No One is Satisfied
School report cards on No Child Left Behind (NCLB) were released, state by state, recently and no one seems happy. Improvements, where and when they came, weren't exactly widespread as standards racheted up from the past year. While it was intended that increasingly tough standards would result in more students achieving more things, it hasn't turned out that way.
The out cry has been strong. "Too much testing", "teaching to the test", "students aren't machines", and so forth and so on. Excuses for failure? Perhaps. However, there is good reason to believe that schools are teaching to the test, that students are over tested and so forth. On the other hand, how do we measure success and/or failure? Shouldn't we test to determine how well students are doing? Is it appropriate to say that some student worked really hard and therefore deserves a passing grade even though he (generic "he") hasn't mastered the subject?
Frankly, that's how we got there in the first place. We've been concerned about the quality of learning or the depth of learning for 40 or 50 years. There's no indication that as a nation we're improving. To be certain there are top achievers, but it appears that the total number of under achievers is increasing and there is an increasing gap between the those who are truly educated and those who aren't. NCLB is the result of that concern. So are the myriads of testing programs designed within each state.
The problem is that we aren't getting better results. And getting results is the goal, not the way they are achieved. Being wedded to whatever new scheme is out there is not an answer. The question is, "if you don't like the new testing system, what should be done in its place?" Go back to the old way (whatever that was) which is why we're trying a new way? What IS the solution?
We've heard the problems: too much testing, too much bureaucracy, too shallow an approach, too much homework, not enough homework, bad teachers, underpaid teachers, poor management (called administration in the academic world), disinterested parents, distracted and lazy students, poverty, not enough discipline, lack of standards, lack of expectations, irrelevant curriculae. I suspect that it is a little bit of all those, more of some than of another, pick your choice according to the situation.
Taking the last (curricula) first, or as an example, it is a paradox that today's world requires teaching people generally and specifically. Students need the broad knowledge that comes from reading and writing and thinking proficiently as well as being taught specific tasks. My take is that if you know how to read and learn and think, you can be trained in almost anything. In the reverse, you can sometimes be taught certain skills and acquire deeper knowledge through experience, but you can't do that without the basic skills of learning. The point is that the critical learning takes place in elementary school. If you miss the basic steps of learning, it's difficult to catch up later because you have to learn too much at once.
Paying teachers more is certainly an attractive mantra. However, just paying the same people more to do the same thing isn't going to improve anything. Better pay may attract better teachers, but no one seems to want to replace the existing teachers - particularly if you're a teacher or related to one.
Frankly, I'd start with the structure of a school. That is, what the goals are, how they are measured, how they interrelate with the community, what expectations for parents, students, and teachers. Specifically, do we track students as they move through the system, do we track performances grade to grade and division to division? Do we track student after they move into the community? Do we solicit feed back from employers and extended education institutions? Do we know the gaps? Do we confront the problems? Do we track teacher and administrator performances appropriately? Florida, by the way, has an exceptionally hard time tracking students (if they do) because there is so much mobility in the student population. Would a regional system of student tracking be part of the solution?
I'm not sure I know THE answer, but I'm certain we aren't on a line to solving today's education problems. However, instead of trying to turn back toward what didn't work in the past, or keeping on doing what isn't working today, we need to keep returning to the drawing board - or is it the blackboard?