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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Are We Paying for the Sins of the Past?

By Peter DeWitt — May 17, 2012 4 min read
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It feels like education is moving at a rapid pace in a really bad direction at the same time schools scramble at a much slower pace to keep up with the changes.

Many of us who are in public education feel as though we have been in a dark time over the past few years. As much as we understand we do not have control over our present situation, I worry that we are partly responsible for getting here. It feels like education is moving at a rapid pace in a really bad direction at the same time schools scramble at a much slower pace to keep up with the changes. One is spinning out of control at the same time the other no longer knows what to do.

As strange as it may seem all of this discussion around reform and how education needs to change offers us the perfect opportunity to work toward making education stronger. Unfortunately, many state education departments are making blanket rules that do not make sense and schools are being forced to follow them. The conversation around what is truly good for kids is lacking, and it is all about meeting mandates and succumbing to accountability.
Educators understand that this stems from funding. States were offered Race to the Top (RTTT) money at a time when they were experiencing budget cuts and trying to lower taxes. In order to receive that RTTT money they had to prove that they were holding educators accountable and providing a high quality education for kids. The simple way to do that is test what the kids know through the use of high stakes testing.

Unfortunately, testing kids is only one way to find out whether they learned anything or not. It certainly works for the learners who are test takers but not for the students who have test anxiety. Other ways that educators can assess what students have learned is through formative assessment, observation and project based learning. However, that takes time and collaboration. High stakes testing is easy, provides quick feedback and is very black and white. Sadly, it only provides a small snapshot of a child’s growth.

How Did We Get Here?
With all of this reform happening around us I always wonder how we got here, and I think we, as educators, need to own part of the responsibility. Many of us do our jobs and look for innovative ways to engage our students but there are educators who do not. There are educators who did not help meet the needs of their students and often talked down to their students to make them feel worthless.

I think if we all took time to reflect on our own formative schooling experiences we would remember some teachers that made a profound positive impact on our lives and others who made a negative impact on our lives. If we want teaching to be seen as the important profession that it is, then we must look at how it needs to change. We need to look at how we got here and stop making the same mistakes our predecessors made.

Opportunity for Change
At the same time that we have a unified curriculum that many have been asking for we are at risk of losing the goodness that can come out of the curriculum because it ends up on high stakes tests. Those high stakes test count for 20 to 50% of a teacher and administrator’s evaluation. Much to our dismay we cannot separate the two when they both carry so much weight.

Schools are experiencing depleting budgets which are directly affecting services to kids and harming the education those students are getting. Educators have done more with less but the straw that broke the camel’s back has arrived and many schools are at their breaking point academically, financially and emotionally. However, we still have parents and community members who want the same services at the same time they are asking for lower taxes.

Education is now becoming so scripted and it’s not because of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). It’s because of the accountability of CCSS. Lessons are created and every thing is tested. If there isn’t a high stakes test in a certain grade level, there are Student Learning Objectives (SLO’s) that are tested. It no longer matters how old the kids are, they will be tested one way or another.

We have computers that will do everything for us. We look up information using them or get them when we call for service and get automated voices. We follow step by step directions to complete many tasks. However, teaching and learning should not be filled with step by step directions and tasks that need to be completed. Teaching and learning is about moments when lives change and connections are made. Teaching and learning is not about a worksheet, but it is about creating something much larger than ourselves.

We are at risk of raising children who have computers that think for them and believe that education is about step by step directions. They are at risk of not seeing that education is about inquiry and wonder. Not everything can be tested, because when it comes to that sad reality, which is presently happening around the U.S. students will become even more disconnected from schools.

Authentic Education
Education is not a script and it can’t be tested authentically through high stakes testing. Education is about waking up most mornings being excited about the day. It’s about going from humble beginnings to finding your path in life. It’s a personal journey where one discovers new adventures at the same time they learn about themselves.

I got into education because I learned about things like the period of enlightenment. When self-discovery led the way people thought. We seem to be at risk of continuing down a path where everything is spoon fed and scripted. Every day should not be Groundhog’s Day where we are forced to do the same thing over and over again. Education has equaled freedom to many and it has changed lives. In an effort to create that for students we are at risk of moving backwards instead of forward.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.