Monday, January 26, 2015

The Biggest Failure: Defining Success

Time magazine ran an interview with Senator Lamar Alexander, discussing the future of testing and the ESEA. It concludes with this quote:

What I know is the biggest failure of No Child Left Behind is the idea that Washington should tell 100,000 public schools and their teachers whether they’re succeeding, whether they’re failing and what the consequences of that should be. That hasn’t worked.

I think that's close, but perhaps not dead-on. Because implied by the idea of DC telling the public schools whether or not their succeeding is the idea of DC telling the schools what success really means.

No Child Left Behind didn't just legislate the idea that the feds would tell schools and teachers how well they were doing. It redefined what "success" means in education.

Defining success has always been one of the great challenges in education. Through the early part of my career (I graduated from college in 1979), there was a steady trend toward authentic assessment, because everything we knew and were learning about education said that an objective test was by far the worst way to decide how well a student was acquiring skills and knowledge.

If you are of a certain age, you recognize and tremble at these initials-- TSWBAT.

For you youngsters, that's "The Student Will Be Able To," and it meant that your lesson plans would focus on what the student could actually do at the end of instruction. So if you were trying to teach a student the knowledge and skills necessary to analyze a full modern novel or write a complete analytical essay or assemble a carburetor or successfully bid out a hand of bridge, you weren't going to give some sort of bubble test. The student was going to demonstrate outcomes by doing the thing. That would be success.

The focus on outcomes was leading us to student portfolios. No longer would a test or two or ten define the student's achievements. Instead, a portfolio would be assembled showing progress, development, achievement, and success in a year's worth of projects, assignments, and accomplishments. That was going to be success.

And just as we were out in the trenches coming to grips with how exciting and terrifying it would be to come up with a portfolio system and they could be electronic portfolios, because with computer tech we could include videos and demonstrations and oh holy smokes on a shingle this would be completely individualized so that each student would graduate with twelve years' worth of broad, varied authentic achievements that would paint a completely personal picture of all the strengths and depths and awesomeness of that individual human being--- just as we were starting to get a grip on that, the feds stepped in, dragged the needle across the vinyl and said, "Nope-- we got your definition of success right here."

Success is a good score on a standardized test. And it looks exactly the same for every student.

And Race to the Top and RttT Lite (less filling, more waivery) doubled down on that by adding one-size-fits-all non-sequitorian justification. Success is a good score on a standardized test because success is a college education and a well-paying job.

Being an outstanding musician or welder? Not success. Being a middling student but a stand-up person who makes their community a better place? Not a success. Screwing up as a freshman and turning your life around to graduate after five years? Not a success.

Marching to the beat of a different drum? Hey, kid. Who said you could have a drum? Everybody in this band plays clarinet, and to be a success, you must take the standardized bubble test on clarinterry.

The most stunning obtusity, the most spectacular failure of NCLB/RTTT is the manner in which it has turned the goal and purpose of education into something small, cramped, meager and unvaried.

Success is a good score on a standardized test.

What a sad, tiny, uninspired definition of success. But NCLB introduced it and tied us all to it, like eagles chained to a stuffed turtle on the desk of the world's least ambitious accountant. The biggest failure of NCLB was to take the whole vast continent of possibilities, the promise and varied range of humanity that has always characterized this country-- to look at all that and say, "No, we're just going to say that success is a good score on a standardized test that only covers a couple of subjects, badly. And we'll demand that everyone achieve it at the same time in the same way. That's success."

That's the biggest failure of No Child Left Behind. If you see Senator Alexander, you can tell him I said so.

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