Recently I was speaking with a friend from college who is an elementary school teacher in upstate New York. Over the course of our conversation we talked about her family, what’s new in life and how things were going at work. It was during our discussion about her experiences at school that things took a disconcerting turn.
Arguably the star of her graduating class in the field of education (she received the school of education’s top honors at graduation), my friend is a paragon of what a committed, intelligent, creative and motivated young educator should be. In the course of her brief career, she has gone above and beyond what was required to reach out to her students and their families, has spent her own money to pay for various supplies when funding was low and has striven to implement a robust vision of comprehensive education that will prepare her pupils for the challenges of life and learning ahead.
The only problem is that her vision, built on the best resources and pedagogical foundations available, no longer matches the extrinsic demands and forms of evaluation that are being imposed by state and federal education departments, congressional bodies and the paid consultants that draft policy.
The U.S. educational system in which she had found her professional and spiritual vocation has been sold from beneath her feet. This new commercialization of American education has inscribed a culture of “evaluation” that is making it more difficult for good educators to teach, more challenging for students to learn and less likely that we will have an adequately educated and critically thinking public in the future.
Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, has been a vocal critic in recent years of the system-turned-industry of “education reform” that she herself helped inaugurate decades ago. Ravitch explains in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, how she was initially enthusiastic about incorporating some “best practices” of the corporate world into modern education. The idea of developing standardized metrics to help evaluate learning and identify weaknesses in teaching seemed to be a good one.
Yet in time Ravitch became disillusioned with what began with good intentions but ended up creating a multi-billion-dollar consulting and testing industry. Today she is an outspoken opponent of programs that rely heavily on increased standardized testing and so-called objective metrics for evaluating teacher performance.
Some standardized testing is, of course, a good thing, but it should be only a small part of a comprehensive approach. Ravitch told The New Yorker: “If you want people to be creative and entrepreneurial, forget the test scores. It’s character that makes success.” She continued, “Testing should be used for help—to diagnose learning problems—not as a basis for rewards and punishments.”
There are two troubling aspects of this shift in American education. The first is the vicious circle that is created when teachers and students are evaluated by the scores from student testing. To “help” the students and to shore up their own job security, teachers feel pressure to “teach to the test,” leaving students with narrow skill sets that might make them better at taking a particular test but lacking in creativity, critical thinking and imagination.
The second problem is the industry that has sprung up to produce these tests, consult with administrators and tutor children who struggle with the exams. It turns students and teachers into numbers, products of an industry that measures schools in terms of profit. It creates a conflict of interest.
I had already begun to see the devastating effects of this so-called reform when I taught theology in a Catholic college in 2010-11. Otherwise bright students came unprepared for college-level critical reading and creative writing and exhibited a striking unfamiliarity with how to write a paper outside the narrow structure they had been taught for their state English exams.
This situation is both a socio-cultural and a moral concern: to treat students and teachers like objects or commodities to be measured is unjust and unhelpful.
What does it cost to buy back our education system?