Let’s stop demonizing our political opponents and start making sense on ed reform

Too often, in the oft-heated high-stakes test debate, the positions are over simplified into one of two camps.

On the one hand, those in favor of these tests see their position as reforming education, closing the achievement gap, and raising the bar for all children.

On the other hand, those holding a perspective in opposition to high-stakes testing want real learning to be honored and supported in schools, minimizing the drill-and-kill memorization of facts and sub-skill processes.  They see their opponents as artificially labeling all schools as “failing” so they can dismantle the public education system and turn education into a commodity to be bought, sold, and profited from.

For those of us who would like to discuss our differences and envision solutions rather than preach to our converted and demonize the “enemy”, there are groups like the Washington New Millennium Initiative.  This group of teachers in the Puget Sound area spent the last year analyzing research about student and teacher performance.  In their new report, they have the courage to boldly stand in the middle, arguing that teaching should be a results-orientated profession (applause from the pro-testing side), while demanding that the skills and knowledge that we test be  skills and knowledge we predict our children will need in the 21st Century, rather than the 19th Century skills that are tested today (applause from the anti-testing camp).

Because so much education reform is riding on the backs of standardized test scores, it is crucial to get these tests right.  These tests should be more demanding and more meaningful than the fill-in-the-bubble variety we have today.  Additionally, the Washington New Millennium Initiative  argues that tying 50% of a teacher’s evaluation to the students’ performances on one test over-values the test.  I agree with the group and say that I would like to see a smaller, but not insignificant, amount of a teacher’s evaluation tied to student performance.  Further, I would rather have the student data of my evaluation based on one of my students’ projects or performances, rather than a standardized, fill-in-the-bubble test.

The Washington New Millennium Initiative  report highlights  another good point.  Currently, there are multiple movements working in parallel in the school-reform universe.   Parallel to the high-stakes testing and accountability movement, there is another, which aims to encourage teachers to rethink their work as team-based rather than as the lone adult in-charge of a number of children.

Teacher collaboration is crucial.  They are giving their teachers who teach the same curriculum time to collaborate with one another about their instruction.  Some are teaming up their teachers who share children so that they can collaborate around the successes and struggles of their common students.

In a school where so much collaboration and team teaching is going on, who has earned the reward when Johnny scores high on a test?  Let’s pretend that Johnny scored near perfect on his high-stakes, state-mandated math test.  Is Johnny’s math teacher solely responsible?  What about the other math teachers who worked with Johnny’s teacher on her lessons and curriculum?  What about Johnny’s science and English teacher who gave his math teacher some great advice about keeping Johnny on task and learning?

Additionally, can a one-shot exam really give an accurate picture of how well a student is learning this year?  As one Washington New Millennium Initiative teacher sums it up, “Our state tests, as measures of student progress, feel more like single ‘snapshots’ that do not focus on progress towards meeting standards. Rather than recognizing students and teachers for learning growth that happens over an entire year, the accountability system only determines what students are able to do on a paper-and-pencil test one day in the spring.”

Clearly, it is important to get these exams right before we can use them to make summative judgments about students, teachers, or schools.  Clearly, it is time to put the horse back in front of the cart.  The Washington New Millennium Initiative offers recommendations that will do just that.  In their report, they recommend:

  • Developing a multi-pronged assessment system with improved national- and state-level standardized tests, and involving teachers in development.
  • Implementing a multi-dimensional teacher evaluation system with improved school-level, annual evaluations.
  • Supporting results-oriented professional learning communities of teachers who are expected to collaborate in developing classroom-based assessments and conducting peer evaluations.

They are well-thought and reasonable suggestions for education reform that makes sense for students and schools.  One can only hope that education policy makers will heed the voices of these classroom experts. What do you think?  Should Sec. Duncan read the Washington New Millennium Initiative report?  Should we adopt some, or all, of their ideas?