Saturday, August 28, 2010

My Third Grader is Not Responsible for Your Property Value

The test scores from the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) were recently published and one of the schools in my neighborhood had lower scores than expected by many in the community. It sparked a discussion among many groups about test scores, testing, teaching, leadership, expectations, etc.

What bothered me about some of the conversations that I heard was how often the talk drifted to matters of personal profitability that were peripheral to the subject of education itself. For example, many of those who said that the test scores were "lower than they should be for our community" would often speak about how the test scores negatively affected their property values and even our ranking and competitiveness as a city, state and nation. It troubles me that we are putting so much pressure on our children so that we may sell our houses for more money or have a better Gross National Product.

I know there is no one answer to the question "what is the purpose of education?". My answer may sound quite different from yours. To me, the purpose of education is to raise informed, interested, empowered, creative, tolerant, active citizens. It is to help a child uncover their strengths and talents and interests allowing them to use these skills to make a living, to enjoy life, and to serve others. Education should be a time of wonder and discovery. It should be challenging and enjoyable. I don't think the main purpose of education should be about high test scores or money. I know that test scores directly and indirectly impact jobs, politics, housing prices, and global competitiveness among other things, but it worries me that we will allow the importance of these things to eclipse the importance and purpose of education and change it for the wrong reasons. Is this the tail wagging the dog?

It doesn't seem unreasonable to want high property values (or to keep your job or political office) and to even take steps to ensure our schools help boost them. But if that causes us to focus solely on test scores rather than a broader method of assessment, we may certainly have better test scores and higher housing prices in our neighborhood - for awhile. But we will also see more teacher dissatisfaction leading to burnout at being forced to teach to the test. We will see further erosion of areas that are not tested but are an integral part of life and education, like the arts, recess, physical education, foreign languages, and even enough time to eat lunch at a reasonable pace. We will get higher drop out rates with kids that cannot cope with the pace or narrowed scope of learning. I am convinced that when we mechanize education and squeeze out all of the beauty and individuality to produce a test score that is satisfactory to many who stand to profit from it, even the test scores themselves will not rise in a sustainable way.

It has been said so many times by experts, teachers, students and parents with support by studies and anecdotal evidence that a balanced education with the arts, movement, and languages boost learning, motivation, and satisfaction. It doesn't seem like the people who create policy and foist it on our schools are really listening to that though. I really do think they have good intentions, but it does seem like their motivation and understanding may influence policy in a way that does not truly serve the students. Though that may seem subtle, it can bring disastrous results. If you stand to profit in some way from a higher test score, are you really impartial and acting in the best interest of students? At the very least you should be very open to following the advice of others who are in a far better position to know what is best for students.

I am not suggesting we swing the pendulum back completely away from accountability and back to the uneven and unchecked quality of the past, but I do think we have gone much too far with the accountability movement. There has to be a middle path and we can learn from other systems and cultures that successfully follow a middle path. At any rate, please do not rest the responsibility of your property values and the economy on the shoulders of my nine-year old son. That is not a burden he is prepared to carry, nor should he be expected to do so. In the words of Peach from Finding Nemo: "Isn't there another way? He's just a boy!"

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Is Fiction Frivolous?

A few weeks ago I was reading an article by E.D. Hirsch, who said that reading choices in school should not be "random" and that fiction is "frivolous". His point was that the teacher should choose books based on topics of study, rather than students choosing books of interest to them, thereby strengthening other Core Knowledge subjects while improving literacy.

At first glance, taking every opportunity to interleave subjects and focus learning seems like a good thing, especially if your focus is on test scores and retaining Core Knowledge facts. But if you are concerned about nurturing a love of learning, valuing individual interests, or even getting kids to want to read, this is not a good strategy. This line of thinking can extend to art, music, recreation, and movement. If they do not directly contribute to a highly focused subject, than they are not worthwhile. I could not disagree more! Let's not squeeze all of the beauty of life out of education, please! Not only is education far less enjoyable when we do this, we fail to reach the most at-risk students and increase the drop-out rate.

Giving a reader, especially a struggling one, a choice in what they read encourages them to read more and to delve into a subject until they are satiated. Giving students a modicum of control over parts of their education is to invite them to actively participate in it.

In the effort to help boys who straggle far behind girls in literacy, there has been a concerted effort by educators and publishers to provide books that will greatly appeal to them and be within their reading ability to help nurture literacy. These books are called high interest/low level and feature subjects like sports, animals, and all things “gross”. I know from experience that these are the books of choice for many a struggling reader. Do we really think that keeping kids interested and active in their education is unimportant? How sad that curiosity and interest would be casualties in the maniacal effort to raise test scores.

In an article by Nancie Atwell (here), The National Council of Teachers of English were frantically looking for volunteers to defend the teaching of literature because the Common Core State Standards Initiative, dominated by test-makers and politicians, were busy writing the K-12 Common-Core Standards behind closed doors and did not see the worth of book reading. What? Even high-brow literature is unworthy?

When I was learning to read, I was taken to the public library once a week and was allowed to choose a bagful of any books I liked. At one point I was reading a lot of Danielle Steele books. These books did not boost my test scores or elevate my education (except maybe socially) but they kept my nose in a book for hours at a time until I grew tired of them. My bookshelves later filled with books that were not in the Danielle Steele genre, but I appreciated that I could choose what was interesting to me – both in school and at home to encourage a lifelong love and ability to read. I hope my children will have the same choice and say in their education.