I've been stewing on this for awhile and it was brought to a boil by President Obama's recent speech touting his administration's attempts at education reform and specifically his "Race To The Top" initiative. I've listened to that speech twice and have the transcript in front of me as I write this. And although he says many of the right things, and even attempts to address his critics, it's clear he's no longer accepting input on the subject of education, but is rather in campaign mode, attempting to persuade us that his blue ribbon panel of politicians and businesspeople has got it figured out. They've got their plan and no matter what professional educators say, no matter where the evidence (or lack of evidence) points, no matter how often these very approaches have failed in the past, this is the only education reform we're going to get:
- More high stakes standardized testing
- Financial rewards and punishments for teachers and schools, based on test scores
- Privatizing our public schools through more charter schools
As far as I can tell, the only real difference between this and the previous administration's "No Child Left Behind" initiative is the rhetoric.
I've already written extensively on this blog about standardized testing: Using Elastic Yardsticks Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Even if these tests are designed and administered as carefully as the president hopes, they will, at best, give us a tiny glimpse into what students have actually learned and disproportionately reward those who happen to have the skills and temperament to game the test (believe me, I know how it works, I was one of those kinds of students). I have no problem with using standardized testing as part of a range of data points we use in assessing progress, but "Race To The Top," like it's predecessor, makes the false assumption that we can learn everything we need to know from these tests as if children are computers that, if only programmed correctly, will spit out the proper answers.
The president goes out of his way to say that the point of "Race To The Top" isn't to "blame or punish teachers," but that's exactly what it does. If students don't excel on these standardized tests, these very narrow measures of education, teachers will be fired and schools closed. It doesn't matter that nearly all the research shows that motivation, creativity, sociability, and an ability to work with others are the most accurate indicators of a child's future success, teachers and schools will not be rewarded for teaching these things. They will be rewarded and punished based solely upon their ability to force feed specific data into children then get them to regurgitate it on demand. Teachers will still be forced to "teach to the test," eschewing all else.
Not only that, but this blame and punish approach, by necessity, pits teacher against teacher and school against school. Where's the incentive to work together, to share ideas, to feed off of one another the way we do here through our blogs? We all know that resources are limited. This model makes the teacher in the next room my rival for that raise. This model makes the school on the other side of town my enemy. If I have a good idea, if I innovate, it will only hurt me to share that with my colleagues.
And if they don't produce high test scores, schools will be closed and the job of education will be turned over to private school operators. What little data we have about charter schools indicates that they are no better, and in many cases are much worse, than regular public schools. We have mountains of evidence, collected over decades, indicating that progressive, child-centered schools produce the kinds of educational results we want, yet this administration is ready to go all-in for the unproven idea that private business can do a better job. Why don't we start by trying what we know will work, before diving headfirst into the unknown? It's an uncalled for act of desperation. We have the "technology." We already know how to build better schools, but since they won't look like an organizational chart, because it can't be measured on a spread sheet, we aren't even going to try it.
I don't really have a dog in this fight other than the interest all of us have in educating children to be productive citizens. I teach in a private school that supports progressive education. My daughter attends a private school that embraces progressive ideals. I've been trying to figure out what it is, really, at the bottom of the true rage I feel about this. I've written about it again and again despite the fact that my readership falls off dramatically every time I do. But I think I've finally come to realize what it is that bothers me the most about this test-and-punish approach to education: at bottom it makes the assumption that we are all lazy and can only be made to get our butts into gear by some big daddy threatening us with a paddling.
I'm sure there are some bad apples out there, but I've now been in education for more than a decade and I've never met a lazy teacher or a lazy student. I've met some of each who are burnt out or unmotivated after years in an educational system that is underfunded, under attack, and increasingly treated like nothing more than a cog in the industrial machine. I have never met a teacher who is in it for the money, yet that's the only incentive we are ever offered. My daughter's school, like most private schools, pays its teachers less than the local public schools, yet the best and the brightest want to teach there because they value:
- smaller classes,
- a curriculum that emphasizes innovation, community and the arts as much as it does literacy, math and science, and
- being evaluated based upon the full range of what it takes to be as a successful teacher, not just on the ability to coach kids to high scores on standardized tests.
As hard as it is for the policy-making politicians and business people to believe, most of us are in this because we really want to educate children. We do it now for very low pay as it is, and while it would be nice to make a little more, we keep doing it. And I don't want to hear the story about that isolated bad apple teacher who isn't doing his job. I guarantee he didn't start that way. Burnt-out teachers and unmotivated learners are the inevitable result of schools being run like factories. Until we address that issue, our system of public education will continue its slide to the middle.
(Note: I have a very fun post for tomorrow!)