Scaling Up, Mass Production and Wrong-Headedness in Education

** ADVANCE FOR SATURDAY MARCH 12 ** Third grader Terrell Haskins studies his class work at Bonsall School in Camden, N.J. Thu
** ADVANCE FOR SATURDAY MARCH 12 ** Third grader Terrell Haskins studies his class work at Bonsall School in Camden, N.J. Thursday, March 10, 2005. Schools in Camden are using a new program of standardized tests to help prepare students of the state's annual exam. (AP Photo/Brian Branch-Price)

The basic principle of American business is to find something that's needed, get investors to mass produce it and then sell it to millions. So the government created a need by passing a law mandating that we hold schools and teachers "accountable" by requiring students to take standardized (scaled-up) tests. They put federal dollars behind the law and created a gold-rush for education companies that were capable of producing and grading standardized tests. Hundreds of millions were paid out to the top two education firms McGraw-Hill and Pearson to inflict a terrible idea on public education in America.

Let me explain why. The very nature of "standardized" testing runs counter to the work of educators and to the notion of America as a haven for the individual worth of each human being. There are certain professions that are considered "high touch." Nursing, for example, is about patient care and "care" is the operative word. Nurses deliver human kindness to people who are not at the top of their game. A patient may want a glass of water, but getting it from a robot is not the same as interacting with another human being. Teaching is another "high touch" profession. Children learn because of the relationship established between them and their teacher. They see each other every day. They come to know each other intimately. A good teacher reveals herself to her students -- her passions, her standards, her caring for her students. Students at first do their lessons to please their teacher. A good teacher ultimately teaches students to do the hard work of learning to please themselves. This is how good students are made.

Think about it. If you remember the teacher who had the most influence on you, I'll wager you remember nothing of substance that you learned from him. You remember how he made you feel about yourself and about the learning process. You remember how you worked and how you achieved. Independent schools know this and value it. Each student is hand-crafted. There is no mass production and they don't take the standardized tests. These schools pride themselves on turning out individuals who are "college and career ready." They know there are no short-cuts, no efficiencies, no one-size fits all.

In other words, you can't "scale up" education. Learning is hard work that must be done by each individual. Fortunately, children are born to learn. Just watch what they accomplish the first two years of life. The mass-production of education to take the standardized tests puts the fear of failure into students and teachers. Make no mistake, learning doesn't happen without failure. When you embark on learning a new skill, you're not going to be very good at it when you start. Yet the emphasis from the culture created by the standardized test is that only correct answers are acceptable. This is insane! Schools should not foster a fear of failure; schools need to be a safe place to fail.

Finally, I want to challenge the assumption made by the corporate reformsters that there is a bell-shaped curve of teacher effectiveness. They can't believe how such a high-percentage of teachers can be evaluated as effective. So they need some kind of process that will produce a bell-shaped curve. Why not use student grades on the standardized tests to evaluate the teachers? How could they possibly think this will separate the wheat from the chaff? Is it because they come from a culture where an external motivator -- money and all that goes with it -- shapes the behavior of its participants? Teaching is a profession that is self-selective. Most people don't have the patience or interest to spend every day with 25 eight-year-olds. Only a certain kind of person has the talent and drive to develop the myriad interpersonal skills needed to shape the development of these children so they become fourth graders. A great teacher is not motivated by money, assuming she is paid a living wage. Her reward is the light she sees in the eyes of her students. It is pay-back for her revealed humanity, sacrifice and hard work. Such workers are to be cherished and supported and yet, (can you feel how hard I'm pounding these keys as I write?) these absolutely wrong-headed politicians are doing the exact opposite by imposing strict rubrics and punishments that are demoralizing teachers, destroying a generation of students and indelibly scarring the ones (both students and teachers) who manage to hang onto their souls as they barely survive.

The longer we wait before stopping this madness, the more the collateral damage piles up.