Education Reform Wears Blinders – Part 2

A look at the American education system and the testing issue: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, by Diane Ravitch, 2011 by Basic Books, New York.

There is an outcry among many people that our educational system needs reform but there is much disagreement about causes and how to fix it. Ravitch’s book takes a good look at this issue and how testing is hurting our students.

I embrace technology but I am afraid that technology has played a large role in the state of the educational system. Actually, it is the ability of technology to generate data that is partially responsible for our problems. Ravitch says that we cannot improve our schools by blind worship of data.

(p. 281) The biggest risk of putting too much faith in tests and their data is in forgetting that test scores are an indicator, not the goal of education. ..It’s good to have data to guide policy, but it is important not to confuse data with evidence.

No Child Left Behind

But this is where we are now. Too many people, those in decision-making positions, are using data to drive education with the idea that schools should run like businesses.  No Child Left Behind has hurt education. The attitude that whatever could not be measured did not count (p. 21) has led to neglect of social studies, science and the arts in our schools. Teachers know very well how different subjects work together to help educate the whole child. They learn math in language arts, social studies, music, art and industrial arts (shop). They practice reading skills in all of these classes too. Students also are exposed to discipline, creativity, focus and the joy of learning—things not assessed on functional standardized tests.

(p. 29) The only vision No Child Left Behind (NCLB) had was improving test scores in reading and math. It produced mountains of data, not educated citizens. Its advocates then treated data as evidence of its success.

For several years before I retired from teaching language arts,  students had to take functional reading and writing tests. It’s not that I object to teaching students how to read and write but that we are only focusing on “functional.” I was already doing that and more until that 4-letter word—test—became a demi-god. From the beginning of the school year, we had to teach the test jargon, give practice tests, assess the practice tests, review, give another practice test, and then repeat it all again. I could see the light go out of my students’ eyes, students who used to like school and had some connection with it. And I could certainly feel my light dim. I became bored teaching for the test.  

(p. 229) The overemphasis on test scores to the exclusion of other important goals of education may actually undermine the love of learning and the desire to acquire knowledge, both necessary ingredients of intrinsic motivation.

Principals felt the threat. If their school did not perform well on the tests, then their school might be closed. Teachers would be let go. You see, with the belief that data, test scores, were so important, was the belief that teachers were the key to everything. If their students did not do well, it was the teachers’ fault. Never mind that some students existed in dysfunctional families. Never mind that their parents did not know how to be parents. Never mind that some parents took their kids out of school, in the middle of test preparation, to go to Disney World. Never mind that students were never taught a work ethic and that they were unmotivated. If they did not improve their test scores, it was the fault of the teachers.

(p. 162) …the authors of the law forgot that parents are primarily responsible for their children’s behavior and attitudes. It is families that do or do not ensure that their children attend school regularly, that they are in good health, that they do their homework, and that they are encouraged to read and learn. But in the eyes of the law, the responsibility of the family disappears. Something is wrong with that. Something is fundamentally wrong with an accountability system that disregards the many factors that influence students’ performance on an annual test—including the students’ own efforts—except for what teachers do in the classroom for forty-five minutes or an hour a day.

The test scene gives birth to gaming the system. Teachers spend all their time teaching for tests. Some cheat. Students learn how to become good test takers. States lower the standards so students will look better on the tests. (p. 106)

The business of education?

Many non-educators think that the solution is to run schools like businesses. We have to produce products for consumers.  That is an appalling concept to me and to most teachers—people who are never consulted about how to educate children. The people who are in power are most often not educators. They are politicians and business people. Bill Gates has had a tremendous influence on the direction our educational system has taken.

(p. 259) Bill Gates is not an educator but his wealth has given him an audience of those who have political power and who control policy making. He gave millions of dollars, make that billions of dollars, to school districts to try educational approaches that he thought would help solve educational problems.  He convinced people that the students who got the highest test scores had the most effective teachers and that teachers with students who received low test scores should be fired.  Test data was of most importance because Gates, the businessman, wanted measurable results from educational systems. His money bought advocates and their support.

To demonstrate how far he is afield, the Gates foundation spent millions of dollars videotaping thousands of teachers. The idea was to analyze the tapes and design a template for effective teaching.  As if a business mass production model would work in a classroom setting of 30 individual little human beings!

(pp. 228-228) Our schools will not improve if we expect them to act like private, profit-seeking enterprises. School are not businesses; they are a public good. The goal of education is not to produce higher scores, but to educate children to become responsible people with well-developed minds and good character. Schools should not be expected to turn a profit in the form of value-added scores. The unrelenting focus on data that has become commonplace in recent years is distorting the nature and quality of education.

For those non-educators who believe in the reward/punishment tactic for teachers, they do not understand much about teaching or those who go into this field. Most are motivated by idealism, a feeling that what they are doing is important and that they can make a difference.

Education goals can border on the ridiculous, totally out of sync with what is possible.

(p. 103) Impossible goals are set. For example, NCLB indicated that all students (100%) would meet proficiency level or schools and teachers would suffer consequences. This is the same as saying that all pollution will vanish by 2014 or that all American cities will be crime-free by then. If it didn’t happen, though, no public official would be punished. In education, if it doesn’t happen, then schools will be closed and teachers will be fired.

For that matter, why do non-educators have so much influence in decision-making about our educational system?

(p. 225) Our schools will not improve if elected officials intrude into pedagogical territory and make decisions that properly should be made by professional educators. Congress and state legislatures should not tell teachers how to teach, any more than they should tell surgeons how to perform operations. Nor should the curriculum of the schools be the subject of a political negotiation among people who are neither knowledgeable about teaching nor well educated. Pedagogy—that is, how to teach—is rightly the professional domain of individual teachers. Curriculum—that is, what to teach—should be determined by professional educators and scholars, after due public deliberation, acting with the authority vested in them by schools, districts, or states.

We are setting ourselves up for failure.
(227-228) “Our schools will not improve if we expect them to act like private, profit-seeking enterprises. Schools are not businesses; they are a public good. The goal of education is not to produce higher scores, but to educate children to become responsible people with well-developed minds and good character. Schools should not be expected to turn a profit in the form of value-added scores. The unrelenting focus on data that has become commonplace in recent years is distorting the nature and quality of education.

Global comparisons

When comparing American schools with schools in other developed countries, Marc Tucker, National Center on Education and the Economy, says that we are on the wrong track.

(p. 282)  …the education strategies now most popular in the United States are conspicuous by their absence in the countries with the most successful education systems. Charter schools, vouchers, annual grade-by-grade testing with multiple-choice standardized tests, closing schools with low scores, and evaluating teachers according to their students’ scores: All of that, Tucker writes, is irrelevant. What the top nations in the world have done and we have not is recruited the best prospective teachers—not for a few years like Teach for America, but for a full and satisfying career as teachers and administrators. Teachers in these nations are highly respected professionals with competitive compensation, high-quality professional training in elite institutions, and broad professional autonomy in the workplace. Each of these top nations has a broad national curriculum that includes the arts and music, social sciences, and other subjects. Teachers master the expectations of the national curriculum (it does not tell teachers how to teach, but describes in general terms what will be taught).
No other country tests students every year as we do in grades 3-8 or assesses their teachers by their students’ test scores. We lead all other countries in the number of changes we have mandated in education over the past decade.


Bottom line

We are turning out trained test takers rather than educated human beings and, although students might ultimately obtain higher test scores, they may be receiving a worse education.

About Bonnie Schupp

Photographer and Renaissance woman.
This entry was posted in Bill Gates, blame, data, Diane Ravitch, education, No Child Left Behind, problem, Race to the Top, school reform, students, teachers, test scores, testing, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Bookmark the permalink.

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