Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Factory Model of Education Reform

 The current education reform movement is based on the factory model.  In that model there are a few at the top of the organization who are the thinkers and the planners.  The rest of us are unskilled workers, expected to obey the mandates from on high and implement the plans from our bosses.  As Fredrick Taylro said in 1911 and quoted from Darling-Hammond’s 1997 The Right to Learn, “One type of man is needed to plan ahead and an entirely different type to execute the work.”

In the education reform movement, the one type who plans ahead are the men and women in administrative positions, far away from the students.  They are the politicians, the state and local superintendants of education, the policy wonks located in foundations and think tanks.  Teachers are treated as the uneducated workers who are expected to “execute” the reforms faithfully, unquestioningly and thoroughly.

A part of the problem in the education reform movement is the seemingly hypercritical nature of reform.  Simply put, our actions do not match our rhetoric.

We talk about how much money is spent in education in general and spent on personnel in particular.  We assume that this money is spent on classroom teachers, ignoring the reality that nearly half of school employees are not in contact with students on a daily basis.  Instead, these employees are busy filling out the accountability forms, ensuring that teachers are, in fact, doing more with less.  Current educational reformers want the public to think that public school teachers are becoming wildly rich over the course of their careers, ignoring the reality that the average public-school teacher makes only $55,000 a year.  So-called reformers have even been brazen enough to compare teacher retirement programs to the multi-million dollar golden parachutes of corporate leaders.

We talk about how they want kids to deeply understand mathematical principals, but the tests that we use to determine if this is happening cover only low-level sub skills that are easy to test.  We say that we want kids to write and to appreciate great literature, but schools are held accountable on how well students can identify the definition of a word or edit basic grammar.  We say that we want kids to explore historical trends and themes, but we test them on memorized facts.  We say we want them to experiment, but test them on memorized science facts.  We say we want them to become decent human beings, but play time and learning experiences about acceptance and conflict solution aren’t on any tests and consequently are deemed unimportant, cut first in hard economic times, and sacrificed on the alter of ever-higher test scores.

Even when it comes to our academic standards, we seem to have a split personality.  The new Common Core Standards look great on paper.  Classroom teachers who have studied these new standards are typically hopeful, seeing how their classrooms would return to exploration, experimentation and authentic learning as they meet these standards.  The problem is that the several state standards that the Common Core are replacing look good on paper as well.

The problem is the tests that we use to assess the standards and the tremendous import we place on the scores on these tests. 

Even the most pro-test educational reformer admits that the tests are flawed, assess only low-level skills, and give only a snapshot of student performance.  Despite this acknowledgement, pro-test reformers want to ascribe even more import to the scores.  They want teachers ranked based on these scores.  They want schools graded on these scores.  They want public education judged on these scores.  “They are not perfect, but they are all we have,” say some reformers, painting a picture that the test scores are near perfect rather than near catastrophic.  The analogy isn’t pouring sand on a fire for lack of water; it is more like using gasoline.

The crucial work about the Common Core Standards is happening right now.  Two consortiums of states are designing the assessments that will be used to judge student, teacher, and school success on the Common Core Standards. 

The rhetoric surrounding the next-generation assessments is hopeful.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says that the next generation of tests should not be fill-in-the-bubble based.  The consortiums are placing a lot of hope in emerging technologies that may be able to marry the speed and cost-effectiveness of scan-tron assessments and the need to assess essays and projects.

I am wary.  Perhaps the next-generation assessments will be significantly better than the last generation.  Perhaps, the assessments will look at skills more complex than memorization of facts and procedures.  Unfortunately, the desire to ascribe great import to the next series of test scores look to be even greater than kids are currently expecting.

I imagine that a decade from now, English teachers will decry how student essays are locked into the formula and patter that the computerized essay scorer recognizes as proficient.

Unfortunately, I am confident that classroom teachers will have very little influence over the look of the new assessment and the new curriculum that will be designed to meet the Common Core Standards.  Teachers are not the “type of man is needed to plan ahead,” but considered by so-called reformers to be the “entirely different type to execute the work.”


Kathy Williams said...

I agree with everything that Dave has to say about mandated testing and the "factory model" that seems to be the only analogy that politicians seem to understand. There is another aspect to this kind of testing as well. At the local level, school districts have imposed benchmark tests in an effort to guage how well students will do on state mandated tests. In our school district this year we were told to give these "new" tests to our students. We had no input and no advanced knowledge about what these tests were about. Formerly we were testing on a quarterly basis, now we are expected to take tests every two to three weeks. We were told that these new assessments would save time. On the contrary, they take up much more time. Often, they test topics that we hae yet to teach. I am fortunate that I am working with an administrator who understands our frustrations and has allowed flexibility.

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