Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Redefining Success by Kirsten Hill

It is my pleasure to have Kirsten Hill guest blogging here today. She is the author of her own blog called experiential continuum. Kirsten is an outspoken student of education policy and is an ally to progressive education.

By Kirsten Hill

I voted for Obama in the 2008 election because he was inspiring. Like the majority of the country, I was hopeful and ready for change. When I heard him speak at Tulane University about public school reforms, I was sold: finally a President who truly valued education and would fight for our children.

Unfortunately, as he entered his Presidency I didn’t see the changes I expected. I began to lose hope as the testing regime continued its reign and competition was promoted over collaboration. Despite having a President who vowed to advance 21st century skills, promote good character, and informed citizenship things only got worse. Unless that is, test taking is a 21st century skill, good character is obediently taking tests, and informed citizenship involves the exploitation and degradation of teachers.

While I don’t have faith in the direction of education reform, I do have faith in many of the teachers and progressives who are speaking out and asking for a change. To say that current reform efforts are facing resistance would be an understatement. I think we all support the goals; of course we want all students to have equity and opportunity, to be college and career ready, to attend schools with great teachers and leaders, and certainly raising the bar and rewarding excellence is not a bad thing.

Quite frankly, I believe the problem is the plan to attain these goals. I’m not a teacher, I’m not a parent, and I don’t have an advanced degree in education policy (yet), but in the past four years I’ve spent over 800 hours volunteering with two New Orleans Recovery Schools. I’ve become close with students, teachers, and administrators, and I’ve done extensive reading and research on all things education.

Most importantly, I am a student, and have been for the past 18 years. Not only that, but I’m a good student: work hard, pretty much straight A’s, graduated with honors, you know the type. The thing is, I’m terrible at history, I can barely remember a thing from my biology class, and when it comes to math I constantly need refreshers. Why? I got good grades…I passed all the tests. The indicators would point to the fact that I learned all these things. But, I’ll be the first to admit, I didn’t. I memorized, filled in blanks or bubbles or scribbled down short answers, and when time was up the information exited my brain to make room for the next subject, to prepare for the next test.

The things I remember the best are things I wrote about, projects I did, engaging discussions I had with professors and other students. To me, these ‘hands-on’ experiences represent the things I learned; all the information that I no longer possess is simply stuff I was told, things I temporarily stored in order to pass on to the next task at hand, and ultimately the next grade level. Unfortunately, from what I’ve both seen and heard, these projects and meaningful discussions that taught me the most are quickly being traded in for rote memorization, formulaic writing—statistics. Yes, it’s hard to quantify a project or a discussion, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a valuable measure of learning. But, according to policy it appears that it’s the numbers that matter most. If you can’t quantify the learning, then obviously no learning has occurred. Nobody would agree with that, so why do we insist on using measuring sticks to gauge student performance? Why not take a holistic, qualitative approach?

In society, one might argue, the things that matter most are those that aren’t easily quantified. It’s innovation, creativity, and critical thinking skills that our children need the most to succeed; that society needs the most to advance. These crucial skills are stifled in the current educational environment that is driven by data. Undoubtedly, it is nobody’s intent to trample such vital skills; however, we ought to be wary of how the continued crusade for testing and accountability affect such areas.

To think that teachers will be fired, that students will be held back, that schools will be closed or ‘transformed’ largely because of test scores is a disturbing thought. It’s clear that high-stakes testing has fostered an environment of cheating, teaching to the test, and a narrowing of curricular goals. I understand why teachers, students, and administrators are upset, because they know our current approach is counter-productive and it doesn’t really measure anything that can be called “learning”. I’ve had great teachers; some kids still failed those tests. I’ve had terrible teachers; lot’s of people still passed. And in the end, after all that teaching and testing many of us retained very little knowledge. There must be another way. That’s what we should be spending time, effort, and money on: developing a new and improved way to assess student, teacher, and school progress; developing innovative ways to get students engaged with learning. Sure, the Race to the Top Fund and i3 grants provide the opportunity to do just that, but improving student learning isn’t a competition—it is a collaborative mission to save our children and the future of our society.

In defense of current initiatives, it’s been said that ‘we just need better tests’, but until we have those better tests ought we stop putting so much stock in the tests we have? Ought we limit the damage that can be done by relying on imperfect measures of achievement? It seems as though rather than racing to the top, we ought to be working together to create a better way to measure student progress. We ought to be putting more resources towards researching best practices, towards sharing and expanding these best practices.

We need to redefine results—Stop looking at education as if it’s just a bunch of statistics and see it for what it really is: individuals struggling to acquire knowledge, working to find their way in the world—individuals growing as students, as people, and as citizens.

We all want what is best for our children; they are our future. Yet the power to do what is best is not in the right hands. I can only hope that those who have been honored with the power to reform our education system take that power and give it to the people who matter most—who know best. Empower the citizens and let teachers, students, and administrators, lead the way in education reform.

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