Research Cycle

 Vol 6|No5|June|2010
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Another Brick
in the Wall?

By Jamie McKenzie
About Author
© 2010, all rights reserved

A race to the top should have lofty goals. We should be asking how we can improve the learning of all students from bottom to top. Sadly, the previous administration's focus on test scores and accountability is being extended by the Obama team in ways that are likely to perpetuate the decline of American education started by the Bush team.

During the 1990s, many states and districts had introduced challenging state standards that spoke to the urgency of lifting the performance of all students on critical and imaginative thinking skills. The curriculum in most places for most children was broadly defined and rich in scope — much like the learning the President has selected for his own children by sending them to the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.

With the narrow testing focus of No Child Left Behind and its punitive strategies, many states retreated from their ambitious 1990s goals in order to survive, dropping curriculum richness, breadth and depth in favor of a narrow focus on the only things being tested. In many states, these strategies robbed children while creating fraudulent images of reform. Many American children found themselves stripped of art, music, library, social studies, science, physical education and recess as schools responded to the call for a factory approach to education.

© 2010, J. McKenzie

The resulting regimentation and standardization will damage a generation of American children, weaken efforts to recruit and retain teachers and undermine longstanding American traditions of creativity and innovation.

We can turn to the poetry and music of Pink Floyd for a dramatic portrayal of what happens when factory style education is the norm. An obsession with test scores actually undermines the quality of learning. We have already suffered through eight years of risky experimentation that has narrowed the focus of schooling and forced many American children into assembly line learning like that shown in "Another brick in the wall."

The video accompanying the song is chilling.

When both political parties and two presidents fall for the simplistic strategy of emphasizing test scores and accountability as the pillars of educational reform, we are left with a system hemorrhaging much like the broken Gulf Oil Well. Severe budget cuts around the nation are depleting essential school resources while Secretary Duncan fiddles with unproven gimmicks and flashy strategies that did not work for children in Chicago during his seven years and will fail now because they are wrong-minded. They fail to address the complexities of educational failures. What we have seen with both the Bush and Obama administrations is the politicizing of educational reform — an approach that employs sound bites and gimmicks as a way to address learning problems. These are the strategies of outsiders who do not understand schools, learning or the process of making change in schools. By the time they have been proven wrong, we will have wasted more than a decade on damaging experiments.

What Miracle? The Texas and Chicago Myths

When George W. Bush first ran for President, he claimed that his approach to schools emphasizing test scores, accountability and rewards for performance had worked a miracle. It turned out those claims were based more on chicanery than substance. Note the article, "Engineering Educational "Miracles" September, 2003. It is sad that the claims made for Secretary Duncan's seven years in Chicago are also unsubstantiated. According to a report from Catalyst Chicago — an editorially independent newsmagazine published by the Community Renewal Society — there is little evidence to support the claims of progress. "Decoding the district's progress report for 2008" posted By John Myers On Wednesday, January 7, 2009 challenges the spin and hype.

Chicago Public Schools put on its best face in 2008: Another Year of Strong Progress for Chicago’s Students – the district’s self-assessment of last year’s accomplishments and test score gains. But the rosy numbers mask a troubling reality, including decidedly mixed results on test scores at the showcase turnaround schools. On one measure – first-day attendance – the district is being disingenuous.

Centerpiece strategies such as the closing of failed schools, the firing of failed principals, the opening of charter schools and the offering of cash incentives for good scores are old ideas — unproven gimmicks that have been around since the 1970s, and while the rhetoric is full of passion and conviction, those beliefs are unsubstantiated. Note the article, "Charter Schools: No Silver Bullet."

The Simplicity Trap

When students have trouble learning, the causes are usually quite complicated. Even though solutions should match the complexity of the challenge, politicians often opt for the silver bullet, the panacea and the bromide. During recent years, school and teacher bashing has become the favorite bromide of both political parties, even though teaching and leadership are only part of the challenge. Along with this focus upon test scores comes regimentation and standardization — the deskilling of teachers who are asked to treat students like hamburger patties. Both political parties have asked schools to adopt a factory approach to education that is fundamentally undemocratic and harmful to children — yet few members of Congress (or the President) would send their own children to such schools.

Neither party devotes attention to those family issues, income issues, health issues, housing issues or nutrition issues contributing to school failures. Any of those issues would require spending, judgment and savvy rather than rhetoric. One rarely hears politicians reminding parents that they are central figures in meeting this challenge. There are few calls for parents to spend more time with their children, to read to their children, to visit the library with their children, to check their homework, or to make sure they get to school every day.

Time to Get Real

One of the best essays on this issue was written for the Washington Post by a new teacher, Michele Kerr. "The right way to assess teachers' performance" (Friday, June 18, 2010). She welcomes the challenge of being paid on the basis of performance as long as several conditions are met:

I propose that:

(1) Teachers be assessed based on only those students with 90 percent or higher attendance.
(2) Teachers be allowed to remove disruptive students from their classroom on a day-to-day basis.
(3) Students who don't achieve "basic" proficiency in a state test be prohibited from moving forward to the next class in the progression.
(4) That teachers be assessed on student improvement, not an absolute standard -- the so-called value-added assessment.

She is quick to state that she does not expect her requests to be honored, "I suspect that my conditions will go nowhere, precisely because they are reasonable."

How ironic that the two political parties in Congress can find almost no common ground except education. Bipartisan policies are hard to find these days, but the two parties seem captivated by foolish educational reform notions that show little understanding of the challenge at hand. It is time to get real and focus energy and resources on strategies that are rpragmatic and effective — reform that addresses learning systematically, looking at the full range of inputs that help to shape performance rather than focusing on just a few. We cannot afford another decade of rampant and reckless experimentation with our children. It would be better to eliminate the Department of Education as suggested by Tea Party advocates than to continue a national policy that distorts educational goals and damages children.

It is sad that an article written in 2003 is as pertinent today under the Obama Administration as it was under the Bush Administration. "Gambling with the Children"

NCLB Problems

* Lack of evidence for change strategies
* Too much focus on narrow curriculum
* Inadequate funding
* Punishment before capacity building
* Top down mandates
* Diversion of funding to homeschooling, corporate schools
* School choice Trojan horse
* Packaging over content
* Scientific evidence for TA?
* Too little focus on social causes of poor performance
* Violation of separation of church and state
* Violation of state rights
* Invasion by corporate charters
* Helter Skelter movement of students
* False Orthodoxies
* Political Motivation
* Reckless


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