Monday, February 16, 2015

It's Time To Stop The Crazy

In a very real sense, the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was the beginning of our nation's cruel, misguided experiments in high stakes, high stress standardized testing of our children, a trend that has only become more vicious over the course of the past 15 years, under the relentless pressure from corporate education "reformers" to privatize public schools through the Trojan Horse of charters and the de-professionalization of teaching, the introduction of the so-called Race to the Top policies of the Obama administration, and now the Common Core national curriculum with it's emphasis on rote learning and it's own slew of high stakes tests.

Congress is currently attempting to re-authorize the No Child Left Behind law. My position is that it should be scraped entirely and I've communicated this to my representatives. In those emails and phone calls I quoted author and progressive education advocate Alfie Kohn who said, "(NCLB)'s main effect has been to sentence poor children to an endless regimen of test-preparation drills." I would only amend that by pointing out that it is not just poor children, but all children, who are having their love of learning destroyed by this relentless toil in these test score coal mines. 

In President Obama's most recent weekly address on the topic, he demonstrates an ignorance about public education that is apparently universal among the political class, only speaking of it in economic terms, asserting that the purpose of public schools is to prepare children for the "new economy" and for "competing against the world." It's as if he believes that our children are here to serve the economy rather than the other way around. There was, as usual, and this is true of politicians of both parties, no mention of citizenship, which is, after all, the central reason we the people take on the task of education in the first place. Without an educated population self-governance is impossible. 

But amidst all of the president's boilerplate ignorance, something jumped out at me:

This year, I want to work with both parties in Congress to replace No Child Left Behind with a smarter law that addresses the overuse of standardized tests, makes a real investment in preschool, and gives every kid a fair shot in the new economy.

You had to listen carefully, because seconds later he pivoted back to vocational training, but he actually said "address the overuse of standardized tests." Now, I don't know if he really means this: these corporate reform guys are brilliant at marketing and they've clearly identified standardized tests as one of the weak points in their messaging. It may just be in there to pacify parents and teachers who oppose corporate education "reform," but it is yet another sign that we are, if not winning, at least starting to have an effect. In recent months both the Gates Foundation (the leading private sector advocate for high stakes testing) and Education Secretary Arne Duncan (the leading public section advocate for high stakes testing) have both attempted to back themselves away from high stakes testing.

Maybe it's because many of our best teachers are walking away from the profession in droves, most citing these tests and Common Core on their way out the door.

(Award-winning teacher) Stacie Starr said Ohio's rigorous learning standards, the fast pace at which the curriculum is moving, and the assessments are forcing teachers to become presenters of material . . . "In doing so we've lost touch with the kids personally," she said. "There's a lot of them that have some emotional needs and I don't know that we're meeting all those social and emotional needs first."

Or as 25-year veteran teacher Dawn Neely Randall wrote last year in her resignation letter that was published in the Washington Post:  

I can no longer be a teacher who tries to build these 10-year-olds up on on hand, but then throws them to the testing wolves with the other.

Currently, about half of all teachers are leaving the profession within five years, a trend that is increasing over time. If any other profession was seeing that kind of attrition, we would consider it a national emergency. It's not just high stakes testing that's driving teachers out of the profession, but it has definitely accelerated things.

Maybe Obama, Gates, Duncan and the rest of the high stakes testing crowd are responding to parents who are increasingly choosing to opt their children out of these tests, with a few schools now reporting that over half of their students refusing the tests. Yes, these tests are "mandatory," but only in the sense that schools must administer them: they cannot force children to take them. School superintendents and principals, of course, are upset about this because the federal funding is attached to kids taking these tests. Some have even, hilariously, given up on arguing that these tests have anything to do with education, instead complaining that when children opt out, they gain an unfair advantage over their peers:

Some superintendents have argued that putting the (opt out) students in classrooms would give them more instruction hours and an unfair advantage . . . Let's analyze that Onion-worthy exercise in self-satire. More instruction time, the superintendents warn, would mean more education for the opt outers, which would give them an academic advantage over kids who wasted the opportunity to further their educations by taking the tests. In other words, a school year filled with pretesting, re-pretesting and the actual state testing deprives students of hours and hours of useful instruction. By saying the non-testers can get an "unfair advantage" from the "more instruction hours," the principals are making a forceful argument against our obsession with yearly, high stakes testing.

And maybe these standardized testing work bosses are starting to listen to actual statisticians and researchers who are telling them that these tests, created not by educators but by giant for-profit testing corporations like the evil empire of Pearson "Education" (I put that word in quotes because I simply can't, in good conscience, allow that lie to stand there unadorned), are complete bunk. They simply do not measure learning: at best these tests measure test taking ability and socio-economic status. We are "using a bathroom scale to measure a student's height."

On Valentine's Day, the Washington Post reported that over 500 researchers have signed an open letter to Congress urging them to stop test-focused reforms such as those included in No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core. There is a photo at the top of the story of one of my own senators listening to testimony, so she can't say she doesn't know this. In the past two days, more than 300 more have signed on to the letter, which you can find right here.

We are researchers and professors in colleges, universities, and other research institutions throughout the United States with scholarly and practical expertise in public education, including education policy, school reform, teaching and learning, assessment, and educational equity. As Congress revises and reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we strongly urge departing from test-focused reforms that not only have been discredited for high-stakes decisions, but also have shown to widen, not close, gaps and inequities. The current reauthorization provides an historic opportunity to leverage federal resources to address the deeper and more systemic problems with strategies that research has compellingly demonstrated to be far more effective in improving the educational opportunities and success of all students, particularly those in highest need. Specifically, we write to endorse the concerns, analyses, and recommendations in the recently released policy memo from the National Education Policy Center, "Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act: Time to Move Beyond Test-focused Policies" . . .

From that policy memo:

Today's 21-year-olds were in third grade in 2002, when the No Child Left Behind Act became law. For them and their younger siblings and neighbors, test-driven accountability policies are all they've known. The federal government entrusted their education to an unproven but ambitious belief that if we test children and hold educators responsible for improving test scores, we would have almost everyone scoring as "proficient" by 2014. Thus, we would achieve "equality." This approach has not worked . . . (W)e argue that as a nation we must engage in a serious, responsible conversation about evidence-based approaches that have the potential to meaningfully improve student opportunities and school outcomes.

This is what we are asking for: evidence-based education policies. What we have now is based upon nothing more that conjecture and business jargon paid for by deep-pocket dilettantes. It's time to stop the crazy.

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Polish Hot Girl said...


It was wonderful to discover your blog. It doesn't have the 'commercial' and gimmicky, bloated feeling many education blogs have. And it isn't linked to a million other articles. It is a breath of fresh air.

As a teacher, I know what you mean about 'presenters of material.' There is SO much curriculum now to go through--in all subjects--and sometimes with evaluations and requirements for so much formality (writing ministry-approved lesson plans) it can be overwhelming. All of what's important about teaching can get lost in the 'paperwork,' so to speak.

Wonderful post.
I also have an education blog you might be interested in visiting (just started out).

- Anna

Anonymous said...

I love this! And I love your blog! I am now teaching 1st Graders in Pretoria, South Africa. I have 37 of them in my class. 2 x 5-year olds, 2 x 7-year olds and the rest are 6-year olds.
And we have so much paperwork we need to get through that I don't get a chance to a) teach them and b) develop them.
Thank you for all your wonderful insights!

Teacher Tom said...

@Anna D . . . Thank you for noticing. One of the aspects of this blog about which I take the most pride is that I do not accept advertising and I do little to promote it other than to write the best things I can every day. Thank you for your kind words.