The Future of Public Schools

Our current system of high stakes testing in public schools continue the legacy of oppression in the United States. From the Continental Congress to Race to the Top, America has a tradition of disenfranchising the masses. This is not an issue of race, but an issue of power. Power rooted in immorality conceived at the inception of our nation, and power that continues today with .1% of the population controlling the majority of the world’s wealth.

Standardized testing may seem benign when compared to something like segregation or the wage gap, but think about it: 50.1 million students attend public schools everyday. From Carter G. Woodson:

“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”

By means of our obsession with the standardized testing conglomerate, we are controlling the thinking of our students and programming them to the “back door.” Their gifts suppressed; their ambitions stripped; their futures resting in the rudimentary of society.

In aligning teacher and principal evaluations to 3rd party curriculum companies and standardized tests, the state is perpetuating a system of subjugation. Teachers are now forced to teach to a set of standards, curriculum, and an exam, while ignoring the individual needs of students. As we know, students enter school at different developmental levels. Some can write their names, others can tie their shoes, some know how to count, and others know their colors, while many struggle with all of the above. This discrepancy is even more noticeable in low-income communities, where the education attainment of parents and cultural learning experiences differ greatly compared to their middle and upper income counterparts.

Standards should be used as guidelines for teachers as they organically create curriculum in collaboration with their students. Without student voice, choice, and needs being foundational components of a curriculum, we must render it inadequate. With regard to third party programs, instead of the state making unilateral decisions, allow teachers, schools, and Ed officials to engage in vigorous debate about which programs might be used in particular grades and in particular communities. Finally, to ensure a well-rounded 21st century curriculum, extracurricular activities should be included throughout K-12. Extracurricular activities build the communication, creativity, and collaboration skills of students as well as help students to experience flow, which in my opinion, is the holy grail of learning.

An argument that is often made regarding testing, involves teacher accountability. I hate the word accountability because it has bastardized the discourse in public education. First, accountability begets more accountability, which fortifies systems of standardization. We are people not robots. Standardization is for inanimate objects, not for people with hearts and minds. Second, accountability creates a culture of fear. Teachers and schools are being threatened into doing what they’re told or risk losing their jobs. Fear leads to short-term results and eventual self-destruction, which is why public schools are now ripe for charter takeover, and why many charters have such high turnover rates. Most importantly, accountability runs counter to trust. Because we don’t trust schools and teachers to do what’s right for students, we create systems of accountability to scare them into doing what the state thinks is right.

Accountability also implies that teachers were to blame for the “low performance” of select students, schools, and districts in the first place. Instead of focusing on issues of concentrated poverty and America’s tradition of under funding our highest need schools, we focused on teachers. I would argue that despite the lack of training and resources to support teachers in the most difficult environments, those teachers went to work everyday and performed miracles. Yes the test scores in many low-income communities were poor, but the research around language development and Executive Functions explains why that is.

I also want to acknowledge a truth that’s sometimes ignored in the discourse: a culture of low expectations has been and continues to be a big problem in many low-income communities. Because of the plight of these populations, many teachers want to help students “get by,” and don’t always push them academically. These teachers and schools in many cases were overwhelmed by the gravity of the psycho-social-emotional effects of the disenfranchisement that many students brought with them to schools. Without the proper supports, schools were metaphorically beaten into a state of apathy. Teacher training wasn’t adequate preparation for the work, and states abandoned them, which lead to the federal government stepping in with No Child Left Behind.

More testing and scripted curriculum will not solve these complex problems. What begins to solve these problems is training and supports around trauma inform pedagogy, growth mindsets, and a 21st century community schools model. Further, despite the trails and tribulations of our communities, our students come to us with the capacity to learn a great many things. Our learning environments must include the multiple intelligences and must be responsive to the diverse abilities of students.

Back to the issue of trust for a moment, while districts, schools, and teachers are trying to create cultures of trust in their workspace, the state undermines the process by bringing the accountability hammer down. State testing has driven a wedge between parents and teachers. Prior to the accountability regime, teachers and parents would communicate more formatively about the idiosyncrasies of their child’s learning. Today, parents are only concerned with their child’s state test scores.

If we must continue to use the dangerous word of accountability, I impress upon the state to completely shift the context in which we use it. Hold teachers accountable for the quality and consistency of their interactions with parents, students, and colleagues. Trust the principal to hold teachers accountable for quality instruction by consistently observing teachers and providing timely feedback. Trust superintendents to hold principals accountable for the quality of their school environments and the formative systems they have in place. As you can see, accountability, must work cohesively with the concept of trust, and should aim to focus as much on process as we do on product. Simply focusing on a myopic test score distorts where our focus should be within the realm of schooling.

If the state really needs “big data,” test students in grades 4 and 7. Allow students to complete the exams untimed in one sitting and be done with them. This will give the state its big data while identifying schools and communities that need additional supports. The state can satisfy its insatiable appetite of ranking and filing without totally destroying teaching and learning; which is what’s happening now.

Over testing has also greatly compromised the survival skills of students. As many schools are now adopting Orwellian tactics that measure every breath taken by students, their ability to manage their own freedom and adapt to unpredictable circumstances is lost. Independent thought and adaptability is what makes us human.

Consider also that teachers are running from the profession in droves. Applications are down and schools are constantly shutting down. A profession so full of life, joy and love, is now becoming a profession full of despair.

The time is now for solutions. Let us shift toward what is right for our children and our schools. I believe that public schools can help solve society’s biggest challenges like addiction, poverty, and mass incarceration. Let us align what the research says with the common sense that all parents posses. Every parent knows that children are natural learners, artists, explorers, and innovators. Why not create a school system designed for ingenuity, which creates the space for all children to thrive? Let us also create the space for schools to work collaboratively with community stakeholders to meet the needs of all families. We the people should hold the state accountable for creating a system like this!

What if OBGYNs and pediatricians dispatched visiting nurse services to work with “at risk” parents, who may be young, low income, have limited education, or something more severe? What if nursery Montessori schools were placed in all high needs communities as Maria Montessori actually intended? What if after a vigorous debate and analysis by educators, the proper “curriculum” was chosen for schools, and schools had the training and support to organically supplement the curriculum to meet the needs of students? What if performance based assessments aligned to competencies like creativity, collaboration, communication, initiative, and adaptability, were used to assess the growth of our students as they worked on projects throughout the school year?

What if students were allowed to build things and apply they’re knowledge as part of an assessment portfolio? What if high schools were more like college and students picked majors aligned to their interests and affinities while simultaneously working on areas of growth? What if financial literacy, banking and economics were taught in our schools? What if we taught topics instead of subjects in an interdisciplinary curriculum? What if we took grades out of school? 

The list can go on and on. The point is, our school system is polarized in the verbal reasoning section of the brain. We have ignored the heart and soul of our profession for far too long. A quality education must include the Intelligence Quotient (I.Q.), Social Quotient (S.Q.), and Emotional Quotient (E.Q.). To quote Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence:

“If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you struggle with empathy and effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to go far.”

Though I disagree with Goleman’s characterization of smart in this context, his point regarding our intellectual quotient alone is deficient in creating happy, healthy and prosperous lives is well taken.

College graduation rates and our economy continue to depress not because people aren’t smart enough, but because people aren’t feeling enough. On balance, we are not living through our passion. We have not found our voice.

There is a life and death crisis in public education. This fight is for our humanity. Whoever replaces Arne Duncan, as Secretary of Education must pivot away from the testing conglomerate. The souls of our children are at stake, as are the souls of teachers, and school communities all over the country. Bombard your elected officials with calls and emails to end the tyranny of testing. Let freedom truly ring in our nation’s schools and we will be much closer to fulfilling the American Dream.