Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Educating the Souls of Our Children

“Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.” (G. K. Chesterton)

Many voices shout about the current state of American education. They have told us that schools are dysfunctional, populated with unruly, unwilling students overseen by incompetent teachers. They hold up international test scores as proof that the U. S. has fallen far behind its competition and will suffer the fates of once great empires if it does not act and act now.

One solution was No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a Bush family initiative, first imposed upon Texas, then across the entire nation when George W. Bush became a two-term president. As a teacher in the classroom when No Child became law, I can attest to the changes I experienced. At first, they were not onerous. States needed to prove that the person imparting information and evaluating America’s youth had actually completed college coursework in the subjects they taught. States also had to declare its curricular objectives and creates proofs that they were making progress to achieve them, leaving no child behind as they did so.

The district in which I taught spent dollars to hire substitutes and to pay teachers a stipend so that they could collaborate on an integrated curriculum, one that facilitated common goals. Teachers acquired thick notebooks full of standards and model lessons designed to address those standards.

These were good meetings during which teachers discussed not just what is important for their students to know but why. More significant, however, is the fact that these meetings were teacher-driven and teacher-led. Men and women stepped from their classrooms, and they were the resident experts, empowered to make good choices in their students’ behalf.

Today’s national discussion often does not invite classroom teachers into the debate. National figures are university academics; most have never actually taught in a public school. Some of these folks have a very personal investment in outcomes. Robert J. Marzano, for example, is co-founder and CEO of Marzano Research Laboratory. He conducts professional development, writes and sells books, and provides classroom materials--all at a profit for him.

Another national figure with a very personal investment is former Florida governor Jeb Bush, brother to former Presidents George W. Bush and George H. W. Bush, Founder and Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Like his brother George’s efforts in Texas, Jeb Bush initiated programs to improve accountability and school choice in Florida. He now travels the nation explaining these to hearers willing to pay for his expertise; he also has ties to curriculum-for-profit companies, including Ignite! Learning, once his brother Neil’s company. http://www.

Michelle Rhee, former Chancellor for the Washington, D. C. public schools, now founder of the non-profit Students First, as well as Bill and Melinda Gates, focus upon the teacher in the classroom. Rhee’s foundation has the goal of ending teacher tenure, and Rhee herself is the poster-child for firing teachers and principals on camera after using test scores as her primary evaluation tool. In fact, No Child Left Behind, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the Gates, and Rhee share a love of testing in the name of accountability. In their analyses of American education, budget cuts, rising rates of hunger and poverty, and an inability to climb out of one’s social class at birth are minor intrusions, almost irrelevant factors. What trumps all these, what dwarfs all these is a dynamic, well-prepared teacher, and he or she can be identified and retained through standardized testing.

Certainly, we teachers and consumers of public education have a right to be satisfied that our children are surrendered into the care of educated, well-trained adults, knowledgeable in their fields and proficient in effective teaching and learning strategies. Asking teachers to meet the needs of children and the nation is not unreasonable, but asking teachers to be superheroes, able to heal wounds both physical and psychological, to feed the minds and often the bodies of children, and to insure the safety of all while delivering discrete content lessons designed by testing companies receiving multi-million dollar contracts in order to be judged competent or incompetent on the basis of a single year’s scores is not.

Those testing companies choke the life out of public education, in part by requiring testable items be measurable, quantifiable. Unwilling or unable to invest the time and manpower in scoring writing samples, for example, instead companies test a student’s knowledge of grammar and correct usage and thus, transform students from creators of messages to proofreaders checking for surface inaccuracies with little or no regard for the merits of the argument. Testing companies furthermore eschew all learning outside the parameters of the core: computation, social studies, language arts, and science, yet many students excel as artists, athletes, musicians, and community volunteers. These matter little in the pursuit of scores, however; the teachers who help students grow in these become bit players in a huge, expensive production, their insights and contributions crowded out by more and more core courses, more and more hours devoted to testing.

Many would argue that art, competition, music, and governance are as much a part of our national psyche and heritage as are math, history, language arts, and science. Many would argue that the non-core subjects are the very soul of our society. Yet these subjects receive short shrift while standardized testing consumes more of our public dollars, time on task, and student development, both cognitive and affective.

Consider a May, 2012 report by Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post http://www.washington html about Florida’s evolution from testing for the purposes of accountability and decision-making to a Draconian overseer of content and personnel, excerpted below:

•    “Florida’s standardized testing program is being misused and has ‘severely impacted student learning,’ according to … ‘The Ramifications of Standardized Testing on our Public Schools,’ … just released by the Central Florida School Board Coalition, a group of top officials from 10 school districts.
•    “While the specifics are about Florida, the general conclusions about the negative impact of state standardized programs are relevant across the country — not only because other states have their own version but because some looked to Florida as a model as they developed their own school accountability systems. …”
•    “An enormous increase simply in the sheer quantity of testing has occurred in the State of Florida within the last decade and a half. [And] …  the use of the results of tests has changed. For example, as of 1999, FCAT results assign school grades. In 2001, the Florida State Board of Education established the FCAT passing score as a requirement of the regular high school diploma. In 2002, AYP (as part of the NCLB law expectation of one hundred percent proficiency by 2014) was added to as part of the school score. Student performance bars have been subsequently raised to set passing scores for class. Students are required to have a passing score for class credit in Algebra 1, Geometry, and Biology, and required passing scores for college class placements. Arguably, the standards have become too high to actually meet, for example, in 2011 only 39% of 10th grade students passed the FCAT 2.0 Reading. This has also come to include mandated grade retentions, mandated additional instructional time, and mandated intensive remediation classes for students in middle and high school levels. Additionally, school grades now include FCAT Science grades, learning gains within the lowest twenty-fifth percentile, graduation rates, and accelerated coursework offerings. Within the last fifteen years, the sheer quantity of testing, the standards of passing, and the use of testing have increased well beyond their initial beginnings and limits.”
•    “The Florida Department of Education’s stated purposes of student assessment testing programs do not align with the current actual uses of its programs. According to the FDOE website, FCAT ‘was designed to measure achievement of the Sunshine State Standards.’ Moreover, the stated primary goal of these assessments is to ‘provide information needed to improve the public schools by enhancing the learning gains of all students and to inform parents of the educational progress of their public school children.’ Neither of these goals refers to assigning eligibility or grades for the students or assessing the public schools based on these assessments; they only discuss the informing of students’ progress and achievements. …”
•    “The current data on schools and their subsequent grades reveals that the high stakes testing is not corresponding to high performance across the board. …”
•    “Florida’s state assessment and accountability program expends disproportionate fiscal and human resources on the production of tests, testing materials, distribution, scoring, dissemination of results, school grading, prep materials, and supplementary test materials to support the retake process, and communication and enforcement of stringent testing protocols. Excluding the costs related to equipment, printing, and related school staff hours of prep, testing, scoring and reporting, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt approximates the annual cost of testing at $424,000 with Pearson approximating the annual cost of their tests at $59,000,000. Given the extensive requirements surrounding state assessment, these tests and their mandates would cost schools and districts in more than just the fiscal cost of the bare test themselves. …”
•    “Schools and districts must utilize personnel and financial resources to prepare, schedule, store, transport and administer state assessments. Additionally, the state requires that school districts identify and continuously utilize progress-monitoring and diagnostic assessments, purchase computers for testing, upgrade existing hardware and computer infrastructures, provide certificated test administrators and assign proctors in each testing environment. Schools and districts must purchase instructional materials to support the testing format, schedule and execute test administration training, identify available staff and facilities for test administration, reschedule classes and employee work schedules, and assign special couriers to deliver and retrieve tests. Florida’s extensive testing program and its highly-controlled testing protocols force school and district leaders to tap resources created to support students and use them to comply with state testing directives. To begin with, the State of Florida does not fund high stakes testing or it’s [sic] accompanying testing requirements. As a result, schools and districts must divert funding once used for hiring teachers, providing academic support for ESE, ESOL, and struggling students, offering summer learning programs, maintaining school facilities, training teachers, establishing competitive salaries to attract and keep good teachers, etc. in order to meet excessively strict testing requirements. In addition, schools incur a tremendous loss of instructional time, which impacts those students already performing below grade level most severely, resulting in even greater deficits for these students compared to their peers. …”

In other words, standardized testing, however well-intentioned in the beginning, has stolen the soul from education. What our children need is a full and comprehensive understanding of the reasons for and ways of governance. They need to be given information to discern and practice in discerning truth from lie, fact from opinion. They need to be given the power to communicate their ideas and the confidence to share them. They need to uncover then hone their innate gifts by playing musical instruments or playing on grass fields or playing with pen and paint or playing with words. They need to learn to persevere through difficult text and delight in beautiful expression. They must know how to compute and apply technology in the service of design and communication. They need to examine, evaluate, enjoy, and engage, and all these needs require time now stolen by darkening circles and shapes with a number-two pencil.

Let us educate our children about the hubris of our ancestors, an arrogance that allowed them to commit genocide against the Native Americans and enslave Africans. Let them also recognize the context in which these hideous assaults took place and the evolution in humanity that has made us ashamed of those acts.

Let us celebrate the great, grand gestures of coming to a new continent in order to create a better, more noble society. Let us acknowledge the missteps while opening our children’s eyes to the wonder of new frontiers and new ideologies tried, tested, tempered, discarded and defended.

Let us insure that our children have the pleasures and insights afforded to us all through literature. Let them discover a sense of belonging and shared purposes by experiencing the artistic expressions of intellectuals, and let them admire the laborers who dreamed of better methods, better means, and better lives.

Let us inspire our children for only then will their promise flourish. They cannot now do so if they are sick without care, hungry without nourishment, poor without hope, and tested beyond measure. We must care for their souls more than we care for their scores. Then this great empire shall not fail.