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Educational Reform or Time To Switch Direction?

Published in ChicagoNow, February 3, 2014

When my kids were growing up, parents seemed to fall into two groups regarding grades. There were the bribers/punishers (Fancy Nancy word: positive/negative reinforcement) who rewarded their children for good grades or disciplined them for poor grades. The other group was the intrinsic motivators who urged their children to do their best but also follow their passions. I was in the latter group. Maybe “learn for the sake of knowing more about the things that interest you” did not lead to the highest paying jobs. But I always believed that motivation came from within rather than from external bribes and punishments.

Maybe that’s why I’m hoping the reform movement that has left our teachers and schools in the grip of the educational/industrial complex for over 10 years is starting to peter out. I’m waiting for another turn of the wheel in the cycle of trends in education.

Our current carrot and stick approach to education totally misses the point. Parents can give kids $5 for every A and ground them for every D, but this approach encourages cheating and grade grubbing, not learning. As every parent knows, positive reinforcement (bribes) may sometimes work. Punishment, especially if it is not a natural consequence, rarely changes behavior.

Take the example of a story that appeared in Chicago Life about a school in the Chicago Public School system (CPS), Stephen F. Gale Math and Science Academy, which is currently being punished with probation and a “Far Below Average” rating.

Here are some statistics about Gale Academy:

  • 97% of the students come from low-income families.

  • 25% of the students have limited English.

  • The school has a 50% mobility rate, which means that half the students either move in or out during the school year.

  • Many parents do not speak English and are illiterate.

  • 15-20% of the students are homeless.

While the principal has worked hard to improve Gale, the children’s scores on standardized tests remain low. What a shock.

Like Eric Cooper in his Huffington Post blog, Let’s Teach Students to Think Critically, Not Test Mindlessly, I am deeply concerned about the emphasis on standardized test scores based on the Common Core will undermine children’s ability to think creatively and truly love learning.

A video of Tennessee high school student, Kenneth Ye, bravely addressing the Knox County Board of Education, says it all. Although the Board refused to let him speak 30 seconds beyond its 5-minute limit for comments (so flexible and wise, given a student was there to talk to them), Ye speaks quickly and makes a compelling case against the common core standards and the high-stakes tests that accompany them. He argues that the joy of learning is lost, as these policies perpetuate a "one-size-fits-all" type of education.

Recently, I have been seeing more posts and essays about disillusionment with the road we have traveled from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top and the Common Core. Educators (who were largely left out of all of this planning), communities, and parents are wondering if the billions of dollars that have gone to fund the private companies that create and process all of these tests might have done more good if they went directly to schools. Perhaps smaller classes, adequate school supplies, improved school infrastructures, better training programs for teachers, and more efforts to help children in poverty would have been a better way to go.

There’s an old saying, “What goes around comes around.” One meaning of that is that most things come back to their original value after completing some sort of a cycle. This is certainly true in education.

  • New math of the 1960’s? Replaced by a more conventional approach in the 1970’s, followed by a new version of new math in the 1990’s.

  • Teaching reading by learning sight words gave way to a phonics-only approach, only to come back to a combination of both.

  • Reading classic literature fell out of favor in the 1970’s when “relevance” ruled, only to return with the notion that some of these works are essential to being an educated person.

  • Spelling? In, out, invented, essential, spell-check – not sure where we stand on that one.

We may never go back to open classrooms, immersion in the arts, and curriculum totally driven by the interests of students. But I am hopeful that the creative spirit of that phase of education will creep back into our schools as the value of standards and testing-driven education and teacher evaluation is proven to be yet another fad.

I think it’s time to switch from the reward/punish model and find our way back to becoming motivators of education as a vehicle for joy in learning.


by Laurie Levy
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