September 3, 2007

Iowa should lead in learning, not follow the 'standard' path

Iowa Educators Offer Opinions on State Standards, NCLB & Integrity in Education


VICKI GOLDSMITH, who was an English teacher at Roosevelt High School before her retirement, was the 2005 Iowa Teacher of the Year.

DAVE O'CONNOR is a social-studies teacher at Merrill Middle School.

ALAN YOUNG is a social-studies teacher and president of the Des Moines Education Association.

At a time when other states are reeling from educational standardization, powerful forces in Iowa, offering little credible research to support their case, are pushing for it.

Operating from flawed premises about the very purpose of public education and what constitutes quality teaching and learning, they promote misguided policies that won't help students learn. State-mandated content standards, justified as necessary to make our children "more competitive in the global marketplace," are their reform de jour.

Almost everywhere standards have been implemented, high-stakes testing has quickly followed as an enforcement mechanism for the standards. Education writer Alfie Kohn has referred to the two as "inextricably connected." We believe Iowans deserve better than a "standard" education.
Equating learning with what is easily measured on these cheap-to-grade tests that have changed little since the 1950s is a flawed and counterproductive framework. Tests don't measure imagination, curiosity, compassion, creativity, ethical choices, problem-solving ability or the wholeness of our lives, yet test scores have somehow become equated with student achievement despite the warnings of the test makers themselves and assessment experts such as Linda McNeil of Rice University, who said that "measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning."

When we focus on standards and testing to achieve the goal of a more competitive work force, we are pursuing not only the wrong means but also the wrong end. This approach inevitably narrows the curriculum only to what is tested while discouraging critical and creative thought - replacing it with a lesser corporate purpose that sees our children as mere cogs in the job machinery of the global economy.

The problem begins at the national level, where the devastating effect of the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the so-called "No Child Left Behind" legislation, cannot be understated. The law has pushed schools across the nation, and in Iowa, to implement narrow, test-prep curricula, all in the name of increased standardized test scores. State standards and tests serve as the conduit and choke point for coercing compliance with this regressive law.

Some Iowa students take 15 to 20 standardized tests per year, all leading to the granddaddy of them all - the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, now used by the Iowa Department of Education to measure a school's "adequate yearly progress" under the No Child Left Behind law. This has occurred despite the warnings of assessment experts such as W. James Popham, who said using tests such as the ITBS or the ACT to gauge educational quality "is like measuring temperature with a tablespoon."

Standardization and high stakes testing are especially harmful for our youngest students. Andrew Hargreaves, a professor of education at Boston College, fears that this focus will "suck the soul and spirit out of ... children's early school experiences." That seems to be the case in parts of North Carolina, where a standardized test helps determine promotion in the elementary grades. The director of testing and accountability in the Rockingham, N.C., school district reported that "... administrators have to discard as many as 20 test booklets on exam days because children vomit on them. Kids are throwing up in the middle of the tests... They cry. They have to be removed. The stress is so much on the test that they can't handle it."

State content standards will push Iowa down North Carolina's path. Is this the direction we want to travel? We think not, because this approach drastically reduces the essential space to learn and develop the critical, creative, communicative and caring capacities and dispositions needed in a democratic society - the very capacities essential to a thriving, 21st-century economy.

Yong Zhao, of the U.S.-China Center for Research on Educational Excellence at Michigan State University, wrote: "Any effort to boost excellence in math and science by focusing on standardized test scores ... and centralized curriculum ... risks squelching U.S. creativity and innovation - the very things that our competitors in Asia are trying to copy in their own educational reforms."

Why? Acclaimed educational researcher Gerald Bracey says it's because "spending classroom time preparing for a standardized test is the opposite of asking questions or being innovative." Robert Sternberg, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University believes "that our 'massive' use of standardized tests 'is one of the most effective ... vehicles this country has created for suppressing creativity.'"

Preferring to rely upon the strong tradition of local control that made Iowa the nation's leader in public education, we have rightly resisted both national and state-controlled curriculum. We must continue to resist because we know that local school boards, parents and teachers - those closest to the children - are the best hope for fulfilling Thomas Jefferson's vision of "the general diffusion of knowledge" and citizenship skills necessary for the survival of our democracy. We also know that with reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on the horizon, the current version of No Child Left Behind is not inevitable. There is a good chance that its "standard" approach to reform may soon give way to far better, research-based ways to educate the whole child.

By unshackling and empowering our localities and teachers in particular - those who know our children best - we can restore creativity, innovation, critical thinking and breadth to the curriculum. When it comes to state-controlled curriculum, why should Iowa be the last to follow when we can be the first to lead the nation down a far better path?

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