As usual, educational policy makers are hard at work trying to solve our biggest educational problems with big concepts. In recent years we have all heard phrases like “No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top,” “Research-based Reading Instruction,” “Common Core Standards,” and many more. Every one of these phrases is associated with one big idea everyone certainly agrees on: Let’s provide effective education for all students so that they can graduate ready to succeed in the world. But having the right big idea, or having enough big ideas, isn’t our problem. It is all the complicated realities that come between the big ideas and the actual teaching of actual human beings that seem to confound us.
Let us examine some of the assumptions behind some of these policies, and the consequences that follow. One assumption behind No Child Left Behind was that many educators just weren’t being held accountable. Another assumption was that too many schools were using unproven, ineffective curricula or teaching methods. One major reason for the huge expansion in testing in the last two decades was to increase accountability on all fronts. The idea was that we had to identify which students in which schools were failing in which ways at which points in the process if we were going to fix our educational failures. When we had the answers, we could get rid of the bad teachers and/or the bad administrators and/or the bad curricula, and we would be OK. You can’t fault the logic.
That is, you can’t fault the logic as long as the results support it. During the last dozen or so years almost every administrator and every teacher, and almost all publishing companies and curriculum designers have focused on achieving positive test results. After all, their livelihoods depended on it. However, after all these years of intense testing in almost every school system, improvement in student performance has been minimal. By now it is pretty evident that many educators are doing what they are told and doing it conscientiously and that many of their students still fall behind. So who do you blame, what do you get rid of and how to do you fix things? If we are not careful, someone will decide – logically but wrongly – that the tests were bad and what we need is a whole different set of tests. Then we can start the merry-go-round all over again.
A kind of corollary has developed from the recent emphasis on testing, and now the present emphasis on Common Core Standards. This corollary is unintended and unacknowledged, but it is real. Here it is: all students should learn the same things in the same time frame and preferably in the same way. To most people who have taught school, it would seem foolish to make this assumption. However, if you focus on the reality of what the policies require, this kind of uniformity is hard to avoid.
In most school systems in recent years, specific reading goals are set for each grade and progress toward these goals is measured at least every few weeks. Teachers are pressured to focus on these measurements. Students who have many different profiles and backgrounds all take the same tests. If different groups of students are taught essentially the same material but in a different sequence, that sequence cannot vary by more than a few weeks.
Some people feel that this rigidity does not have to limit teaching methodology, but in reality it does. Consider one of the current big ideas in reading instruction – Response to Intervention. Under RTI, struggling students receive a series of interventions that may well culminate in a kind of instruction that is very different than the one they were first given. If, for example, that final intervention includes a structured multisensory phonics program, often students have to take a few steps back and build a new, more solid foundation before they can move forward effectively. Meanwhile, schools often continue to administer the same tests to these students as to all the others, and the teachers using this intervention feel pressured to teach to the test, whether or not the tested material coincides with the intervention program.
Another interesting example of testing affecting teaching methodology was revealed in a national news story recently. Educators in Danville, Kentucky were praising the effectiveness of project-based teaching methods, but also admitted there would be conflicts with standards and standardized tests. Consider the following situation, a group of teachers using a project-based approach to science or social studies may take a much different route over a very different time frame than they would if they followed a series of specified texts. Along the way they could be cited for not following the standards, even though in the end, their students might achieve a higher level of mastery of the same, or very similar, material.
Other strange conflicts between reasonable goals and realistic implementation develop all the time in our school systems, although we won’t try to list them all here. Our suggestion for solving these kinds of conflicts is to apply some common sense to the whole process. Yes, minimum standards are needed and are good. Yes, both teachers and students need to be held accountable. Yes, measurements need to be taken and used. However, students are complex beings that can vary greatly from individual to individual, and educating students is a complex process. You simply have to remain flexible, or you are guaranteed to always leave some children behind.
With the help of very intelligent and well-intentioned policy-makers, our society has created a large number of large organizations, called school systems, that find it difficult, if not impossible, to be both responsible and flexible at the same time. If you want to educate large numbers of complicated, somewhat unpredictable human beings, called students, you have to be BOTH flexible and responsible.
We have heard the President and the Secretary of Education separately say in interviews, that perhaps we need to be a little more flexible in the earlier grades, while still maintaining high standards for promotion and graduation in later grades. However, in most schools in recent years, students in grades K-3 have been given numerous standardized assessments very frequently. Now the Common Core Standards, as outlined at www.corestandards.org, have become quite detailed for the earliest grades. This level of detail may not be intended to limit choices in teaching methods, but it easily can. If it does, will these limitations help or hurt the big idea called the Third Grade Reading Guarantee?
The Big Ideas should be helping teachers and students, not getting in their way. We do not need to give up on the Big Ideas – but we do need to lighten up on them. Let’s all take a deep breath and focus on the living, breathing students we are all responsible for. Indeed, we need high school graduates who are capable, responsible and productive, so we need high standards for our 18 year olds. But we also need flexibility for our 8 year olds if we want them to do their best.