Wednesday, February 25, 2015

How the Testing Grinch Hijacked Learning

Part A

Every US public school student, and their parents, by now have experienced the joys of NCLB’s standardized testing.  Think of it as how the testing grinch hijacked learning.

An answer is a twisted path, but the only way to enlightenment.  So let’s assume you overhear the séance of a concerned parent with the departed spirits of two architects of our public schools, Horace Mann and John Dewey…

Parent:  Horace and John, please, help me!  Why is some massive “corporate reform” movement beating up our children and teachers in public schools you created?

HM & JD:  Good morning; while we try to avoid your current society, especially your Congress, we’ll make an exception.  Recognize that I, John the humanist, and fellow spirit Horace, more authoritarian, come philosophically from different places – like your present Congress – but we still communicate with harmony.

To your question, why?  Four reasons:  (1) Because what we call the “nanny state” now trusts neither you, nor your teachers to prepare your children for life and work; (2) because your “advanced” society apparently believes all children are manufactured products needing to hew to a common knowledge mold; (3) because some segment of your society believes learning can be expressed as a “metric” (not fully understood, though one of us invented the "Dewey Decimal System” for libraries); and (4) because something called the Business Roundtable, and a person labeled a CEO from an IBM, once decided your schools weren’t adequately preparing their future employees.

Parent:  Whoa, I’m deeply offended.  You are saying we are failed parents?  Are you saying our public schools – that both of you helped configure – are failing?  Are you saying our leaders don’t trust us?

HM & JD:  Unfortunately, precisely.  What was the last non-fiction book on learning you read, or last adult education class you attended?  When was the last time you addressed your BOE with questions about your school’s curriculum, teacher quality or leadership; or challenged your BOE’s lack of transparency?  In fact, when was the last time you demanded BOE candidates answer some real education questions before their election.

Parent:  Really hurtful, but reform is working, right, based on standardized testing?  Our kids will be able to cope with a different future?

HM & JD:  You wish to move to the heart of that matter?  Admirable.  A new arrival up here, Leonard Nimoy, aka Mr. Spock, heard us and had a logical suggestion:  Type into something called your browser and an Internet, the following inquiry:

The reference is a brief but devastating critique of that testing by an extraordinary and experienced educator, originally from and taught in your Ohio, Florida’s Dr. Marion Brady.
The issue is that no amount of penalty ignorantly heaped upon your public schools, even by your White House and states, will constructively improve their capacity to deliver needed learning.  Changing the schools we envisioned must happen from the inside out, with their most important asset — your teachers — playing a crucial role.  We are baffled:  Your 21st century, sophisticated concept of corporations and management seems based on understanding of organizational behavior and human interaction we never fully conceived, but your alleged reformers are acting out one hundred year-old beliefs and concepts?

Parent:  Oops, help, you’re fading!  Our medium is losing the contact.

HM & JD:  Have no fear, good lady, well try again later; we’re not going anywhere…

Part B

A dreary day in Ohio, fitting for a séance.  A partially satisfied parent, still seeking answers, is back knocking on the portal to the spirits of architects of US public schools, Horace Mann and John Dewey.

Parent:  Hello, please come back, President Mann and Dr. Dewey!

HM & JD:  Good afternoon good lady.  We do wish to continue our conversation.  When we faded, we were about to probe your testing inquiry.

Testing is not just what your contemporary tongue calls “testing.”  Common use has made the term generic.  Your standardized testing is:  One type of testing; assumes one correct answer; emphasizes memorization of alleged facts or small packets of knowledge; puts more emphasis on tricks in answering than mastery; provides little diagnostic value; based on neural research we see emerging will quickly be forgotten; won’t solve complex problems; and your society has been what you call “scammed,” with a small cabal of profiteering testing companies deciding for a nation what constitutes knowledge.  To us, preposterous. There are many types of assessment, all crucial, and your knowledge is repetitively doubling; you will never succeed with simplistic learning.

Alas, the alleged reform is also failing.  Indeed, your present society’s unbalanced and discriminatory social, economic and cultural properties now rival the tableaus we mercifully departed.  These properties have more to do with your test results than your classrooms.

Parent:  Why don’t I know all of this, and what can I do about it?

HM & JD:  This is complicated.  Your “reform” has been going on for 35 years.  But your – our – public schools have ignored modernization responsibilities, and retreated into comfortable inbred enclaves avoiding change, complicated by failure of your schools of education to properly educate both your teachers and schoolmasters.  Instead of creative public school improvement we see schools fearful of government and transparency, with underdeveloped educators, and lacking the courage to change.

What can you do?  That is a tough question – you’re learning.  The representation of reformers is, that without standardized testing, you wouldn’t know what your children are achieving.  We contest this.  Many decades ago parents knew what their children were achieving because teachers developed and gave tests, they heard recitation, they gave out report cards, and parents talked to both their children and their teachers.  Right now your Congress is even conflicted on renewing what you call ESEA/NCLB, leaving in doubt whether they will double-down on, or scale back testing?

Parent:  (Censored), so now what?

HM & JD:  We both believe that local control of education is still the best path for learning.  Looking down, we see across the nation hundreds of thousands of parents now courageously opting their children out of that testing.  Testing is improving, adding more reasoning to questions; but the present format will never measure a child’s capacity for critical thought and complex problem solving, and social and civic competence, which is after all, what school and learning are supposed to be about.

Parent:  But isn’t it all about just getting a job on graduating?

HM & JD:  No!  That is rhetoric that drifted up from a political aspirant named Scott Walker, trying to re-write the mission of a venerable institution of higher education of our vintage, but that’s another story. 

Sorry, but we must go; a chorus of discordant voices from below, with incomprehensible labels, are starting to assert that perhaps the two of us don’t belong up here, versus, er, the other place…

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