This post comes from Mike Atkin, former Dean of the education faculty at the University of Illinois and, later, at Stanford University. After leaving the Stanford deanship, Mike has pursued his passion for science education and the practice of teaching. He has also been actively involved internationally in improving classroom assessment.
It’s not exactly news that Americans are unhappy with the quality of their schools. But it is definitely news when, as a result, the federal government determines both how schools should decide what is taught and how students’ learning should be assessed. Whether or not the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 meets its goals – a big question — it is already inflicting profound damage on the nation’s schools.
NCLB is driven by the conviction that the quality of teachers and teaching is at heart of the problem of improving quality. That’s certainly true. But instead of addressing the matter directly, as was the case with the National Defense Education Act of 1958, NCLB establishes policies that standardize the means of making decisions about curriculum and also introduces a nationwide procedure to gauge results. These steps may seem reasonable — until one realizes that all learning is to be judged by a few hours of short-answer or multiple-choice tests administered at the end of a year of study.
Furthermore only certain subjects are tested: mathematics and English language. (Science will be added eventually.) Entire fields of study are marginalized, including arts, history, geography, and physical education. And because of the nature of the tests, fundamental features of the subject are ignored completely, like sustained research into a complex problem over a period of days and weeks. Classroom activity for the entire school year is now centered on preparing for a short test at the end. How? By practicing, drilling, and practicing – with similar tests, often every week. Charles Dickens’s Mr. Gradgrind would applaud.
The most destructive feature of NCLB is that its implementers promote a tone of blame toward teachers and their unions for the plight of the schools. The underlying rhetoric is accusatory. A strategy based on changing the practices of people in whom there already is little confidence or trust is not a strategy for success.
There are other ways to improve schools that avoid many of NCLB’s flaws. One approach is to spend time and money figuring out, first, what’s working well right now. There are about 4 million teachers in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools. Lowball and assume that only 5 per cent of this group is truly outstanding. That’s 200,000 teachers. Every reader of this blog knows some of them. Parents compete to enroll their children. Students come home with stimulating stories about what happened in school. They are eager to learn more the next day.
In science, they might be engaged in first-hand investigations of how life changes in a stream over the course of a school year. They go to the stream (or the nearby park, or the empty lot near the school) and try to find out what happens to different species of plants and animals over the course of several months. They engage in ardent conversations about how much of the stream they need to sample, and where. They advance lines of argument to defend their respective positions. They listen to critiques from other students. They incorporate what they learn from books and on the web to reach consensus about how to conduct their collaborative, ongoing investigation.
In this example, the students learn about different species and their adaptation to changing conditions. They also learn to engage in genuine inquiry about the world around them. Acting in many ways like scientists, they learn how science is done and the importance of exchanging ideas with peers. It’s no surprise that parents want their children in such classes. No surprise either that these experiences stand out for students many years later when they talk about teachers who taught them to think and not solely memorize.
Continuing with this approach, we might identify a small fraction of the 200,000 – say, one per cent — and find out how these 2,000 have met the challenge of providing quality education under the variety of challenging conditions in today’s schools. Once the teachers are identified and studied, the path to progress becomes one of widening these points of excellence to circles, a task that is neither mysterious nor overwhelming: Connect these teachers with others who work under similar conditions in similar communities. Expand the circles and learn from them. Building on strength is almost always a more effective strategy for improving a complex enterprise than focusing exclusively on remedying weakness. One abiding message is that the seeds of improvement are in the system right now.
Yes, we need a means of assessing students in such a curriculum. It cannot be done with a short-answer or multiple-choice test at the end of the year. Fortunately such an approach to assessment exists here (and abroad) — and it also improves learning.