Something’s significant seems to be happening in the complex world of public education. The Common Core testing has been the catalyst, but what’s now going on appears to be a much bigger deal.
My quick take: The opting out surge will be followed by a decrease in the total number of standardized tests (and test prep) being administered across all grades. That’s already underway in Florida.
If this analysis is correct, then it’s time to answer the essential question: “If schools are not going to focus on test prep, what should they do instead?”
Opting Out now seems to be a genuine grassroots movement. Yes, it’s tangentially supported by teacher unions and the Tea Party, but it is primarily driven by well-organized parents (and individual teachers) who are concerned about excessive testing. Nearly 15% of New Jersey’s high school kids in the testing grades opted out, along with about 5% of elementary students who were supposed to take the tests. Students in California, Colorado, Washington State and elsewhere have voted with their feet in droves. Even states that are ‘prohibiting’ opting out are finding their rules to be difficult to enforce. FairTest has been keeping a scorecard of sorts, which you can find here.
The 5% threshold matters because federal law requires that districts which fail to test at least 95% of all students risk sanctions. With so many schools failing to meet that threshold, the U.S. Department of Education is in a bind. What can or should it do? At the recent Education Writers Association meeting in Chicago, Secretary Duncan was asked about the probable violations of federal law. His response: it’s up to the states, but he added that he would be watching.
Daniel Koretz, the Harvard professor who wrote “Measuring Up,” believes that the rapid growth of the Opt Out movement has gotten the Department of Education’s attention. “At first I thought it was mostly the right wing, but it’s clear that it goes well beyond that,” he said.
Yes, it does. Now testing–”excessive testing”–is squarely in the critics’ sights.
Superintendent Alberto Carvalho of Miami-Dade (FL) public schools has announced what he calls “the most aggressive decommissioning of testing in the state of Florida, if not in the country.” The politically astute leader has cut the number of district-developed, end-of-course exams from 300 to 10 — including all elementary school tests. He said his goals are to “restore teaching time” and to “respect the educational environment.”
At least a dozen other Florida school districts have announced plans to do the same thing, and reporters there say that number is likely to grow. Florida Governor Rick Scott just signed a law that’s meant to reduce the number of standardized tests given to students, and Superintendent Carvalho has seized the opportunity to act. And take note that this is happening in Florida, where former Governor Jeb Bush pioneered “test-based accountability” for schools and teachers.
Mr. Carvalho is no ordinary superintendent: he is the current National Superintendent of the Year, proclaimed and honored by the American Association of School Administrators. And so what he does matters.
In our conversation, Professor Koretz recalled previous protests about schools during the ‘age of reform’ that began in 1983 with the publication of “A Nation at Risk.” Generally, he said, the education establishment reacted by seeming to agree with the protests, saying “We got the details wrong, but we can fix it with a better curriculum, or fairer tests, or higher standards or more choice.” That line of defense defused much of the protests in the past, but this time, he speculated, talking about ‘details’ may be inadequate. This time the concern is deeper. It’s not just about ‘narrowing the curriculum’ or ‘too much test prep’ this time. Now many parents and observers seem sense that something is deeply wrong….something that is not fixable by tinkering.
But the strongest evidence that something is seriously amiss is what’s happening at the end of the school line, when students finish college. For 16 years they bought system’s pitch: “Work hard so you can get to the next step on the ladder (advanced placement, honors course, a first rate college, and a great job).” But now that they have reached the promised land and have that college diplomas, they find themselves underemployed or unemployed and deeply in debt, a debt they cannot pay. 
Is it time to conclude that 30+ years of ‘school reform’ have not worked? Time to seriously question the ‘more rigorous’ approach and its goal of higher test scores? No other advanced country approaches educational accountability the way we go about it, testing students to judge teachers. “Getting tough on teachers” seems to be driving people away from the profession. Does anyone seriously believe that’s a good way to ensure a quality education for our children?
The brilliant new film “Most Likely to Succeed” makes the point that technology is destroying jobs faster than it’s creating them. To survive and prosper in the adult world, children are going to have to become builders, creators and producers while they are in school. No more ‘regurgitation education’ but real and meaningful work.
The challenge, as school districts cut back on bubble testing, is to determine what students and teachers will do with all the free time. “More direct instruction” is the worst possible choice, in my view. Today’s technologies offer remarkable opportunities for exploration and creation, but if educators just swap computers for textbooks, the enterprise is doomed. As we show in our new film, “School Sleuth: The Case of the Wired Classroom,” nothing is impossible….but only if educators are willing to take risks.
For more than 30 years the ‘school reform’ crowd has been asking one basic question of every student: “How Intelligent Are You?” They tested to find out, and then grouped, stacked and categorized kids accordingly. That hasn’t worked for the vast majority of kids.
A warning is in order here, because the reform crowd acknowledges past missteps–even as they ask for just one more chance to get it right. For example, a new report from the American Enterprise Institute talks the talk but then proceeds to put forth the same old stuff: more choice, less regulation and so on. A sample line: “Although many education reform efforts have fallen flat over the years, there are promising initiatives on the horizon that state leaders would be well-advised to pursue.”
Do today’s ruling reformers deserve another chance? Under their leadership, an entire generation of kids has grown up in the internet world, a 24/7 flood of information. Those young people needed to learn how to ask questions so they’d be able to sift through the flood of information and separate truth from falsehood, but school reform policies reward compliance and the giving back of the right answers, what I call ‘regurgitation.’
It’s time for those folks to step (or be pushed) aside, so that others can ask a far more important question of every child, a question that ‘reformers’ have not asked: “How Are You Intelligent?”
Listen to the answers and act accordingly. Build schools and create classrooms that enable students to discover and grow. When students do meaningful work in schools, they will also learn to read, write, calculate, work with others, process information, and separate truth from falsehood. They are a good bet to emerge from school ready for the new world that awaits them.
- 1. Many are back in their family home. Graduate school doesn’t necessarily make things better. Some 40% of law school graduates are working in jobs that do not require a law degree.↵