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Cloaking Inequity: The Education Revolution Will Not Be Standardized

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Education films/documentaries have come fast and furious in recent years, but none of them have recieved as much attention and publicity as Waiting for Superman. I don’t know about you, but I was disappointed with the film.  What I liked about Waiting for Superman was the opening conversation about the structural inequality and poverty in the US. However, about halfway through the film, it turned to cheerleading of charters, KIPP, and Teach For America as the silverbullet solutions. My disappointment with the vast majority of “education reform” films is probably not surprising being that the Gates Foundation and other corporate style reformers have deep pockets to fund projects that focus on trickle-down reform.

Are there critical indie films out there that aren’t funded by deep pockets? I received email from Shannon Puckett, a filmmaker and former teacher, who is seeking to fund a film via crowdsourcing about a topic that I have written extensively— high-stakes testing. Her bio reads:

In 2004, after attending New York Film Academy in Manhattan, Shannon began making a documentary film about high-stakes testing. She never finished it. Over the years, the stakes have become higher for educators, students and public schools and the timing is now right for Shannon to continue production. How appropriate that “Defies Measurement” will be completed a decade after it began…the year that “all children will be proficient in reading and math”

Shannon asked to profile her film for the public to see if folks might be interested in supporting the production. Several prominent ed policy experts have already participated in her film project. What did they have to say in their interviews for the film?

The schools that are most at risk are the schools with the poorest kids. The schools that are being targeted are the ones where the kids have the highest needs and those are the schools most likely to be closed. Diane Ravitch

Instead of blaming teachers and administrators and curriculum, why don’t we look poverty in the eye and say that’s the major problem for America. David Berliner

We have guided most of the reform movement based on the results of these very low quality tests that measure a tiny fraction of what really matters and drive instruction away from the most important kinds of learning. Linda Darling-Hammond

You can help bring this film the public. She has 24 hours to raise the final $3,000 on Kickstarter. Without further ado… Shannon Puckett profiles the film project Defies Measurement.

Our current educational system was created in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was designed to meet the needs of the industrial economy. Public schools were modeled after the factories of the industrial revolution and their product was a workforce of skilled laborers who then went to work in those same factories (with the exception of those who could afford and get into college). That was the goal then. Despite all we know now, the model for our schools hasn’t changed much. Actually, the goals touted by one side of the educational reform debate, appear to be similar to those of a factory: to churn out a standardized product for its customers.

This sentiment is clear in the goals of corporate reformers who believe that the only way a teacher, school or student should be evaluated is by the result of a standardized test. Our society has been trained for so long to believe that the only way to measure success, quality or effectiveness is by quantifying it – by comparing it to others in order to see how it “matches up”. This is a business model that should not and cannot be applied to education. By doing this in schools, the most important teaching and learning that occurs in the classroom is overlooked. The vast diversity of learners and variables that exist in public school is completely ignored.

A school is not a business. A principal is not a CEO. Students are not a product.

It should not be surprising to learn that the corporate reformers are not made up of educators. They are businessmen and women, politicians, Wall Street hedge fund managers and the founders of multi-billion dollar foundations. To these minds, the bottom line can always be counted and measured.

Non-educators may not realize this, but teachers are not opposed to assessment. They do it all day long, every day, and it is an essential component of teaching. What educators know is that in order for assessment to be helpful and meaningful, it needs to allow for immediate and ongoing feedback. It needs to be relevant to what the student is learning in class, and it needs to be created and interpreted by the teacher. This is assessment FOR learning and it helps a teacher understand how she can help each student to be successful. This is how students learn. This is how they improve. This is how a teacher is effective. Standardized tests are assessments OF learning. The scores from these tests are only useful for external purposes: comparing schools, firing teachers, holding students back and closing down schools.

When curriculum and testing is standardized throughout the country, a teacher becomes nothing more than a worker on an assembly line: churning out a standardized product for the customer. The ability to create meaningful curriculum and use formative assessments to monitor student learning is integral to the job of educators. To strip them of this responsibility because it no longer holds any value, or because teachers are no longer trusted with this task, is gutting the teaching profession of its purpose – to teach.

The responsibility of a public school is to offer an equal opportunity for everyone to learn and to grow and to be supported during that process. To strip a school of this ability because the bottom line is more important than the process of getting there is ignoring the purpose of education – to inspire life long learners.

The most valuable information and skills that children learn in school cannot be acquired from a search on the Internet. They cannot be tested and they cannot be measured. But, they are the qualities and life skills needed to form a solid foundation for a lifetime of social, emotional and intellectual growth. They are developed, over time, when schools prioritize the student over the test score.

To be a public school teacher, in this climate, who STILL creates thoughtful curriculum and assessments, STILL fosters a love of learning in students, and STILL addresses the social, emotional and intellectual needs of students…

…well, that defies measurement.

Shannon Puckett

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Julian Vasquez Heilig

Julian Vasquez Heilig is the Dean and a Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation at the University of Kentucky College of Education. His current res...