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Standardized testing has led to accounability for schools. Yet some believe standardized tests used are flat-out wrong. In addition, conflicts can surface between state and federal mandates. Of course, you can change the definition of "fail".

In 2006, an Assembly Bill was introduced to change the definition of "proficient" for purpose of measuring against Federal mandates, while a Sacramento Bee columnist asked if we have the the high standards ceiling?

Then whole assessment discussion maybe missing the point. Are we even teaching the right curriculum that needs assessing?



by W. James Popham, April, 2005

For the last four decades, students' scores on standardized tests have increasingly been regarded as the most meaningful evidence for evaluating U.S. schools. Most Americans, indeed, believe students' standardized test performances are the only legitimate indicator of a school's instructional effectiveness. Yet, although test-based evaluations of schools seem to occur almost as often as fire drills, in most instances these evaluations are inaccurate. That's because the standardized tests employed are flat-out wrong.

Standardized tests have been used to evaluate America's schools since 1965, when the U.S. Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) became law. That statute provided for the first major infusion of federal funds into local schools and required educators to produce test-based evidence that ESEA dollars were well spent. But how, you might ask, could a practice that's been so prevalent for so long be mistaken? Just think back to the many years we forced airline attendants and nonsmokers to suck in secondhand toxins because smoking on airliners was prohibited only during takeoff and landing. Some screwups can linger for a long time. But mistakes, even ones we've lived with for decades, can often be corrected once they've been identified, and that's what we must do to halt today's wrongheaded school evaluations. If enough educators -- and noneducators -- realize that there are serious flaws in the way we evaluate our schools, and that those flaws erode educational quality, there's a chance we can stop this absurdity.

Instructionally Insensitive

First, some definitions.

A standardized test is any test that's administered, scored, and interpreted in a standard, predetermined manner. Standardized aptitude tests are designed to make predictions about how a test taker will perform in a subsequent setting. For example, the SAT and ACT are used to predict the grades that high school students will earn when they get to college. In contrast, standardized achievement tests indicate how well a test taker has acquired knowledge and mastered certain skills.

Although students' scores on standardized aptitude tests are sometimes unwisely stirred into the school-evaluation stew, scores on standardized achievement tests are typically the ones used to judge a school's success. Two kinds of standardized achievement tests commonly used for school evaluations are ill suited for that measurement.

The first of these categories are nationally standardized achievement tests like the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, which employ a comparative measurement strategy. The fundamental purpose of all such tests is to compare a student's score with the scores earned by a previous group of test takers (known as the "norm group"). It can then be determined if Johnny scored at the 95th percentile on a given test (attaboy!) or at the 10th percentile (son, we have a problem).

Because of the need for nationally standardized achievement tests to provide fine-grained, percentile-by-percentile comparisons, it is imperative that these tests produce a considerable degree of score-spread -- in other words, plenty of differences among test takers' scores. So producing score-spread often preoccupies those who construct standardized achievement tests.

Statistically, a question that creates the most score-spread on standardized achievement tests is one that only about half the students answer correctly. Over the years, developers of standardized achievement tests have learned that if they can link students' success on a question to students' socioeconomic status (SES), then that item is usually answered correctly by about half of the test takers. If an item is answered correctly more often by students at the upper end of the socioeconomic scale than by lower-SES kids, that question will provide plenty of score-spread. After all, SES is a delightfully spread-out variable and one that isn't quickly altered. As a result, in today's nationally standardized achievement tests, there are many SES-linked items.

Unfortunately, this kind of test tends to measure not what students have been taught in school but what they bring to school. That's the reason there's such a strong relationship between a school's standardized-test scores and the economic and social makeup of that school's student body. As a consequence, most nationally standardized achievement tests end up being instructionally insensitive. That is, they're unable to detect improved instruction in a school even when it has definitely taken place. Because of this insensitivity, when students' scores on such tests are used to evaluate a school's instructional performance, that evaluation usually misses the mark.

A second kind of instructionally insensitive test is the sort of standardized achievement test that has been developed for accountability by many states during the past two decades. Such tests were typically created to better assess students' mastery of the officially approved skills and knowledge. Those skills and knowledge, sometimes referred to as goals or curricular aims, are usually known these days as content standards. Thus, such state-developed standardized assessments -- like the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) -- are frequently described as "standards-based" tests.

Because these customized standards-based tests were designed (almost always with the assistance of an external test-development contractor) to be aligned with a state's curricular aspirations, it would seem that they would be ideal for appraising a school's quality. Unfortunately, that's not the way it works out. When a state's education officials decide to identify the skills and knowledge that students should master, the typical procedure for doing so hinges on the recommendations of subject-matter specialists from that state. For example, if authorities in Ohio or New Mexico want to identify their state's official content standards for mathematics, then a group of, say, 30 math teachers, mathcurriculum consultants, and university math professors are invited to form a statewide content-standards committee. Typically, when these committees attempt to identify the skills and knowledge the students should master, their recommendation -- not surprisingly -- is that students should master everything. These committees seem bent on identifying skills that they fervently wish students would possess. Regrettably, the resultant litanies of committee-chosen content standards tend to resemble curricular wish lists rather than realistic targets.

Whether or not the targets make sense, there tend to be a lot of them, and the effect is counterproductive. A state's standardsbased tests are intended to evaluate schools based on students' test performances, but teachers soon become overwhelmed by too many targets. Educators must guess about which of this multitude of content standards will actually be assessed on a given year's test. Moreover, because there are so many content standards to be assessed and only limited testing time, it is impossible to report any meaningful results about which content standards have and haven't been mastered.

After working with standards-based tests aimed at so many targets, teachers understandably may devote less and less attention to those tests. As a consequence, students' performances on this type of instructionally insensitive test often become dependent upon the very same SES factors that compromise the utility of nationally standardized achievement tests when used for school evaluation.

Wrong Tests, Wrong Consequences

Bad things happen when schools are evaluated using either of these two types of instructionally insensitive tests. This is particularly true when the importance of a school evaluation is substantial, as it is now. All of the nation's public schools are evaluated annually under the provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Not only are the results of the NCLB school-by-school evaluations widely disseminated, there are also penalties for schools that receive NCLB funds yet fail to make sufficient test-based progress. These schools are placed on an improvement track that can soon "improve" them into nonexistence. Educators in America's public schools obviously are under tremendous pressure to improve their students' scores on whatever NCLB tests their state has chosen.

With few exceptions, however, the assessments that states have chosen to implement because of NCLB are either nationally standardized achievement tests or statedeveloped standards-based tests-both of which are flawed. Here, then, are three adverse classroom consequences seen in states where instructionally insensitive NCLB tests are used:

Curricular reductionism

In an effort to boost their students' NCLB test scores, many teachers jettison curricular content that -- albeit important -- is not apt to be covered on an upcoming test. As a result, students end up educationally shortchanged.

Excessive drilling

Because it is essentially impossible to raise students' scores on instructionally insensitive tests, many teachers -- in desperation -- require seemingly endless practice with items similar to those on an approaching accountability test. This dreary drilling often stamps out any genuine joy students might (and should) experience while they learn.

Modeled dishonesty

Some teachers, frustrated by being asked to raise scores on tests deliberately designed to preclude such score raising, may be tempted to adopt unethical practices during the administration or scoring of accountability tests. Students learn that whenever the stakes are high enough, the teacher thinks it's OK to cheat. This is a lesson that should never be taught.

These three negative consequences of using instructionally insensitive standardized tests as measuring tools, taken together, make it clear that today's widespread method of judging schools does more than lead to invalid evaluations. Beyond that, such tests can dramatically lower the quality of education.

An Antidote

Is it possible to build accountability tests that both supply accurate evidence of school quality and promote instructional improvement? The answer is an emphatic yes. In 2001, prior to the enactment of NCLB, an independent national study group, the Commission on Instructionally Supportive Assessment, identified three attributes that an "instructionally supportive" accountability test must possess:

A modest number of supersignificant curricular aims

To avoid overwhelming teachers and students with daunting lists of curricular targets, an instructionally supportive accountability test should measure students' mastery of only an intellectually manageable number of curricular aims, more like a half-dozen than the 50 or so that a teacher may encounter today. However, because fewer curricular benchmarks are to be measured, they must be truly significant.

Lucid descriptions of aims

An instructionally helpful test must be accompanied by clear, concise, and teacherpalatable descriptions of each curricular aim to be assessed. With clear descriptions, teachers can direct their instruction toward promoting students' mastery of skills and knowledge rather than toward getting students to come up with correct answers to particular test items.

Instructionally useful reports

Because an accountability test that supports teaching is focused on only a very limited number of challenging curricular aims, a student's mastery of each subject can be meaningfully measured, letting teachers determine how effective their instruction has been. Students and their parents can also benefit from such informative reports.

These three features can produce an instructionally supportive accountability test that will accurately evaluate schools and improve instruction. The challenge before us, clearly, is how to replace today's instructionally insensitive accountability tests with better ones. Fortunately, at least one state, Wyoming, is now creating its own instructionally supportive NCLB tests. More states should do so.

What You Can Do

If you want to be part of the solution to this situation, it's imperative to learn all you can about educational testing. Then learn some more. For all its importance, educational testing really isn't particularly complicated, because its fundamentals consist of commonsense ideas, not numerical obscurities. You'll not only understand better what's going on in the current mismeasurement of school quality, you'll also be able to explain it to others. And those "others," ideally, will be school board members, legislators, and concerned citizens who might, in turn, make a difference. Simply hop on the Internet or head to your local library and hunt down an introductory book or two about educational assessment. (I've written several such books that, though not as engaging as a crackling good spy thriller, really aren't intimidating.)

With a better understanding of why it is so inane -- and destructive -- to evaluate schools using students' scores on the wrong species of standardized tests, you can persuade anyone who'll listen that policy makers need to make better choices. Our 40-year saga of unsound school evaluation needs to end. Now.

W. James Popham, who began his career in education as a high school teacher in Oregon, is professor emeritus at the University of California- Los Angeles School of Education and Information Studies. Author of 25 books, he is a former president of the American Educational Research Association.

Take the next step toward a better understanding of assessment by visiting the Edutopia Web site, where you'll find articles and documentaries on alternative forms of assessment, interviews and opinion pieces by experts in the field, and a wealth of useful and informative resources, including an instructional module on building an evidence-based assessment.

Copyright © 2005 The George Lucas Educational Foundation www.glef.org

County challenges unique school

Waldorf teaching method at Sac City's John Morse campus conflicts with state laws, officials say

By Laurel Rosenhall, Sacramento Bee, June 23, 2005

The Sacramento County Office of Education has challenged the "unique" approach to teaching by a Sacramento City Unified school, raising questions about whether unconventional educational methods can fit into a public school system increasingly shaped by state and federal testing programs.

The Sacramento City Unified School District put Waldorf teaching methods in place at John Morse school in south Sacramento in 1998, and the district now has before it a plan to create a small high school dedicated to that same educational philosophy.

Waldorf's approach is built on theories that say students should begin their education with play and imagination, and build into academic training in later grades.

Waldorf schools incorporate music, art and movement into teaching. Students begin learning to read by listening to stories and acting them out - and don't actually start working with letters and sounds until the middle of first grade.

But in a scathing three-page letter to the Sacramento City Unified School District, county education officials say the "unique curriculum and educational philosophy" at John Morse have put it in direct conflict with state laws that dictate how, when and what public-school children learn.

John Morse school "provides limited access to textbooks in the early grades and does not use the instructional materials otherwise adopted by the local governing board," county Superintendent David Gordon wrote after a team from his office audited the school. Textbooks required by law were lacking in almost every grade and almost every subject, Gordon said.

And the school teaches California's academic standards at a different pace than the state requires - more than half the state's English standards for kindergarten are not addressed at John Morse until first or second grade, Gordon found. Several standards for fourth grade are not taught until seventh grade. The pattern is evident at each grade.

"We'll help them come into compliance, but the bottom line is something has to be done," Gordon said in an interview.

A solution may be hard to come by.

Waldorf supporters say changing the curriculum to fit state standards would undo the special nature of the school. The program, with 308 students, appeals to parents seeking an alternative to the increasingly standardized focus of public schools.

"What makes the school unique and desirable is that the students are learning and they are happy," said Heidi McLean, who has one child at John Morse and another who graduated last year. "For the kids at that school, school is not a prison."

The county audit of John Morse stems from a lawsuit alleging the state has not provided basic tools for learning at many schools. In settling Williams v. State of California last year, the state agreed to give $1 billion to the lowest-performing schools to buy textbooks and repair dilapidated buildings.

Settlement terms call for county superintendents to visit low-performing schools each year to make sure building conditions are safe and that each student has a state-approved textbook in each academic subject. John Morse was checked in the spring.

The school's principal argues that making John Morse more like most public schools - with a heavy focus on math and reading - would take away the reason parents choose it.

"Nobody has ever questioned the issue of whether textbooks are the most effective method of instruction," Principal Cheryl Eining said. "Having spent 30 years in public education, I've seen a lot of children who had textbooks and were still not learning."

The difference between the Waldorf program and state requirements leaves Superintendent Maggie Carrillo Mejia in a dilemma she described as trying to "fit a square peg in a round hole." The district has not figured out how to resolve the matter, but Mejia expects the school board to address the issue in July or August.

"This is really opening up a much broader question," she said. "What is this state going to do with ... schools that preserve alternative educational options, that are not charters?"

Charter schools receive state funds and must test students on the standards. But they have the freedom to operate without many of the guidelines that shape traditional schools - and that includes requirements to use certain types of textbooks and teach lessons in a set sequence.

John Morse is not a charter school. But most public Waldorf schools in California are - about 17 Waldorf charters operate around the state. Maria Lopez, Sacramento City spokeswoman, said the district has not considered transforming John Morse into a charter because parents have not requested it.

The district first embraced Waldorf 10 years ago by creating a program at Oak Ridge Elementary School. Some parents objected, saying it was too unorthodox and focused too much on myths and spirituality. It was moved to John Morse in 1998.

The question of whether Waldorf education contains a religious element has not gone away. Sacramento City Unified faces a September trial in federal court defending public funding of Waldorf schools against allegations that the program is religious.

Central to the educational approach formed in 1919 by Rudolf Steiner is the idea that students should not learn academic skills before they are neurologically ready, said Betty Staley, who taught in Waldorf schools for 25 years and now instructs teachers in the method at Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks.

"We're interested in children being healthy and loving learning," she said. "How we determine which skills should be taught at which age is based on developmental psychology."

Staley said Waldorf students ease into academics in the early grades but face a rigorous program by the time they reach middle and high school.

That pattern is clear in test scores at John Morse. In math and English, Morse students score below their peers in Sacramento City Unified and statewide in second and third grade. But by fifth grade, they outperform them in reading and by sixth grade are ahead of other students in math.

The school's Academic Performance Index, which reflects student test scores and is used to rank California schools, has improved steadily since 2001. But because most schools in California also have increased their scores over the years, John Morse remains in the bottom 30 percent statewide.

And under the federal No Child Left Behind law, John Morse is not making adequate yearly progress because not enough students take standardized tests. The school is in the second year of program improvement, the process imposed by law when test scores do not meet benchmarks for two consecutive years.

Teaching group to consider banning word "fail"

By Associated Press, July 21, 2005

LONDON (Reuters) - The word "fail" should be banned from use in classrooms and replaced with the phrase "deferred success" to avoid demoralising pupils, a group of teachers has proposed.

Members of the Professional Association of Teachers (PAT) argue that telling pupils they have failed can put them off learning for life.

A spokesman for the group said it wanted to avoid labelling children. "We recognise that children do not necessarily achieve success first time," he said.

"But I recognise that we can't just strike a word from the dictionary," he said.

The PAT said it would debate the proposal at a conference next week.

Is bar set too high for schools?

Critics say lawmaker's push to change definition of 'proficient' amounts to lowering standards

By Jim Sanders, Sacramento Bee, March 19, 2006

Too many students fail to meet California's standard for proficiency, sparking a simple solution under consideration in the Capitol: redefine "proficient."

By changing a few words in state law, legislators could dramatically affect how the federal government rates the state's education system.

"I think it's a totally sensible thing to do," said Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley.

Critics of Hancock's proposal, Assembly Bill 2975, say the state's goal should be to improve schools, not alter words.

Hancock counters that both are needed to avoid severe sanctions in coming years under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB.

"What all of this needs is for grown-up egos to be set aside and to focus on the young people," she said.

The California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators have taken no position on AB 2975, but they say Hancock has seized on a very real problem.

Jack O'Connell, state schools superintendent, opposes AB 2975.

"It's a measure that would have the net effect of watering down our standards," O'Connell said. "It takes us in the wrong direction."

"It's a terrible idea," added Jim Lanich of California Business for Education Excellence. "We should never back down from rigor and redraw targets. It's bad policy and it's bad for kids."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the California Teachers Association have taken no position.

AB 2975 targets a California academic standard, set years ago, that basically requires a proficient student to score on standardized tests at levels that show grade-level competence and, thus, skills necessary to attend college.

When the federal government adopted NCLB, it accepted each state's definition of "proficient" but required every student to reach that threshold in English and mathematics by 2014.

Thus the rub: States that set the bar low academically have a distinct advantage over California, whose high proficiency standard is a laudable but unrealistic mandate to apply universally to more than 6 million students of varying backgrounds, Hancock contends.

"Be real," she said. "This isn't 'Alice in Wonderland.'"

Less than half of California's students currently qualify as proficient - 40 percent of them in English-language arts and 38 percent of them in mathematics, state records show.

Under NCLB, sanctions are imposed on schools that receive federal funds for disadvantaged children and fail two consecutive years in meeting annual targets for the number of proficient children overall and in ethnic or other subgroups, such as English learners.

Penalties increase in severity over a five-year period, from allowing students to transfer at district expense to restructuring the faculty or administration of a targeted school.

AB 2975 would give California some "breathing room" to avoid sanctions and would eliminate a perverse incentive in the current system, Hancock said.

Because schools are judged by NCLB on the number of proficient students, the temptation is to focus attention on those closest to clearing that bar, not necessarily on the lowest-performing children, she said.

"(We must) create the best situation in which our teachers and principals can do their best work to engage these kids," she said.

Under AB 2975, proficient students need not necessarily perform at grade level. Rather, test scores must show that they are acquiring adequate skills, year by year, to pass the state's high school exit exam by the end of 12th grade.

Since California grants diplomas to students who pass the exit exam, it should consider those children proficient, Hancock contends.

The exit exam measures English-language arts at about the ninth-and 10th-grade levels, and mathematics at about the seventh-and eighth-grade levels, said Hilary McLean, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Education.

Neither the U.S. Department of Education nor the Education Commission of the States keeps statistics on how California compares to other states in its definition of proficiency or its percentage of students meeting that standard.

But Kathy Christie, senior vice president of the Education Commission of the States, said states clearly differ in the rigor of their academic standards, their definition of proficiency, and in the standardized tests they use.

A report last year by California's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office cited Texas as one state where the proficiency standard is relatively modest and high numbers of students - more than 80 percent - have met it.

State Sen. Jack Scott, an Altadena Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he conceptually supports AB 2975.

"I'm not trying to lower standards, but if I as a teacher gave a test that (a vast majority) of students failed, I'd think there was a little something wrong with my test," he said.

Bob Wells, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, said California's definition of proficiency was "sort of a lofty goal" that never was intended to serve as a high-stakes mandate for every child.

"We think something ought to happen," Wells said of redefining proficiency. "It does look to us like taking it all the way down to the level of the high school exit exam might be overkill, but it's a good conversation to have."

O'Connell, state schools superintendent, agrees with Hancock that NCLB can result in schools being unfairly penalized based solely on proficiency statistics.

Rather than redefine proficiency, however, O'Connell said he is pushing for changes to federal law that would take into consideration a school's year-to-year progress, which is the top priority of California's own accountability program, the Academic Performance Index.

"We know that we're challenging students," O'Connell said of the proficiency standard. "But it's in their best interest. Bottom line, students must have the skills not only to survive in the new economy, but to thrive in it."

Dave Gordon, Sacramento County schools superintendent, urged legislators to stay the course.

"In my career, I've found that kids will rise to your standards," he said.

In education, are we hitting the high standards ceiling?

Critics say lawmaker's push to change definition of 'proficient' amounts to lowering standards

By Peter Schrag, Sacramento Bee Columnist, March 29, 2006

Sooner or later, it was almost inevitable:

  • That we'd get a national report indicating that thousands of schools are sacrificing the teaching of history, science and music for intensive and near-exclusive concentration on reading and math, the subjects that are the basis of the high-stakes accountability system established by NCLB, the federal No Child Left Behind education law.
  • That there would be a push in the Legislature to lower California's definition of proficiency so that more California schools would meet NCLB requirements that each school make "adequate yearly progress" and avoid federal sanctions if it didn't.

Both were perfectly predictable from what's happened in other states, some of it going back well before NCLB was even enacted.

The national report came in a survey by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. It was leaked to the New York Times and appeared Sunday. Its prime example was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Junior High School in North Sacramento, one of California's low performing schools, where 125 of the school's 950 students take nothing but reading, math and gym.

Thousands of other schools are doing the same thing to raise achievement scores and avoid embarrassment and federal sanctions.

The legislative push comes in the form of a bill, AB 2975 by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, that would key the state's academic standards to the mediocre demands of CAHSEE, the California High School Exit Exam, whose language arts requirements are pegged to the 10th-grade level and whose math requirement is set at an eigh`th-grade level.

California's academic standards - the standards that define proficiency - are now national models for academic rigor. But since the feds, in one of those nonsensical legislative compromises, allow each state to set its own proficiency standards, they effectively rate and sanction schools in states with high standards much more severely than those in states with mediocre standards.

In effect, the system creates incentives to water down academic requirements, as some other states have already done, thus automatically raising student proficiency and avoiding federal sanctions.

As a measure of the difference for California, yesterday the state Department of Education released data showing that 89 percent of the high school class of 2006 had passed the high school exit exam.

There are still troublesome gaps between the passing rates of whites and Asians (96 percent and 94 percent respectively) and African Americans and Latinos (80 percent and 82 percent respectively). But given the difference with achievement on the state's own standards tests, on which only 42 percent of California students were rated proficient in English and 45 percent in math, it's an indication of what's at stake if a bill such as Hancock's were to pass.

The arguments on both sides are familiar. High expectations tend to drive up achievement. But excessively high expectations are unrealistic, and will lead to the narrow programs that the Center on Education Policy reports on, and maybe worse. They also lead, inevitably, to political pressure to ratchet down state standards, as has been the case in Wisconsin, Texas, Missouri and Arizona.

The pressure to focus on drill and kill programs to prepare students for tests has also been clear. The model for NCLB was the Texas accountability system, then called TAAS, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, which George W. Bush didn't create but over which he presided as governor in the years leading up to his run for president.

As early as 1999, and perhaps even before, it was clear that in Texas schools with large proportions of students at risk of poor performance, teachers would devote a full two months, and sometimes more, on intensive test preparation and little else before the test date. And since regular teachers were drafted into those drills, other students took make-work mini-courses in first aid, country-and-western dancing and hunter safety.

There were TAAS camps, pep rallies and drills. There were commercial drill programs like PractTAAS, a cluster of 13 TAAS-like mini-exams, Incredible Tutor for Macs or Windows and all manner of others. In some schools, 10th-grade students who failed the TAAS exit exams took TAAS math or TAAS English until they passed. As a result, one laconic principal said, "a lot of other things get shorted."

Hancock's bill is not likely to get past the governor, assuming it even gets that far. With his latter-day education offensive, the Terminator is not going to turn wobbly on this one. But as more and more schools run up against NCLB's unrealistic expectation that every student should be proficient in the major subjects by 2013-14 - proficient, again, by state standards - something will have to give.

State school officials are trying to get the feds to change that inflexible target to a "growth model" whereby, as in California, schools are measured by annual progress, not pinned to some goal of perfection. At the same time, California's own school targets are keyed to achievement standards that would require 70 percent of students to be above average. That's Lake Wobegon.

Source:American Association of School Administrators

Bucking Conventional Wisdom

What needs overhaul in schooling isn’t the bureaucracy, the staffing or the schedules, it’s the century-old curriculum

by Marion Brady , September, 2006

If H. G. Wells was right, educational leaders are the most important decision makers on the planet. “History,” he said, is “a race between education and catastrophe.” And most people agree. Why then do community members defeat school bond levies, resent school taxes, inundate newspaper op-ed pages with complaints, demand an aggressive superintendent’s head and resist new policies and practices that are designed to strengthen the institution?

I’m convinced it’s because the public senses something fundamental is wrong. They can’t put their finger on the problem, can’t find the words to articulate their feelings, don’t know exactly what real quality education looks like. But they’d know it if they saw it. If they saw it they’d support it. But they’re just not seeing it.

Few people share my view. The conventional wisdom is that most schools — certainly those that serve better-off populations — are pretty good and if all could be brought up to that good level, America would be in great shape. My disagreement with the conventional wisdom is based in part on my reading of W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran. They’re the two management experts given most of the credit for making the quality of Japanese manufactured goods world class.

Yes, I know about the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Awards based on their work. Yes, I know there are schools that have earned that award. Yes, I’ve read those schools’ award application summaries. I’m impressed — in awe, even — of the work required to win the award. Notwithstanding all that, I stick with my contention: Even the best of America’s best aren’t quality schools.

The education reform movement set in motion in the late 1980s and still in place is pushing real quality ever farther away. Deming and Juran argued that poor performance indicated an unaddressed system problem. Rejecting their contention, Goals 2000 and No Child Left Behind assume instead that “the system” is basically sound. They blame poor performance on the people in the system and use the news media to subject educators and students to annual barrages of counterproductive public shaming.

Defenders of the current thrust of reform say those who oppose it should stop making excuses, stop whimpering about standards and accountability and get to work to close the achievement gap. Yet doing with greater diligence what we’ve done for the past 100 years simply accelerates our progress toward catastrophe.

What’s Wrong?

Those who live by busy railroad tracks don’t hear the trains. It’s only when the refrigerator clicks off that we’re aware it had been running. The really familiar lies below our usual threshold of awareness.

Our education system is certainly familiar. Just about everybody has experienced it firsthand and at length. If, as I’m arguing, our schools aren’t quality operations and if, as Deming and Juran argued, poor quality means there’s an unaddressed system problem, what is that problem? What part of the massive, complex institution of public education are we failing to examine because its ubiquitousness has made it part of the woodwork? What system component needs to be hauled up into consciousness and inspected with fresh eyes?

The curriculum. The curriculum that’s been in place since 1892. The curriculum that unexamined personal experience has convinced us is “how it’s supposed to be.” The curriculum whose validity every current major reform effort fails to question, choosing instead to pursue it with greater rigor or to play with class size, school size, length of day, length of year, variable staffing, shared decision making, looping, grouping, flexible scheduling, technology, merit pay, vouchers, charters, choice, business partnerships, parent partnerships, privatization and testing.

The curriculum, what’s taught and what’s learned, is what the whole institution is supposed to be all about and it’s largely ignored, treated as if it made no difference. The “basic skills” focus of the earliest years of instruction is probably proper and sound. Problems begin after that, somewhere around 4th grade, when content becomes a major factor in the instructional picture.

Problem 1: Aimlessness Deming insisted that to succeed, an organization needs a clear, overarching aim that everyone in the organization thoroughly understands and accepts. Ask educators to state the aim of American education and it soon becomes clear that the institution doesn’t have one. Is it to introduce the core disciplines? Improve student problem-solving skills? Keep the United States economically competitive? Raise standardized test scores? Prepare students for democratic citizenship? Instill a love of learning? Prepare students for useful work?

How is it possible to evaluate the performance or the progress of a system that doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be doing?

Problem 2: Lack of Organization The operant theory of teaching in America’s schools has long been “If you throw enough mud on the wall, at least some of it is bound to stick.” That theory yields an adult population that not only has forgotten most of what it once learned, it considers the loss inevitable and acceptable.

To store, retrieve, integrate and create information efficiently, the brain requires that everything known be part of a single, organized structure of knowledge, every part of which is retrievable via logic rather than memory. The traditional curriculum ignores that requirement.

Problem 3: Neglected Content Knowledge expands exponentially. Much (maybe even most) of that expansion is in and between fields of study not included in the traditional curriculum. For example, there is no formal place for the study of the cultural assumptions that underlie differing societal patterns of behavior — assumptions shaping governments, economies, social institutions and the course of history. There’s no place for the study of the dynamics of change. There’s no place even for teaching the myriad mundane skills underlying routine daily functioning.

A curriculum without built-in mechanisms for evaluating and adapting content to evolving reality invites disaster.

Problem 4: Fragmented Knowledge Alfred North Whitehead, in his 1916 Presidential Address to the Mathematical Association of England, said it was critically important to “eradicate the fatal disconnection of subjects which kills the vitality of the modern curriculum.”

Arnold Thackray is quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education in October 1987 saying, “The world of our experience does not come to us in the pieces we have been carving out.”

In A Place Called School, John I. Goodlad’s book summarizing his massive study of American high schools, the author writes: “The division into subjects and periods encourages a segmented rather than an integrated view of knowledge. Consequently, what students are asked to relate to in schooling becomes increasingly artificial, cut off from the human experiences subject matter is supposed to reflect.”

Dozens of similar quotes from nationally and internationally known scholars could be cited, but policymakers, convinced that quality lies in doing more diligently what we’ve always done, aren’t listening. Knowledge is seamless, systemically integrated and mutually supportive. But nothing in the traditional curriculum even hints of that fact. Indeed, as a glance at college catalogs over the years makes clear, the trend is toward greater fragmentation and incoherence.

Problem 5: Fuzzy Priorities Is it more important to know how to compute square root or how to avoid getting fat? Is it more important to know who discovered America or who controls the local media outlets? Is it more important to know why sound travels faster through water than through air, or why the world’s deserts are expanding?

What could be taught is incomprehensibly vast; what can reasonably be taught in the limited time available for formal instruction is extremely limited. Who decides what’s important? Using what criteria? Who should decide and why? We don’t even talk about such questions, much less attempt to address them.

Problem 6: Irrelevant Content Whitehead, in his speech, talked about the harm done by teaching “inert ideas.” He insisted an education that wasn’t useful was a waste and said “useful” meant useful here and now. Literally.

To the questions in the back of students’ minds and occasionally asked, “Why is this important?” the too-frequent responses are “Because you’ll need it next year” or “Because it’ll be on the test.” Those are wasted words, attached to instruction that’s a waste of time. The alternative to a practical, immediately useful curriculum is an impractical, useless one.

Problem 7: Too Simplistic It’s been more than a half century since Benjamin Bloom and others prodded at least some educators to rethink the claim they were teaching students to think. Exam questions requiring students merely to recall something read in a book, heard in a lecture or even clarified in class discussion aren’t “thought questions,” and requiring responses in essay form doesn’t make them so.

Enhancing student ability to engage in higher-order thought processes isn’t a high priority in the current reform effort. Washington think tanks, the Business Roundtable and others who devised the education reform strategies now in place share the view that educating is primarily a matter of distributing information. The traditional curriculum encourages that simplistic view.

Rare or perhaps non-existent is the school where there’s a continuous, coordinated, systematic plan to ensure kids actually think — routinely classify, infer, hypothesize, generalize, synthesize, value and so on. Far more often than not, what’s “distributed” to the student is much akin to a crossword puzzle with all the blanks filled in — information already milked of intellectual challenge, requiring only that it be memorized.

Problem 8: Overemphasis on Symbols Somehow the fact that reading is one way to learn has morphed into the belief that it’s the only way to learn. That, in turn, leads to the assumption that reading ability is an indicator of general intelligence.

The waste of human potential from this assumption and its emotional and monetary costs as it manifests itself in grade retention and stereotyping, as it squeezes out other curricular components and as it cuts off exploration and use of the brain’s vast ability to learn in other ways are incalculable. Not the least of the problems caused by equating ability to manipulate symbols with general intelligence is its contribution to the performance gap between the children of America’s “haves” and “have-nots.” The have-nots, doing less well on symbol manipulation tests, are considered less smart. The phenomenon of the self-fulfilling prophecy then takes over, perpetuating the performance gap.

Problem 9: Fear “Drive out fear,” Deming said. Drive fear out of American education and the institution would fall apart. Take away the fear of poor grades, of teacher or parent disapproval, of the attendance officer, of bad press, of grade retention, of withheld certificates and diplomas, of lost job opportunities and so on, and there wouldn’t be enough left to deserve the label of public education. Fear is the duct tape holding the institution together.

There is, however, a part of the institution where fear doesn’t exist. It isn’t fear that brings students out on their own time to suit up for football, basketball or track, to join performing music ensembles, to create art for exhibitions, to volunteer to master and maintain school technology and to organize to do good.

There’s surely a powerful message here. It’s human nature to be curious, to want to know, to explore, to discover, to learn. Satisfying that nature is its own reward and substituting extrinsic motivators for inherent satisfaction is a game with proven long-range negative consequences. Dropouts, walkouts, discipline problems, boredom and disengagement are powerful indicators of a dysfunctional curriculum.

Problem 10: Too Much Stuff Trying to get an idea across in one of my newspaper columns, I visited a local middle school and asked to borrow copies of the 8th-grade textbooks for the four core areas: math, science, social studies and language arts. Their combined weight prompted me to work at the counter rather than carry the books across the parking lot to my car. One-thousand four-hundred and sixty! That’s how many concepts the authors of the four textbooks thought were important enough to include in the books’ glossaries, including such concepts such as “amniotic,” “laissez-faire,” “peristalsis,” “hyperbole” and “heterozygous.”

Think about that! Start with 180 days, subtract a few for testing and other bureaucratic demands, divide the number into 1,460, and it means dumping on adolescents an average of eight or nine new ideas every day! The assumption that something of intellectual consequence can emerge from a curriculum pumping information out at firehose velocity is absurd.

Attacking Problems

To these 10 problems, I might add a few others. The curricular status quo gives educators from different specializations no shared vocabulary for talking about the content of instruction. It perpetuates the ridiculous notion that it’s possible to “cover the material,” reinforces student passivity, ignores the centrality of information synthesis in expanding understanding and fostering creativity, supports the fiction that machine-scored standardized tests can evaluate and attach meaningful numbers to higher-order thought processes, doesn’t address ethical and moral issues, takes little or no advantage of the mutually supportive nature of knowledge, lacks mechanisms for adapting to social change, and solidly blocks exploitation of what is surely the key to human survival: human variability.

Any one of these problems is serious enough to warrant calling a national conference, but any strategy that attempts to address them individually will fail. The problems are all products of a process social scientists call “institutionalization.”

Over the years, school subjects have taken on lives of their own that are little related to their original purpose, which was simply to explore and explain various aspects of experience. Means have become ends. Quadratic equations are solved, sentences diagramed, dates learned, the number of natural elements memorized — not because students thereby make more sense of experience, but because this is what schools do. Unexamined and driven by inertia, the curriculum moves inexorably from relevance to ritual. Novel methodologies, such as projects, may relieve the tedium, but underlying assumptions about the organization and expansion of knowledge remain unchanged.

Sadly, the current thrust of reform reinforces the process of institutionalization. The curriculum, it’s assumed, is sound. Poor performance then must be due to laziness or incompetence. So fingers are pointed. Screws tightened. Bars raised. Frills eliminated. Rigor demanded. Controls imposed. Standards elaborated. Testing programs expanded. Rewards and penalties increased. And after a brief, test-focused improvement spurt, performance levels off or gets worse.

The diagnosis is wrong, so the cure is wrong. A dysfunctional curriculum pursued with greater diligence simply accelerates deterioration. We’re headed down a dead-end road.

What American education needs but doesn’t have is a clear, concrete, no-nonsense institutional purpose and instructional strategies geared to that purpose.

Making Sense

I offer such a purpose for consideration: The primary aim of a general education is to expand student ability to make sense of experience.

And I offer a means to that end: The basic tools for sense making are familiar to everyone. Attempting to understand experience, we pull from it something to think about. We then locate that “something” in an environment, assign it time dimensions, identify the participating actors or objects, describe the action and hypothesize cause. Systemic relationships between the five make the experience coherent.

Effective functioning requires mental organization. The brain’s five-element “superdiscipline,” not the familiar school subjects and courses, is the basic organizer of thought. All students show up for kindergarten already making routine, sophisticated (albeit unconscious) use of this built-in system to perceive, select, organize, store, integrate, create and manipulate information.

The single most important thing formal instruction can do is help them move the system into consciousness, devise and elaborate sub- and sub-sub-category systems for each of its five elements, continuously refine it by bringing it to bear on experience and use it to explore systemic relationships between its elements and the reality the five elements model.

This isn’t new content in the usual sense of the word. It’s the process all of us already use every day. Helping the young surface, clarify, refine and make formal, deliberate use of their basic sense-making process moves them from “knowing” to “knowing what they know,” with far-reaching intellectual and philosophical consequences. Every academic discipline, every school subject, every teacher’s favorite lesson and every student’s most mundane experience can be used to surface and elaborate this intuitive system, but the emphasis changes from covering the content to using it as a vehicle for illustrating and elaborating the sense-making process.

What Now?

Engineering significant change in education, someone has pointed out, is like trying to move an elephant made of Jell-O. America’s schools are bureaucracies within bureaucracies within bureaucracies. Educators are preoccupied with their narrow fields, trying to do better what’s always been done and are ill-prepared to think about the whole of which their efforts are parts. Ideologues and special interests have sold — and the public has largely bought — the naive assumption that bringing market forces to bear will cure all educational ills. Politics has been stirred into the mix, and policies sold with high-sounding educational rhetoric and bumper-sticker slogans often work behind the scenes to someone’s advantage in ways having nothing at all to do with educational quality.

If helping students use their natural way of organizing knowledge required dumping and tradition, the effort would be a waste of time. Fortunately, that isn’t necessary. Making the expansion of sense-making American education’s overarching aim and pursuing that aim by helping students surface and understand the sense-making process require no bureaucratic shake-up, no changes in schedules or staffing, no increased budget, no changes in course titles, no changes in grade cards. It merely requires broadening teacher understanding of the task.

The jigsaw puzzle is a useful metaphor. Studying the picture on the lid of the box doesn’t change the puzzle pieces, it just makes them make more sense. Teachers need to see the whole of which their specializations are parts, and they need to be encouraged to do so by appropriate, formally adopted standards keyed not to school subjects but to student sense-making skills and abilities.

We’ve hitched our future to a fundamentally flawed curriculum designed more than a century ago for a tiny number of privileged students likely to go to college. No Child Left Behind and parallel state efforts are well along toward freezing a reactionary, innovation-averse, one-size-for-everybody curriculum in permanent place. Traditionalists, frustrated by the lack of significant progress from a decade and a half of effort and still blaming people rather than the system, are beginning to clamor for a national curriculum, national standards, national measures of accountability.

Wrong diagnosis. Wrong cure. Doing with greater diligence what we’ve been doing for the last hundred years doesn’t just invite catastrophe, it assures it. If we continue our present course, perhaps we can take comfort in Deming’s observation that, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

Marion Brady is a retired county school administrator, who writes a syndicated newspaper column on education. He can be reached at 4285 North Indian River Drive, Cocoa, FL 32927. E-mail: mbrady22@cfl.rr.com


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Last modified: September 21, 2006

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