Tuesday, January 26, 2010

two lenses


We have two lenses through which to examine American education, two vantage points from which to examine a complex mechanism and from which to chart its course. The first is that of statistical comparison, the method of standardized testing that has become so dominant. Teaching to the test became the norm during No Child Left Behind Legislation, and testing continues to serve as the core for competition in the new administration's "Race for the Top." Every public school is required by state and federal law to evaluate its students and teachers using standardized testing, and standardized testing has become the primary tool for college entrance in the US. So, throughout the US high school juniors and seniors are taking and retaking the SAT and ACT exams hoping to raise their scores and raise their chances for admission to their schools of choice. This lens or vantage point is widely considered the most intelligent one because it is so abstract and difficult to understand. Can you explain standard of deviation? Maybe so, but understanding test scores and their applicability is an arcane science about which most American have very little understanding. So it must be very smart, right? Those tests were made up by some of the smartest (narrow) minds in America, and who can argue with that?

The other lens is one of common sense, and common observation, time spent in the classroom or in life, watching children learn and grow. Since Comenius (and before), educators have observed children learning and at play and attempted to better understand how to best create school environments to make productive use of children's most natural inclinations. From this vantage point, all who have been students in schools, had children in schools, have a level of expertise based on their own successes, or failures that could be drawn upon to recast American education as more effective and meaningful for our children. That might sound very scary to school administrators and public policy impresarios. A whole populace of concerned individuals each feeling he or she has something important to contribute to the debate? A scary notion, perhaps, but our literacy was greater in the US during the age of the one-room school house, and before the rise of standardized testing.

It is ironic that the PISA test which measures 8th grade school success in reading, math, scientific literacy and other subjects has called international attention to Finland, the world's leader in education. We are below average among developed countries. In Finland, where educational sloyd began, and where kindergarten students do woodworking, they roughly ignore testing and feed learning instead. Their children thus benefit from the world's best education while we keep testing and failing to catch up.

And so, the idea I propose is not that we completely abandon testing. It can be useful. But can we at least restore an appreciation for those masters of education who came before testing became the dominant force in American education? Just read a bit of Comenius. Think about the impact of Froebel. Explore the wood shop as envisioned by Salomon and Cygnaeus. Begin wondering how to get multiple intelligences and the arts back in schools. Get your hands on American education, recognize the value of your own expertise and bring schooling back into intelligent focus. The detached view long distance view offered by standardized testing misses the close-up... It misses where the rubber meets the road, where teachers meet students and parents, and the expertise of each might be contributory to better education. In fact, I believe a school recast on the foundation of common sense would come close to what Comenius, Froebel, Montessori and Dewey proposed in the earlier days of progressive education.

Today in the CSS woodshop, the 7th, 8th and 9th grade students continued book binding as shown above. We had to go back and redo a few things. Next week we start making covers.

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