Thursday, April 15, 2010

Adult Agendas = Students' Loss Part 1

I've heard it said over and over recently: This is a very bad time to be in education. The cumulative effects of No Child Left Behind, the economic crises, and Race to the Top are on their own enough to scare away thousands of potential teachers as well as thousands of veteran teachers. But if you're an educator without a class list—that is, one who does not teach children on a daily basis—the negative effects are likely not as pronounced. This is because in many real ways non teaching educators (that should be an oxymoron!) have successfully promoted dozens of adult agendas that make life in school easier for them while at the same time worse for students and their teachers.
Take for example the arbitrary age-based designation known as "grade level." Any real educator—one who teaches children—can tell you there is really no such thing as a grade level. It is a simplistic convention invented by adults in order to control the world of students and make their world more comprehensible to them—the adults, that is. Decades ago Jean Piaget demonstrated unequivocally that in any given grade level the range of academic and social ability is so great as to span two, three or even four different grade levels, as traditionally defined.
Despite this universal reality, policy makers, administrators and a host of other manipulators of the educational system insist on maintaining grade level groupings in schools. This is because it is easier to test kids, punish kids, punish schools, hold teachers accountable for their students' progress, and develop boxed and scripted curricula for teachers to implement robotically if the categories in which we place students are constructed for the convenience of adults. Piaget would surely be disappointed to learn that everything he taught us about individual cognitive development has been systematically ignored in order to make life easier for the non-teaching adults who wield power in education. Doing the right thing, such as taking into account individual cognitive development by advocating for and supporting multi-aged classrooms, or by ignoring grade level designations altogether, would be too much work and would overly complicate the lives of adults.
Most of America's public schools have by now completed the spring testing cycles: two to three weeks of grueling test-taking whose sole purpose under No Child Left Behind is to determine which schools to punish. (The only "reward" under this system consist of the absence of punishment.) Yet school districts persist in administering these tests in order to continue to receive federal money for education.
Never mind the fact that the tests include only reading and math skills.
Never mind the fact that more than 30 school days (yes, that's 6 weeks) of instructional time are lost due to the time spent on the spring testing and other mandated, standardized tests throughout the year.
And never mind the fact that the tests purport to assess children's academic skills based solely on arbitrary grade level designations. A 4th grader is a 4th grader, and if that 4th grader does not know X, Y and Z to an arbitrary level of proficiency, then she is considered undereducated and her teacher's competence is suspect. It doesn't matter that she may be 11 months younger than some of her classmates. And it doesn't matter if the student becomes proficient in X, Y and Z a month after the tests are given or even next fall. If the 4th grade student is not proficient in a given skill (or simply has a bad day!) by the date of the test in April, she is forever labeled non-proficient. No take-backs and no credit for learning the skill at a later date. In the cold, clinical and often cruel world of adult accountability, an adult agenda that includes arbitrary cut-off dates for arbitrarily defined levels of proficiency trumps the best interests of our children's education every time.