Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Folly of Test and Punish Education Reform

In April the NAEP Test scores were released and even the most ardent advocates of test-based education reform had to be disappointed. Scores were, at best, flat, failing to recover from the 2015 drop in scores. Mike Petrilli of the reform minded Fordham Foundation said, "There is no way to sugarcoat it, they [the scores] were extremely disappointing." Reformers scrambled to find explanations. Petrilli blamed the 2008 economic recession for draining schools of money. Funny, reformers have always told us money didn't matter.

The education reformers still don't get it. After twenty-years of attempting to improve public education through policies of testing children and punishing the teaching profession, the reform movement is, in the words of Carol Burris of the Network for Public Education, "a train wreck."

It should now be clear to these reformers that their mix of Common Core standards, test-based accountability, charter schools, vouchers, and vilifying teachers has failed to move the needle on educational improvement. Indeed the achievement gap has only widened. This was entirely predictable to anyone who has spent ten minutes trying to understand the issues related to schools and achievement. Public schools are reflections of the society as a whole. Trying to fix schools without an eye to all the factors that impact on the schools is a fool's errand.

American public education accurately reflects our society as a whole. In affluent suburban areas, children from comfortable homes attend well-appointed, well-staffed schools with a wide range of opportunities for extending their learning. These children largely are healthy, do well in school, on standardized tests, and in life.

In blighted urban areas children from homes where safety and food security are often not available, children with multiple health issues attend dilapidated, often under-staffed schools, with a much narrower band of opportunities, often made narrower by the obsession with test scores in a few subjects. These kids tend to not do well in school, on standardized tests, or in life (These are generalizations, of course. Many children heroically escape the cycle of poverty, but they are exceptions that prove the rule.).

Then there are buffer areas, between affluent suburb and poverty riddled city, where kids go to decent schools that are reasonably well-resourced, where families struggle to make ends meet, but mostly keep their heads above water. These kids do reasonably well in school, get decent standardized test scores, get some post high school education, and have a shot at a good life.

Education author and critic, Alfie Kohn, put it best. Standardized tests offer a "remarkably precise method for gauging the size of the houses near the school where the test was administered." Or as I would like to yell at the education reformers, "It's the poverty, stupid!"

Since public schools are a reflection of the society, any attempt at improving public schools and with narrowing the achievement gap, must focus first of all on that society. We need to understand, as reformers seemed to in the 1960s and 1970s that it is inequity, injustice, and segregation that is damaging our public schools, just as it is damaging every other aspect of society.

Education reformers seem to take the approach that poverty is too hard to fix, so we should focus on the schools, but as the last twenty years have demonstrated, that is absolute folly. The truth is that there is not , nor has there been, an educational crisis in this country. What there is, though, is a human crisis, and what is happening in our schools reflects that human crisis.

If the billionaire reformers would show one third the passion for attacking inequity that they have shown for attacking schools and educators, we might be able to start to repair a broken society and education achievement would follow along.

None of this is meant to say that schools themselves cannot get better or should not be aspiring to do better everyday. Schools and teachers can always do better. I have been teaching for 50 years and have not taught the perfect lesson yet. We can and must always work to do better. It would be easier to implement improvements, however, if non-educators would stop trying to tell us what to do and leave the school improvement to professionals.