When the politicians take charge of education
Marshall Helmberger

We’re now catching a glimpse of the consequences of allowing politicians and government policy makers to determine how kids are educated here in the U.S.— and it isn’t pretty.

Since passage of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, schools across the country have shifted dramatically towards the use of standardized testing to gauge the effectiveness of educators.

It’s a policy that the Obama administration has, unfortunately, also heartily endorsed and advanced through the administration’s own initiative, known as Race to the Top.

The focus on testing has inevitably brought with it calls for what is known as “the common core,” a set of standardized curricula that would, in theory, provide every student moving through the educational assembly line with an identical base of facts and skills. These curricula, of course, closely aligned with the standards of each state’s testing regime— because, after all, it’s about teaching to the test.

All of this standardization might be useful, if schools were, in fact, assembly lines and our objective was to produce an endless stream of identical widgets. But those of us with kids know that every one of them is unique, with distinct interests and aptitudes. We also know that when you try to teach them something (like turning off the lights when they leave a room) when they aren’t interested, you may as well be talking to the wall.

Not surprisingly, we’re seeing some educational chickens coming home to roost. While most kids start out eager to learn and remain reasonably well engaged in school in the elementary grades, by the time they hit junior high their interest is flagging. By high school, a majority of students are disengaged from the learning process.

Those aren’t just anecdotal observations. For the past four years, the Gallup organization has surveyed 500,000 students across the country on a few key educational measures— and the results are frightening, according to Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Gallup’s Education division.

Busteed is most concerned about the steep decline in measures of student engagement, from an average of 77 percent in the elementary grades, to just 44 percent in high school. Busteed calls it a “monumental, collective national failure.”

It might be fair to ask, “so what?” Haven’t students always been bored in high school, and required to learn things in which they had little interest?

The answer, of course, is yes. And that’s true, in part, because the factory-model of education has been in place for at least a century here in the U.S. The trouble is, those schools didn’t work very well in the past, and they’re even less effective today because we’re emphasizing the worst aspects of the factory model, namely standardization.

It’s worth noting that few educators believe this is a good way, much less the best way, to teach kids. The focus on standardization and testing has come mostly from politicians who, for various reasons, see political benefit from the current push for educational “accountability.”

As anyone who reads this editorial page regularly knows, I’m a firm believer in accountability. But I prefer actual accountability, not the phony kind that’s meant to burnish a politician’s image while causing real damage behind the scenes.

And real damage is what we’re seeing. Gallup’s Busteed doesn’t pull any punches in his blog post that accompanied the recent survey results (see thegallupblog.gallup. com/2013/01/the-school-cliff-student-engagement.html). He writes: “There are several things that might help to explain why this is happening— ranging from our overzealous focus on standardized testing and curricula to our lack of experiential and project-based learning pathways for students.”

When kids are given the opportunity to learn things that actually interest them, their engagement increases. Which reminds me of a quote from one late educator, who was fond of recounting his experiences in the classroom, noting: “If the kids wanted to learn, we couldn’t stop ‘em. If they didn’t, we couldn’t make ‘em.”

It’s a simple observation that helps explain why Gallup even bothers to survey student engagement. It turns out that one of the key indicators in engagement, a simple thing called hope, is a better predictor of student success than SAT or ACT scores, GPAs, or standardized test scores. A student with a high level of hope is a student that’s bound for success, often in spite of their experience in school.

We don’t give kids hope by taking away their autonomy and forcing them to conform to a rigid educational straitjacket that in most cases isn’t meeting their needs, challenging their critical thinking skills, or preparing them to be productive members of society.

Or productive members of the economy, notes Busteed, who is equally concerned about the amount of potential entrepreneurial talent that is being wasted by our current educational approach. According to Gallup’s survey, 45 percent of students say they want to start their own business someday, yet a mere five percent are spending so much as an hour a week in an outside work activity, such as interning or job shadowing. “We not only fail to embrace entrepreneurial students in our schools, we actually neutralize them,” writes Busteed. It’s probably no coincidence that some of our most successful entrepreneurs— think Steve Jobs or Bill Gates— were college or high school dropouts.

While many teachers are trying to hold off the tide of standardization, the pressure just keeps building. Teachers are told they can’t stop it and should just give up and conform, all of which has the effect of lowering the engagement of teachers as well, and pushing many of the best ones out of the profession entirely.

It’s going to take pushback from the public, particularly parents and students, who need to stand up to the politicians in both parties who are willing to sacrifice our kids’ education simply to make it appear they are doing “something” about our schools. At this rate, they’d be better off doing nothing.

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Although the U.S. Constitution never mentions the word "education," the U.S. Department of Education was formed in 1979 during the Carter administration. Many think the decline in learning started then and believe educational decisions by the state and local governments would better prepare students for college and highly specialized careers.

After experiencing the problems and failures of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, the federal bureaucracy has come up with still another approach to teaching whose aim is to revolutionize the classroom. Under Common Core, teachers will teach to fewer standards, with emphasis placed on lessons that promote problem solving and critical thinking skills. Teachers must draw out from students why an answer is correct and get them to offer fuller explanations for everthing they study. Instead of a quiet classroom when the teacher gives a lesson, the goal is a dynamic classroom environment with more student input and collaboration.

When reading "To Kill a Mockingbird," students will read articles on the Great Depression, gender, race, and other ideas prevalent at that time. However, these extra lessons will require teachers to eliminate other fictional works that are now part of the curriculum.

Very controversial is the de-emphasis on taking Algebra I by the eighth grade. In some districts nearly every eighth-grader has more than 80 minutes of daily instruction in order to prepare them for more rigorous math and science coursework in high school. Common Core's philosopy is to build a lengthier prealgebra foundation in middle school.

As you might imagine, Common Core requires a good deal of teacher retraining. To that end, in one large district of 54,000 students, 44 teachers are spending this entire school year away from the classrooms. They are charged with revising the curriculum to better align with the new learning objectives. Although many teachers are already incorporating Common Core concepts in their lessons, the formal rollout over the next two years involves English and Math with the expectation that other core subjects will be added later.

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