Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Culture of Public Education

In their book Rework, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson offer this on culture:
Instant cultures are artificial cultures. They're big bangs made of mission statements, declarations, and rules. They are obvious, ugly and plastic. Artificial culture is paint. Real culture is patina.

You don't create culture. It happens. This is why new companies don't have a culture. Culture is the by-product of consistent behavior If you encourage people to share, then sharing will be built into your culture. If you reward trust, then trust will be built in. If you treat customers right, then treating customers right becomes your culture.
Today's high-stakes test and punish accountability is bastardizing our school's culture. In a queer attempt to count and measure our way to better learning, we are poisoning our classrooms.

Alfie Kohn puts it this way:
A school that is about raising test scores is not a school that is about excellence and love of learning.
Kohn's words are strong and rightfully so. Test scores are a fraudulent fabrication that are fatally undermining education.

Want proof?

Stop giving tests. Stop talking about the results. Stop discussing this 'need' to raise them.

And you will find that learning will persevere. Tests could cease today and learning would prevail tomorrow.

You see, learning is natural. And so can assessment, if done correctly. Let's simplify; two things must happen to conduct summative assessment:

1. Gather

2. Share

What may surprise you is that a teacher need not ever use tests to properly gather nor do they ever need to use grades to share.

In his classic book The Schools Our Children Deserve, Alfie Kohn explains:
There's good reason to think that the best teachers do not rely much on pencil-and-paper tests because they rarely need them to know how their students are doing. Teachers who base their practice on a constructivist theory of learning are always watching and listening. Everything from the kinds of tasks assigned to the way the classroom is organized has been designed to help the teacher know as much as possible about how the students are making sense of things. This kind of informal assessment is continuous, making things like quizzes very nearly superfluous. We might even say that the more a teacher needs formal tests to guage student achievement, the  more something is wrong. (With direct instruction, of course, the teacher is talking more than listening, so traditional exams would be seen as necessary.) As parents, we shouldn't be worried about those who need to give frequent tests because they may have no feel for how their students' minds work.
Kohn then provides this powerful classroom teacher's testimony:
In the real world of learning, tests, and reports and worksheets aren't the most meaningful way to understand a person's growth, they're just convenient ways in a system of schooling that's based on mass produciton... I assess my students by looking at their work, by talking with them, by making informal observations along the way. I don't need any means of appraisal outside my own observations and the student's work, which is demonstration enough of thinking, their growth, their knowledge, and their attitudes over time.
This might all seem quite counter-intuitive. I know it flies in the face of the way I was educated and the pedagogy I practiced at the start of my teaching career, but good teachers understand what Chris Lehmann meant when he spoke at TEDxNYED and said,
What we see with our eyes daily is more important than what students bubble in on one day of the year.
In his book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Sir Ken Robinson explains further how the public education culture is in trouble:
Most of us can look back to particular teachers who inspired us and changed our lives. These teachers excelled and reached us, but they did this in spite of the basic culture and mindset of public education. There are significant problems with that culture, and I don't see nearly enough improvements. In many systems, the problems are getting worse. This is true just about everywhere...

Children everywhere are under intense pressure to perform at higher and higher levels on a narrow range of standardized tests...

The result is that school systems everywhere inculcate us with a very narrow view of intelligence and capacity and overvalue particular sorts of talent and ability. In doing so, they neglect others that are just as important, and they disregard the relationships between them in sustaining the vitality of our lives and communities. This stratified, one-size-fits-all approach to education marginalizes all of those who do not take naturally to learning this way...

These approaches to education are also stifling some of the most important capacities that young people now need to make their way in the increasingly demanding world of the twenty-first century - the powers of creative thinking. Our systems of education put a high premium on knowing the single right answer to a question. In fact, with programs like No Child Left Behind (a federal program that seeks to improve the performance of American public schools by making schools more accountable for meeting mandated performance levels) and its insistance that all children form every part of the country hew to the same standards, we're putting a greater emphasis than ever before on conformity and finding the "right" answer.
Alfie Kohn, Chris Lehmann, Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson and Sir Ken Robinson's comments all share a common theme - and that theme is trust. The case against high-stakes tests, grades and standardized curriculums is built on the notion that we must entrust teachers to make professional decisions.

Just as you can't test your way to better learning, you also can't mandate standardized curriculums and bully your way to student engagement without marginalizing a great number of students (and teachers).

A school that is more concerned with raising test scores than raising children has corrupted their culture. Sir Ken Robinson summarizes the sad state of affairs the culture of public education has found itself in:
Most students never get to explore the full range of their abilities and interests. Those students whose minds work differently - and we're talking about many students here; perhaps even the majority of them - can feel alienated from the whole culture of education. This is exactly why some of the most successful people you'll ever meet didn't do well in school. Education is the system that's supposed to develop our natural abilities and enable us to make our way in the world. Instead, it is stifling the individual talents and abilities of too many students and killing their motivation to learn. There's a huge irony in the middle of all of this.
We must provide students with both differentiated instruction and differentiated assessment. Rather than forcing students to learn the way we teach, we must teach the way students learn. And equally important - rather than forcing our students to conform to our narrow range of high-stakes assessment demands, we must enlist a broader range of authentic assessments that fit our students' needs.

To continue educational reforms that simply double the dose of high-stakes testing and further narrows, standardized curriculums is intellectually indefensible and morally bankrupt. Because policy makers have proven so inept at understanding this, teachers must lead the way in advocating for the schools our children deserve.


  1. Great post Joe. I work in the assessment office in my district, and the conversations I get to have with teachers are often about re-establishing balance in the classroom. We've even used the phrase "put assessment in its place" - the over-emphasis on large scale testing needs to be tempered (a lot!) by reestablishing the primacy of classroom assessment (esp. formative uses of assessment data). Here's a question I struggle with: policy makers tell us they need large scale testing information for policy decisions (and there are some legit. arguments for this). Is there a way to keep this kind of assessment "in its place" and not let its influence creep into school culture? This is question is acutely relevant in our state right now (NE) - we just switched from a culture of locally developed and reported achievement tests to a system of statewide testing (and I'm still in mourning for our old system). Any advice for us during this shift? What do you all think?

  2. Joe, just about everything you've been saying regarding assessment/grades has been right on the money.
    When I first came to the US (many years ago), I was taken aback by the culture of standardized tests, which were still in their infancy (especially with regard to the frequency with which they were used).
    I came from Europe, where these types of assessments were unheard of (sadly they have emulated us). Our educational experience was not managed/assessed to death. Entering 9th grade I found myself a few years ahead of my US peers, without being inherently any smarter than they were.
    Within 1-2 years, I was beginning to fit in the "standardized" mold.
    I am not a classroom teacher at this point, however, I extend my sympathies to all students and teachers who find themselves in this scary, mind-numbing assessment environment, without room to breathe.
    There are so many bright, inquisitive, creative young people in K-12. I wish the policy-makers/administrators would honor this budding genius with course-reversal on assessment
    I recall what Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice) said about her educational experience (paraphrase):
    'In my house there are a lot of books and all of us girls were free to learn according to our initiative.'
    Let's restore a culture of intellectual curiosity in K-12
    Let's assess the policy makers :-)

  3. Thank you for a wonderful posting.
    Sadly, my school is now longer about teaching or even teaching to the tests... we are now TESTING to the tests.

  4. It's heartening to see so many thinkers and teachers converging on these ideas. I agree that changes are desperately needed; just how to make those changes and how to change the culture is not obvious (though I think you are right it needs to come from the teachers). The key thing that stood out to me in your post is "trust." Administrators & legislators tend to dictate the content taught and how it is assessed. Instead they should be empowering teachers to do what they love--they need to trust the teachers. It will be difficult to let go of standardized tests simply because they yield measurable data. I don't believe it is very useful data, but the system is so ingrained in measuring and categorizing and ranking students that this drives the need for standardized tests (after all, how can we know if one school district's 88% is the same as another school district's 88%, unless we make them all take the same test?). It's a huge cultural shift to let go of all that, and I don't know yet how to convince people that it's ok to let go. Keep the thoughts coming!


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