This issue is important and personal for me…
Amateurism as pedagogy, has enjoyed a very long and unsuccessful run in many city school districts of our nation. Poor children, English Language Learners, and children of color, have borne the brunt of this failed experimentation; which is badly misnamed as “school-reform”. We have had uninformed, under-informed and poorly informed: “drive-by” teachers, school and district leaders, harm the hopes and aspirations of entre communities. The most vulnerable children of our nation, have received the greatest amount of this malpractice; perpetuated by those who lack both the knowledge, skill and experience to either truly reform, or improve schools.
What has tragically emerged is a bad education philosophy that consist of either closing struggling schools, or to transform the children into commodities; (turning children into commercial objects, marketed to quality education seeking desperate communities and parents as: “school-choice”) and then sharecrop them out to educational entrepreneurs. Now in the spirit of: “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day”. Not all of the critiques of these so-called reformers are wrong. For too long public education has placed itself in the professionally unethical position of serving the interest of a lot of people, other than the children. People with: political aspirations, commercial vendor interest, politicians, political parties, consultants, and the dictates of labor unions. The interest of the children will come last, if at all.
Parents are not stupid, they see what they see! Their children are not learning, while the adults in the system continue with ever-increasing financial earning. If for sure: “it takes a village to educate a child”; then these parents realize that public schools are not holding up their end of work. For even when these parents do “all of the right parental things”; the schools they are forced to send their children, underperform and underserve the intellectual needs of the children. Neither are these parents fooled by this ‘not really a choice’, choice situation. They are actively seeking out Charter schools because traditional public schools have provide no evidence in the least, that they truly care about the children of these suffering parents; and those parents are voting against these traditional public schools by finding, and walking through the only exit available!
Further, public schools that primarily serve poor children, have in many cases been transformed into educational practice and training centers for teachers on their way to more affluent school districts and schools. Or, these poor (and poorly politically defended) schools are a good place for educators who are seeking a financial safe-harbor, as they wait out the bad economy; and while waiting, earn a commendable resume filler.
In other cases the schools of the disenfranchised have become the financial battle ground for some very bad and harmful (and very expensive) educational plans and policies; these “school improvement strategies”; are poorly conceived and poorly executed by both liberal and conservative ‘educational policy’ experts. On the surface their policies apparently (at least to some of us) seem silly like: “evaluate”, reward or punish, an eighth grade English teacher based on one standardized exam; when the child will have many other teachers in that eight grade experience, and surely would have had many different teachers in their K-8th grade life-time. But because these deformers lack both formal pedagogical course work-training and/or practical on the job experience; they are not aware that a child’s learning is a cumulative exercise, not a learning assessment snap-shot in one single grade.
Meanwhile Black and Latino educational experts (Like Dr. Rosa) have essentially been excluded from the school “reform”, “improvement” conversation. And to be “fair and balanced”; it is also sadly true that a great deal of the faux “reform” movements damaged has been carried out by people of color, whose interest, heart, commitment and concern, is not for the children who look like them; but rather to ratify, reinforce and enhance systemic educational inequality!
The news media seems to be singularly focused on the “standardized testing issue” and the new Chancellor. Unfortunately, that topic is only one of many challenges that confront public education. Should we not hear a little more reporting about Dr. Rosa’s ideas on: teaching and learning; school based leadership, school improvement; closing the parent resource gap, closing the access to ‘informal education’ gap between students, the standardization of quality learning standards (people get nervous if I say ‘common core curriculum’), and the systemic absence of support required for Black and Latino students, and poor students of any color and ethnicity, who are meeting and exceeding the grade level standards; and yet these student are academically under-challenged and under-prepared for a post K-12 public school life?
Concerning the apparently hugely popular standardized testing controversy: I don’t think that we can “test” children into meeting the curriculum standards. For example if a child has not mastered a particular behavioral or conceptual standard; testing them over and over again on it, won’t help their understanding; we need to understand the cause of their misunderstanding, and correct it, especially if that cause is external to the child. At some point, we must arrive at the obvious; there is no substitution for quality efficacious instruction; combined with a strategic, thoughtful and visionary school based leadership team. I also don’t think that we can use standardized assessments for disingenuous purposes; applications for which they are not pedagogically useful, or even connected; like firing people, or, labeling children, schools, a school’s staff, and even whole communities, and racial-ethnic groups, as failures.
There is a positive and productive role for standardized assessments!
We need to use standardized assessments to let us know if there is any inequality in the quality of instruction, measuring the ability of a school to effectively deliver the curriculum standards. We need to make sure schools are covering the generally accepted content standards like: how we determine the age of the earth, or the laws of physics. We need standardized exams on the “front-end”; where we can learn the “gaps” and deficiencies a child brings to a particular grade or class. For example something I instituted for students entering the 9th grade algebra class; a pre-course standardized assessment that could measure a student’s mastery of pre-algebra concepts that the student learned, or did not learn in the elementary and middle school math instructional experiences. And then set up an immediate and appropriate intervention program to address those issues. Testing a student in Algebra at the end of the school year has some value; but it is of little teaching and learning value to either the teacher of that class, or those students who are now moving on. Standardized assessments can eliminate “teacher made test” that could obscure “classroom teacher blind spots”. Standardized assessments should be “useful” and “timely”; such that they can inform teachers in the same learning cycle (semester), what they need to “reteach”, review, clarify and confirm what students have, or have not learned. In essence, standardized assessment must be used to inform our instructional methodology and practices, and to professionally develop teachers. Any assessment that does not seek to accomplish the above objectives, is at best a political talking point; and at worst it will improperly drive instruction in the wrong direction. Children in certain “struggling” schools will not be sufficiently exposed to art, creative writing, music, STEM, dance, library and reading for fun, and other intellectual, inquisitive and exciting learning activities (activities that ironically raise academic achievement levels!) “Underperforming schools”, out of staff fear, will be turned into never-ending and ineffective test-prep centers; which also ironically suppresses and distorts the very academic learning and achievement we are seeking. And this is why the “anti-testing movement” is essentially led by parents and communities where the children are currently receiving a “standards plus” curriculum, mastery instruction, combined with high teacher expectations. These “anti-testers” correctly in my view (even as they may express it incorrectly), reject the false allegiance to testing for reasons other than raising academic achievement. The fear-focused “test-prep” model is not only redundant for these schools; (the schools instructional commitment to the learning standards is the best, and most efficient method of test prep!) It is also a waste of valuable real learning time.
And so I think it might help to give a chance to a Chancellor who at least understands pedagogy from a theoretical and practical perspective; and who can articulate, the problems and challenges that different children encounter on the road to academic success. We need to offer children for whom public education is their best and only option for generational improvement, a pipeline to prosperity, not to prison.
This issue is important and personal for me, because despite the systems public acknowledgement in 2000-2003, of the ability of my CSD 29Q team to redirect the focus to teaching and learning; put a stop to a putrid political patronage system; stabilize a brutalized and neglected school district, and then dramatically raise academic achievement levels in every testing grade; but we never got the chance to finish the job.
From my experience with the new Chancellor I truly believe that she cares deeply about children. Particularly for the “left-out”, discarded, ignored, and the poorly served, or never served children of the system. Despite all of the disappointments I have experienced in this profession, my cup of hope is never empty. I am hoping that Dr. Rosa gets, and makes the best use of her chance, and that she gets a chance to finish the job; for which our children so need and deserve!
Michael A. Johnson is a former teacher, principal and superintendent.