Sunday, August 01, 2010

Slide To The Middle

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!)

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Bonnie said...

Well said. What our educational system is doing to students and hence the future of everyone in America should be criminal. Teachers now feel they must focus 90% of classroom time directly to teaching to the test. Gone is time for art, for creativity, for any expectation or opportunity to think outside the box. We are dumbing down our children. And unfortunately most parents are unable to afford private alternatives.

pink and green mama MaryLea said...

Amen brother.

McDroll said...

Tom, I am totally with everything you have said and it saddens me greatly that this is what Obama is wanting from the education system in America.
It also makes me feel unbelievably fortunate that I live and teach in Scotland where our Scottish government are putting all of their resources into 'A Curriculum for Excellence' that specifically values creativity, problem solving, eco issues, outdoor education, the arts as well as literacy, numeracy and science.We are about to enter the first educational session when national tests have been abandoned and teachers have now been given the responsibility of assessing their children usng a wide range of methods that teachers can devise for themself and can moderate at a local level. We are encouraged to work with other schools at all levels in our area and share resources, good practice and our talents. Can you believe that some teachers are complaining about these freedoms? I indeed feel fortunate. Keep fighting the fight..eventually the pendulum will swing your way. :)

Anna said...

Go Tom!

child central station said...


I hope you don't mind, I'm going to include a link to your post in my next email to President Obama. If you didn't know (which I'm sure you do) you can email him from I do it on a regular basis about various issues, primarily about early childhood education. He supposedly reads a number of the emails personally. I figure continuing to voice my opinion can't hurt :). The more we advocate, the more people who become involved, the better our chances are for real change.

cheri said...

You may not have met a bad or lazy teacher, maybe because you're in the private school environment, but I have. I've taught and volunteered in the public school system here in Shoreline (just north of you) for 13 years--my son graduated from high school in June--and I've seen teachers and administrators at both ends of the spectrum. I don't have an answer, but I think we really do need to admit there's a problem, and that it's been partly caused by the educational professionals who created such things as integrated mathematics. (That's the system of teaching math currently in use in our district and many others-it's a nice theory, but in practice, it's actually effective for only a small group of students. One of my principal activities as a volunteer has been helping students with math, and it's painfully obvious to me that ninety percent of them would be far better served by the older approach.)
While I wholeheartedly endorse more support for art education (I'm an art teacher, after all), I feel a need to acknowledge the real frustration parents feel with a public school system that seems to be yet another bureaucracy bent on self-preservation. That, I think, is what really lies beneath this urge to make teachers and schools accountable.

Todd said...

I just found your blog and am enjoying what I have read. I agree with a lot of what you've said here in this post. However I must take issue with your saying that the "best and the brightest" want to teach in private schools because of 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. I consider myself to be among the best and the brightest and strive every year to be the best teacher, parent, coach, counselor and cheerleader that I can.
I as a public school educator of over 25 years value those same components of education as well. Any educator values these things and whether we are private school teachers or public school teachers we all strive to do what's best to help our students succeed. We are all dealt a hand at the beginning of the school year in regards to the class we are given the challenge to teach. Sometimes it plays out well in everyone's favor and sometimes we need to reach deep into our bag of tricks even tho the deck might be stacked against us.
I mean this in the true spirit of teaching and mean no disrespect toward your views. I look forward to reading more in the future. Thank you for your contribution to the world of education! Peace.

Marlene said...

@Todd, I think Tom's point was not that we public school teachers are not part of the best and the brightest, but that private school teachers are not throw aways who can't teach anywhere else.

Tom, I agree with you whole-heartedly about the business model being the wrong one for public education. Having taught overseas (high school) I have to say that our students tend to be more creative and inspired by individualism than my foreign students were. I wonder, if this business model approach continues, how we will stack up against the international crowds in the future. Lots to ponder, thanks for articulating it so well.

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