The Rise of Bureaucratic Control
I’ve been reading a book every teacher, homeschooler and educator should read. It’s Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System and it’ makes a compelling case for more teacher autonomy and less Standardized testing. At first, I threw it down upon hearing that idea that competition doesn’t bolster innovation. Competition is the one of the most integral things that stimulates production/innovation and quality while simultaneously decreasing price (economics 101), you can check out Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s ‘Top Dog,’ for more evidence on how competition is not only necessary in our everyday lives, but without it, we’d still be living in the stone ages. Not only is competition importnat in the adult world, but it’s especially important for developing children. I also don’t necessarily agree that privatization is a bad thing if it’s in the hands of competent individuals.
OK, enough preamble.
However, after getting over my ego tantrum, I picked up the book again and continued reading. And to my amazement, Ravitch succinctly diagnoses the problem that teachers face on a daily basis: too much bureaucratic nonsense and control and WAY too many standardized tests.
Just to be clear, I’m not getting a commission or being paid in any way to recommend Ravitch’s book or ‘Top Dog’–I just like to recommend fantastic books when I get the chance. Ravitch outlines a clear and concise plan of action: give teachers control of tests (and how they administer them), and give them more autonomy in their classrooms so they can do what they do best: teach.
The idea that teachers should be confined to a National curriculum like No Child Left Behind or Common Core is ludicrous. @yesphonics Click to Tweet
The Inherent Flaw of A National Curriculum
The idea that teachers should be confined to a National curriculum like No Child Left Behind or Common Core is ludicrous. It’s ridiculous in more than one way, but let’s start with the biggest and most glaring inconsistency first, which is: to assume that a one size fits all curriculum is going to be a success for every single (and very individualistic) child.
Children are very unique in that they have very different needs and standards: one child’s need is going to be vastly different than the next. Ravitch uses and excellent metaphor: one child might run a mile in 5 minutes and another child might run a mile in 10 minutes–both children have very different needs. Unfortunately, those that are proponents of Common Core or national curriculums often overlook common sense; that children aren’t the same–and a one-size-fits-all approach can’t possibly work. On this premise alone, it’s easy to see why Standardized testing (and mandating that schools “get to this level of scores or you’re funding is cut and we fire everyone”) is falling short. Just to be clear, that IS what is happening. Teachers are forced to comply with federally mandated test scores and if their district doesn’t meet those standards then they’ll be met with funding cuts and teacher firings.
The Importance of Letting Teachers Have the Reigns
Another even more important reason why teachers should have autonomy in the classroom is the simple fact that when resources are focused on actually training teachers extensively in their field of study, instead of training them on ideology (insert Dept. of Education), they’re competent individuals who can then teach their students to the highest degree. Which in turn, produces well rounded, highly educated, critical thinking enabled individuals. If teachers don’t have flexibility to teach in a way that not only helps students, but also suits their very individualistic needs (some students need more help than others and vice versa), well, we don’t have much of a functioning education system.
The biggest complaint I hear from teachers is that the standards that the state or the Federal government is putting forward are unrealistic. If the standards (and when I say standards I mean test scores) are Utopian, obviously the results will fall short. But, if standards are realistic, teachers and students will have a much better chance of success.
This brings up the issue of certain students who do exceedingly well vs. students who are failing. If we have a one size fits all curriculum that is mandated by the State or the Federal government, the students who are bright will be held back by the students who are struggling. It’s really that simple. The problem with having a common standard is that the standard has to low. This is just another example of how having a federalized one-size-fits-all curriculum doesn’t help teachers (or students) at all. It de-incentivizes teachers because they’re not able to teach in a way that is flexible. The very nature of teaching relies on flexibility. Teachers have to be flexible to address the differing needs of their students. It amazes me that bureaucrats still don’t understand this.
If You Can’t Beat Em’, Cheat Em’
A case-in-point example of a national/federal mandated curriculum going awry was in 2012 with Beverly Hall in Atlanta. She was the superintendent of all schools in Atlanta. She was having incredible (or seemingly so) success with her students even with the NCLB act–which, was the earlier version of Common Core. However, it was discovered that widespread cheating had infiltrated the standardized tests. But not from the students! It came from none other than Beverly Hall herself.
In order to get those utopian test scores, she instructed her staff of teachers to mark answers right that were actually wrong. This is what happens when you try to mandate something that is impossible from the onset. Essentially the only ones who profit from all of this are the billionaires and mega millionaires in the Standardized testing industry. They simply don’t care about the success of students or teachers, only their own coffers.
Even Tom Loveless, a former sixth-grade teacher and Harvard policy professor, who’s an expert on student achievement, education policy, and reform in K-12 schools said that standards (mandated by the federal government) don’t matter that much and that essentially Common Core was going to be a failure. It’s a disaster. I’m not using this as an authority fallacy argument, but the fact remains that someone with the authority to speak on this subject is telling the bureaucrats in Washington that this garbage isn’t working. They should listen.
Homeschoolers Have It Made In The Shade
Now, I realize that I have a lot of homeschoolers who read this blog, and I’m so happy to say that this affects you hardly at all–other than the fact that your children have to interact with other children who are being robbed of a good education, but I digress.. Keep on homeschooling and fighting the good fight. And, as it turns out, a recent study came out proving what most homeschoolers secretly suspected: that homeschooled children are actually smarter than children educated by the state. http://www.brighthubeducation.com/homeschool-methodologies/126403-why-homeschooled-kids-are-smarter/ and of course there are all the caveats, I’m not saying that this is cut and dry rule across the board, but it stands to reason. Homeschoolers can provide the detailed, tailored curriculum that other public school parents can’t…Just another reason to consider going the homeschool route.
Positive Vision of Accountability In Action
I know some people out there might be skeptical about all of this. The government knows best, right? Well, there is an entity out there who is actually walking the walk and talking the talk (besides homeschoolers), and that’s the New York Performance Standards Consortium. A great example of a waiver purchase (exempting them from ‘National standards’ or Common Core) is this group. They’ve administered their own assessments in the form of portfolios, essays and research projects instead of using Standardized tests.
They enroll the same number of impoverished students as other public schools do, but they have a much higher graduation rate. And to top that off, suspension rate and teacher turnover rate are much lower. In essence these twenty eight schools demonstrate accountability by long term results NOT by annual testing. This is so important to understand, they’re doing the exact OPPOSITE of what the mainstream public education system is doing and it’s working fabulously.
Accountability Vs. Responsibility
To put this into perspective, Ravitch met Finnish Educator Pasi Sahlberg and discussed the idea of ‘accountability.’ As it turns out, The Finnish education system doesn’t even have that language or ideology in their teaching system at all. Instead, Sahlberg stated that they have a word that comes close: Responsibility. Sahlberg went on to say that, “All of our teachers take responsibility for their work.” Those two ideologies are worlds apart. One suggests punishment, while the other suggests freedom. Ravitch then visited Finland the next year and witnessed first hand the marvels of the Finnish education system.
Children received fifteen minutes of recess between each class (see our article on the importance of exercise and diet for children). Ravitch also witnessed children participating in jazz bands, film classes where they learned to make their own videos. She saw first hand what the Finnish were doing. Test scores held absolutely no sway whatsoever, but students were engaged and eager to learn. She witnessed something entirely different, and arguably superior.
Something even more important than ‘how’ they operate in Finnish education is ‘why’ they operate. The Finns have an attitude of building and sustaining competent and well educated teachers that society at large respects. They also have the children’s wellbeing in mind–something so important, but yet, somehow very hollow in American education, even though we routinely say, “It’s all for the children.”.
The Power of Solutions
What are some of the solutions to the problem of Standardized tests and teacher autonomy? A step in the right direction would be to scrap the idea (and the government program) of making everything about test scores. That’s obviously failed.
Yes, testing has it’s place. But it’s gotten to the point now that standardized testing is the be-all- end-all, and that’s simply fallacious. States should have curriculum “guide lines” but not mandated guidelines. Teachers should have a general idea on what subjects to teach in which grade. This will ensure that teachers everywhere have flexibility and autonomy, but they’ll have a general guideline as well. This will also ensure that students who move from state to state won’t repeat courses they’ve already taken.
We have to trust teachers to use their skills and their knowledge in their areas of their expertise. We also have to trust them to know their students and understand them as professionals. Punishing teachers with “accountability” is foolish and has been proven not to work.
Let’s get back to the good ole’ days of allowing teachers to actually do their job. Let’s let teachers actually teach their students without being hampered by red tape. Let’s say no to Common Core. Let’s say no to more bureaucratic control. Let’s say yes to more teacher autonomy. Teachers need autonomy.