Friday, December 12, 2008

Reinvent Public Education for the Students and for the Country

My complaint regarding public school's torturous standardized testing, is that we are creating excellent test takers, not educating children. I have never had one supporter of the system, as currently constituted, tell me 'That's not true!' Achievement gains on standardized testing among minorities, excellent to 'recognized' status for schools are all touted but no one so far has refuted the claim that our children are not being educated.

After 12 years of education, kids graduate with little curiosity, little capacity for thinking critically and sometimes little in the way of a sense of the world in which they live. Five years ago 48% of 9th graders remained in school to receive their diplomas. In 2007-08, it was just barely 42%. Neither are great numbers, but neither can the significance of such numbers be obscured by the constant administrative drumbeat announcing 'rising test scores'. Children love to learn, but they have to stay in school to learn and they only enjoy learning when they have a sense of achievement and contribution that cannot come from a standardized test.

Admittedly, when it comes to education a lot of factors enter into this. Life in environments characterized by concentrated poverty, for instance. The challenge is for schools to reinvent themselves if they are to be effective. But presently, young people drilled on standardized testing skills to justify a politician's re-election bid, is leading us into a cultural, moral and intellectual ditch, rivaled only by our current economic meltdown.

In Texas someone has forgotten adjust school systems for a post-industrial, technological age (although, it would be nice for all students to have some antiquated learning materials like, oh let me see - textbooks!). Children don't need computers in classrooms to help the pass the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) test. They need to learn how to use computers as tools to help analyze and develop solutions to complex sets of scientific, cultural and social challenges that face our nation and the world. And they shouldn't have to wait until senior year of high school or freshman year of college.

Take a look at what works!

I mentioned that I haven't met an educator yet who refutes the notion that children are becoming trained test takers vs. educated citizens. What I do tend to get from defenders of the status quo is, 'Well, how do you suggest we assess children's mastery of the core subjects?'

I don't know? Creating opportunities for students to exercise their minds, to observe, and demonstrate the relevance between what they have been taught and life, perhaps? Perhaps if, as in Dallas, nearly 80% of high school graduates going to community college, having demonstrated 'subject mastery', yet needing remediation shows that what they have mastered was filling in bubbles with a number 2 pencil. Perhaps the successes, touted as the results of the system, are, results obtained by students bright enough, and teachers good and proficient enough, that we would have seen success if these students had been hidden in a cave from grades K-5!

The Texas legislature is getting it - well sort of - they want to refine the test!

The Dallas Morning News reported earlier this year, "Lawmakers who lead the way on education policy are warming to the idea of major changes to Texas' report card system for public schools, which already gets failing marks from superintendents and teachers.

"A new version, as currently envisioned, would dramatically alter the focus of student testing, which forms the basis for school report cards, and introduce new incentives for schools that make gains."

How about the creativity and courage to reinvent schools so that children who graduate are students who have actually learned?

I do not suggest for one second, that this is easy. But when you consider what's happening in public education currently, can anyone honestly say that the work required is not worth it?

Much of the hard work requires all of us, in every neighborhood, championing the proposed goal of public education: an intellectually well rounded, socialized, physically healthy citizen prepared to begin to make a positive contribution to the world. And this means creating a system designed to provide this benefit for every child.

If what we are doing doesn't work, then we have to create the structure that will. Unless, its in someones interest for it not to work!


Anonymous said...

Back when DISD was one of the best in the nation, achievement tests were administered. I believe they were called the Iowa Achievement series, and I don't believe that my education suffered as a result.

The demise of public education in DISD and most other public school districts is a result of dumbing down the system, and a non-essential and non-core based cirrculium, dictated by the whims of a liberal education agenda.

Testing is an effective measure of a student's progress and an indication of how effective the teachers are. The elimination of testing standards will further contribute to the dumbing down of the system, although it would take the heat of the teaching cadre.

Gerald Britt said...

I doubt seriously that you can blame the current testocracy on a 'liberal education agenda'. Especially since 'conservatives' are the ones who have promoted the current culture of 'testocracy'. I will admit that rather than promoting alternative assessment measures, 'liberals' haven't helped much (really, we've got to get beyond this archaic ideological obssession).

Whenever it was that DISD was one of the 'best' districts 'in the nation' (whenever that was), it was an entirely different than this era. I to remember the Iowa Basic Skill Test, but it was a day and time when we were being prepared to compete against other students in other states. The fundamental requirements of such a system were either a good memory, the discipline to line up and listen to information passed from student to teacher.

Today students must be prepared to compete and cooperate with a global citizenry. It requires more interpersonal skills, a greater knowledge base of other cultures and languages and a the development of a greater capacity for critical thinking. We are preparing students to solve problems that don't even exist yet. And they are more complex than the problems for which we were prepared when we were in school. Currently we are wasting the best students and the best teachers with the system we have.

We can continue to shape our education system along a politcal paradigm that basically is formed by an ideological frame of reference if we prefer, but what we will continue to produce are more and more students who can't don't know how to make it in life unless the answer to a question requires more than guessing which bubble to fill in with a number two pencil.

Anonymous said...

The test is a measure of how effective the teaching is - nothing more or less. Without a yardstick - there can be no measure. Cultural knowledge and foreign language skill are certainly worthwhile, but the focus should be on reading and writing English, math and science. Students can compete best if they master these elements first.

Anonymous said...

Let me put it another way, testing is merely the messenger.

Gerald Britt said...


I can agree with you somewhat, that testing is a measure of the teaching. And really my argument is not against testing. My issue is the elevation of standardized testing as the supreme measure of whether education is taking place.

And actually, this is not an issue regarding academics, it is, fortunately or unfortunately an imposition of politics.

The idea that a student who has done well on a test and qualified for graduation and is, therefore, 'been educated' is patently not true.

It is especially not true, when students don't have access to text books, technology and have been drilled on the text to the near exclusion of everything else.

I have seen it through the years, as a parent interacting with the friends of my children, as a pastor working with youth and children at school, and in supervising our education outreach at CDM.

Children who 'master' the reading portion of the test, but cannot comprehend what they read; students who are 'given' grades in social studies, but who aren't actually taught social studies because they are too busy being drilled on the TAKS test.

Students who take 'reading' but have little exposure to real literature and lets not talk about the abscence of enrichment - music, art,etc. which all stimulate the brain and help facilitate learning.

And then there are students (nearly 80% of the graduates of DISD) who successfully 'pass' the test - but who enter community college but cannot read, do math or science, not because of the normal freshman acclamation, but because they have not been taught the basics, even though the 'messenger' tells us that they have 'mastered' those subjects on some level.

The video embed shows us other, more effective ways of assessing what has been taught and in the
21st century we will need these and more.

Again, our children are not just competing with their next door neighbors for a job anymore. They are collaborating globally. And we are doing them a disservice.

Simply defending the philosophy of 'testing is not enough. We must find ways to provide students with a well rounded exposure to what there is to learn, because they have the capacity. The question is whether we have the will.