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NCLB Outrages

Standards kill creativity

"Most schools stand like victims and don't push back with indicators of their own. Schools need to decide what they think is effective and how to assess it. They must design indicators and publish them. Public schools have largely failed to demonstrate their effectiveness in their own way."
--Pamela Gray-Bennett

Ohanian Comment: I don't agree that everything schools do must be proven by assessment but Gray-Bennet is right on target in her observation that schools just "stand like victims." And whine.

When Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace first arrive at Camazotz -- in the children's classic A Wrinkle in Time -- they encounter a neighborhood laid out in a perfect grid system with identical, gray houses and children outside skipping rope and bouncing balls in a perfect, standardized rhythm.

The nondescript sameness is meant to be foreboding to the American reader who holds individual choice and the individuality of personal character in famously high esteem. The one child bucking the rhythm, throwing his ball up in the air and clumsily trying to catch it, seems likely doomed, and indeed we meet him later in a re-education prison reminiscent of Maoist China. The boy failed to achieve standardization.

While hugely efficient and useful in myriad respects, standardization has never been an end goal of the United States' individualistic culture. But more and more, the roughly 90 percent of this country's children who attend public school find their experience becoming much the same from school to school, state to state, driven by state and federal testing.

Pamela Gray-Bennett has been with the Commission of Public Secondary schools for the New England Association of Schools and Colleges for almost 20 years, the last 15 as its director. For all those years, the NEASC accreditation process has been nudging our intractable secondary schools to distinguish themselves within three broad areas: academic, civic and social. Gray-Bennett invested a good chunk of her life in praising or trying to improve the quality of public secondary schools, and high quality has inevitably meant achieving high standards according to the unique strategy of the school and the values of the people in it.

The intensely myopic focus on testing inherent in the No Child Left Behind law is having the unintended (we hope) consequence of driving civic and social goals right out of the curriculum and school culture. This is happening despite the fact that for many of the original advocates of universal public education the goal was to have an educated citizenry, individuals equipped to take part in democracy.

Whatever the law's virtues -- and it definitely has some -- the copious testing it demands is specifically to identify the deficient. (Forget building on strength.) The law then addresses those found wanting with threats and punishments. As any parent or organizational leader will tell you, a purely punitive improvement strategy will eventually have negative results.

Gray-Bennett says, "You rarely hear schools talk any more about building character or having an emphasis on taking responsibility. Probably because they're doing all they can to get to the academic stuff. There's a strong belief that unless you can measure it on a test, it will not resonate." Any effort that can not be assessed, quantified and certified by an objective, scientific evaluation is suspiciously "soft," "fuzzy," and ultimately worthless.

Of course you can measure non-academic goals, but not with a standardized test. NEASC accreditation teams certainly do examine standardized test scores, but they are also vitally interested in the other objectives the school has set for itself. Gray-Bennett says, "If a school has indicated that they have a focus on social or civic engagement, we look at the indicators they use. They'll track the percent of students or number of hours committed to community service over time, for example.

"Any parent who sends their kid to an independent school cites how well the schools are doing building the child's character. At a state school, a public school, only academics matter. But the minute you go to a private school, you find a huge focus on individualization, on values, on responsibility. If a school charges money, it's got to be meeting the needs of individual kids, mostly by knowing them well. Public schools hardly know how to personalize. That's partly because of the curriculum, which is the big gorilla of standardized testing." When tests are the be-all and end-all of a school's work, curriculum becomes more and more the same.

She says, "It is less common for public schools to think of themselves as having a unique culture. They're all caught up in the notion that all students learn at the same rate, and at the same time, and that there's a clear body of knowledge. Which is remarkably arrogant," she snarls. "Remarkably arrogant. The state and the feds always say: You can do it your way, and you can do other things too on top of these requirements. But they can't. They're exhausted. They feel a conspiracy of sameness. Teachers are no longer encouraged to create."

Not that the schools are showing any heroism in the midst of this mess. Gray-Bennett says, "Most schools stand like victims and don't push back with indicators of their own. Schools need to decide what they think is effective and how to assess it. They must design indicators and publish them. Public schools have largely failed to demonstrate their effectiveness in their own way. Good ones bring the public in and demonstrate effectiveness to their public.

"Business and Industry say they want kids to have collaborative skills, or be able to make presentations or solve problems. All right, but we ask what does that mean, because you'll have to have local assessments to check and see if you are reaching your goals. You can't say something is important and then not act on it."

"Frankly, Rhode Island has been more civil and reasonable than the other New England states, most notably Massachusetts. Rhode Island says that standardized tests can only count 10 percent towards graduation. Rhode Island has Personal Learning Plans, they have state regulations emphasizing personalization. They're committed to acknowledging school-wide learning goals that make the school unique.

"In Massachusetts, there's nothing like that. It's just the MCAS. The dropout rate is not changing, but the kids are leaving earlier because it's like deciding if you want to walk into a MAC truck. Some degree of standardized testing is fine and necessary, but it's gone crazy. It's not about kids, and it's certainly not about teachers."

Interestingly, the federal government and NCLB strongly advocate that parents have more choice among schools, though their main strategy is to offer vouchers to private schools that are entirely off the hook regarding public accountability. With Gray-Bennett, I absolutely agree with the need for more truly distinct schools, and I would add, more choice among them. Instead, however, the public schools are increasingly becoming sisters to those in Camazotz.

It's time to rethink the direction this law has taken us.

Julia Steiny is a former member of the Providence School Board; she consults and writes for a number of education, government and private enterprises. She welcomes your questions and comments on education. She can be reached by e-mail at juliasteiny [at] cox.net

— Julia Steiny
Providence Journal


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