Last night I was discussing the current state of education reform with a friend whom I seldom agree with, when he countered with, “Why can’t all of our schools be like Hume-Fogg and MLK Magnet?”. In case you are not familiar with those two schools, they are magnet high schools in Nashville that are consistently ranked in the top 10 of schools in the state. My initial response was, “Yea why can’t they be.” Then I realized I’d just fallen prey to one of corporate reformers favorite tactics, the use of emotive language. Its no different then when Arne Duncan refers to education reform as the civil rights issue of our time when recent events, as Steve Hinnefeld points out, (http://inschoolmatters.wordpress.com/2014/12/29/school-politics-and-the-english-language/) , show civil rights issues are the civil rights issues of today.
The one thing I really admire about the reform movement is their uncanny ability to manipulate language. They use language to end the discussion before it even starts. Words like “high quality” “rigor” “failing” etc. … highly charged words that evoke emotional responses instead of thoughtful discussion. To the less informed, they create an illusion of desired outcomes. Upon review though, they take on the air of nonsense phrases from a Dr. Seuss book.
Lets take that question of why can’t all schools be exceptional. Of course that’s something we all desire, but the honest answer would be because not all kids are exceptional. Now before that gets twisted, I am not saying that some kids are not capable of learning. What I am saying is that not all kids are capable of performing at an exceptional, as we currently measure it, level. There’s a multitude of reasons for this, genetics is a big one.
I have a hard time understanding why that causes such outrage for some people. We don’t believe that every child is capable of playing in the NBA or that every child is capable of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chappell. We don’t expect every child to be able to draw plans for City Hall nor do we expect that they will all be able to take apart an engine and put it back together. Yet we expect all children to be able to read at or above an arbitrary level and to embrace the readings we deem important. Talk about one size fits all. Another emotive phrase that gets tossed around a lot.
My mother-in-law taught for 35 years in a high poverty school. She’s told me the story of how she had a young man in her class that hated reading but had an insatiable appetite for cars. She used to bring him automotive magazines, and he’d devour them. She used his interest in cars as hook to increase his desire to read, and his reading skills grew exponentially as a result. Did that translate into increased test scores? I don’t know, but I’m willing to bet it translated into better life skills. I’d also bet that it kept him more engaged in school than a forced reading of The Gettysburg Address. Teachers need to have the freedom to identify a child’s aptitude and develop it instead of being under pressure to raise test scores in order to squeeze out a few more useful data points from them. I know that as a parent I would be much more appreciative of the teacher who expanded my child’s world then I would of the one who just raised their test score.
Do we believe for a minute that if the benchmarks that equate to a “high quality school” were being hit that those benchmarks would remain unchanged? If every child was reading on grade level, or whatever benchmark makes a school exceptional, would the bar remain the same, or would some well meaning Samaritan say, “Its not enough rigor. The kids of the Maldives are reading better. We’ve got to expect more!”? If, perhaps that Samaritan has a vested interest in showing how well the kids are doing under the current policies, might they not suggest lowering that bar a bit to show even more “growth” than before? (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/do_the_math/2013/08/tony_bennett_education_an_astonishing_act_of_statistical_chutzpah_in_the.2.html
I liken it to the NBA when they introduced the three-point line. Initially, NBA officials set it at 23 feet 9 inches from the front of the basket. However, they were having a lot of low-scoring games, and so they decided to bring it in a bit to decrease the difficulty and thus, increase the scoring in each game. Well, things got out of hand and so three years later they moved it back. The point is, that line was generated to create a desired result. They adjusted it in order to create the desired perception: high-scoring, better quality games. Sound familiar? Education officials do the same with schools and their test scores as well. Welcome to the world of “cut scores’.
It’s been said more than once that he who controls the “cut score” controls that narrative. It’s not a new phenomenon. Politicians have been utilizing this tactic for years. Of course, everyone involved denies it and claims its highly scientific. (http://www.measurementinc.com/News/CutScores). However, just try to lay your hands on the information they use to plug into these formulas. But wait-you can’t. It’s proprietary. So until evidence is produced otherwise, I’ll hold to the belief that cut scores are political tools. Just ask John White down in Louisiana. (http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2013/05/john_white_cover_up_test_score.html)
Another dichotomy is that we want all our schools to be high-performing schools but we don’t want them to conduct business like high-performing schools. I can assure you that at Hume-Fogg and MLK there is very little teaching for the test going on. Teachers are encouraged to engage and inspire students. Whereas in so called low-performing schools there is a constant threat of retribution if scores don’t improve. Time that could be spent engaging students has to be sacrificed to appease the gods of assessment. Time that could be used to instill the joy of learning is substituted for instilling knowledge as a means to an end.
The MLK and Hume-Fogg student population is made up of students that teachers do not have to search for ways to engage. The students want to be there, and the value of education is reinforced at home. I know nobody likes to hear this, but there are students who don’t want to go to school, and that disdain is reinforced at home, “When I was your age I was already working. I didn’t have time for school”, “I know how you feel, I used to skip school all the time” “I never used what I learned in school” are all refrains heard in American households. In some schools with heavy EL populations, depending on the country of origin, some parents see no value in educating children, especially the females. Others schools face a transient population that has children on the move so much due to socioeconomic reasons that they can never fully engage. Its a problem with public schools, they are made up of the public. One more example of it not being a one size fits all proposition.
The bottom line is that under our current method of measuring schools, not all schools can be “high performing schools” because they don’t all serve the same population. They can though, be “high-quality schools” if we expand our view of what that means. They can be places where all students are welcome and are encouraged to discover and refine their aptitude. They can all be places where the value of education is instilled as a part of life and not just something one undertakes to hit an arbitrary mark. They can all be places that shape society and not just the individual.
Please do not misconstrue what I’m saying as promoting a lack of emphasis on reading or mathematics. I certainly don’t underestimate their value. Being able to utilize those skills is vital to being an active participant in society. I just don’t believe that they should be the ultimate evaluation on a person’s worth. Some kids, for whatever reason, may never hit grade level on reading or math. Its heart-breaking when a child falls short, and we should do everything possible to see that they reach their goals. But we should also recognize the effort and the growth that they’ve made. Scoring a 21 on the ACT is admirable, but again, its not the complete summation of an individual.
We don’t need to label children as failures. That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The truth is that no matter how much you attempt to lay the blame at the feet of teachers, schools, or communities, ultimately the message that gets sent to the child is that they are a failure. That they are the ones not realizing expectations. Nobody should be made to feel like a failure because they don’t meet our financial or political agenda. There are extenuating challenges that are out of a child’s control and a child should never be classified based on those factors. That’s not an excuse. It’s reality.
It’s extremely important that we emotionally divest ourselves from the emotive response that the reform movement’s words evoke. We need to ask, what does “rigor” really mean? “Failure”? “High Quality Schools”? Unless we are willing to divest, and really break down what is actually being proposed, we are never going to have an honest conversation. We need to recognize that all children are not the same, one size does not fit all, but all children are valuable and their unique gifts should be equally celebrated. Schools are a place to find your voice. Traditionally, public schools have known that for years, but the narrative began to change when outside forces began trying to paint them all with the same brush. We need to put away that brush and break out the crayons again.