THE PROBLEMS WITH EDUCATION REFORM
Boston Globe/ Op Ed
May 4, 1998
The first phase of mandatory state testing begins tomorrow at my school, but I will not be there. I am boycotting school tomorrow as my personal protest against educational reforms that have largely been a travesty.
It is true that the MTA--my union--signed on to the reforms for various reasons, including increased school funding. It rightly endorsed the principles of recertification and professional development for teachers. Without good teachers, little progress can be made. Still, through it all, very few classroom teachers have ever been asked by the media what they think about education reform. Here are some of the problems:
The MCAS Exams
This spring, students across the state will sacrifice 16 hours of valuable classroom instruction on the alter of "reform," an irony difficult to reconcile. They will be taking pre-tests of the new state (MCAS) exams that soon will actually determine if students graduate from high school. The number of testing hours is excessive--almost abusive, as the state Board of Education tacitly acknowledged when it recently agreed to reduce the testing load for 4th graders and for some 10th graders who hadn't even studied the history test material.
These expensive exams will only confirm what we already know, namely, that socio-economic factors shape patterns of academic achievement.Moreover, the MCAS exams will exact costs beyond precious tax dollars. The price of holding teachers more accountable though this kind of instrument will be more "teaching to the test" and less creative pedagogy. Also look for students to cram more and to inquire, question, discuss, and think less. Many teachers who have seen some of the pre-test questions, ask whether the kids are being set up for failure to further validate the testing fever.
Should a child's entire future be determined by just one imperfect instrument of assessment? What about class grades, reports, discussions, simulations, terms papers--all of which reflect different academic strengths. What exactly will be done with all the students who fail? Are the resources sufficient to remediate them? Has this been thought through?
The Curriculum Frameworks
Originally, the proposed curriculum frameworks and exams were designed to ensure that every school taught and every student learned the skills essential to each discipline. "Content" exams were to be avoided so that the scope and sequence of courses in all schools would not be standardized and so a semblance of local control could be preserved. Hundreds of teachers put in thousands of hours shaping these first curriculum framework proposals.
This all changed when Dr. Silber was appointed state Board of Education chair. After removing all those on the Board or in the Department of Education who did not share his political agenda, the reform process was centralized. A few teachers with the correct ideological disposition were still allowed into the inner- sanctum, and continued their work--in secret. Official claims to the contrary, the democratic process became a sham. When this occurred, the public conversation necessary to decide on how best to implement the Reform Act was abruptly terminated.
Several of the revised "curriculum frameworks" which emerged--particu-larly English/Language Arts and Social Studies--seem arbitrary, rigid, or overloaded to many teachers. The Social Studies framework also offers particular problems, for it raises the spectre of an "official" version of our past, in this case written by a conservative group.
Time & Learning Regulations
In response to the perception that American students needed to catch up with their European and Asian peers, the state Board of Education, in 1994, voted to require high school students.to spend 990 hours each year in "structured learning time."
However, most school districts do not have the money, nor do most school days have sufficient hours, to satisfy the rule. Instead, beleaguered schools (including some of the most affluent) have created artful dodges around the rule's original intent: structured learning in classrooms, with teachers present. Now anything goes. But the public shouldn't be too angry with the widespread evasions. If the rule actually were strictly observed, more stressed-out students. The lesson here: the "990" rule is not a good, healthy, practical regulation.
Meaningful education reform cannot come through quick fixes, imperiously mandated from above. Exams are not a panacea. Still, there are public school systems that are currently failing their students. The reasons are complicated (inadequate funding, poverty, single-parent families, drugs, crime, violence, and other more subtle "hidden injuries of class"). Targeted state involvement is appropriate to set help set things right. But change takes time, as Boston University learned when it took over the Chelsea schools. Students there scored quite poorly on the final round of the MEAP tests, even after years of BU assistance.
There is a road to reform that lies wide open. Though largely unreported, there are many public schools that do work very well. These schools could serve as models for less successful ones. Unfortunately, mandated reforms are threatening to reduce them to standardized rubble. Here's one example: at Lincoln-Sudbury, we offer a rich program of history electives which will probably have to be replaced with more generic survey classes. Who benefits when good schools have to dumb-down or become less interesting?
By all means, let's fix inadequate schools, and remove ineffective teachers through tough in-school evaluation procedures. But that's not the only lesson in school today. Let's all go to the board and write a hundred times: "Effective reform must challenge but must also communicate a love for children. It must be joyous, not grim. It does not maim the morale of young students. It does not handcuff teachers to curricula imposed upon them. It does not usurp local control, a democratic tradition older than the country itself. It does not exalt a testing culture over cultivation of a love of learning. It does not make excellent schools worse."
Bill Schechter has taught history at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional H.S. for the past 24 years.