Getting it Horribly Wrong

As I was composing a post on a general view of how arts integration is becoming more widely recognized as powerful teaching and learning, I ran across an AP article on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the “Nation’s Report Card: Science 2009.” This test is administered to fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-graders, and has recently been updated to measure more than simple factual knowledge, though it is still a single snapshot rather than a comprehensive assessment of understanding.

You can download the full report.

Standardized testing flaws aside, the test can still give us important information relating to how we spend our time, money, and other resources in education. What the NAEP report tells us is that a fraction more than one-third (34%) of students are “proficient” in science at 4th grade, a percentage that declines until, at the 12th grade level, just a hair more than one in five students (21 percent) ranks as “proficient.”

How can this be?

Welcome to another unintended consequence of “No Behind Left Uncovered,” or NCLB (No Child Left Behind), the G. W. Bush administration’s attempt to drive test scores upward with a complicated set of carrots and sticks (mostly sticks) applied variously in the fifty states.

What happened? Well, testing during the early years of NCLB was in reading and mathematics only. The incessant drumbeat of rhetoric about “failing” schools and “bad” teachers, the billions of dollars in incentives for increased test scores, and the emphasis on “teaching to the test” drove good teachers from the field and labeled successful schools as in need of “corrective action” when they failed to get 100 percent of their English language learners, disabled students, and other subgroups to achieve at nationally mandated levels on the tests.

This led to some marvelous insanity: teachers being told they could only deliver math and reading instruction until the last 20 minutes of the school day, which could be used for either science or social studies. The reading instruction was tightly scripted, and teachers in different classrooms had to be literally on the same page at the same time each day. Principals enforced this policy by sending observers with stopwatches and clipboards to the classrooms to ensure teacher compliance.

To clarify: teachers could not choose the material to be read, or adapt the teaching and learning experience for diverse learners. All creativity disappeared from the art of teaching; it became a rote, high-pressure, low-engagement experience for everyone. Why not read about science or history, thereby getting double benefit?

No, the big-dollar textbook and testing companies got the most return profits from a regimented system, so teachers were told this was a “research-based” program that would work fine if they were competent enough to teach it properly, proving once again that the policy-makers in this country are completely under the thrall of major multinational corporations. Big business doesn’t really care about education in the U.S., because they are getting more of their workers overseas these days anyway.

Besides, an uninformed populace is much easier to fool. Look at all the smoke and mirrors in the debates over national health care and global climate change. When people don’t have enough skills and information to make up their own minds about which science is solid and which is spurious, they tend to listen to whichever politician makes the most reassuring noises.

So, to summarize: if we don’t teach science, how can we expect students to learn it? And if we don’t teach the tools of critical, divergent, creative, and empathetic thinking, how can we expect the next generation of citizens to grapple with the enormously complex and inter-related problems of the 21st century?

The only solution to this dilemma is to junk the old system entirely, use the factory/prison school buildings for something else, and start fresh with what we know about how people learn best. Obviously, this would be an enormous upheaval, and could not happen in all 50 states overnight, or even soon, but the alternative is to keep doing what we know already does not work.

Science requires real-world interactions.

How many “report cards” will it take for us to start to look at the real roots of our education problems?


About rbdancer

Randy has been a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist and Workshop Leader since 1995. During 35 years as a teaching artist, he has led over 300 in-depth workshops, courses, and seminars for teachers and teaching artists, traveling to 37 states in the process. As a choreographer and professional dancer, Randy has danced and produced dance concerts in some of the country's most storied theaters. Randy now lives with his wife in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
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