Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

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

The Three Biggest Mistakes in Education

By Peter DeWitt — March 01, 2012 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Over the past decade, there have been many issues in education. Some of these issues were actually created to make education better but they did nothing more than make it worse.

After seventeen years in education, first as a teacher and then a principal, I have come to a crossroads in my career. According to the movie Under the Tuscan Sun, that sounds very “Oprah” of me. When I began teaching I remember more seasoned teachers stating that if you stay in education long enough you will see the pendulum swing from one side to another. It is my hope that the pendulum has swung to one very dysfunctional side long enough and will make its way to a side that is based in common sense.

It seems as though policymakers in education want educators to pay attention to research, data and accountability, but they feel that they do not have to play by the same rules. Apparently research, data and accountability only matter when it tells policymakers what they want to hear. Unfortunately, the direction they are leading education is not good for kids. Just like the present economic issues in the U.S., education will continue to benefit only the top percentage of kids who can afford it.

Over the past decade, there have been many issues in education. Some of these issues were actually created to make education better but they did nothing more than make it worse. Those in charge stated that the policies were meant to close the achievement gap by showing that there are inequities in education. Those policies were supposed to highlight that many students are not getting a quality education while other students are getting an outstanding one. The problem is that this is an issue that those of us in education have known for decades.

There are three issues that, in my experience, have been the biggest mistakes in education. These educational policies were supposedly created to level the playing field but they did nothing more than show that some teams brought their best equipment and others didn’t have any equipment at all. Those three biggest mistakes are No Child Left Behind (NCLB), high stakes testing and the need to outperform the world.

I taught in a school that benefitted from a large Reading First Grant which was a large part of NCLB. For a poor school, receiving the windfall of over one million dollars is more than a school could ever ask for. The grant provided textbooks, positions, training and technology. It was meant to close the achievement gap. As we filled out the grant application over a matter of days everyone knew that money from the government doesn’t come without hoops. We knew that if we accepted the money we needed to accept the hoops, so we went forward.

We needed to choose from an approved list of publishers. In the days of accountability approved publishers are key to any grant. The question I had then is the same one I have now when I hear about approved publishers? Why them? What makes them worth approving? I have no issue with publishers, after all it’s a writer’s goal to get published and they need a publisher to do it. I just worry that some of the reasons why publishers are chosen has nothing to do with how great their product is and more about the fact that they have the greatest influence over those making the decisions.

Grants are meant to get someone on their feet so they can walk alone. Grants as large as Reading First offered so much that it enabled the very schools it was supposed to help. At some point the grant dried up and the school lacked the money to maintain some of the positions and many of the upgrades necessary to move forward. In addition, the people who were in those positions found better jobs and left the district. With transition comes new ideas and it slows down the very process it was supposed to help speed up.

The unfunded mandates and paperwork that has come with NCLB have forced schools to focus on red tape rather than students. NCLB also meant accountability, standards and high stakes testing. Suddenly educators began to see a focus on testing that was never thought imaginable. Over the past decade education has not gotten better because of NCLB, it has sucked out the creativity in classrooms. NCLB has also shown us what we know already, that schools who lack the same resources as their wealthier peers do not do as well academically.

High Stakes Testing
High stakes testing will be the ruination of public education as we know it. At this point, many states have spent years enforcing high stakes testing upon schools and very few of these schools have shown improvement. We also know that there are many outside influences that affect the outcomes of the tests. Kids have bad days, come from households that do not support education and many students suffer from test taking anxiety, which has gotten worse over the past decade (Sadker). This negatively affects their performance.

Schools can learn from the problems with high stakes testing by lowering their focus on summative assessments and spending more time focusing on formative assessments. The use of assessment can be beneficial to educators and administrators. Using high stakes testing to tell whether a teacher is successful or not just doesn’t work. What once may have started as a way to progress monitor schools has quickly become a political tool to say that schools are failing.

Outperforming the World
Don’t get me wrong, I like competition and I believe we have a great country. The freedoms we have allow me to write my feelings down in this blog. Competition offers us many important lessons. It teaches kids how to work harder if they lose and how to maintain good sportsmanship when they win. In my time I have seen a few parents who want their children to be the next Tiger Woods so they enroll them in golf or whatever the sport of choice is, at a very young age and push them to compete. Unfortunately, many of those kids burn out and grow to hate the sport that they started out loving.

The same thing is happening in education. Kindergartners, who once used to be able to play and learn how to get along with others are being forced to learn letters, and if they are not reading by the end of the grade, they are considered behind the rest of their classmates. So at a very young age we teach children that they are not as good as their peers, and just like the next Tiger Woods they learn how to hate school instead of love it.

Countries, like Finland that research suggests have better methods of educating students, do not put such pressure on students. They don’t have the philosophy that if other counties are outperforming them, they should push the curriculum down to a younger age. If students are lagging behind we should not push more on them because that will only cause them to break. In fact, our present system is breaking more students and their teachers than ever before. As those students and teachers work harder to meet benchmarks, politicians stand on their bully pulpit and announce that schools are failing when in actuality it is our politicians who are failing us.

In the End
The greatest part about having another seventeen years to go in education is that I believe we can turn this all around. It’s not too late to offer proper resources to schools that need them, early intervention (ex. high quality child care, literacy) to our youngest students who have not started their school experience.

Education should be more about the students and less about politics. It should be more about preparing good teachers and administrators and offering them professional development while they are in the field. We all know that there are politics in every part of life, the problem is when politics take over and ruin the very things they were supposed to make better.

Follow Peter on Twitter.

On March 22nd Peter will be presenting at the National Association of Elementary School Principal (NAESP) Conference in Seattle and the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) Annual Conference in Philadelphia on March 24th.

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.