Fresh Ideas: Unintended consequences of school reform
“Not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that can be measured matters.”
– Elliott Eisner
Over the past decade No Child Left Behind has changed the way children are forced to learn and teachers are forced to teach. Now the LEARN Act and Race to the Top threaten to do even more harm. Not only do these new initiatives legislate what should be taught, but precisely how it should be taught. Moreover they continue to give a false impression of what authentic learning looks like.
Daniel Pink, in his book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” cites research showing that when we focus on short-term goals, long-term interests get crowded out and, in his words, “nasty things can happen.” For example, by focusing only on short-term goals, dieters employ dangerous crash diets, athletes take steroids, Wall Street engages in sketchy practices. In each case the short-term objective is reached at the expense and ultimate well-being of the individual or the economy.
Let’s apply that same principle to schools. Today, teachers are implored to focus on test prep activities at the expense of real teaching and learning. They teach what gets tested, that narrow set of skills that can be assessed by filling in a bubble.
Yet, according to Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at University of Southern California, there is no evidence to support this skills-based approach in teaching literacy. None. Through his review of research, Krashen found that nothing works better than real reading and real writing. Imagine that. Kids learn by doing. And doing it a lot.
Pink also states that as human beings, we find many creative and conceptual tasks enjoyable. We adults enjoy reading, doing crossword puzzles, gardening or practicing the piano. We are motivated simply by the doing. Likewise, children are wired for learning and discovery. They enjoy it. It motivates them. Nonetheless, by pushing more and more pencil and paper activities onto younger and younger children, we destroy that natural love of learning.
What we expected of first-graders 20 years ago is being required of kindergartners today. Reading. Sight vocabulary. Spelling. Writing. Yes, many 5-year-olds can learn those things, but many can’t pass the stress test. They react with belly-aches, misbehavior and hating school.
That, my friends, is the unintended consequence of No Child Left Behind and any other legislation that rewards performance on multiple choice tests over authentic learning. Kids burn out. Kids drop out.
So before we all jump on the bandwagon for the next round of school reform initiatives, let’s keep in mind that our ultimate goal is not a test score. Our goal is literate adults who can separate fact from opinion. Adults who can write coherently. Adults who continue to learn and grow because they simply love learning. That’s the real test.
• Lorie Schaefer is a retired reading specialist and kindergarten teacher.