Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Can Covid-19 Take School Reform in a New and Different Direction?
Covid-19 offers the opportunity to think anew and differently about the direction of schooling in America. Chances are it won’t happen.
Consider mandated state tests. U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos said states could waive the spring tests which occurred at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. As to whether the Secretary of Education will permit states to waive the fall administration of those tests is yet to be decided. In mid-July, one of her Assistant Secretaries said that “[a]ccountability aside, we need to know where students are so we can address their needs.” He told reporters that “Our instinct would not be to give those waivers.”
Now, that is goofy. Since the default option for schooling has been remote instruction during the spring and fall semesters with some districts opting for hybrids of it and in-person classroom lessons. What makes a decision to give state tests as mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act (2016) particularly dumb is that student attendance rates that usually run above 90-95 percent during the 36-week school year have been running well below that figure and in some instances 80 percent attendance especially for those schools with high numbers of low-income minorities (see here, here, and here).
Moreover, continuing technical lapses have occurred before and during remote instruction. Such glitches weakens confidence when (and if) districts seek to cut costs by using algorithms to grade standardized tests thereby undercutting claims that tests are needed for accountability.
And ignoring that race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status are exquisitely correlated with a school’s test performance (see here), what’s the point of giving the test? Accountability, the U.S. Secretary of Education would answer. But when you know already that low poverty schools will rack up high scores on these state tests and that high poverty schools will again perform poorly on these tests–where is the accountability?
Finally, if these tests were useful for teachers to tailor their lessons and individualize instruction, that would be a strong reason to administer them. But they are not useful, according to teachers. Or consider when the tests are administered and results finally arrive even broken out for individual students–by that time, the students are no longer with that teacher. They moved on to another grade or subject.
Dropping these mandated state tests and replacing them with ones that are useful to teachers in constructing group and individual lessons and, just as important, other ways of assessing whether students achieve curriculum standards would be a positive direction growing out of the pandemic. Will it occur. probably not.
Why do I say that?
With no national leadership on the Covid-19 crisis in basic things such as national testing for the virus, tracking infections, coordinating purchasing of essential supplies and drugs–all decisions have being left to 50 state governors and thousands of local mayors–everyone has scrambled. Responses by localities had produced a crazy patchwork quilt
The lack of national educational leadership is just as transparent. The U.S. Secretary of Education is missing-in-action. So 13,000-plus districts are on their own in deciding when and how to re-open for students and assess student progress. Another patchwork quilt in the making.
In Iowa, for example, where the governor mandated all districts to re-open for in-person instruction, the threshold percentage for infections permitting remote instruction was set so high that nearly all districts had to reopen for face-to-face instruction. Not in Des Moines. Even when the infection rate was below the percentage set by the state, the school board and superintendent defied the governor and shifted from in-person classrooms to remote instruction.
With such massive decentralized decision-making on even the most basic point–remote or in-person instruction–thoughtful approaches to alternative ways of assessing students drop off the agenda when daily questions come from parents, teachers, and students deal deeply concerned with safety issues and difficulties of distance learning and its quality.
Saying all of the above, however, will not mean standardized tests will disappear. The entrenched mindset of both Democrat and Republican state and federal legislators, most parents, and taxpayers is that some kind of standardized test is essential to determine how well students show they have grasped required content and skills. What kind of test and its uses for policymakers, administrators, teachers, parents, and students remain contested but will persist nonetheless.
That mindset goes back to the mid-1980s when state governments established curriculum standards and tests to measure achievement of those standards. With No Child Left Behind (2002-2015) and Every Student Succeeds Act (2016-) standardized tests remain crucial even with all of the drawbacks described above. Yes, public support for standardized tests has slipped–especially in the gasping final years of NCLB–still overall, opinion polls document that the public wants some form of tests for students to demonstrate academic achievement (see here and here). And an infrastructure for those laws continues to exist.
So new and different thinking post-pandemic about the direction and quality of tax-supported schooling are dead-on-arrival.
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