Another academic year is upon us, and students, parents and teachers are approaching the beginning of another school year in the "accountability era" with a mix of excitement, anticipation and
apprehension. As we ready ourselves for another year in our classrooms, what do we see around us?
- We have schools that have already been open for weeks, others about to begin, and still others that won't begin classes for several weeks...
- We have small rural schoolhouses with children in mixed-grade groupings, sprawling suburban schools with Ivy League-worthy campuses and facilities, and historic urban schools in our nation's biggest cities...
- We have schools with students who have a plethora of learning styles, gifts and challenges, schools with students who speak languages from across the globe, and schools that reflect the richness and diversity of the communities that they represent...
- We have public schools, private schools, magnet schools, charter schools, independent schools, religious schools, home schools, online and virtual schools, and "schools of choice"...
- We have schools that offer a traditional curriculum, schools that provide a veritable buffet of AP classes and other advanced offerings, schools with IB curricula, and school consortia that offer vocational education in various areas of interest...
- We have schools that operate on quarters, semesters, trimesters, year-round and other even more arcane scheduling options...
- We have schools organized into districts, by counties, and into "corporations;" schools in which the teachers are members of unions, and schools in states where unions do not exist...
There is nothing about these schools--or our students--that is standardized. Schools are not fast-food franchises, engineered for consistency and similarity of "customer experience." The differences in our schools, and among our students, are to be savored, treasured and celebrated, not targeted as "issues", or "problems" to be solved, or "variables" to be accounted for in the construction of a standardized exam. The diversity in our schools is not a "bug", it's a feature.
The goal in education is not for every 4th grade student in the US to be learning the same thing at the same time--"If it's October 17, it must be time to sing "The Itsy Bitsy Spider!"
The goal is for each student to become more fully human, to develop her or his individual strengths, talents and skills in the ways that make sense for each child, and to instill an unquenchable thirst for learning, exploring and questioning the world around them.
Education is not simply about constructing efficient delivery systems for the transfer of information--books and computers can do that. Education is about the building of relationships--between students and teachers, and among learners themselves. And schools, in all of their messy, noisy, confusing chaos, do this spectacularly well.
And yet we keep hearing the same mantra from non-educators that the only way to "keep the schools and teachers accountable" is to leave no child untested. Every reform initiative seemingly ups
the ante yet again with more tests, longer tests and harder tests, as if inserting more thermometers will somehow cook the meat better and faster.
The reformers are fond of lecturing us that "the only way we will know how our children are doing in school" is to gather copious amounts of "data" through the administration of an endless array of "end of course," final, summative, high-stakes, rigorous, standardized tests. These reformers seem oblivious to the fact that teachers and parents already know a lot about our students and children:
- we go to parent nights
- we attend open houses
- we go to concerts, plays and science fairs
- we drop them off and pick them up from soccer games, piano lessons, dance classes, art galleries, and museums
- we communicate with their teachers, by email, phone and face-to-face
- we volunteer in their classrooms, marching band parent groups, chorus and orchestra booster clubs, and athletic support groups
- we chaperone trips with their elementary classes, music ensembles and sports teams, riding buses for hours and hanging out in muddy zoos and nature centers, cold, rainy stadiums, and drafty auditoriums
And, as parents and teachers, we talk to our children and one another. We ask questions about our children and their work in school; are they paying attention? behaving appropriately? doing their best? "getting it"? A standardized test tells us none of those things--it only provides a snapshot of the movie of our children's lives as learners.
So, as we begin another school year, let's keep the focus on the differences in our schools, and among our children, and resist the reformers' urging to standardize their experiences, their
learning, and their evaluation. Rather than trying to nationalize our standards, let's work to individualize our standards--with nuance, "feel", and the understanding that
each child has a unique background, understandings and abilities. And let's celebrate the uniqueness of each and every one of our children, teachers, schools and communities.