Saturday, February 19, 2011

Challenging the Status Quo

This week we had parent teacher conferences at our school, and, as has happened many times before, my mouth got me in trouble.  Since being back in the classroom this year after a year of working as an Instructional Coach and several years away from education, I have struggled this year with our school's (and presumably most schools') emphasis on the dreaded johnny-come-lately rite of Spring: the State Assessments.  The be-all, end-all of education today:  the one-day snapshot of our students that is so highly regarded as an accurate measurement of student learning that it is used to determine everything from school funding to teacher evaluations.  You can see where I'm going with this.  Yes, I made a disparaging comment about the state test to a parent, and it got back to my principal.

He was diplomatic and wanted to make clear that he was not "chastising" but rather "informing" me of this oversight.  I was contrite.  After all, I am a team player.  It is my duty to prepare my students for the test to the best of my ability.  It is my wish to help our school achieve our goal (incidentally, a goal set by the administration, not the teachers) of raising our school's rating based in large part on test scores).  I promised not to say anything disparaging about the test in the future.

But it is also my goal, my larger, higher-ground goal, to instill a passion for learning, an aptitude for critical thinking in my students.  I, like many teachers I know, tend to view the standardized tests as a necessary evil by-product of the times; neither helpful, nor, in most cases, particularly harmful - just another unfortunate waste of time and money.  Maybe I was wrong, I thought after I got home that night.  Maybe I needed to research the many benefits of standardized testing and give myself a serious attitude adjustment.  I started Googling.

What I found was NOT a wealth of evidence supporting the practice of standardized testing or the success of No Child Left Behind, but just the opposite.  There are pages and pages of studies that proclaim that NCLB has not improved education.  For example, Diane Ravitch, a Research Professor of Education at NYU who worked under both the Bush and Clinton Administrations as Assistant Secretary of Education and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, said in a recent New York Times article, "By emphasizing testing of basic skills, [standardized testing] guarantees that students will have less time for science, history, the arts or foreign language and thus will be less likely to obtain an education that encourages creativity, innovation and imagination."  After years of researching the efficacy of standardized testing, she changed her position from advocate to critic.  She is the author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010).

There are many other prominent education experts who have arrived at the same conclusions.  So why, in the midst of a budget crisis of historic proportion, are we continuing to pump millions of dollars into a program that evidence shows doesn't work?  We are at a critical crossroads not only in this country but on our planet.   Aside from our economic woes, global warming is now widely accepted by scientists not as theory but disturbing fact.  Our future depends on creative solutions that come from people who think outside the box, not blindly follow the status quo that has gotten us into this mess.  We need to be advocates for reforming education to meet the needs of the next generation.  Make no mistake, I will continue to be a team player at my school, but I will NOT be quiet.  We need to embrace innovation and move to problem-solving, project-based assessments in schools.  Our future depends on it.

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