Deck Chairs on the Titanic Failure of American Education

The shift from the wrong-headed policies of No Child Left Behind to the new Common Core and its tests is nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic failure of education in America.
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The well worn, one might say utterly trite, cliché is unavoidable: The shift from the wrong-headed policies of No Child Left Behind to the new Common Core and its tests is nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic failure of education in America.

I suppose some of the architects of both policies are well intended, albeit questionably qualified, although the influence of Pearson and other corporate entities should raise our national eyebrows. But the real problem is that neither of these approaches will ever work. As long as the conversation is boxed in by the concept of "standards" and "standardization," the die is cast.

One short blog post can't do justice to the myriad ways that these policies and practices violate understanding of child development and learning. I offer just a few.

Actual children, as opposed to the abstraction of children as seen in policy debate, are not "standard." Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of child development knows that children learn in different ways and different times. Some children "read" (meaning a very limited ability to recognize symbols) at age 3 or 4. I have known many students who did not read well until 8, 9 or, rarely, later. The potential (or ultimate achievement levels) of these children does not correlate with the date of reading onset.

It is rather like walking. Children who walk at 9 months do not become better runners than children who walk at 15 months. "Standardizing" the expectation of reading, and setting curricula and tests around this expectation, is like expecting a child to walk on her first birthday. If she doesn't, shall we get our national knickers in a knot, develop a set of walking tests, prescribe walking remediation, and, perhaps inadvertently, make her feel desperately inadequate? In the current climate, Pearson is ready to design walking curriculum and its companion tests. The Gates and Broad Foundations will create complementary instructional videos.

This variation in development continues long beyond early childhood. In response to a parent's concern about a 5th grader who didn't "get" long division, a teacher at my school pointed out that in his many years of teaching, not a single student failed to "get" it by 8th grade. Every good teacher knows that in any class, from the enviable small classes of my privileged private school, to the impossibly unwieldy classes in underfunded urban public schools, students will fall along a continuum that requires the material and the pedagogy to be flexible. Expecting great things from a standard curriculum and standard expectations is pure fantasy, whether the standards are based on mindless reiteration of material or much touted "critical thinking skills."

Equally misguided is the standardization of expectation in the form of a Common Core-centered pedagogy. Nearly all educators are at least marginally aware of the notion of multiple intelligences, most prominently put forth by Harvard's Howard Gardner in 1983. Since then his theory has been powerfully affirmed through advances in brain science. The implications for education are enormous. At the very least, most good teachers recognize the need for differentiated instruction, which at a base level uses a wider range of a child's particular strengths to lead them toward the learning we intend.

The Common Core and the practices it spawns ignore this reality of real children too. Learning environments (Not a euphemism... we don't have classrooms at my school. Classrooms are too often sterile, unpleasant places for children.) must allow for apprehension using a wide range of "intelligences." Children learn through all their senses, often in very different, counterintuitive ways. At Landmark College, where bright students with learning differences finally thrive, I've seen essay writing taught through dance.

If policy makers and test writers had even rudimentary knowledge of rich individual differences, they would know that any standard test is unfair and, ultimately, useless. Just as children learn in very different ways, they express mastery in many different ways. The Common Core tests (and I've suffered the experience of wading through the many samples provided in the media) assume that all its takers process information in the same way, have the identical mix of cognitive and sensory abilities, and can, therefore, "compete" on level ground. This is nonsensical and damaging. Some of the most brilliant people I know would grind to a suffocating halt after trying to parse the arcane nonsense in a small handful of these questions. Even the math questions assume a homogeneous ability to understand the questions and a precisely common capacity for reasoning and concluding.

I could go on: Stress inhibits learning, so we design stressful expectations; dopamine (from pleasurable activities) enhances learning, so we remove joy from schools; homework has very limited usefulness with negative returns after an hour or so (for elementary age kids), so we demand more hours of work; the importance of exercise in brain development is inarguable, so we eliminate recess and gym; the arts are central to human understanding, but we don't have time.

I have been accused of complaining but not offering solutions, so here's a solution: Properly fund schools and allow good teachers to select the materials and pedagogy that serve the actual students in their care. The rest will take care of itself.

And we can take the billions we're wasting on NCLB, RTTT, Common Core and other nonsense and spend it to improve the lives of the shameful number of children who live in poverty in the "richest nation on Earth."

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