The real insanity of reform

I was excited when I opened the Denver Post op-ed page last week. There was an op-ed written by William Moloney, former Colorado Commissioner of Education, that was titled “Standards and assessments: Education reform’s bridge to nowhere.”

Sigmund Freud’s classic definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over yet always expecting different results — seems not to have registered with American education reformers who endlessly propose look-alike standards and assessments they claim will really, really work this time.

So far, so good. American attempts at improving education since the early 1900s have centered on setting up content standards, assessing students on the amount of information they have retained, and rewarding teachers based on how well students perform. Yet, there appears to be a general consensus that we are not where we want to be. Our latest response is the current educational reform environment where Common Core State Standards and the aligned standardized PARCC assessments are experiencing a wave of opposition nationwide from parents, students, educators and a politically-diverse range of interest and advocacy groups. The response?

It demonstrates once again that American reforms rest upon the dangerous fallacy that we can have high standards and high achievement while being the only industrial nation in the world that doesn’t strongly connect those goals to a rigorous system of high stakes testing that alone will compel the engagement and commitment of students, teachers, and parents to the work and sustained effort that is the essential ingredient of all successful educational enterprises.

I had to re-read that section several times to make sure I was understanding it correctly. Two days later I remain bemused at the horribly simplistic description of the nature and shortcomings of American education reform that the piece reflected. But let me be clear that this is not a criticism of Commissioner Maloney personally. Sadly, the piece reflects the shortcomings of today’s overall education reform dialogue. Two points in particular are deeply disturbing and warrant closer consideration.

First, many people seem to accept the claim that the currently maligned PARCC tests represent a rigorous assessment of student learning that is comparable to the assessments used by other industrial nations. There is no comparison between the testing regime represented by PARCC and those used in our peer nations including Germany, Finland and England. The biggest difference lies in the quality of the assessments themselves. Higher quality assessments are better able to measure deep levels of learning such as a nuanced understanding of content, critical thinking and the ability to synthesize and present information creatively. Unsurprisingly, such assessments are fairy expensive because they rely heavily on extensive narrative responses that are scored by qualified human beings. This is in comparison to multiple-choice questions that can be machine-scored, and short open-ended responses that require scorers with no subject matter expertise and little training.

Take, as an example, the German and Finnish Abitur examination. Students take exams in a handful of subject areas, which they have committed to studying over the course of several years. The options for subjects include mathematics, English, biology, chemistry, physics, history, art, music, philosophy, religion – in other words, all subjects are considered important enough to warrant inclusion. Each written basic-level examination takes about three hours; advanced-level examinations take four-and-a-half hours; written exams are in essay format. Essays are graded by at least two teachers that are experts in the subject area being tested.  The Abitur also includes at least one oral examination, each of which lasts about 20 minutes. Unsurprisingly, the cost of administering an Abitur exam is upwards of $130 per student. Compare this to the PARCC assessment, which is self-described as “a high quality, computer-based K–12 assessment in mathematics and language arts/literacy.” Responding to concerns about the cost to states of administering the assessment to students, PARCC recently lowered the cost of the test to $23.97 plus a small administration fee. To the extent that you get what you pay for, the difference is stark.

Second, the definition of “high stakes” in the US versus other countries is very different. Exams like the Abitur and British A-levels serve as capstone exams for students; each is taken at the end of secondary school and determines the type and level of post-secondary program for which a student qualifies. These capstone exams as well as one or two other “gateway” exams assess students’ mastery of a body of knowledge over several years, and students receive feedback on their performance. In countries like England, Finland and Germany, the majority of K-13 student assessments are administered by classroom educators who use the results to inform their instruction. None of these assessments are tied to teacher evaluations, school/district rankings or federal funding.

Compare this to the US where we ignore what neuroscience tells us about how learning happens and in order to measure what students have absorbed over the course of an arbitrary 6-9 month period. Students starting as early as third grade take at least one “high stakes” standardized exam annually (Colorado and states with early literacy legislation test starting in kindergarten); in some grades there can be as many as three content exams. Students receive no feedback that can be used to improve their academic performance. To the contrary, we seem more interested in using the data to hold teachers, schools and districts “accountable” through mind-numbingly complicated formulas and house-of-cards-style accountability systems that we have no reason to believe have helped improve student outcomes over the last two decades (I say this because they have helped highlight gaps in achievement between groups of students). Yet, even as individual states, including Colorado, appear to be realizing that the testing burden may need to be adjusted, federal officials won’t grant states testing waivers presumably because Congress refuses to update and re-authorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). It should be clear that there is no comparison between the US and peer industrial nations with respect to assessment and accountability.

Finally, I find myself offended on behalf of the students, parents and educators whose concerns seem to be shrugged aside in the last sentence. The implication seems to be that that they don’t care enough about the “educational enterprise” to be engaged in and committed to hard work and sustained effort. The only recourse, apparently, is to hold over their heads the threat of high stakes consequences. There is no consideration given to the possibility that professionals who do thankless jobs for low salaries because they want to serve students are protesting because they see the joy of teaching and learning fade from their buildings. There is no consideration given to the possibility that hundreds of thousands of parents are tired of seeing their children increasingly tired, stressed, depressed and medicated because of the increasing pressures being placed upon them in the name of “education.” There is no consideration given to the possibility that hundreds of thousands of students nationally, rich and poor, white and brown, may be disengaged from school for the very legitimate reason that righteous adults continue to make the enterprise less and less meaningful to them, their lives, and their aspirations.

Of all of these possibilities, we ought to take the one about students most seriously. I see young people all day, every day, engaged in things that are meaningful to them – sports, music, social media, social causes. They are more than capable of engagement, and they demonstrate every day that they are capable of being excited about learning, adapting and thriving in the world. The question is why so much of that engagement disappears once they walk into the doors of schools. We claim we want to serve students. We claim we respect student voice. Yet, we ignore the fact that voice can be expressed in different ways depending on the circumstances. In the absence of adults who bother to ask them what they want out of their education; in the face of consequences being meted out for the audacity of finding what is asked of them irrelevant and unworthy of their engagement, students express their opinion through disengagement. The insanity of current reform efforts is that we still aren’t listening.

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