Saturday, November 2, 2013

More School Reform Follies

Well, it has happened again. Would-be “reformers” have just made public schooling even more reliant on high stakes testing. Pennsylvania policy makers have decided that before granting high schoolers a diploma, they must pass a quota of standardized tests supposedly measuring, “the skills crucial for the work force and college”.

A total of 10 state-designed exams will be administered as students complete corresponding high school courses in: algebra I, biology, literature, composition, algebra II, geometry, U.S. history, chemistry, civics and world history. To receive a diploma, students must pass at least 6. (Pennsylvania officials decided not to wait until graduation to do the testing. Perhaps they fear students will forget the “vital” skills they are supposed to have “learned”?)

One wonders why knowledge of these particular subjects is so “crucial for the work force and college.” Why, for instance, is chemistry more crucial than physics, geometry more crucial than statistics or world history more crucial than world geography? All three of these options are included in the standard high school core curriculum required for college. Perhaps state officials just resorted to eenie meenie miney moe.

Then there is the matter of goal priorities. Why do “work force and college related skills” trump everything else? Other goals might be more worthy. For instance, they could have emphasized strengthening democracy. It sure could use a shot in the arm. How about skills related to being a happier person, fostering greater compassion, aiding self-fulfillment, encouraging clearer thought, making better decisions, or even learning how to detect insincerity false piety and general bull shit? These goals seem far more worthy than fulfilling the imagined needs of some overpaid corporate executive or taking courses that college officials have decided you must take because of status concerns and faculty politics.

Of course, when school “reformers” glibly emphasize making “America” more competitive, they studiously avoid specifying which Americans will actually benefit and which will pay the costs. All boats will just float higher.

There is another difficulty that troubles all school “reform.” Often, one reform goals cannot be realized without relinquishing another. In fact, the pursuit of one goal can actually undermine another. Pursuing international competitiveness, for instance could actually undermine democracy, sabotage compassion and/or chip away at individual self-fulfillment. Yet “reformers” never address these, or any other, possible goal conflicts. Perhaps they actually believe we can have it all. Perhaps they just want us to believe that.

The truth is this high stakes test based “reform” business — and it truly is a multi-billion dollar business — has gotten completely out of hand. It is distorting instruction, intimidating and demoralizing teachers, disempowering school administrators, placing ridiculous burdens on special needs youngsters, demanding miracles from kids who are just learning English, putting private corporations in charge of public policy, boring bright kids and both dehumanizing and devitalizing the entire educational process. Despite all these negatives, though, it still is growing like crabgrass.

Elite schooling is exempt from all of this. One wonders why? Perhaps what suits future sheep is not thought appropriate for future shepherds.

To examine these issues further, see Power Failure: 
Why U.S. School Reform Persistently Misses the Mark

--- Gary K. Clabaugh, Ed. D.

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