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“Don’t Believe the Hype” (Guest Post by Susan Altman)

A young MBA student tells her classmates that “education reform” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Many of my classmates in business school assume that education reform is a good thing.  Accountability! Improvement!  Closing the Achievement gap! Usually they know some Teach for America alums (who are now lawyers), or they’ve watched “Waiting for Superman.” They’ve heard of charter schools (which of course they didn’t attend), and being business-minded, they assume that privately-run schools will somehow be better.  Because many of my classmates will go on to be business leaders, decision makers, employers and parents, I think it’s important that they understand what education reform is really about. Here’s what I tell them:

Data isn’t everything


Did anyone here get really fired up for practicing the GMATs?  Would your 9 year old self have loved school if you practiced 3rd grade GMATs all day, every day? Of course not. Testing is miserable, uncreative and doesn’t inspire us to be lifelong learners.

The education reform movement is driven by a vision of the world that isn’t grounded in the messy (and potentially wonderful) reality of education. Instead, these policies come from a world of numbers, data, and a deep, compulsive desire for statistics.  Which is fine if you are running a business and profit is the only outcome.  But education is not a business.  Test scores are not currency.  And doing well on a test does not serve as proxy measure for “received a high quality education.”

Critically-minded thinking, not something measured easily by standardized tests, is especially important at a time where cubicle-drone-work-hell-places are (thankfully) becoming so last century.  Your parents’ office, with its fluorescent lights, jacket-and-tie homogeneous culture and old-fashioned, hierarchical structure is not really that attractive to the best and brightest anymore.  The baby boomer generation was afraid of aliens and Communism, ours is afraid of cubicles.  Creative minds and passionate thinkers who protect their intellectual freedom and autonomy are the valued workers of this century—not rote-thinking zombies.  To turn public schools into intellectually-vapid, information-transferring mini testing centers is to misunderstand where the world is headed.

Elite education is very different


It’s a huge problem that we effectively have two different educational system now: One for the elites that emphasizes a true modern skill set, and a test-obsessed system for everyone else. One group is trained to lead and think, the other to follow and fill in the right bubble. In their effort to close the “achievement gap,” education reformers will likely make this problem worse.

I was lucky enough to attend an Ivy League school and am now working on my second master’s degree at Oxford. What these kinds of schools have in common is a central philosophy rooted in creative thinking and critical analysis.  Top schools encourage students to find unique ways of thinking and new ways of doing things and support the professionals who teach them. 

A number of top independent schools are abandoning all forms of standardized testing, including Advanced Placement tests. Why is this happening? Schools including Lawrenceville are dropping AP classes in favor of more thought- provoking courses to promote critical thinking in their students. Also, independent school teachers hate having to teach a prescribed curriculum because it limits their creativity and ability to move spontaneously towards a timely topic of interest. And because the opinions of faculty at these schools are highly valued, curricula are changing as a result.  

AP exams are generally regarded as among the least-bad standardized tests, yet still, top-flight elite independent schools are doing away with them in the name of education and teacher autonomy.  Why then are we allowing the proliferation of lower-quality tests across the country?

Independent schools are also going out of their way to minimize the importance of exams and grades.  To Dewey-inspired educators, school is not about outcomes or achievement, but experience and growth.  In several independent schools, notably Exeter, freshman grades have been eliminated in order to facilitate a love for learning rather than an obsession over scores.  At other schools, such as Blair Academy, effort grades are given alongside a numeric value.  But as most parents will testify, the most important component of their child’s report card is not the grade—it’s the high-quality, qualitative feedback that is written by teachers who know them. The result of de-emphasizing scores?  More meaningful experiences for all parties, and a great deal of communication between parents, students and teachers.  Which, by the way, puts teachers in a respected and oft-admired role, something our brethren at public school used to enjoy before the era of relentless and counterproductive teacher bashing.
 

Finally, there is an emphasis on the importance of balance at these schools.  Independent schools insist that all students engage in extra-curricular activities, often sports, music, art or theatre.  This is a far cry from many of the charters, whose students attend “academic” classes 10-12 hours a day.  What’s ironic of course is that so many education reformers attended private schools themselves or send their own children there.  Which brings me to my last point: 
 
I would never ever want my own child to be educated in the KIPP method.  Would you?

Susan Altman attends Oxford University where she is pursuing a master’s degree in International and Comparative Education and Business Management. She formerly taught at a private boarding school in the US and is the proud product of public schools. Follow her on Twitter at @suealtman.

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Susan Altman

Susan Altman attends Oxford University where she is pursuing a master’s degree in International and Comparative Education and Business Management. She formerly ta...

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