Challenging Standards And Student Assessments In Every State

Challenging Standards And Student Assessments In Every State

As the nation rightly focuses on issues and events affecting our foreign policy and defense, one major element of domestic policy remains to be resolved. And it deserves our attention. Our states and their leaders have successfully pioneered many of the policies now considered essential for the rest of the nation. Our No. 1 priority, in fact, is the successful implementation of challenging standards and student assessments in every state.


Our national insistence that schools get their collective act together is a good thing. But our focus must remain on the urgent needs of children today, and that requires choice of schools. Without choices, good intention lack motivation.


Students who are attending failing or mediocre schools, even schools with the best intention of improving, will remain trapped there because ZIP codes dictate their attendance. When students are unable to find a better school to suit their needs, not only are the children trapped, but also the school has little reason for urgent improvement. In a system where everyone must stay where they are regardless of quality, there is little reason to fix the problems.


It has been argued that we need to give schools time to put these new standards and accountability mechanisms in place – that they can’t be held accountable overnight.


None of us want our own child in a subpar school, much less one where the majority of students can’t read. Should parents of these children wait while the school redoubles its efforts? Of course not. And none of us with the means to move our children from a poor school to an effective school would choose to stay where our child wasn’t learning.


Our faith in education as an enterprise — one in which the young are initiated into the aspects of our culture which we deem worthy of preservation — has been undermined by an education establishment committed to progressive, child-centered approaches, and by politicians gullible enough to give them house room.


The vested interests that stand in the way of reform are so strong — and they are strong. By “vested interests” I mean those academics committed to the child-centered ideologies to which I’ve just referred; the bureaucrats who do very nicely, thank you very much, out of the present system as it’s currently organized and managed; and the teacher unions who, supporting — as they see it — the interests of their members, have done their very best to frustrate each and every reform that has been mounted by government over the last decade or two. Those are the two reasons why we have problems that we have.


Parents became more and more worried about the fact that their children weren’t learning to read and write. Employers became more and more worried that when they had job vacancies, they couldn’t fill those vacancies with anybody who was half presentable or half competent to do the job.


In practice, the political aspiration was corrupted, as it so often is, by educationalists charged with its implementation. But the principles were good, and those principles are worth a moment’s reflection.


Decide what we want schools to do, give them the space to get on and do it, and then hold them accountable for their performance. The accountability is the crucial last bit of the jigsaw.

Further, the fact that we were identifying the schools that were making a difference, where there was excellent practice, meant two things: It meant we had a base of the dissemination of good practice, and it meant also that we could ask that crucial and searching question: Why, if this school can do it, is the school down the road not doing it?


But if that’s the positive, then the negative — although I don’t actually think it is negative, because until a problem’s been brought out into the open, how can anybody think a solution is ever going to be found?


Of course, we didn’t actually use that blunt word failure — we preferred to wrap it up in a typically euphemism and say that these schools were “requiring special measures”. But nevertheless, they were failed schools. And many of them had failed generations of pupils.


I used to visit many of these schools and the message was, yes, we knew that there was problem, but, no, nobody had the energy, the bottle, the guts, the drive to do anything about it. It was the act of inspection and the judgment — yes, the judgment — of failure that was the catalyst, the necessary catalyst for action. The prospect of an inspection — and this is other side of the coin from the “stress” argument — the prospect of inspection certainly concentrated minds. A bit like execution, I know, but it did. Things got done that wouldn’t otherwise have been done, and that’s good.


And also, the strength and the weaknesses in the school, to be brought out by an independent team — that kind of consultancy did help heads to plan for the future, although on that one, I have to say that it takes two to tango. I can remember at conference after conference, standing up giving my speech and then taking the questions. And one question that you could always predict, the one statement that you could always predict, was from a head teacher who would say, “Well, the inspection’s a complete waste of money.”


And I used to think to myself, well, you know, maybe he’s right — maybe he had a dud team, maybe we got it wrong. But then, maybe (I thought), he looks pretty smug, he looks pretty complacent, and that perhaps is the problem – that he didn’t have the professional honesty and courage to recognize that maybe the inspectors had got it right, and that he was living in some fool’s cloud cuckoo land. Because I don’t know about you — maybe this is just me — but certainly the older I get, the greater the capacity I think all human beings have for self-delusion.

And maybe it is quite a good thing for someone to come along occasionally and say, “Yeah, you’re right — this over here is pretty good, but no, you’re kidding yourself — these things over here are not up to scratch.” So that’s a good thing about inspections, too.


We also, incidentally, inspected local education authorities. We exposed failures in teacher training, and we were just having a discussion down here about teacher training. I worry very much about teacher training and I think it’s important to reveal to everybody just what’s happening and we opened up — to go back to that parent theme — the secret garden so that parents knew what was happening. And in so doing, we made choice a reality.


Now, those achievements are important. But they weren’t as impressive as they should have been, and I do worry about the future. Why weren’t they as impressive? Because an inspection system is only as good as the inspectors who are working within it.


And many of our inspectors — perhaps inevitably, but it’s still a problem — went into classrooms trailing their own ideological baggage behind them, and that baggage was often progressive and child-centered.


We had inspectors working for us who didn’t think that phonics instruction was crucial to learning to read; inspectors who were more interested in geography as a vehicle for the enhancement of thinking skills than they were in capital cities; inspectors who didn’t have much time for multiplication tables, and so on.


The new learning initiative requires of all people far more than just basic skills. It requires creativity, flexibility, collaboration, and the practical skills of the entrepreneur. These higher order skills are more effectively learned and developed in the rich, collaborative, problem-solving, but uncertain world of apprentice-type learning than ever they can be in the formal classroom, with its inevitable emphasis on abstract tasks and predictable results.


I used to teach English. I used to teach Shakespeare, Macbeth. I never knew what the “result” of teaching Macbeth was going to be. I remember that line in Macbeth, “To know the deed, ’twere best not know myself,” which I think is pivotal to the whole play — Macbeth is thinking about how he is going to live the rest of his life with the conscience that he has following the murder of Duncan — and talking to students about how they responded to that. A formal classroom, yes, but, the results were never predictable.


What sort of schools do we want for tomorrow? Is this how you see your institutions?


The basic assumption underpinning the national curriculum is that the present and future needs of pupils, and the needs of the society in which they live, are best served by the study of an arbitrary collection of predominantly academic subjects. This highly questionable assumption should be at the forefront of any serious thinking concerning future developments of the school curriculum.


For me, education is about handing on to the next generation those things that we deem to be worth preserving in our culture, which means an understanding of history and mathematics and science.


These aren’t a collection of “arbitrary academic subjects,” and I certainly don’t think the alternative stacks up to much serious intellectual scrutiny. May I share it with you?


We all live on the great dynamic web of change. If knowledge is an artifact, and innovation is the result of interaction on the web, then the way for us to better manage change is to become acquainted with the interactive process.


Last night I thought about that answer that Hemingway gave when asked what makes a great novelist. His answer was, “All great novelists have built-in crap detectors.” And I think that is what the educationalist needs these days.


Because whilst the politicians might wax lyrical about the need for information as to what’s happening in schools, they like the good news, they don’t like the bad news. So there has to be independence. And that independence is really difficult to achieve.


We need to challenge low standards. We need to deflate the complacency and challenge the defensiveness. We need to know the truth, warts and all. As I just said, it’s only when problems are exposed that solutions will be found.


Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.



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