The Contradictions of Educational “Reform”

02 May

Henry Ford is reputed to have said about the Model T, “Paint it anything you want, as long as it’s black.” In our nation’s debate over educational reform, we yearn for that kind of simplicity. Unfortunately, two reform movements are strangely and perhaps dangerously oppositional, yet we have politicians and business leaders embracing both at once. On the one hand, we have the standards movement. This approach to educational reform dictates curriculum by emphasizing state and/or national testing to determine effectiveness of the education system. On the other hand, we have the Charter Schools movement, extolling the notion of choice and freedom from public school constraints.

Sound Bite Reform Contradicts Reform

Often politicians tend to focus on standards, even as they may embrace Charter Schools. Many business leaders do the same, and certainly the testing and text book industries are delighted to promote “teaching to standards” (i.e. taking tests). They speak in sound bites. They want to quantify and measure. They therefore contradict the promise of charter schools by requiring them to fit within the public school assessment bureaucracy.

Educators do not repudiate the importance of testing, but many of us have come to value alternatives to standardized testing at least as much: projects, portfolios, authentic assessment, and a more organic curriculum. These approaches to skills and subject mastery are not easy to test. How on a fill-in-the-dot standardized exam do you test for critical thinking and problem solving, empathy, creativity, and the ability to discriminate among conflicting samples of data? I have written in an earlier column about the importance of HOTS (Higher Order Thinking Skills). This is what schools need to teach for our students to be competitive in their 21st century world – and this is what needs to be assessed, even though the testing industry cannot do so efficiently enough to maximize its profit margins.

Dangerous Simplicity

Because educators do not enjoy the “bully pulpit” that other stake holders have, the message that the public tends to hear is about the importance of standards. Standards are easy to understand and explain, particularly when boiled down to multiple choice examinations. The problem is that they translate very quickly into specific tests in defined curricular areas at specific grade levels. School district (or college) x has improved its test scores so it is doing a better job. The notion is “sound bite friendly” but dangerously simplistic.

I saw this movement begin to take hold in Ohio in the early 1990’s. Perfectly valid courses and coherent curricular sequencing had to be abandoned because teachers had to teach to a test that students had to pass to graduate. One of the subtests required for graduation, for example, was a government test. The entire test battery was given beginning in ninth grade. Students could theoretically “pass” it at any point in their four-year career. If schools did not start teaching government in ninth grade, however, their students and parents would become anxious, unnecessarily but naturally, because the students might well fail early on. Instead of being able to combine government with US History in junior year or making profound connections by targeting new 18 year old voters or providing case studies and internships in senior year, schools had to conform to someone’s idea of what it meant to “know” government as ninth graders.

Independence – Real and Illusionary

Applewild is an independent school. We and our sister schools in the Association of Independent Schools in New England (AISNE) take that designation – independent — seriously. We are fortunate that we do not have to measure ourselves by the corporate assessment movement. We can evaluate students in more meaningful ways.

Charter Schools often model themselves on independent schools because they, like us, have the freedom to define their schools’ missions narrowly. We can establish Core Values and Core Competencies and a culture and climate that support healthy, productive growth and rigorous learning. Unfortunately for Charter Schools, however, they need to conform to the standards movement, no matter how antithetical that may be to their own mission or values. This completely undermines the freedom that has been so essential to the success of most independent schools.

As described in my last column, Applewild is not simply committed to independence but has the freedom to emphasize access. We have an Affordability Initiative that expands our ability to support families who are at or near the typical cut-off for financial aid, we have an Early Childhood Scholarship for children entering second grade this coming fall, we have AppleCore Scholarships starting in fourth grade, and we have a partnership with CushingAcademy that supports affordability through twelfth grade. Our mission is to provide families from north central Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire with an outstanding option for your children’s foundational years, and we know that financial considerations are important in that conversation.

The Public’s Role

If you hear politicians supporting the Charter Schools movement and demanding universal or statewide standards, you are hearing a mixed message. If Charter Schools make sense, it is precisely because they should allow for independence, including independence in assessments. It is essential for real reform that the public become educated about the perils of an assessment driven education system and become vocal at the local and state level in opposition to this approach.

On the other hand, claiming that standards are not important is not acceptable. We must expand our understanding of assessment to include more powerful, complex, higher-level thinking and problem solving. We must combine the best of the standards movement with the recognition that choice and variety are integral to the American way of life. We must develop a variety of assessments based on the wonderful variety of valid educational approaches. We must value independence more than standardization, no matter how simple it is to follow Henry Ford.