What issues must we consider about education reform?

Parents and teachers are becoming increasingly concerned about the negative consequences standardized testing is having on the mental health of children in their care. Correcting these problems will require a commitment to study and digest concepts about the causes and solutions for these problems.

There is one thing about which we should all agree – education and our educational systems are complex matters. What should be abundantly clear about the use of standardized tests is that statistically based, oversimplified measures of performance are unable to account for the complexity in educational systems or account for the variety of learning outcomes of individual learners.

Field-tested methods of individualized assessment and evaluation, utilizing modern systems theory and computer technologies, are available today that can reveal far more useful performance data than any battery of tests.

Yet we see widespread use of oversimplified performance measures (standardized tests) that have created a genuine crisis in our systems of education, in our students and in their families.

Mental health and a one-size-fits-all assessment and evaluation scheme are totally incompatible, as is an arbitrarily prescribed listing of what authorities say we all must know. We are left with this quandary. Are people at the top (including educators who ought to know better) ignorant of what has been widely known and validated by experts who have studied in depth the nature of human development and what has been understood, intuitively, by observant teachers and parents? There are no two people alike in this world: not their DNA, their experiences or what they have done with their experiences.

If the promoters of standardization in education understood and acted upon the truths of individual human differences, would they promote a one-size-fits-all assessment, evaluation and common core curriculum, knowing full well that no two people are identical? Or do they have a different agenda – one wrapped in rhetoric that sounds legitimate but masks their real intent?

Why haven’t decision makers at the state and federal levels acknowledged the opportunities and importance of individual differences and acted accordingly? There is a simple but troublesome answer.

Standardization is necessary to accommodate the mass production and marketing of educational products such as textbooks, worksheets, tests, toys, equipment, software, etc., etc. Corporate and financial interests are behind the movement to standardize education, primed to reap the benefits of a huge market potential, with help from top-level decision makers.

If you question this assumption, take a closer look at the current pervasive presence of a branch of the British conglomerate Pearson Education, presently engaged in the production and widespread sale of educational products now in use in this country as a result of the standardization movement. Check out the fine print on many of the worksheets your child is bringing home.

Today, with the blessings of decision makers at the highest levels, not only does Pearson reap huge profits from sales of its “canned” and standardized educational products, but it gets to shape the design of the tests to be used to supposedly “validate” the effectiveness of these products. They are contracted by our governmental agencies to train an army of test evaluators reportedly paid $12 an hour to determine whether a school and its personnel are doing their jobs effectively – effectiveness being defined as raising the scores on coercive, high-stakes standardized tests.

Entry to this marketplace was provided through the charter school legislation, through which corporations, even foreign corporations, can now run schools for profit across this country. Another is the widespread adoption of the “Common Core Curriculum” by state governments, education departments, even teachers’ unions that supported a wholesale endorsement of standardized testing, enticed by the possibility of winning millions of dollars from the coffers of private foundations and our federal and state education agencies.

In this top-down movement there appears to be little interest in developing individual, independent initiative across the general population by those who see the vast potential for mass-produced profit-making on the backs of our children. The fact that much of our population is poorly prepared to confront this movement or see constructive alternatives just adds to the dilemma.

We cannot overlook the fact that the present system of education is in need of a serious update, beyond just changing the rhetoric and improving past practices. Nor can we overlook the fact that many in decision-making positions within our local schools have a real need and the authority to preserve much of the status quo.

Administrators, board members and especially teachers at the local level have almost no power to change or even significantly influence this standardization movement. If teachers do not conform to the mandates, they can be in big trouble; their jobs are at stake.

Principles of modern systems design suggest the whole system must be studied and changed to ensure genuine compatibility between the organization and conduct of the school, and what we know and can validate about individual human development and learning.

This will require a commitment to engage in far more grassroots dialogue than occurred when the decisions were made to launch the present movement to standardize the curriculum and to assess and evaluate student performance using standardized tests. It will certainly require far more action to change the direction of these ill-advised decisions in education, made at the top, if positive change is going to happen in our local schools.

Organizing a public forum such as what is under way in local areas and across this land, that provides opportunities to discuss the issues, is a step in the right direction. We can make progress if only we can find the willingness to entertain a theory-based, honest and open-ended inquiry into the past, the present and the future of education in this country. And most importantly, find the “guts,” the stamina and the expertise to affect legitimate reforms initiated at the local level.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is an professor of education, emeritus. Further views of his can be read at www.remakingourschoolsforthe21stcentury.com.