Want to Reform Education? Let Teachers Teach

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Assessment may be the most damaging concept in contemporary education debate.

Education reform is obsessed with assessment and accountability. Whether in the form of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, or the slightly more reasonable Common Core, billions of dollars are devoted to defining what kids should know and then assessing whether they know it. I won’t waste my keystrokes or your time reiterating the evils of the testing and assessment industry. Lots of folks have done that quite thoroughly.

Most thoughtful educational commentary suggests how assessments might be better. I, like many others, have pointed out the foolishness of many exams based on the Common Core. Appropriately, the phrase “fill in the bubble” has become shorthand for poor educational practice.

I don’t think the criticisms go nearly far enough. There is no need for these assessments at all.

My daughter is a wonderful teacher, trained in the Steiner (Waldorf) philosophy. For more than a dozen years she worked in several Waldorf schools, engaging children in play-based activities, rich in the arts and lively, creative experiences and all the other things a good education provides.

Then, in fall of 2014, she began work at a semi-rural public school in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. There, she encountered the slightly diluted, but still pointless, expectations of educational reform. Several times a year she has to assess each of her pre-school students on dozens of variables that supposedly represent important academic benchmarks for 4 year-olds. Because real 4 year-olds are all over the developmental map, these benchmarks are meaningless, but she nonetheless must go through the exercise.

And here’s the real kicker: The assessments are not reviewed, even by the kindergarten teachers to whom the kids will next be entrusted. The assessments are dumped into a massive database, never to be seen again. In this case, and it is not an outlying anecdote, the process adds no value whatsoever to the experience of the kids or the teachers. It is fair to say it detracts from the good work she and others do.

Broad, standard assessments, whether bubble exams or supposedly more complex analyses like the Common Core-inspired tests, are intrinsically useless.

Aggregate test results in any school or district reveal these three things:

1. The wealth or poverty of the school or district.

and/or

2. The extent to which the school or district skewed its curriculum and teaching practices toward the service of elevating test scores.

and/or

3. The extent to which the school or district assembled, through selective/deceptive enrollment practices or geographic luck, a group of students who were more likely to do well on the tests.

And these are the factors on which we are basing policy and demoralizing a generation of kids and, particularly, teachers!

Individual test results reveal these three things:

1. The extent to which a particular child happens to conform to the developmental “norm” in any area of cognitive growth. Children develop at different rates, which have virtually no correlation with long-term cognitive capacity. Therefore a test at any moment in time will incite unnecessary and potentially harmful alarm or applause. It’s like predicting the physical future based on when a toddler begins walking. A fool’s errand. Who hires a tutor for one year-olds who aren’t walking yet?

and/or

2. The extent to which any particular child happens to be strong in linguistic or logical/mathematical intelligence. These ways of being “intelligent” are only a small subset of the qualities that matter, and yet the self-worth and supposed potential of kids is based almost entirely on these narrow dimensions.

and/or

3. The extent to which any particular child performs well on tedious tasks that require the unnatural act of sitting still and quiet.

A well-supporter teacher, in a school with appropriate class sizes, can accurately assess each student at any given moment. Good teachers know how each student learns best; where each student is on her highly individual developmental journey; what external factors might be affecting school performance. Knowing these things makes good teachers cringe when forcing them to take tests that take none of these things into account.

Tinkering with assessments is just rearranging the deck furniture on the titanic failure of education reform. Real education reform will come when, and only when, we address poverty, fund schools properly and honor the teaching profession with good pay and the respect teachers deserve.

America’s teachers will do the rest – if we leave them alone to love and teach their children.

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