Thursday, March 17, 2011

No Child Left With a Meaningful Education

The best new education blogger on the block, E.D. Kain, recently wrote an interesting post highlighting this op-ed in the New York Times about student-generated (and teacher guided) project-based learning in high school.

I had been similarly excited by the approach advocated by author Susan Engel and I posted the piece on twitter, stating that education reform should be moving in the direction described by Engel, but that NCLB and the increased amount of testing being advocated by Obama and Duncan was moving us in the opposite direction.

You should read Kain's post in it's entirety, but what he says here was especially on point:

"The current testing and accountability regime does nothing to make schooling and education more self-driven or creative. Instead, it entrenches the idea that kids should teach to uniform, rigid tests and suffer teaching methods that were handed down from the top by inflexible bureaucrats and politicians.
 What Americans have always excelled at is creative problem solving, and this experiment shows that letting kids (and teachers and schools!) have more creative wiggle room, and allowing curiosity to play a larger part in education, can have amazing, if not highly testable, results."

I was in graduate school in education when NCLB and the high-stakes-testing-as-accountability movement was brewing. My professors were all against this as this approach to improving learning was completely at odds with what we were being taught would lead to the most meaningful type of learning: project-based learning such as described in the op-ed.

At the DCPS high school where I taught right out of grad school, we were pushed to do both, i.e., teach to the standardized tests du jour (yuck!) as well as have students develop portfolios which demonstrated project-based learning (yay!). In fact, we were pushed to somehow reconcile them (mix oil with water!).

Now, I'm not saying that all schools should immediately toss everything they're doing out the window and replicate exactly what's being done in that school in Massachusetts. I don't believe in silver bullets or that all approaches can work with all students.

In general--and I believe this is uncontroversial--a teacher should plan backwards from the assessment, meaning take the product you want students to produce (what should students be able to do?) and take the content you want to see demonstrated in the product (what should students know?) and you plan instruction and work backwards from there. The problem now is that increasingly the only product is a standardized test when it used to be any number of things: an essay, a debate, a collage, a poem, a piece of music, a science experiment, or yes, a test.

So now teachers are being forced to plan everything backwards from that one standardized test because the standardized tests are seen as the end all be all of what students need to know and what they need to be able to do as well as what teachers should be teaching and of how they're "performing." All other content (if it's not on the test), projects, products, ways of expressing knowledge and demonstrating skills go out the window and with them, quality teaching and meaningful learning.

Obama and Duncan's solution to this is: create more and better tests. Yes, just when the education reform pendulum couldn't swing any further in the wrong direction, Obama and Duncan decide to take the approach that is bankrupting (in some cases, literally) public schooling and, yes, replicate it.

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