Education Reform from the Bottom Up

The American public has become increasingly aware of our decline as world leaders in education. Recent PISA (Programme in International Student Assessment) test results illustrate a clear slippage in rank, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan described our latest performance as “a picture of educational stagnation.” Meanwhile, Sunday talk shows feature the latest rounds of debate as pundits seek to find solutions to what is perceived as ultimately an accountability issue: who or what is to blame for our kids not being as smart as the South Koreans or the Fins, and what does that mean for America’s future?

In the biggest reform proposal since No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a team of federal and state officials is preparing to administer yet another set of curriculum benchmarks for middle and high schools, called Common Core State Standards. The new alliance is proposing four major areas of change: 1) more rigorous curriculum overall, 2) more reading and writing across the curriculum (with less emphasis on fiction),  3) new exams in social studies and science, and 4) an interstate grade-by-grade framework that will ensure uniform progress from state to state.

Personally, I welcome the sudden shift to ramp up studies in the natural and social sciences, along with the diversification of reading, especially as they pertain to 21st century global awareness. (As a college English teacher of mostly freshmen, I bear witness to a frightening dearth of knowledge in these areas.) And the emphasis on a more uniform national system does not seem like a bad idea, so long as it does not harden to absolute conformity or undermine the principles of pluralism.

What bothers me is that along with the new standards comes a battery of new tests and test training procedures, all under the grand assumption that such test emphasis will improve education, and in the long run, our country. Moreover, there is the dogmatic acceptance that such tests are a valid means of assessing a young person’s abilities or natural talents, and that test scores predict success or failure in the real world.

Education reform efforts historically have been managed by state and federal bureaucracies comprised of data crunchers, education “specialists,” retired teachers, and administrators, all far removed from the day-to-day reality of the classrooms, and all overseen by a political entity that is influenced by corporations – construction, publishing, and technology companies, food services, etc. It is not unreasonable to assume that the principles of education might be somehow compromised in this arena of diverse interests.

I believe that real reform – the kind that could both level the playing field across the social spectrum and more efficiently mine the fields for our own American “diamonds in the rough” – will only come when active educators take on a much larger role. We need an overhaul from the bottom up, not another top-down mandate that is based on a misguided theory and political agenda. It is time to admit that the foundation is cracked, and a new model for American public schools is desperately needed.

The first major change would be to revamp the grade-level system. Our system was modeled after that of Prussia (old Germany) over two hundred years ago. Having been defeated by Napoleon, the government set out to reform education as a means of establishing a larger sense of nationalism, even allowing Jews and serfs to become full citizens. However, it was a system designed primarily to enforce allegiance, and to keep age/grade levels consistent with occupational or military training. It was not a system based on inquiry or critical thinking, but rather on conformity and submission.

Regarding the intellectual development of young people, common sense should tell us that they learn at different rates, and that a one-size curriculum does not fit all. An eleventh grade English class I recently taught featured three students reading at a fourth grade level, three others already at college level, and a dozen in between. This was a lose-lose situation: the slow readers were frustrated, the upper level felt neglected. The (much maligned) concept of “differentiated instruction” in such an environment was simply not tenable.

Of course this does not mean to say that students of the same age must be separated, or that they will not be together as juniors or sophomores, and not graduate as a class. Nor does it mean that ten-year-olds will be in the same English class as seniors. Surely we can devise ways to move students along at their respective paces by offering a greater variety of course study and flexibility. This is especially important for middle school students, who are not only going through heavy biological and emotional stress, but also are beginning to realize their own strengths and limitations as learners.

The second change would be to substantially reduce the amount of standardized testing, pre-testing, and test preparation. Schools invest millions of dollars in private companies that promote pre-testing.  The process involves pulling all students, seemingly randomly, from regular classes to the equivalent of about three full weeks of school per year, severely disrupting the course flow in the classrooms. The goal of these tests is to discover what teachers already should know – which students are struggling in what areas, and to then engage them in “intervention strategies.” These strategies are essentially very expensive replacements for old-fashioned tutors.

And, with so many teachers feeling under the gun to get results, the effort to prepare (including a slew of practice tests and guess-work answer strategies) becomes all-consuming. These teachers become testing automatons and rarely produce any real creative lesson plans of their own. Moreover, the standardized tests become an end in themselves – what the student takes away is piecemeal information that does not adhere or cohere in any way. Instead of nurturing the next great scientists of the world, we are producing trivia champions at TGI Friday’s across the country.

Perhaps what we need most is to explore new ways of determining a student’s natural abilities, and to figure out how to channel those abilities for the good of the greater society. Howard Gardner, whose research inspired the notion of differentiated instruction, argues two critical points: first, that standardized tests are designed to measure only two kinds of intelligences – math (logic) and linguistic; second, that those test scores accurately predict only one thing – similar performance on similar tests in the future. Beyond that, he observes that because very little change in such test scores occurs over time despite concerted efforts of educators, these intelligences must be largely inborn.

Third, American students need to spend more time learning. One way to ensure more time-on-task is to extend the school year in order to compete with other nations, who typically spend at least a full month more per year. Moreover, the agrarian school calendar (another dinosaur from centuries past) with its long summer breaks prevents a consistent and sustained course of study. However, more time in school does not guarantee more learning. We also need to make students accountable as we demand more emphasis on academics and less on sports and social activities.

Fourth, we need to prioritize clearly what our teachers need and what they don’t need. There is no one-size-fits-all prescription as to the development needs of individual teachers. No one should be burdened with mandatory training sessions involving school data analysis, or frivolous technology that has little practical value in the classroom. New teachers, especially, should not be forced to immediately immerse themselves in graduate studies in education theory (usually taught by professors who have never taught in public schools). And experienced teachers should not be subjected to the simplistic, redundant sessions regarding feel-good philosophies of Pop-Ed journalists. We have work to do.

What teachers need, primarily, is each other, along with administrators who are willing to get back into the fray and be one of us again (if they ever really were). We need to share our creative endeavors, and to model our most interesting and productive lesson plans. We need to build curriculum together, across the disciplines so that students leave high school with a better understanding of how the real world operates. And we need to discipline each other to prevent complacency and to promote life-long learning as something that not only makes us better, more soul-full people, but also transfers that soul to children. Beyond that, we need strong principals whose priority is to support students and teachers.

In a world in which technology is increasingly capable of taking care of itself, we are foolish to believe there will be more and more high-tech, high-income jobs for all students who assert themselves. We should not lead students astray or create false hope that everyone can become wealthy. We should be sure to remind them that so much of the rebuilding of this country will come in the form of infrastructure repair and creation. It is not a shame to work on the railroads, or the bridges, or even sinks in the bathtubs and heating systems. And for those able, there is the all-important job of maintaining and protecting the Internet.

Perhaps we should not worry so much about our standing in relation to the rest of the world. That seems too ego-based for our own good. Our young people are what they are, and it is beyond the capabilities of any government agency to change the nature of that beast.

What we can do is continue to support and challenge all levels of students – those who struggle, those who are capable, and those who are capable of things they cannot yet imagine. Those diamonds in the rough – The Steven Hawkings, the Steven Spielbergs, the LeBron Jameses, the Carl Sagans, the Stevie Wonders of the future – will emerge through us, or even in spite of us.