Non-Standard Ideas for America’s Public Schools

Kindergartenhistorysaurus: finger-painted collage, newspaper stuffed, dinosaur created by Kindergarteners at Soutwest Baltimore Charter School (2009)
Kindergartenhistorysaurus: finger-painted collage, newspaper stuffed, dinosaur, created by Kindergarteners at Southwest Baltimore Charter School – (2009)

The value of any education cannot be found in a test score. Education’s value is fully realized only after what is learned becomes useful to the learner.

With President Obama’s recent statement concerning the overabundance of standardized tests (ST) in public schools, it appears as though common sense will finally be injected into the highest levels of the public education conversation. This is not to say we will see the end of standardized testing anytime soon; but, we can at least begin thinking about the day when these tests, and the standards they attempt to measure, will not be the focus of every politician’s education policy. If we’ve learned anything from this federally mandated experiment over the past decade and a half, it is this; standardized tests are really good at predicting one thing, socio-economic status.

It seems as though standards and the tests that measure achievement (and all that goes along with the entire debacle), have been at the forefront of education policy forever, yet it was implemented at the Federal level just thirteen years ago. The idea of Test – Measure – Sanction/Reward, was not immediately questioned by many members in the profession; but by the end of President Bush’s (43) first term, a majority of educators saw the bigger picture—and the effects on students: heightened anxiety; increased apathy ; and new pressures for many students who are already enduring elevated stress levels in their everyday life. The calls for reform grew larger and more vocal and finally we have turned a corner.

Since the inception of No Child Left Behind (NCLB (2002))(the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965)), our way of educating children has changed dramatically, and not so much for the better. With each passing year, increased pressure has been placed upon educators and administrators to improve test scores so as to avoid the sanctions that may come from not meeting adequate yearly progress (AYP). On the surface, this might seem like a logical way to ensure the youth of our country are getting the best education possible. In reality, it means corners will be/have been cut, laws will be/have been broken, and many in the system will/have suffer(ed). Additionally, curiosity, creativity, and the joy of learning have taken a back seat to raising test scores.

My biggest concern with all the focus on standardized testing (aside from the stigma that adheres to schools and students who regularly don’t achieve the rank of “proficient”), is the presumption that because we are providing standardized tests to capture the progress of said schools/students, then those students must be engaging in standardized learning. This is simply not the case.

Whether students are learning differently due to their own genetic variations in learning styles (nature) or because of the environment in which they are raised (nurture), or more likely a combination of the two, it is ridiculous to assume that the basic learning experience (for nearly 50 million students nationwide) will be standard. Moreover, the environments in which these children grow up and the learning communities that are charged with educating them are vastly different in social, economic, and physical makeup. This is true across all sectors, be it nationwide, state-wide and even district-wide.

By assuming to know what a student should be able to learn, we are providing a kind of default setting for achievement. This means the aspiring cyber security analyst may not receive work that is challenging her mental acumen in the appropriate areas and the future aircraft mechanic is taking courses in algebra II or chemistry when they would be better served learning about the mechanical workings of Boeing’s 777X flight controls. And for the student who has no idea what direction he is heading, then a curriculum that provides a well-rounded and integrated course of instruction (core subjects as well as arts, languages, and skills based classes) would be most appropriate. We must remember that as quickly as technology advances, so too will new jobs be created. Attempting to teach kids by the old method of rote memorization is fine for multiplication tables; but the jobs of the future will require far more in the way of creative thought processes. Standardized tests cannot hope to capture the complexity of the creative thinking of a 15 year-old student.

To be clear, I am not arguing against standards, just the idea that a 1-size-fits-all standard is not serving the majority of our students. Moreover, education is NOT a business, students are NOT inputs, and student success CANNOT be determined with standard output, e.g. test scores.

Standards and standardization have their place in education and elsewhere. I contemplate how crazy life would be if we didn’t have the advantages of standardization everywhere we look. The standard Polo shirt, standard pick-up truck, standard bank system, standard political candidates, standard grilled cheese, & even standard metronomes for our standard musicians to incorporate into the Standards. But really, do we believe that a standard serves to provide the best take on any given product or entity?

Providing standards (defined as “a level of quality, achievement, etc., that is considered acceptable or desirable” Merriam-Webster) is a way to communicate the lowest acceptable benchmark. But we know that having one benchmark doesn’t provide society with adequate options for anything: trucks, sandwiches, politicians, et al., so why should we believe that one standard for all students is an appropriate way to conduct learning? Having multiple standards for students that are interested in vastly different fields makes perfect sense. Engineers, nurses, and chefs have very few professional requirements that overlap. Hence the reason that education standards need to be updated to more accurately reflect the world into which our young adults enter; furthermore, the tests that attempt to measure progress need a total reconfiguration so as to provide meaningful assessment and feedback in realtime.

Yes, I took the ASVAB, a few Wisconsin mandated tests, and probably a couple more tests that millions of other students took; but I don’t recall a teacher ever telling me how important it was that I do well, doing my best was all that was asked. Nor do I recall ever spending an extra minute, let alone an extra hour, every day, to prep for the tests. I imagine my parents would have taken umbrage with such a waste of time in our educational day.

2 standard Jack-O-Lanterns
2 non-standard Jack-O-Lanterns

The current testing situation reminds me of a conversation that I’ve never heard, but could imagine taking place in the not-too-distant future, between two public school students (A.B. & C.D., seniors in high school we’ll say), at a standard pharmacy, in a standard suburb, concerning their standard day. And,  never having known anything but this madness of standardized testing, it might sound something like this.

A.B: Hey Man, what’s up?

C.D: Nothing Man, pretty standard day.

A.B: Tell me about it… (which didn’t really mean, “Tell me about it”, but having been conditioned to follow instructions exactly as they are read/heard, C.D. begins to tell A.B. about his standard day)

C.D: OK, so, I woke up at 7:05 and headed to the bathroom, it’s standard, 8’x5′, all the standard accessories, you know; took care of business and then got dressed in the standard threads my mom laid out for me, last night. I had a standard breakfast, 1 chocolatey chip eggo, 1 s’mores pop-tart, and a glass of juice that’s not really juice but it tastes like orange flavor, so whatever; then E.F. picked me up in his standard Toyota Camry, you know, the 2005 model that comes standard with cup holders, bucket seats, rear defrost, c.d. player, turn signals, which he only uses when Five-0 is behind him cuz a gear-head told him he could run out of blinker fluid if he used them too much…

A.B: Smart

C.D: …and it’s a manual, you know, standard transmission, it took E.F. like 10 months to learn how to drive that thing. Anyway, he had the standard jams on the stereo, “old skool” Beyonce´T-SwizzleThe Biebs, and one song that was totally not standard, he said it was in some drama thing his sister is doing, it kept talking about minutes and coffee and stuff, I didn’t get it. We talked about standard stuff: clothes, music, gym class, the girl who wears the standard jeans & v-neck sweater & always has her hair pulled back in a ponytail, which is so not standard, but it should be, I think, or not, I don’t know, and then we got to school, at our standard time, and met-up with G.H., I.J., & K.L, and talked about our standard night, you know, last night; we talked about sport-o practice, and non-sport-o practice, and our standard microwave dinner that tastes like—food, I guess, and about texting our bro’s & some chicks & I.J. said he was texting with the nerdy girl, the one that’s cute but totally not standard, wears Shell Toes, cat-eye glasses, I think she might have a tattoo on her ankle but it could just be a bug that’s always in the same spot, I don’t know, and our standard homework, math, english, science…I think I worked on something non-standard too, maybe it was something from social studies, yeah, Fred, No, Doug Fredrickson, or Douglas Freederman, I don’t know, something about the 4th of July…It’s Novemeber Dude, not July, JESUS! So non-standard, what’s that Dude thinking?

A.B: Um, yeah, ok Man, I didn’t really need to know step-by-step.

C.D: Oh, OK, so what about that party on Friday, after the football game, which we probably won’t win, you know, based on past performances, we’re so below proficient in football skills, it’s like the coaches aren’t spending enough time going over the standard plays.

A.B: Yeah, true.

C.D: Oh did I tell you about math class today?

A.B: Ummmm, no.

C.D: It was sweet, we went over the material for our next standardized test, all the information we’ll need to know so that we can score proficient. Those tests are So Boss! They hold us to such high standards and make sure we’re prepped for the ACT, SAT, H.S.E.E.s, & all that college-type stuff that we’re gonna be doing next year—in college. I can’t wait for college, all the standard courses, reading the standard texts, not having to think too much, you know, just keepin’ it real, preppin’ myself for that standard job I’ll get, out there in the big standardized world; Man, I love thinking about stuff like this, it’s so standard, not confusing, like art; what the hell was Ms. O.P. talkin’ about today, anyway. Something about Pick-asso and Africa, and the way that some artist dudes appropriated ideas but didn’t tell anybody and… I didn’t get it. Glad I won’t have to take any art classes in college.

A.B: Yeah Man, agreed; standards are totally awesome, why didn’t they have them when our parents were kids? They had it rough; my mom was tellin’ me about how they had to learn all kinds of different stuff, depending on what the teacher thought they should learn, how lame. How did they even get jobs?

C.D: I don’t know man, seems like they did what they wanted and didn’t worry about standards, weird. Oh, hey man, it’s Q.R.

Autumn colors
Autumn colors that exceed excellence, way above proficient

 

Of course we had standards before NCLB (both written and unwritten); but we, as students, didn’t know much, if anything, about them. We knew that we were supposed to be learning but we weren’t made to feel as though the future of the school depended on our ability to pass a test (because it didn’t). Our jobs were to learn the subject matter that was presented and if the class we were in had a quiz or a test, we did our best on it. In this way, we spent all of our time (or at least a good portion of it) learning about a wide variety of subjects.

At the end of the day, the one question that we need to answer is this: How does each individual student define success? This question should drive any new education policy. And don’t think this equates to a free-for-all in our schools. Students learn best when they are engaged/interested in the material that is being presented. Most students aren’t interested in math. And why would they be? It is rarely presented in a manner that equates to anything considered cool. Many kids associate math with being a math teacher, or a scientist, neither of which are appealing to the typical adolescent. But if we integrate math into a curriculum that relates to students’ areas of interest: music/arts, sports, health & wellness, design of all types, media (traditional print, t.v., radio, online) transportation, food and other service  industries, it is more likely that students will become proactive in the learning process. AND, we can focus more time on those areas that will truly be relevant to their future.

Side-bar: This idea definitely requires smaller class sizes, more teachers, more community volunteers, and more money. Those are all details that can be worked out.

The model of student/self directed learning (SDL) (or, my own variation, Individual Project Based Learning, (IPBL) which would be undertaken in the final two years of high school and be preceded by small team PBL (8th-10th) and whole group/small group PBL (K-7th)), is not spreading like wild-fire—yet. SDL is however, being explored and it has advocates around the country. These models have the potential to completely reshape the learning environment. Additionally, they will allow the students to dictate what success looks like to them (which means they are more likely to be invested in the daily grind of achieving that success). Furthermore, this type of pedagogy has the potential to integrate the larger community into the school community. Business owners, employees, and retirees from myriad sectors could act as champions for, and mentors to, the students. In these ways (smaller class sizes and community interaction with the schools/students) relationships can be built and enriched and the social fabric of the community will have an opportunity to expand while strengthening the ties that bind.

Collecting test scores and compiling the data for analysis in any number of multivariate regressions does not help the student determine what success looks like for her. By imposing a definition that does not align with the student’s vision for the future, we are telling them that THEY, the student’s, are not the most important piece of the education equation. They are simply here to provide data for the adults to analyze. Then, post analysis, some new plan will be hatched, money will be spent on the materials and the training, and “we” will try yet again to increase the number of proficient students and close the “all-important” achievement gap.

That policy has been tried too many times, It Is Tired, and everyone is tired of it (except the corporations that are reaping the financial rewards). We need to think in new ways; the way that George Pullman did when thinking about how to save Chicago or the way Mary Wollstonecraft thought about Women’s Rights, we need an entirely new blueprint that can fit within the basic parameters of public ed. The educational system needs to do a better job of thinking about why It exists; it is not to employ adults who are wanting to work in education circles (amazing as they are & necessary though they may be), nor does it exist as a location in which we warehouse youngsters until they are old enough to go out and earn a living; but rather, our education policies must be student-centric.

Students, as we know, will be in charge of moving our nation and economy forward in the coming decades. Let’s prepare them to be successful in the ways that they see their future selves achieving success; because the number of jobs that require filling in bubbles on a scantron are about the same number that hire people to soak up U.V. rays. Moreover, by equipping them with the skills, cognitive, and all the rest, that will serve them best, we will be doing our part to promote the common good and guide our nation into the 22nd century.

 

Platteville Limestone along the Mississippi
Platteville Limestone along the Mississippi, non-standard color combination in natural setting

 

 

The State of Education

We often hear people say that “the schools are broken” or the system has failed, or some other negative comment which is usually meant to cast aspersions on those schools having the most difficult time turning out “high achieving” students. Districts with classrooms bursting at the seams, dilapidated buildings in need of an extreme makeover that would baffle Ty Pennington, and a budget that had to cut all of the arts & music programs, are examples of the most visible needs at these schools. Add to that list a full-time nurse being cut to part-time (because we all know that students only get sick or injured on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Friday mornings), and sports programs and other extracurriculars that are bare-boned and funded through private donations, athletic fees, and whatever money the district hasn’t spent on the basics. Several of the schools that fit this mold have been featured in books by Jonathan Kozol and others.

Conversely, we occasionally hear that people are very happy with the school district their child attends. Their school has a high graduation rate, most students score ‘proficient’ or above on standardized tests, and they experience no shortage of funds for the band, the football team, and the swimming & diving squad. The high schools in these districts often make Newsweek’s list of “Best High Schools” and they are just as good, if not better, than many of the private schools in their area.

The truth is, both of these scenarios are examples of some of our nation’s school districts. But many more districts fall somewhere in-between, and are not often featured in magazines or books. They serve a wide variety of students who come from a wide variety of cultures/backgrounds and fall all along the socio-economic spectrum. These districts produce world-class scientists, authors, athletes, civic and business leaders. They also see students who are unable to complete the K-12 system, some of whom become homeless and highly mobile, and other students who have difficulty functioning in society. This is what our typical school district looks like. It is not one extreme or the other, rather somewhere in between and always hopeful that with the next new program, they can alleviate some ill that is preventing their school from making the “Best” list.  Our educational system is not, on the whole, broken. But neither is it in prime condition. Major systemic overhauls are needed.

Many districts are in need of fixes in one or two or seventeen areas. Those fixes, the majority of the time, require funding. This does not always imply new funding; some cases require money to be shifted from a program that isn’t working to a new program that has exhibited promise elsewhere. But more often, it does require additional expenditures. This, financing, is often the area where policy matters get hung up (whether it’s education policy or anything else).

As we’ve recently witnessed in Maryland and Minnesota, deciding which programs are funded, and how the state decides to spend its tax revenues, is highly controversial. Governor Hogan (R-MD) made the choices that he, and some of his constituents, believe to be right. While other Maryland citizens, especially those engaged in the profession of educating children, disagree. Not every district in Maryland is in dire need of additional funding, but there are districts that could benefit greatly from extra funds.

Sometimes funding is necessary to upgrade infrastructure or some other tangible feature. But more often, funds are required to provide those things that are not as easy to put a price on. Professional development is one area that schools can choose to cut back on, if they are experiencing a budget shortfall. This may seem like a fairly inconsequential cut but imagine the auto mechanic who is asked to work on new cars, using new technology, and never receiving any instruction about the new automobile features or how the technology works. Providing ongoing professional development is the best way to keep teachers up to speed with the ever-changing world, which means their students will have the opportunity to keep pace with their peers in surrounding districts.

Another area that is often overlooked, until it’s out of control, is class size. Somewhere in the history of education, a consensus was developed about how many students should constitute a typical class size . It is pretty standard for 20-25 students to be in a class, in the typical elementary classroom, and a few more in the typical middle school and high school class. This has worked fairly well for many students—not all. The problem is not the average class-size in the typical school. The problem is when budgets are cut and class-sizes explode, and teachers are told that they have to deal with it, just like any other professional would. The problem is two-fold; many teachers will do what they have to do to make it work, which means they’re putting in more hours outside of school while making the same wage. Meanwhile the students, the BIG losers here, get less attention, fewer questions answered, and more competition for the same amount of resources. And if we look at which schools have the most overcrowded classrooms, we find the majority of them to be in inner-cities.

Which brings me to the issue that many people in education circles don’t talk about. An overcrowded classroom in the inner-city of Minneapolis, or Baltimore, or Los Angeles, or any other large American city is very different from an overcrowded classroom anywhere else. Inner-city schools, on average, have more students growing up in adverse conditions, than schools in suburban and rural areas (and for clarification, urban does not always equate to inner-city but all inner-city schools are within urban locales). Children growing up in inner-cities are more likely to experience poverty and violence (Thompson, 2014) and this makes learning more difficult, especially in overcrowded classrooms.

If we want to make one major policy change that will have the greatest effect on closing the achievement gap (something that I’ll get into more in another post), reducing class sizes in inner-city schools would be that change; in my opinion, and a host of others (Chingos & Whitehurst, 2011). It’s true that reducing class sizes from 20+ to 10-12, or 35+ to 15-18, would cost a lot of money. But if we think about the amount of money we are currently spending on those former students who didn’t get a quality education (not for lack of valiant attempts by the teachers) we can’t afford to not make the investment.

Class size reduction is not necessary for every student to be successful; but if we are truly interested in providing every student with the opportunity to achieve the “American Dream” (assuming it can still be achieved by the average Joe or Jane), then we owe the students that are growing up under the most difficult circumstances access to more tools so that they might achieve results similar to those outcomes the more advantaged students are attaining.

The state of education is not all bad. Millions of great people wake up everyday and set out to change the world by inspiring young minds. They don’t do it for the money or the fame (shocking, I know), they do it because they care about their students. By providing these teachers and schools with the resources they need to perform their jobs at the highest level, we can make our economy more stable and our society more equitable. Both of which are relatively important for a nation’s long-term viability.

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Take time to stop and notice what’s not directly in front of you, like wild flowers.
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Education is not only a human endeavor.