Sunday, April 27, 2014

education is creating a million cans of peas

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There is a proverb that says, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."  This weekend, this letter was posted in the Washington Post from a school in New York.  Read the letter and then come back here, and we'll talk. 

Without saying too much about the ridiculousness of cancelling a kindergarten show in favor of college prep, I believe that education is on that road to hell.  The profession is stuffed to the brim with well-meaning people.  Teachers, administrators, parents, and politicians are all acting in what they believe is "the best interest of children."  But in the end, all these well-intentioned folks are acting in concert, but they're on the wrong road.  Their well-intentioned march has left education, and our children, completely lost. 

Let's start at the "top."  Politicians set broad federal or state policies that attempt to serve the dual goals of educational excellence and accountability.  Administrators set school policies that attempt to serve the parallel goals of educational excellence and school rankings.  Teachers set classroom policies to serve both the goals of educational excellence and their own performance rating.  Involved parents set home policies that attempt to serve the twin goals of educational excellence and high test scores. 

You can see there's a common goal here, that of educational excellence, and if this were the only goal, perhaps something great might be happening in education.  But each constituency has a second goal, one that qualifies the first, one that compromises the integrity of the process and of those involved. 

Here's what I mean. 

Politicians want excellence, but all excellence must be measurable by a standardized test or some other objective criteria.  As a result, they value only those things that can be measured in this way.

Administrators want excellence but only excellence that comes from high scores on whatever process has been developed to measure and grade the school.  Therefore they value the criteria that improves the school's grade.  Standardized test scores, enrollment and performance in AP and IB courses, student attendance, graduation rates, and continuous demands for improvement have all been or continue to be factors in school ratings and are therefore valued by administrators.

Teachers want excellence but only the excellence that advances their students and by extension, their own careers.  For example, in Florida, if students do not perform as expected on the FCAT, then the teacher's rating and salary suffers. 

And finally, of course parents want excellence as well, but only the excellence that results in a strong performance on these same standardized tests along with high grades.  

The reason that our educational system has become so compromised is because the phrase "Educational Excellence" is now defined as "high test scores."  We have turned schools into test prep factories. 

The irony in all this testing is that our schools might well have met this goal, they might have had high scoring test-takers, if they had been given the time, resources, and training to actually achieve the goal.  Instead the curriculum, tests, and expectations change every two or three years and the whole system must begin again from scratch.  Impatience destroys even the best laid plans. 

So I am suggesting we change how we think about education.  What if we defined "Educational Excellence" as "helping children reach their individual potentials and creating an informed citizenry, compassionate and responsible, physically healthy, and having a deep appreciation of the arts and humanities."   Don't we want a generation of children like this as our legacy? 

As long as we think about schools like factories and children as cans of peas, education will continue to fail.  The last thing we need is a million more cans of peas.  Let's be honest.  Does anyone really like canned peas? 

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