The Path of Education Reform
In their important work “Tinkering Toward Utopia,” authors Tyack and Cuban pointed out a persistent historical pattern in American education reform — our tendency to swing from one polar position to its opposite. The result, they pointed out, was often the worst of both worlds: one reform movement would just be getting underway on the ground when it would encounter the arrival on the policy stage of its opposite, with predictable chaos too often the consequence.
Let us try to learn from this history so as not to repeat it. Today there is an important reform movement underway with the support of unprecedented federal dollars. The entirely sound premise of this wave of reform is that unless we know how students are doing as measured against a high standard of learning, and unless we hold ourselves accountable for bringing ever more students to that standard, we will continue to be building educational policy on guesswork. Thus the unprecedented emphasis on developing national academic standards, on building the databases for analyzing student performance, and the push for new policies that hold teachers and principals accountable for students’ academic growth based on annual assessments.
But there is a strong “counter” movement, supported by many teachers, the schools of education that support them, and a sizable group of parents. Skeptical that multiple choice tests can capture the rich skills and knowledge that children should encounter, persuaded that the most effective learning often occurs in project and team-based environments, and doubtful that mathematical equations based on tests can ever be an adequate way to measure teacher performance, there is a profound belief that we are on the wrong track. What we need is to focus on critical thinking, metacognitive skills, and get away from test-prep.
Often these two positions become further polarized and politicized. At its extreme, the current national reform agenda can sound as if it believes that measuring something is, in itself, the answer to making education reform happen. But that is to mistake a thermometer for both a diagnosis and a treatment. Likewise, the anti-testing anti-data viewpoint risks embodying the view that children can teach themselves, and that any form of standardized evaluation is, by definition, “inauthentic.”
For the sake of our P-12 students, we need strongly to resist the temptation to reify these distortions. What is wrong is surely not testing per se, but narrow tests in only a couple of subjects that do not probe for real understanding. Building on the pioneering work done by Chancellor Klein in New York City, we should surely give our teachers, parents and students accurate information about their academic progress, yet be equally sure that we define that progress against challenging intellectual standards based on a demanding, rich, and engaging curriculum that teachers will be excited to teach. Teachers are given an extraordinary responsibility: we should honor that responsibility by recognizing our best teachers with professional advancement and, after appropriate efforts to support them, not retain our weakest teachers in the classroom. Finally, we should wherever possible embrace common sense: the time we provide in this country for learning is simply too short and the length of the summer break is especially destructive for underprivileged students.
I am naturally very pleased that, thanks to funding from the Race to the Top program, New York state will have important new resources to devote to education reform. The Board of Regents and I are determined to use these resources in ways that will have the most impact. We will not choose between a Scylla or a Charybdis, but rather work with parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, college faculty and our communities to build an outstanding curriculum, to provide both the clinical skills and the content knowledge our teachers need to be effective, to create better assessments grounded on the curriculum and linked directly to national standards, and to encourage districts to adopt new models of schooling that better serve their diverse populations. We will create the data systems we need to tell us how we are doing, data designed to measure real academic achievement. We will broaden the range of subjects that are given equal support through the K-12 years. We know that opening the door of learning for each and every child in our state is an extraordinary responsibility — worthy only of
our best thinking and most determined efforts. #
Dr. David Steiner is the New York State Commissioner of Education.