Schools Need a Moratorium on Fear

The Gates Foundation recently took a half step forward. It reversed course and endorsed a two-year moratorium on stakes attached to tests during the transition to Common Core.

Regardless of what someone thinks about national standards, it should have always been obvious, No Moratorium, No Common Core. It should be equally clear, No Testing Moratorium, No Transition to College-Readiness Instruction.

I once supported Common Core and my experience as an inner-city teacher argues for the importance of an engaging college readiness curriculum. I don't care whether we call it Common Core, career readiness, college prep or whatever, poor children of color deserve the same opportunity to master a holistic curriculum which emphasizes analysis, synthesis, arts integration and problem-solving.

If corporate reformers were not so mistrustful of teachers, they would have helped produce better standards, lessons, and assessments to teach and learn with. But, they imposed tests to teach to. Without stakes attached to testing, reformers could not have continued their campaign to micromanage instruction.

My experience also shows that some reformers will misuse the word "rigor," and use "college readiness" as justification for speeding up their test and punish assembly line.

The Gates announcement followed an excellent analysis by the Washington Post's Lyndsey Layton. "How Bill Gates Pulled Off the Swift Common Core Revolution" explains that two men met with Bill Gates in 2008 and asked for his support of rigorous national standards. After a brief discussion within the foundation, a full court press in favor of Common Core was launched. This was done in spite the social science research questioning whether better standards were likely to improve schools. (This explains just one reason why I believe in better standards, but I can no longer support national standards, but that is a different issue.)

Soon after the Gates moratorium proposal was announced, the New York Times' Javier Hernandez, in "Common Core, in 9-Year-Old Eyes," placed a human face on the consequences of the foundation's hurried top-down reform.

Nine-year-old Haitian immigrant Chrispin Alcindor had been a "model student," but he has now joined the crowd of poor children whose confidence is "fragile and frayed." The story is full of adults who embrace higher standards and do whatever they can to meet the challenge of Common Core standards. No parent or teacher in the story displayed "low expectations," or sought to stress out children during the transition to more rigorous standards.

The problem in that story is Common Core testing. "If I don't pass the test," Chrispin, "I will feel miserable and never come out of my room." The child is preoccupied with avoiding summer school, the punishment which will be assessed if he doesn't progress fast enough. "In his mind, it was a jail, a grave place devoid of friends, family ..."

I doubt many readers will conclude that the likely benefits of Common Core instruction are outweighing the damage done by the anxiety that Common Core testing is doing. I hope readers, and perhaps even the Gates Foundation, will understand that the articles in the Post, the Times, and the reports about 3rd graders vomiting due to the fear of failure is the inevitable result of the original sin of accountability-driven reform.

True believers in data-driven reform ignore the first rule of systemic school improvement -- the feces rolls downhill. The testing toxicity dumped on administrators flows down on teachers, and it inevitably pollutes children's learning environments.

I know that many districts will not dare use the moratorium to return to holistic instruction. Real world, many systems will continue to respond to data-driven accountability by circling the wagons, boring basic skills worksheets, and statistical gamesmanship

But, we could use a moratorium to explain why we must stop trying to use the stress of high-stakes testing to force schools to overcome the stresses of poverty that undermine teaching and learning. We must speak the truth that urban districts haven't tried to utter. To improve our schools, we need a Moratorium on Fear.

To serve our students, we need a moratorium on worrying about test results. We must ignore the accountability anxiety that warps instruction. We need a moratorium on thinking about so-called "outcomes." Our educators must block test scores out of their minds and use data for diagnostic, instructional purposes.