Despite complaints that NCLB has reduced classrooms to one-size-fits all test prep environments, my perspective is that our classrooms have mostly always been, with a few exceptions, one-size-fits all teaching spaces. In working at all three levels of Pk-12, elementary educators do seem more likely to create spaces where students have resource material choices, opportunities to work collaboratively and participate in a variety of groupings, and experience differentiated activities. Secondary education classrooms still look a lot like the schools of my youth.
.I don’t blame educators because we, most all of us, teach the way we were taught. Unlike medical schools, our colleges of education don’t offer simulation centers where education majors can work in controlled situations under highly trained, expert practitioner professionals. Unless through the luck of the draw in student teaching assignments, they also get little or no opportunity to learn how to work in redesigned learning spaces, use a systems approach to manage options and choices in using tools and resources, teach social and personal learning responsibility, and use a continuum of strategies from direct instruction to facilitation of independent and collaborative learners at work.
Instead, schools of education tend to pitch young educators into a variety of “on the job” experiences with supervising teachers who may range from great expertise to being pretty bad models. When novices walk through our doors, unless a cognitive coaching model is in place, they often find themselves on their own, at the mercy of more experienced educators who may or may not choose or be able to assist them through the most at risk teaching years, from 0- 4.
I want to be clear. I don’t see those who work in our schools at fault for not changing practices, particularly since the advent of the 20th century’s educational reform movement. As a nation, we’ve maintained structures in schools of education and the public school system that sustain tradition, schools of our past. We hold onto that which we know and with which we are most comfortable. The biggest difference often in the lives of children who attended schools twenty years ago or today is not classroom arrangement, the use of resources, the way learners are grouped or labeled, the testing and reporting systems, or the teaching. In reality …
The biggest difference is in the imposition over the last decade of one size fits all test prep curricula and standardized multiple choice measures that states use to hold educators accountable for student achievement. Of course, multiple choice tests have been around a long time. I took them as a high school student a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. So did my son when he was in high school. If we wiped out today all the millions and millions of state-required bubble sheets that kids fill in annually, I bet kids would still be doing lots of teacher or district made multiple choice tests in their classes tomorrow. We might like to think in the good old days we were all doing passion-driven, hands-on,minds-on, problem-based, project learning with authentic and performance assessments, but experience says that mostly wasn’t true.
Today’s kids typically still sit in hard seats, listen to a teacher at the board, do worksheets, and read textbooks. The big difference is we expect them to achieve at higher levels and drop out less than their peers of decades past. And, in truth, despite the media’s portrayal of a failed system, educators can and have improved standardized test results and dropout rates in many, if not almost all schools, across the country. It’s not as hard as you think – alignment of the tested and taught curricula will boost test results. That’s been proven. Our schools aren’t really failing based on test scores, but they are failing kids when it comes to what the President thinks America[s schools should do well. We all know it. Why doesn't he? "It’s why our students don’t just memorize equations, but answer questions like “What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up? (State of the Union, 2011)”
We know that boosting multiple choice test results is the wrong outcome if we really want a lot of kids- for argument's sake, let's say ALL means ALL- who can imagine, design, build, create, engineer, invent, produce, collaborate, make, compose, critique, and theorize. In reality, most curricula, assessment, and instruction were never designed around those indicators of success. That kind of work most often used to occur outside of school, under the shade tree learning mechanics, in extra-curricula activities such as Destination Imagination, or in special gifted and talented classes exemplified by De Bono's, Torrance's, or Renzulli's instructional design models. If that's the work we want all learners to accomplish, then we need to design an educational system that will accomplish it. I don't think it's rocket science or that it would even demand the resources we needed to put a human on the moon or fight a few wars over the last couple of decades. It's a matter of purposeful will.
It's fascinating that those, such as our President and his Department of Education, and others who impose today's accountability measures aren't trying to change the educational system invented by Cubberley and friends in the early part of the 20th century. The corporate types of that era needed people to go to work in factories. So, yesterday's schools became factory training programs. Makes sense, right?
But, the President said in his last State of the Union speech that .."What we can do -- what America does better than anyone else -- is spark the creativity and imagination of our people. We’re the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook. In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It is how we make our living. ."
The corporate types involved in running education today are trying to scientifically manage our schools based upon an industrial model that no longer exists, not one that sparks what the President envisions as "imaginators" in our schools, educators and learners alike.Today's learners need to acquire a breadth and depth of knowledge and skill that Cubberley could not have envisioned in 1910. Most of the competencies on today's workforce lists weren't even there ten years ago, let alone a century ago. The world has changed. The economy has changed. The technology has changed. But, our schools, for the most part, are not that different.
In 2012, it would be inspiring for people in charge to put their resources behind radical redesign of the system, rather just pour money into "innovations" that, in truth, are just rehashed management by inspection models. We need 1950s style Bell Laboratory R and D teams to get to work on redesign post haste. Here's what I think would accomplish the beginnings of work towards such a redesign. We need to figure out how to ...
- start with the idea that the educational system has been destroyed and begin to design for now, not yesterday,
- create and fund appropriate and effective safety nets of services for children who live in poverty,
- make a palette of tools, classroom environments, learning spaces, learning choices, and broadband connectivity accessible to learners in and outside of schools,
- use locally-controlled and scored performance assessments to account for learning,
- develop local curricula designed to increase passion, curiosity, interest, commitment,and drive among learners and their teachers,
- elevate the education profession nationally so American youth are proud to make teaching a first choice career.
If we start work now, we might be well on our way to a more productive, efficient, and effective learning system for our young people - by the end of the decade. It's possible. After all, we did put a human on the moon once upon a time.