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Janresseger: A Public School Evaluation System That Fails to Account for What We Value

What really matters in public schools?  There are some very different definitions of the purpose of schooling. Proponents of business-driven, standardized test-based school accountability, the system mandated for two decades by the federal government, say we must use data to measure the quality of the student products turned out at high school graduation.  Educators—and I believe parents and children—agree that what matters is students’ experience of learning while they are in school.

In these months when our children are at home because the pandemic has closed their schools, parents, children, and teachers have all been talking and writing about what they are missing—what is most important for them in the daily experience of of formal schooling.  But lots of education policy wonks seem worried about whether schools can quickly get back on schedule with the standardized testing regimen we’ve come to expect since annual testing was mandated in 2002 by No Child Left Behind.

In an important new reflection in The KappanEducational Accountability Is Out of Step—Now More than Ever, two professors of education, Derek Gottlieb of the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley and Jack Schneider of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell reflect on what today’s school closures are teaching us about the value of schooling. Gottlieb and Schneider worry: “State governments… may have waived standardized testing this year, but once their public schools reopen, they’ll go right back to measuring them by the same few metrics they’ve used for more than a generation: test scores in reading and math, high school graduation rates, and, in some cases, student attendance… We… need to change the ways in which accountability determinations are made.  At present, accountability scores are calculated via algorithm (metrics in, ratings out)—a mechanical process that leaves no room for human judgment and deliberation about each school’s strengths and weaknesses, or the particular challenges it faces.”

What are some of the important things schools do? This spring parents can name a lot of very basic functions of school.  For children, going to school sets up a comfortable routine for each day and for a five-day week plus a weekend.  For parents, schools care for their children during six hours when parents can comfortably participate in the workforce without paying for child care, and parents can be reasonably sure their children will be well cared for and intellectually stimulated.  Schools are the primary institution that socializes children. They are places where children find friends, learn how to respect others and get along.  And they are places where children have fun learning.  Gottlieb and Schneider add: “Americans have… come to recognize the many vital social services schools offer, including mental health care, occupational and physical therapy, and the delivery of regular meals for low-income students…”

Gottlieb and Schneider also name important school experiences that teachers learn to provide as they pursue the academic courses to prepare themselves for certification: “Educating young people involves far more than getting them into their seats and raising their scores.  We expect our schools to motivate students, care for them, and keep them safe.  Schools introduce young people to the wider world, help them discover their talents and their interests, and alter their life trajectories.  Of course, teaching academic skills that can be measured via standardized test is important, but that can’t be all that matters.” “As so many Americans have come to appreciate, schools pursue a broad range of aims: not just to teach academic content but also to cultivate social skills and critical thinking, prepare young people for work and citizenship, foster creativity, and promote emotional and physical health… ”

At the end of an inspiring 2016 book, First Do No Harm, progressive educator, Steve Nelson publishes what he calls an Educational Bill of Rights, defining the school experience all children and families ought to be able to expect their teachers to provide: “Recognize the broad consensus that early childhood education should be primarily dedicated to free, imaginative play. Provide arts programming, recognizing that the arts are critical to all learning and to understanding the human experience. Provide ample physical movement, both in physical education classes and in other ways… Exhibit, in structure and practice, awareness that children develop at different rates and in different  ways… Acknowledge the large body of evidence that long hours of homework are unnecessary and detract from children’s (and families’) quality of life. Exhibit genuine affection and respect for all children. Honor a wide range of personalities and temperments. Encourage curiosity, risk-taking and creativity. Cultivate and sustain intrinsic motivation rather than relying on elaborate extrinsic systems of rewards and punishment. Understand that brain research supports active learning, engaging all the senses. Understand that children are intelligent in multiple ways… Listen to each child’s voice, give them real experience in democratic processes, and allow them to express their individuality. Know each child well, appreciate the unique mix of qualities each child brings, and never demean, discourage or humiliate any child.” (First Do No Harm, pp. 244-245)

Finally, UCLA education professor and writer, Mike Rose, spent several years visiting and observing classrooms across the United States as the basis of his wonderful book, Possible Lives. In an article for The American ScholarRose describes the qualities that defined the excellent classrooms he visited: “The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration. But there was also safety from insult and diminishment….  Intimately related to safety is respect, a word I heard frequently during my travels.  It meant many things: politeness, fair treatment, and beyond individual civility, a respect for the language and culture of the local population… Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority. I witnessed a range of classroom management styles, and though some teachers involved students in determining the rules of conduct and gave them significant responsibility to provide the class with direction, others came with a curriculum and codes of conduct fairly well in place.  But two things were always evident.  A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility.”

Not all classrooms, of course, exhibit these standards of excellence every day, but the descriptions by Derek Gottlieb and Jack Schneider, Steve Nelson, and Mike Rose are a way to share what the experience of schooling ought to encompass for every child as well as being a standard toward which every teacher should aspire. Students are missing many of these experiences this spring while their schools are closed. Certainly virtual schooling on iPads, Chromebooks, or computers may help children stay in touch with their teachers and their peers and, to some degree, continue with educational activities designed by their teachers or their school district. But what’s happening over the internet, for those students who are lucky enough to have broadband access, cannot compensate for the in-person educational experiences the children are missing. Most children will eagerly anticipate getting back to school.

None of these reflections by educational experts on the experiences schools regularly provide for children has anything to do with the standards-based, test-driven school accountability our federal government continues mandate. When public schools reopen, it’s time to reject the kind of school accountability that counts children as though they are products turned out at graduation.

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...