then invite your responses.

The political reality is that those of us in public schools have to accept that there will be some external mechanism to evaluate what our students have learned. The best that we can currently hope for is to ameliorate the otherwise deleterious effects of such mechanisms, to apply them in a framework that gives the greatest hope and encouragement to our students. We need to recognize that often what persuades a student to remain in school and keep struggling with core courses is the excitement they have in their elective courses or their school activities. We need to be very careful that we do not so narrow the curriculum and the opportunities that we discourage our students. Math and science and English and social studies are important, but are not the only things that interest our students, or our adults, nor should they be. To that effect, let me end with words from our second President, John Adams, in a letter he wrote to his wife Abigail in May of 1780, a variant of which you may read on the wall of the JFK Center for the Performing Arts:

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

Thank you for letting me speak with you today.

And I thank you for letting me participate in this forum, and to offer my inchoate thoughts on education.

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