Educating America's Children

Seeds of Tomorrow--Solutions for Educating America's Children by Angela Engel

Excerpted by Conny Jensen

Numeric scores do not begin to capture a person’s range of knowledge or skills…Students can and have generated millions of correct answers on bubble sheets, but that won’t solve an economic crisis, keep a home from burning to the ground, or heal a dying a child. Numbers right or wrong, positive or negative, increasing or decreasing, will not guarantee a quality education.

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Part of the reason today’s testing has gone unquestioned is that standardized tests were such a benign aspect of our own schooling. For children growing up today.. the stakes are much higher. ..No Child Left Behind.. the practice of grading schools based on student’s test scores, performance pay, grade retention, and graduation exit exams have all made today’s standardized testing a much different game.

Schools are penalized, teachers are sanctioned, and in the case of exit exams and retention policies, children are denied opportunities and advancement on the sole basis of a test score.
When it comes to developing knowledge, children must be able to feel it, see it, talk about it, and let it roll around in their heads until this new piece of information attaches to something meaningful. Learning must be personal, worthwhile, and challenging if it is to engage the human mind.

Standards are designed to be impersonal, uniform, and inflexible, thereby defying everything we know about the human brain and the innate desire for learning…Without a real-world connection and meaningful immediate feedback, the standardized exercise is comparable to learning bicycling on a stationary bike. Students are not engaged; their brains are not in control of their own affairs. It is not a stretch to presume that children would not be motivated to learn on a bike that does not take them anywhere. In other words, if the final product is of no value to the student, then what’s the point?

Cultivating the varied talents and interests of students isn’t nearly as neat as managing
performance standards or as simplistic as administering a standardized test, but it is a basic
requirement of developing the intellectual, physical, and social capacities of our youth. The danger of standardizing our public education system is not only that we mandated a “group think” mentality. Most concerning is that “the state” is determining the thinking of the group…[C]ontrolling what our children will think, how they will learn, and what they will demonstrate counters the principles of liberty and democracy, ignoring the rich diversity and individualism that have distinguished America.

[T]he fact that we have attempted to apply a uniform, inflexible, and standardized approach to education shows either how little we know about children or how little we care…Yet, politicians, CEOs, school administrators, and—yes—even educators will go to great lengths to defend standardization. A great deal of money, time, and careers are invested in [its] flawed paradigm. Today every school, every classroom, every teacher, and every student is driven by a single test because it is the sole measure of success…The reality.. is that human outcomes are impossible to mandate, accurate measurement tools don’t exist, and even if we could and they did, it wouldn’t matter anyway.

We know which children are getting short-changed and how. We’ve collected enough data over the decades to tell us small class sizes, involved parents, safe schools, highly competent and compensated teachers, quality resources, early intervention, and supportive communities make a difference in the lives of our children. Words on paper and questions on a test are not going to prepare our youth for their future. That is a responsibility that falls to us parents, teachers, and citizens.

Clip from "NO GRADES + NO HOMEWORK = BETTER LEARNING" (www.alfiekohn.org)

The key to our nation’s success is an educational system in which instruction is personalized, curriculum is challenging, and learning is both engaging and meaningful, not to every child but to each child. It is the opposite of standardization. A system that is process-oriented, student-driven, and varied enough to meet the needs of a highly diverse population—these are the standards that matter, even if they can’t be measured.

I am often asked why we the public have allowed the federal government to play such an intrusive role in our educational system, especially considering that the federal stream of funding is less than 10 percent of school revenues. The answer points decisively to the core of our accountability dilemma. The average American family is preoccupied with the demands of everyday life, burdened by the realities of a perpetually tenuous economy.

Bombarded with advertising and political propaganda and overwhelmed by vast amounts of information, we fall victim to the ever-increasing disconnect between citizens and our government. In the end, we have yielded to solutions beyond ourselves, hoping to relinquish responsibility to trustworthy external monitoring systems. It has been more convenient to monitor our schools with the over simplistic, irrelevant test scores printed in the newspaper than to become personally involved in education.

Whereas public schools have become more transparent, the corporations paid to monitor our
schools have no transparency whatsoever. They have become the sole judges of student achievement, teacher quality, and school success but are subject to no evaluation or scrutiny. Some state protocols threaten teacher dismissal if they even look at the test they are administering. Parents have no access to their children’s actual test responses. The corporations paid with our tax dollars to monitor students and judge schools are completely concealed from public oversight.

[K]ey lobbyist behind No Child Left Behind, Sandy Kress, held contracts with McGraw-Hill [publishing company] as he drafted the NCLB bill. Kress was also the architect of the Governor’s Reading Initiative in Texas. Eventually, that same model was adopted at the national level. “Reading First” [the scripted literacy lessons] and NCLB landed McGraw-Hill a large share of the nation’s textbook market along with the lion’s share of the nation’s testing market.

With the passage of NCLB, [signed into law in January 2002] billions of tax dollars were directed to test publishers and data managers, including Harold McGraw III, chair of the Business Roundtable and CEO of McGraw-Hill. In 2000, the year that NCLB was presented to Congress, the Business Roundtable invested $68,104,955 in soft money, political action committees, and individual campaign contributions. The organization then invested in eighty lobbyists in twenty-one lobbying firms, to the tune of $21,480,000.

In today’s democracy there are sixty lobbyists for every member of Congress. While our political
leaders are elected to represent us, thousands of lobbyists are paid handsomely to represent corporate financial interests. Often times, it’s their personal interests that are being represented. We, the people, are simply outnumbered. In this way, recent policies in education aren’t any different than policies involving insurance companies, pharmaceutical industries, oil, or homeland security. We just need to follow the money. Then we need to reclaim our federal and state legislatures as institutions for the people.

The question of who benefits (or should we say, who profits) from standardization and high-stakes testing grows increasingly clearer. Unbeknownst to the masses, control over our nation’s public education system and the futures of our children have been slipped into the pockets of private enterprises. Our current accountability system has not only failed to root out fraud and corruption but also has institutionalized them in our children’s classrooms.
Recent trends in school accountability have been primarily driven by business leaders who promote a corporate model. The findings of works such as Why is Is Corporate America Bashing Our Schools? concur.

By adopting the enterprise system, or the total quality management model, or the factory paradigm, or whatever business approach you prefer to call it, five to eighteen-year-olds enrolled in public schools are on their way to being efficiently streamlined—all under the banner of accountability. Politicians, lobbyists, school board members,school administrators, and even teachers continue in their efforts to make children fit the policies.

The solution is the other way around. Instead of making our children conform to the policies, we need policies that conform to the needs of our children… Education is not about profit or even performance; it’s about children. The social, emotional, physical, intellectual, and nutritional needs of children are at the core of parents’ values.

Those who are calling for an end to high stakes testing aren’t asking for less, we are asking for more. ..The missing keys are not mandates or measurements or business principles..[E]ducators must be the primary decision makers in education. It’s time we stop empowering the tests and the school ratings and begin empowering the people who inspire, motivate, and educate our children…Human beings are complex, and the challenge of educating a racially, economically, and socially diverse population represents an enormous challenge.

We have to abandon the artificial illusions of accountability, We can try to direct outcomes, regulate individuals, and manipulate the systems. In the end, we will find that whatever we may have gained by the illusion of “control” has meant sacrificing academic and personal integrity.

As Don Perl of [the Coalition for Better Education] stated, “Human potential cannot be measured, and trying to do so is only a waste of money and folly of enormous, devastating proportions.” The only appropriate course of action is to repeal the No Child Left Behind Act.

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