I love public education. I am honored to have worked as a teacher and an administrator in public schools for 15 years in two different states. I am an unabashed proponent of public education and I genuinely believe that public education provides most (I wish I could write all) students with the opportunity to reach their potential.
It is with that backdrop that I wish to recount the following experience I had a couple of weeks ago in a course I teach to aspiring educational leaders. The curriculum of the course provides students the opportunity to explore external influences on the governance of public education and one of the assignments requires students to work in small groups to develop a mutually beneficial partnership between a school and an outside agency. One of the partnership proposals called for a union between an elementary school and a series of museums within a particular town. The net result of this partnership would produce greater exposure for the local museums and provide the students with the opportunity to study, in depth, various historical figures. The students would even dress up as the historical figures and create a living museum experience one evening (much like the movie Night at the Museum).
As a former US history teacher, I loved this idea. In fact, I have actually seen the school that my own children attend do this very activity and I have witnessed, first hand, the benefits it had on them. My children will never forget about Temple Grandin and Walt Disney because they got to be these historical characters for a night. So, I was genuinely surprised when, at the end of the presentation on this innovative idea to help history come alive for elementary students, the first two questions that other students asked were:
How many standards will be covered in this activity?
You are going to dedicate four months to this activity and you will only be able to cover how many standards?
I was shocked by these questions and I left this class genuinely concerned for the future of public education. Since this is a legal blog, I will now attempt to articulate my concerns and link those concerns to existing statutes. Why am I concerned for public education? My fear is that accountability and assessment, both essential components of public education, have succeeded in limiting the scope of creativity within educators. I have the privilege to work with an amazing group of aspiring educators each year – literally the best of the best. And, yet, these questions were asked by students in one of the more impressive cohorts I have ever worked with to date. Why? Are these students opposed to creative ideas? No. Instead, they have worked in a system of education that has become too focused on checklist or quantifiable items (how many teacher are highly qualified or how many standards will be addressed by a particular lesson) and have, possibly, lost sight of sound educational practices.
I am not advocating for a return to a time when teachers taught whatever they felt like with no regard to standards. Instead, I am trying to raise a voice of caution against statutes, such as No Child Left Behind, that rely exclusively on measureable outcomes. My fear is that an overreliance on measureable outcomes leads to different forms of corruption, including what I witnessed in my class. These amazing educators in my class do not care more about standards than authentic learning experiences for all children. Rather, they are a part of a system that has become too focused on measurements and, as a result, the system is beginning to lose sight of the ultimate goal – to help a child discover the joy of learning. In addition, those within the system are personifying the values of the system – that is what I think I witnessed.
Standards, accountability, and assessment all have a vital role in public education, but an “advanced” or “proficient” score on a standardized test is not the end goal for public education.