Saturday, December 17, 2011

Our Test-Centric Approach to Education Reform Ignores the Real Problems

The one lesson politicians should have learned from No Child Left Behind, is that when all of your energies and resources are turned to just improving test scores, failure is the result.  As education historian Diane Ravitch states eloquently in her book, The Death and the Life of the Great American School System, ”Our schools will not improve if we rely exclusively on tests as the means of deciding the fate of students, teachers, principals, and schools.” Sadly, I’m not sure our current political leaders have learned the lesson yet that schools will not improve by solely focusing on using test scores and standards to improve them.

Our national education policy is still dominated by a “test-centric” approach to reform that ignores so many other factors that impact education such as poverty, inadequate health care, and lack of gainful employment. According to education scholar Linda Darling-Hammond, “The United States has the highest poverty rate for children among industrialized nations,” (The Flat World and Education, Linda Darling-Hammond, 2010). We want to “Race to the Top” but we’re looking for short cuts to get there. We want standards and “better tests” but we don’t want to engage in the hard, difficult work of addressing poverty, lack of health care, lack of good, affordable housing, and lack of opportunity for jobs with living wages. As long as national education policy is driven by a blind belief in test results and national standards, 10 years from now, we will be either staring at the same dismal  conditions both educationally and economically if we’re lucky, or we will be much worse with a society with an even wider gap between those that have and those that have not.

What then is the answer? Just how bad are things in different parts of the country? This morning I stumbled upon a 5-year initiative by the American Federation of Teachers and partners like Cisco, Blue Cross Blue Shield, College Board, among many others, that focuses on the educational improvement of an entire community ravaged by unemployment, lost opportunity and lost promise. McDowell County West Virginia has not fared well at all since 1980 and that community is the focus of this initiative.

While it is easy to become entangled in the debate about the role of teachers unions in education when debating education policy, I think it is admirable that the AFT and its partners are putting into practice what they’ve been trying to make politicians understand all along; education reform must do more than focus on test scores and standards. It has to also address the dreadful conditions some of our fellow US citizens find themselves living in.

With this post, I am not taking sides in the debate about unions per se. I do believe, after 20+ years experience, and seeing countless students struggling to live in forgotten communities without the basics most of us take for granted, that the answer to our problems as a country lies, not in investing in more and different tests, or in national standards, but in focusing on the crushing problems facing our poorest students.

After watching the video below about “Reconnecting McDowell” I was reminded of an incident that happened in one of the schools where I once worked. I walked by a table during lunch one day, and a young 11 year old girl sat there with her head down. She had enormous tears in her eyes. I walked up, leaned down and asked her to step out the lunchroom for a minute. Once out of the hearing of others, I asked, “What’s wrong?” Through her tears, she blurted, “I don’t have any lunch money. My parents didn’t have any to give me.” She proceeded to tell me that when she went through the lunch line, the cafeteria took her plate away and refused to serve her lunch because she owed so much money. I took her back through the lunch line and told her to get anything she wanted, and that it would be taken care of. You can debate all you want about why a child does not have money to eat. You can accuse her parents of not taking care of her, but the reality for her is she was not going to be able to eat that day, and a focus on raising her test scores was not going to change that reality.

As I understand it, Reconnecting McDowell is an effort to try to improve the education of a community, and not do it by just focusing on test scores. It is an effort to focus on poverty, healthcare, housing, and  a broken community. I have been to McDowell County West Virginia and have seen firsthand all that the video describes. That is why this effort caught my attention. Poverty is real, and those of us who have worked in schools where it exists know its faces.

Link to Reconnecting McDowell Web Site.

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