I came across a great article in Connected Principals (a blog written by school administrators to discuss best practices in education) by John C. Marschhausen, superintendent of Hilliard City schools in Ohio. As I read the piece I took deep breaths of joy, enthused by the veracity of his words regarding education and assessments. After what has been like a long and cold winter of discontent and despair regarding the direction of education in this country, Marschhausen seemed right on target about the most important thing in our schools – the student!
He notes a salient fact: “Our federal and state policy makers expect all children to perform at a specific level.” The problem with that kind of thinking should be obvious. He astutely points out a crucial truth – “children aren’t widgets” (the gadget kind and not the software kind). They are in no way typical or representative of one another. The way Marschausen uses the term means that they do not fit into the molds that big testing companies and state education departments obscenely manufacture for profit rather than academic success. Children are “unique” and “gifted” but not always able to register as such in prescribed levels that result in designating them “below average” on standardized testing or state assessments.
The problem with standardized testing and state assessments has been glaringly obvious for years – they test students as if they are all the same student. When parents read about “Overall State Percentile Ranks” or performance levels, they are seeing numbers that are specifically about their children; however, this is always in relation to all the other children who have taken the test. The pattern here is obfuscation of the child’s own particular talents and strengths with a peculiar emphasis on weaknesses. While testing giant companies and their minions who cooperate in state education departments will tell you this is “good” for the children, I believe many parents would join me in vehemently disagreeing.
As an instructor and teacher at many different levels in my career, I learned the power of not using the red pen. The red pen philosophy is catastrophic to developing students as learners, writers, thinkers, and creators. Red pen always is negative in connotation and is a disaster to students’ self-esteem and development. To this day when I speak to adults who shiver when they think of English class, it is mostly due to red pen syndrome. Teachers thought that they were doing their jobs, but they were actually doing damage that could (and in many cases did) last a lifetime.
When Marschhausen calls for a personalized kind of education, I believe it is a rebuke of that old red pen philosophy. His concept is not new, but it is like an idea that sort of went out the door with the one-room school house. In those days thirty kids in the room could span grades K-8, and it was the teacher’s duty to reach each one of them on his or her level. This was not cookie-cutter teaching, but required effort, time, and compassion for each student had to be taught as an individual.
Well, today’s schools do not have children from so many grades thrown together in one classroom, but in a class of twenty-five it is folly to believe that every child thinks the same, learns the same, and will perform the same. The truth is that we have so many learning centers and after school programs because the children are not getting the individualized attention they need during the school day. This is not the teacher’s fault, because he or she is saddled with a bloated curriculum and Common Core State Standards that are indicating that every child is or should be the same or should be striving to be the same.
Proponents of CCSS love to tout the “rigor and relevance” of their program and how children will be college and work ready, but that is like putting the cart before the horse. Instead of worrying about getting a third grader ready for the workforce, we should be concerned about teaching him or her what is needed in third grade. Furthermore, how about teaching each student and pacing lessons based on how that student learns and needs to be taught?
The explosion of “special needs” students is clearly connected to a system that believes in the cow dung that it is shoveling. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top did less to improve instruction and more to press districts into doing cartwheels and spinning plates better than any acts on the old Ed Sullivan Show to acquire federal money. Of course, every child can learn is the popular mantra of this way of thinking as well as each child must pass the assessments as a requirement. All of this is done with complete disregard for the student’s needs and talents.
Having been a teacher and administrator for many years, I was struck by the sterility of the system and its components. There was no room for growth in the true sense because everyone was saddled with the notion that planted seeds do not need to be nurtured; they needed to be tested to death. In this scenario we have a no-win situation for students, and their teachers are forced to teach to the test even though they themselves have not been adequately prepared in the new standards. Oh, and by the way, teachers, your performance review will be based on how well the students did on those assessments that you were never trained properly to proctor in the first place.
I am a parent as well as an educator, and I see the unique gifts and talents of my own children, and I know often those things at which they excel may not ever be assessed in school. Sadly, some children never take an art or music class; therefore, our budding Beethovens or Picassos are left to fiddle or doodle while Rome burns all around them. The sad truth is that schools do not promote or assist fecundity of talent because of that academic sterility based on the over-testing model that continues to overwhelm them.
What is really needed in this country is a sort of academic revolution, and in that movement there needs to be a joining of parents, teachers, and administrators who bang the drum for a new day in education. We are all sick of our kids being tested and tested into oblivion, and the money wasted on administration of testing, preparing teachers for testing, and grading these tests could be put to much better use in the classrooms.
I have been in schools where SMART Boards and SMART Tables have been procured through funding, only to see them used incorrectly or not at all. I have witnessed kids watching movies on SMART Boards instead of them being used for instruction, and the horror stories I have seen could go on. The point here is that a SMART Board in the room doesn’t mean that our kids are getting any smarter. In fact, the use of technology is a wonderful thing but it needs to be utilized effectively, consistently, and meaningfully.
So, what can we do? We need to push our representatives (local, state, and federal) to start envisioning a different kind of classroom. We need to find a way to limit or eliminate standardized and state testing that does nothing but waste precious classroom time. We have to pull out the good parts of the CCSS – and there are indeed worthwhile elements – and weave them into a new sort of paradigm that will take education away from the testing companies and put it back into the hands of the teachers.
We also need to look at in-class assessments as well. Not every child can pass the end of chapter test. Why is that? Because each child learns at different speeds, and there should be alternate assessments (such as a child proving knowledge of the concepts through creating a project or giving a presentation). At the end of a semester or at the end of the year, a whole new report card system is also in order. Instead of offering “A” or “C” to a student in each subject, let there be a narrative that the teachers will write describing the child’s particular strengths and weakness. Just as with red pen syndrome, low report cards grades do nothing to further education and only rattle the child and upset parents.
Why not have something of an IEP (an Individualized Education Program that as of now is restricted to students with special needs) for all students? Each student will come into Kindergarten and become the focus of observation, reflection, and evaluation. While children will still be learning their alphabet and numbers, teachers can start crafting a plan for each one based on strengths and weaknesses.
Children who are artistic can be moved in one direction, those very strong academically or those who are musical in another. This can and should continue through the grade levels, with a unique program establish for each child. Ideally, by the time they get to high school students will know if they want a vocation, to pursue academics, or major in fine arts. High schools will then become different institutions, specialized for various students who have the same proclivities. The IEP should still hold throughout those years, and then a student will graduate knowing either which college he or she wishes to attend or that an alternate course of action such as apprenticeships, internships, or beginning a career is in order.
I can attest to the fact that so many students go to college or university with no idea why they are there. Why is this? Because students have had it drummed into their heads since they are small children that “You have to go to college” but are given no guidance before or after they get there. What if our new IEP type of education system will we help guide all students to the right path? Someone who wants to go into his father’s auto repair business doesn’t need four years at NYU. The student who wants to dance in the New York City Ballet or sing at Carnegie Hall shouldn’t be stuck for years in classrooms. Only a new way of thinking will get us to looking at education from Kindergarten through the college years differently, and it is necessary and compelling that this happen as soon as possible.
As of now by the time children get to high school, many of them are convinced they cannot succeed. This is because the current education system only sees them as numbers, ranked on a percentile chart, and it’s either sink or swim if you don’t learn the way everyone is supposed to learn. A new way of thinking is that each child is going to learn the way he or she is best suited to learn and be taught subjects that matter and are of interest to him or her. Does this take a lot of work and effort on the part of schools and parents? Absolutely! But the benefits will be apparent almost immediately and in the end they will last a lifetime.
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