No Teacher Left Empowered

Bills in both the House and Senate promise to bring No Child Left Behind (NCLB) back into the national debate this week. NCLB should have been rewritten in 2007, but the debate regarding our children's schooling has turned so poisonous that, eight years later, it's a small miracle that Congress might actually attempt repairs on this very broken law. When NCLB introduced pervasive standardized testing in the name of teacher accountability, the government dreamed that this quantitative feedback would improve education for all. To the contrary, the most significant result of NCLB, apart from further damaging our education system, was to quantify massive achievement gaps between regions and races in the U.S., putting a dagger through the heart of any argument that the U.S. educational system was, in the least bit, equitable. Always remember, too, that more than half of all public school students in our country live in poverty today. This statistic is heartbreaking and staggering, for it means that we face fundamental human challenges, from nutrition and transportation to home-school consistency, well before we can even begin to consider topics such as school curricula.

So we can be thankful that Congress is turning its attention back to NCLB; but, alas, the proposed solution fails to remove the poison. The proposal is to de-federate NCLB: each state chooses, on its own, whether to tie teacher accountability to standardized test scores. Yet details in the proposed provisions still connect teacher bonuses and merit pay to test scores, continuing the absurd feedback loop of NCLB, where teachers are forced to concentrate on test scores rather than student learning, for the sake of their own financial security.

Three real issues need to be addressed now, and the one silver lining of the legislative action is that we, the citizens, are about to become far more effective than before at catalyzing real change. First, NCLB-style accountability disempowers teachers. Standards and tests are supposed to be baseline reality checks that do not get in the way of teachers' creative development of engaging, inspiring classroom experiences. But they have bloated to the point that there is no room left in the classroom for teacher creativity; instead, the standards and their related tests are an impossible spec that teachers have no choice but to execute to the letter. Without creative space, teachers feel like robots with no room for individual expression, and out the window goes any sense of classroom ownership and personal empowerment. No wonder teacher turnover rates are depressingly high.

Second, tests and standards have balkanized learning. By deconstructing the art of integrated learning into classes, subclasses and narrow performance benchmarks, our accountability "fix" forces the educational system to pull apart learning into atomic bits and pieces, each of which is drilled, tested and measured in a vacuum. Imagine teaching cooking by having a separate class on breaking eggs and on using stovetop controls. The student is not only utterly demotivated, since breaking egg after egg leads nowhere; but the student also never, really, learns to cook and enjoy an omelet.

Third, technology has devolved from a raw material for learning into its own, isolated subject. By concentrating on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) as The Critical Failure of our school systems, rhetoric surrounding school reform overemphasizes siloes of learning, and in particular technology literacy, rather than providing students with the creative skill to build strong narratives in every discipline, using technology as expressive media. Technology without focus creates skill without soul, and in a future world of chronic underemployment that does not prepare the U.S. for the international, creative-technology future landscape we must face.

What can be done about these three ills, and how do we take advantage of the Congressional review just underway? The good news is that vesting states with the power to control testing and accountability pushes the debate to a more local sphere, and in this smaller village your voice carries far more effect than ever it could on the national stage. The path to a better educational system starts with well-informed parents; so: inform yourselves! My short book, Parenting for Technology Futures, provides primers on standards, testing, accountability, STEM politics and digital learning, with the aim of preparing every parent to constructively team with teachers and administrators hyperlocally. Diane Ravitch's book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, tells the story of school reform trends, and how Ravitch herself helped forward testing and accountability policies that she has since regretted. How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough, describes remarkable learning results on the importance of grit and character, and goes on to quantify undeniable achievement gaps that we all must fight to close. Finally, The Parent App, by Lynn Clark, provides a cultural study of how parents and children across varying income levels negotiate the use of digital media, including TV, smartphones and the Internet.

In education, as in many other areas of national significance, quick fixes fail. Congress will, doubtless, aim for a quick fix this month, but in the details of their plan there may, finally, be room for each of us to have a more powerful individual voice, at least in our municipalities and in our states. Your action matters more than ever, and our children and grandchildren deserve far better than we have provided.