I agree with Michael Brick, the author of The New York Times op-ed about the failure of No Child Left Behind and the inadequacies of test scores as a measure for student and teacher success.
I’ve been a teacher for over 15 years, in public universities and private high schools, and I’ve watched my California public learning institutions decline in resources, quality of education and student performance since I spoke publicly against Proposition 13 as a high school student in the late seventies. Perhaps some will remember the Howard Jarvis-sponsored proposition, which eviscerated school budgets while promising (needed) property tax reform for fixed income seniors — and the über wealthy alike. It is interesting to me the lack of notice it gets as the beginning of the end of California’s position near the top of the public education list. (Read Los Angeles County’s 1980 assessment of funding needs due to Prop 13, for one perspective.)
Instead we have ongoing accusations about why our schools fail: unions are at fault, teachers are at fault, parents are at fault, bureaucracy is at fault. I say, put your money where your mouth is: without provided needed funding, everyone is at fault for our failing schools. Public school teachers work long hours for low pay and spend their own money to buy the supplies they need for the classroom. Private school teachers work equally long hours for often less pay, but usually have the supplies and time they need to conduct innovative teaching.
How can real reform come? First and foremost: reject No Child Left Behind policies and annual testing. Put together local (paid sabbatical) teacher-panels to brainstorm curricular goals and guidelines that have qualitative evaluations, not quantitative, and are appropriate for their community members. Are students engaged? Are they progressing in their acquisition of targeted skills, based on observable classroom behavior (evaluated by teams of teachers and administrators within classroom environments)? Can they apply those skills to relevant learning situations with measurable outcomes? These are just suggestions that can be used to determine success, without numerical values being assigned and potentially defeatist messages being internalized by students who underperform on tests.
I don’t have all the answers, but I can see what is not working and hear it in the panicked voices of parents of students who don’t test well. I hear it in the words of my students: “I’m bad at grammar; I can’t spell.” Given the myriad ways people learn, it is no surprise that some students don’t do well on “those kinds of tests.” I’ve usually tested decently (except on the analogies section), and I was a professional writer who didn’t do well on the writing portion of the CBEST. I think I bent the formula a bit — poetic license, to be sure, unappreciated by the grid by which I was being assessed. I tried to make my essay stand out when all they wanted were sheep.
Do we want to build a nation of sheep who test well? Teachers who try to game the system? Or do we want to listen to businesses who say they want analytic problem-solvers who think with strategic vision? They want people who can manage change and diversity, not reproduce someone’s version of truth. Look at the system through that lens and see where the testing gets you.