Look to the Horizon: Education Reform Extends Far Beyond the School

There is much debate in education theory as to how a mass system of education should be structured in order to provide opportunity for every child. There is also debate as to the meaning of education, whether it should help students gain an understanding of life and their role in society, or rather to become recognized as a competent – and competitive – asset to the workforce and economy. I would argue that the United States focuses on the latter. This means that a proper education is often the only route to professional success, and therefore, those without access to a good education are often prescribed to fail.

The United States is home to many of the world’s most revered academic institutions, yet for many, primary and secondary public education is failing. Why is this? There is much discussion about how a system of education should be structured in order to provide every child with opportunities for success. Currently, it can be said that the U.S. system has adopted what can loosely be defined as the “conservative restoration,” combining two, often contradictory, theoretical backgrounds of neoliberalism and neoconservativism. Neoliberalism calls for the marketization of education, and neoconservativism calls for harsh standardization (Apple, 1993). This type of system pushes for school choice, the privatization of schools (charters, for example), yet also often unattainable standards in public schools. Many assumed this would lead to a better system overall because of market competition. What has actually resulted is the deterioration of the public system, and the widening of the gap between rich and poor. Those who have the means to choose better, more resourceful schools (which are often private schools) do so, while those in poverty are stuck in public schools that do not have the resources or infrastructure to support the children they teach.

In 2002, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was mandated by the Bush administration in hopes of bringing equilibrium in education (Ravitch, 2011). Through implementing high stakes testing, the goal was to find public schools which are failing, get rid of bad teachers, and give students the opportunity to choose where they go to school, with the expectation that everyone will win. 2014 (the end date of NCLB) has come and gone, and arguably, the end goal was not achieved. The United States is now struggling between a failing public education system, and the rise of for-profit charter schools and voucher systems. As NCLB has ended, it is imperative for the U.S. government to enact education reform that will bring positive change. How do we begin to do this? The answer, in my opinion, lies outside of the school system.

At the end of her speech at Lehigh University on February 10, 2015, Diane Ravitch listed about ten suggestions that she finds vital for school reform. Many of these included the provision of resources in all schools, yet others also extended to prenatal care and support for young mothers, and importantly, the need to attack the root causes of our failing education system: poverty and segregation.  I, personally, could not agree with her more. Education is not solely the institution of schooling – it occurs on a daily basis from the moment a child is born. If there is no familial support for a child in their home and wider community, a school cannot be looked at to provide this support, and every child cannot be expected to achieve the same level.  If our government were to focus on policies which would ensure that every child would receive support from the time they take their first breath, regardless of their social, economic, racial or familial background, I believe the success of students would grow exponentially. Further, I would be inclined to call for a shift of curriculum focus to that which fosters in every student a perspective that can identify differences – be it cultural, economic, racial, or moral, to name a few – and seek to understand them, and the commonality that can be found in the differences. We are all human, after all, and I believe we are all searching for them same answers. A successful school system can help us achieve that.

Sources:

Apple, M. (1993). The politics of official knowledge: Does a national curriculum make sense? Teachers College Record,     95(2), 222 – 241.

Ravitch, D. (2011). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York, NY: Basic Books.

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Children are More than Test Scores!

Last week I was at my son’s elementary school for a meeting with his teacher.  She began to talk about how important it was for him to be ready for the PSSAs (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests). I told her that not only did I find this type of assessment irrelevant to his education, but also inaccurate.  I even suggested I’d rather he didn’t participate in taking them. A look of confusion came across her face, like she hadn’t even thought about having a choice in this matter.

Standardized testing has been a crucial aspect of the No Child Left Behind act that has been introduced by the George W. Bush administration in 2002. Each state is required to create assessment tests and yearly progress reports in order to receive federal funding. This has been a top down policy that was decided in Washington with little to no involvement of students, teachers, and parents that have been affected by it.  Supposedly, such standardized tests were expected to not only provide accurate assessments of student achievement but also measure the effectiveness of teachers as well.  But a decade after the policy’s implementation, there has been no proof of its effectiveness.  Rather, standardized testing has reduced education to acquiring skills that merely prep for the test.

Comparing U.S. students to those from such high-achieving countries as Finland, Korea, UK, and Singapore, Linda Darling-Hammond argues that American students are “the most tested” in the world. She finds that not only are students in these countries minimally tested but they also rarely take multiple-choice exams.  She further claims that spending so much time on improving test taking skills takes away time from effective teaching and critical thinking skills that cannot be measured by such tests.

Yet, public protests against standardized testing are rare. Many teachers find themselves in a difficult position if they seriously contest the system that promotes “teaching to the test.” Should they refuse to participate in the standardized tests imposed by the state, they risk poor evaluations, charges of insubordination, possible suspension, and even loss of their jobs. To a certain extent, then, many teachers—perhaps even a majority—are forced to implement standardized tests and teaching practices that they not only despise but know are against common sense and the real educational needs of their students.

While many teachers may be discouraged from actively protesting the standardized testing movement, the teachers of Garfield High School in Seattle are just doing that…by not participating in the mandated standardized tests called MAPS (Measures of Academic Progress) and they are not the only ones. Over 130 professors and researchers from various universities, including Harvard, Tuft, and Brandeis, have spoken out publicly against standardized testing. From New York City to Texas and Florida, parents, teachers, and elementary and middle school students are beginning to express their frustration with slogans like “KIDS ARE NOT A TEST SCORE.” Garfield High’s defiance of this policy clearly shows the rest of us that we do have a voice in education policy as stakeholders especially in a nation that we call a democracy.