Thursday, December 23, 2010

Is Uncle Sam Limping? Probably, because Politicians are in charge of education and keep shooting him in the foot

Another state bites the dust. Massachusetts took the step, where its teachers agreed to tie their salaries and promotions to test scores. I do hope there are some other criteria in this, but it is the latest instance of our test-crazed society that has existed since the introduction of No Child Left Behind some ten years ago. While testing has always been, and will always continue to be, a part of education and the assessment of what students are learning, it has bothered many educators for many years that testing is the primary, and for some who have a voice in the education debate, the only, means of assessing and 'fixing' American schools. This is what we will continue to get so long as politicians, almost all of whom have never taught in the classroom and do not have expertise in education, control the education system.

I've harped on this countless times over the years, and will continue to do so, especially since Sec. of Education Arne Duncan will be working with congressional leaders as they discuss the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). One can only hope that both sides agree that changes to NCLB must be made in how a school or district is assessed, with multiple measures considered instead of the present high-stakes test each state is required to produce.

We continue to regress in education by becoming like much of the rest of the world that has used high-stakes testing to determine what students will be allowed to do. But do our politicians pay any attention to the global trends that many countries have participated in over the past decade? Do our political leaders know that many countries, including numerous Asian countries that have been ahead of us on global standardized tests (such as Singapore, China, Japan, and so on), have been slowly breaking away from a content-focused test meritocracy system to one that encourages more student freedom and skills development? I know this to be true since I participated in a discussion at Northwestern University five or six years ago with a delegation from Singapore. I spoke to them about how I approach teaching physics, and how to include hands-on, experiential learning for students, and how to connect content to student lives and develop problem-solving skills for students. It was a truly interesting meeting, and testing never came up. This delegation made it clear that they wanted their education system to look more like that of the U.S., and could not understand why the U.S. wanted to look more like Singapore's and other Asian and European traditional school systems.

Content is important; at least certain content in each discipline. One needs foundational concepts and principles in order to build up off that foundation. But just look around at what current students are going to face when they get to college and beyond. Listen to what Bill Gates and others are telling educators, as well as just about every professor I know is looking at - they want students to have some basic knowledge foundation, but also skills sets, creative problem solving capacity, being able to work both alone and collaboratively across disciplines, and strong communications skills across multiple media platforms. This package of skills forms what many are now calling '21st century skills.'

I dream of the day when my junior students in high school will not be judged on if they remember an obscure vocabulary word from a physical science class they took four years earlier (and never touched that topic again). Rather, let them be judged more on what they come up with when posed an open-ended problem on how to best modify a bridge design that needs to span a specific geological feature, or how to take experimental data and develop an empirical formula that relates several quantities together, or something, anything, that makes one think critically, problem solve, and communicate the thoughts to the reader. When will we have student portfolios count in an assessment, where we can see a variety of skills and knowledge in action, and see growth over the course of a year?

If you build an assessment that requires 21st century skills, teachers will set up their classes to develop those skills and focus on appropriate content. They will then break away from a 19th century classroom of memorize, sit still and quietly for 6 or 7 hours in rows of desks, listen to mostly lectures, and do sets of worksheets. Why are we teaching and assessing the way we were taught and assessed decades ago? If we do not change the way we do school, we are simply setting our kids and the country up for disaster when they go out and try to compete against kids from other places in the world who will be properly trained and prepared for the new workplace. And what scares me most is that we know this to be true, and are simply ignoring the eventual outcome by continuing down this same pathetic path that provides only disincentives to be creative, innovative, collaborative, technologically inclined and competent, and figuring out more complex problems that are multi-disciplinary in nature.

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