History suggests that the unexpected but oft-experienced "law of unintended consequences" has an insidious property, it takes no prisoners.
The “law” applies to the present overreaching, untested, massive, and intellectually questionable national deployment of corporately developed standardized tests as a singular approach to achieving accountability. Not exhibited by its advocates, the self-assessment to recognize consequences?
The most egregious strategic effects of present testing tactics will take time to materialize, but clues are already wafting through the halls of K-12; the early ones, the losses of good teachers to invalid evaluation, plus a wave of loss of the spirit that drives real classroom commitment and teaching.
There is, however, another negative of present testing, in the focus, verbiage surrounding its critique and defense, and perhaps the attention of those who mediate appearance of issues in our media. Media attention is so consumed with the testing issue that an array of factors that will impact future K-12 are being ignored or downgraded. Strategically, ones of major import are ignoring the broader sources of accountability, core change in the model of K-12, and how present evolution of information and technology will either enhance or further damage U.S. K-12 education.
We are not embracing either wise assessment, or 21st century learning; how much of a lead do we give the rest of the world before reaching for America's education bootstraps instead of just pushing a “test” button?
If there is one term that has been the watchword of the current K-12 reform it is “accountability.” Connoting answerability, blameworthiness, responsibility, and the word has been employed as the ultimate put-down for some of our best and brightest who have raised questions about both the credibility and coverage of the present testing logic and applications. The riposte goes: Accountability can’t exist without an accounting and metrics to express the results, ergo, the standardized testing being imposed can be quantified and is the sine qua non for assessment -- you don’t want our teachers accountable? Do you still transport your dog on the roof of your car?
The locus of responsibility for K-12 achievement is the next gambit in the game. Who is the closest to the desired product, the results of the testing? In actuality, the mechanism of performance in that testing is self-evidently, the test-taker, if one deletes educational administrators setting up teaching to the tests, offering in advance test contents, or changing answers. We can’t lay that trip on students because they have neural nets still in the process of development, and they have parents who vote, or some social conscience gets roiled when children are targeted. Next closest to the action, the teacher, by current thinking, learning master, drill sergeant, Pied Piper, all in one expendable, substitutable package.
Regrettably, the platoon of academics who have been advocating value-added assessments of teachers appears to have one oar in the water in both the reasoning underlying science of explanation, and in the measurement methodologies necessary to assign to the classroom teacher unique causality for even student memory reacquisition. The litany of most competing explanations for student testing outcomes has been displayed in the professional literature; the leadership forcing the decision to massively but naively test what is now being tested appears to lack the most basic elements of social science research literacy.
But even more elemental, where does the logic and influence chain start for how students are being prepared, even for testing that may not generate a learning supply chain to knowledge? Is present VAM simply a combination of myopia and banality; when your only tool is the hammer of a standardized test, every teacher looks like a nail?
At what point do America’s hiding or sheltered cadre of failed superintendents and principals, and related state bureaucrats enter the act? Should the teacher bear the responsibility for scripted lesson plans and other choices from above denying their training, intellectual sovereignty, and response to a complex environment that must be continually assessed to maintain the social interaction and communication that is the core stuff of teaching? Should they be directly accountable for uncontrollable student life environments that even tactically effect cognition, or for the failures of parents?
Fundamentally, K-12 leaderships, including school boards have been handed a “get-out-of-jail-free card” in the present manipulated reform movement. Is this believable when those resources are not held accountable for fraudulent school levies, or when the very lack of leadership hamstrings teachers’ capabilities to overcome underachievement by students, or when curriculum that is flawed is imposed on the classroom, or when a school’s principal bullies are its superintendent, or principal, or assistant principal? The Lee Hirsch documentary “Bully,” and its clueless school administrators, are not just rhetorical asides. An organization is a complex system, functioning well or failing based on all of its constituents, linked to how it responds to external systems, but cause and effect start at the peak.
Lastly, how much of present perceived public K-12 deficits traces to the accumulative effects of decades of poor topside leadership nationally, whether by its unions, or by intellectually challenged state departments of education, or by the priorities ignored by the U.S. Department of Education for decades, or by permitting a corporate cabal to dominate by lobbying the creation of the learning contents of our K-12 schools, and for decades, by the sourcing including design of textbook and teaching materials?
There is more than probable cause to aggressively question the present massive testing schemes, and see them nationally as an assiduously orchestrated mob mentality rather than ethical pursuit of K-12 systemic change.
Fear of Failing?
As many writers have maintained, walking into too many 21st century classrooms in 2012 is pretty much like walking into their early 20th century progenitor except for the luster of plastics and stainless materials that instill a false sense of modernity. The sage is still on the stage, frequently obsolete textbooks are still on desks, the rubrics are from the last century, and the highest level of technology present is being surreptitiously exercised with the thumbs of the occupants of those desks. Why is the present cadre of K-12 shakers and movers paranoid, or so lacking in self-confidence that the dull cadence of what they knew decades ago is the only grist for current process?
There is little argument that USDOE and America’s public K-12 leadership have failed miserably in grabbing their own pedagogical bootstraps to create, develop, construct, test, and promote more advanced information and communication models that improve learning and knowledge creation. Note with prejudice, and emphasis, that memorization of facts, but even of paradigms, models, algorithms, formulas, and on, are not learning per se, nor is learning per se knowledge. It is the difference between capturing for retrieval reductionist facts versus high order neural processing that includes the capacity for generalization of what is learned to other contexts, the capacity to apply cognitive abilities to problem solving, and going beyond what is reliably connected to creativity built upon new connections.
Fatally, the K-12 education establishment failed the most primitive test of using the tools of science in seeking its own well-being, by failing to demand that the kind of testing being imposed on its own ranks first survive the blend of logical and experimental testing that would accompany any material device or drug or service issuing from a competent private sector company before mass distribution. To add insult to injury, there is no remediation path for the damaged or cheated users – student or teacher or parent – of standardized testing to seek any consumer protection or redress for failed or disabling cognitive results.
The efforts that should be consuming both policy gurus and educators are: Evaluating the seat time model; absorbing contemporary concepts of information that circumscribe concepts of communication central to K-12 learning; evaluate technology as it becomes intrinsic to supporting the student-teacher dyad; rebuilding rubrics around both contemporary subject matter and digital and social tools; adopting an experimental mindset, that makes routine classroom or adjunct experiments on what works, and a standard of practice; research on roles to be played by both online learning and by enhanced parent-school collaborative learning processes; rethinking the whole spectrum of teacher education and subsequent intellectual maintenance; and finally, modernizing K-12 administrative leadership by adopting and training understanding that has been available from other disciplines for decades.
Down the chart, put an end to the billions of dollars being expended for new school bricks & mortar, and sports facilities, at the expense of expenditures that directly effect learning. Creatively explore both alternative organization designs for K-12, and organizational arrangements that would functionally combine the assets of school systems in contiguous jurisdictions to leverage their learning resources, tying them with state-of-art bandwidth to create virtual school chains with scale advantages.
Utopian? The composite might be if its equivalent didn’t occur every day in our private sector, in organizations that practice creativity, employ excellence as the essence of a mission statement, and field more intellect and technology than emanate from the majority of our educational complexes. A paradox, because of who is pushing standardized testing as reform? Not really, if you recognize that not all of America’s private sector embraces a single model for function, or prospers on the basis of innovation and management excellence, versus greed, lobbying, imitation, monopoly practices, or deceiving the market.
Standardized Test Questions Versus Knowledge
The most absurd property of America's convoluted organization of elementary and secondary education is the belief – tempting to brand it parody – that information, theory, and knowledge in one state are not equal to another state. The most obvious example is the hot button issue of evolution versus creationism, almost bizarre in its occasional dominance of states’ governmental actions on K-12.
But the larger issue of curricula has been the elephant in the room's shadows for generations. For perspective, the issue has become increasingly contentious because it upsets the core balance of K-12 and especially 9-12 education. What are known, hard sciences’, biological sciences’, neural sciences’, and even social sciences’ content has been increasing at an increasing rate in the last few decades. Facing that environment for learning, K-12 education encounters a formidable challenge: Its teachers could be deficient before they make it into the classroom; it's educational materials can become obsolete in a school year; superintendents and principals have not been recruited to deal intellectually with that challenge; and vexing is the balance in K-12 between stopping its mission with the vanilla core of relevant disciplines, versus pushing the envelope. Undershoot and the gap between secondary and postsecondary soars; push the envelope for currency and the deficits of both human and learning resources greatly increase the risk of failure.
There is a solution set to this issue. It starts with transparency, full disclosure of the resources, reasoning, protocols, and products of all present corporately-sourced standardized K-12 tests to a consortium of legitimate national representatives of the disciplines scoped by that testing. The purpose, to establish unequivocally what is now effectively being installed, de facto, as America's K-12 curricula. What is tested quickly becomes what is taught, and over time, what is accepted as dogma about content.
Remove from our corporate test vendors the authority to determine what specifics are tested when that form of testing is relevant. Simultaneously, instead of the flawed logic of VAM, fund research on testing that can assess the spread of learning products sought by the U.S., and pursue large scale studies designed to legitimately identify the school, classroom, and environmental factors and factor weights that predict the diverse longitudinal effects of prior education.
Also coincidentally, create a national interdisciplinary effort centered in our universities, not NGA's retro "common core," to assemble models of contemporary subject matter content applicable across levels of knowledge development of our youth, not necessarily aligned along seat time logic. The product of this could ultimately be a genuine national curriculum for elementary and secondary work, possibly also setting up the basis for rethinking the basic organization of those conventions. The “boo birds” can already be heard, squawking that local control of education has been violated. Alexander Hamilton proposed a general model for governance that fits K-12 education, worth reflection: Centralize goals for the nation, but decentralize the implementation that leads to their achievement.
Balance the Portfolio
The nation and media need to deal with the dumbing-down of K-12 learning pragmatically being installed by standardized testing, challenge the corporate naïveté, dogmatic thinking creating it, and the political ideologies imposing it. What is now dominating K-12 assessment has roughly the credibility of last decade’s claims of WMD in Iraq; that didn't exactly work out as planned.
But even more important, while the dialogue in the public square needs to continue to abrade the current testing mantra, it also needs to address in parallel the above issues. The risk of not doing so is also an unintended consequence – that some sanity returns to testing, the one-note version gets put back in Pandora’s box, and diverse assessment emerges, but the K-12 education establishment simply breathes a great sigh of relief and snaps back to an obsolete future.