In the April, 2013 edition of District Administration Magazine, Alison DeNisco reports in an article titled “Thirty Years Later, Little Has Changed” that despite numerous reform movements, including No Child Left Behind, a February report from the Equity and Excellence Commission finds that indeed, little has changed since the publication 30 years ago of the “A Nation at Risk” report.
DeNisco’s report highlights “the vast gaps in educational outcomes separating different groups of young Americans...” and calls on the federal government to take a more active role in public education. The proposed action plan includes restructuring school finance systems to better reflect student need, efforts to improve recruitment and retention of quality teachers, providing high-quality early education for all children, and requiring states to meet realistic but aggressive expectations of student outcomes.
This all sounds so familiar... and I wonder how long it will be before we, as a profession and as a nation, begin to realize how far from the mark we are aiming. We’ve wrung our hands for 30 years, fretting over test score comparisons among disparate nations with unique populations, social settings, and widely-varied economic and political systems. In the process, we’ve converted a useful but rather insignificant metric into the primary goal of our educational system. It’s as if we’re in a sporting contest and the only measure of success is the point total for each player.
To make matters worse, we intuitively know and pay lip service to the notion that education should be about maximizing the potential of every student, yet in our rabid pursuit of the winning record, we put policies and practices in place that practically guarantee minimum proficiency from each student regardless of ability. Does it not occur to policy makers that test scores can be increased by also raising the bar for students with superior academic abilities?
Our educational system has been chasing this canard for so long that it’s considered almost subversive today to promote higher achievement from students with higher abilities, or to direct resources to developing talent in the arts and other non-core areas. Instead of focusing our efforts on maximizing learning to the utmost potential of EVERY student, we concentrate all resources on those closest to the cut score... not because those students are more or less precious to us, but because schools and educators are judged almost exclusively by how many students make it over that very low bar.
Dr. Yong Zhao takes a hard look at the numbers in his blog, “Numbers Can Lie: What TIMSS and PISA Truly Tell Us, if Anything?” He makes the point that while international test score comparisons may be a valid indicator of “the extent to which an education system effectively transmits prescribed content”, comparison of economic measures on both a personal and national level would indicate that “the successful transmission of prescribed content contributes little to economies that require creative and entrepreneurial individual talents and in fact can damage the creative and entrepreneurial spirit.”
I don’t argue against the need for reform, in fact I believe it’s greater now than ever before. But I do believe that in our zeal to “win” the test score comparisons, we’ve done far more harm than good, and what is more, we’ve lost sight of what the true purpose of education should be, particularly in the unique setting in which we find ourselves as a nation. We face forward and see a future in which the global economy is undergoing unprecedented transformation, to a time in which the value of rote knowledge and content is diminishing and the value of creative skills and flexibility in thought and learning is at a premium. We decry students being unready for post-secondary education and yet we look at the face of higher education changing daily, as illustrated in the discussion paper “College 2020” from the Center for Policy Innovation Discussion and the article “Education Technology Success Stories” from the Brookings Center for Technology Innovation.
The target of required skills seems to move almost daily, and we see mounting evidence of the shift in economic power from monolithic corporations to agile, small-scale and flexible entrepreneurship, yet we insist on the pursuit of a standardized, inflexible education system based on uniformity and content-based score performance. At a time of unprecedented opportunity and value centered on individualized talent and interest, a time when we see the third world emerging as an economic force based not on corporate might but innovative thinking, rather than stepping forward to meet new opportunities we instead look back and pine for “old school”.
New technologies and communication channels open the door to learning avenues never before available. We can move forward with individualized learning, we can provide authentic collaborative and creative projects, we can develop 21st Century skills, and we can measure and track academic progress through dozens of different metrics. The technology available to our teachers and students today make all of these things possible. Yet we continue to view test scores as the sole indicator of success and point our efforts not to the future, but rather to creating proficient test takers
I believe curriculum reform should be directed to the future rather than to the past. We need to step forward and embrace change, and we need to leave behind the notion that the measure of success lies in the contest of test scores. As educators we need to muster the courage to apply new pedagogies, to come together with our colleagues and communities and to demonstrate in ourselves those skills we know our students need. We need to take education back and change it from something done TO students to the opportunity it should be FOR students to learn and grow.