Three years ago, I earned a Masters in Peace Education from The United Nations University for Peace. I sometimes joke that I'm pretty lucky to have found THE job, as in, the only job. I don't think that is true, but not a day goes by that I am not full of gratitude for my curricular freedom at Woolman. The ability to teach for peace, justice, and sustainability in ways that are creative, experiential, and sometimes out of the box---WHILE building crucial college-level academic skills is what makes this program so successful. Unfortunately, it is also what makes this program so unique. Education in public schools has been increasingly focused on test-taking in a very limited amount of traditional subjects and what is being sacrificed is, in my opinion, devastating.
When the Chicago Teachers Union decided to go on strike on Monday morning, there were a myriad of reasons that they put themselves out on the picket line. Reasons that made it worthwhile to leave their youth with nowhere to be and be put under intense national criticism. Despite what the mainstream media tells you, you better believe that they took those concerns into account. But too many schools are being shut down and too many others that are open are infested with rats and falling apart. Too many teachers are being unfairly punished for low test scores and the privatization and corporate management of the public system is getting out of hand.
I stand with Chicago Teachers on strike, not just because my sister is one of them, but for all of those reasons and more. Although it is not customary to have long blog entries, I thought that some might be interested in this segment on standardized testing from my Peace Education thesis on practices that empower/disempower youth to be activists. The following two entries from students are responses. Feel free to comment or question below.
Finally, I highly recommend that you tune in to Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman's report on the strike. It reveals a perspective that I am only finding in correspondence from the Chicago teachers themselves in my Teachers for Social Justice listserv.
A Look at Standardized Testing
In American public schools, the pressures of meeting the goals of high stakes testing has left little room for learning about civic responsibility, social action, environmental sustainability, cultivating inner harmony, or thinking critically about how mainstream lifestyles affect lives in other countries. While activists are trying hard to reform education on a national level, school funding is eternally strained and the changes are slow to come.
In order to transform the current pervading violent culture into that of the Culture of Peace there is a need to examine the morals that youth are being taught (in school settings, in after school type programs and/or in their daily lives). The ethics that sustain the cycle of violence come from a myriad of sources that are crucial to identify, but are not in the purview of this paper. Among such influences as the family environment and the media, formal education is unique in its specified role of forming our citizens.
The overall outcomes of schooling have varied dramatically through the centuries. The emphasis has successively evolved and transformed. There were times when the curriculum was the focus point and then others when a student-centered approach was the goal and back and forth again (Spring, 2007). Today, public education is widely believed to be an objective transference of knowledge and skills. The idea of specifically teaching morals and values is very controversial, as it is believed that there are far too many incompatible agendas to reconcile. While some see the goals of education to be preparing our youth for the workforce, others want schools to develop human potential to the fullest. Interesting questions to ask include: Are these two goals able to co-exist? Are the capacities that create a politically active citizen, a critical thinker, or an environmentalist incompatible with the skills that create a better employee? Can one achieve a high paying “American Dream” job with holistic, cooperative beliefs and attitudes? In light of the unique dilemmas that the world is facing today, these questions are imperative to ask. Perhaps, by not asserting the explicit aims of education, Americans have unquestioningly accepted other goals (Jenkins, 2008).
Whether it is the agenda of the state and national governments who funds the schools (and determine policies such as standards for the tests) or the worldview of each individual teacher; we need to consider the ethical outcomes that are inherent in the choice of curriculum and methodology of our schools today. The numerous ways in which this is manifested could be demonstrated through a complete analysis of the system. However, the focus of this section is the practice of standardized testing and the way in which the system indoctrinates competitiveness, as well as dominates the teaching agenda at the expense of other subjects and activities. Those subjects that suffer most widely from cutbacks are those that are intended to help develop well-rounded, healthy, critical thinking, creative, and responsible students. The overarching suggestion from the literature is that the excessive practice of standardized testing is one of many that contribute to The Culture of Violence. This may seem like an exaggeration as the links are not explicit. However, the system that surrounds the American use of testing steers the goals of education away from promoting the values of a Culture of Peace, that are necessary for coping with the global problems that we face today.
Support for Standardized Testing
Standardized testing is justified by the concept that parents and community members need to know with some sort of reliability, whether or not students are learning. Currently, the consensus is that the optimum method for doing this is to take standards that have been developed by each state and create tests that measure the degree to which these standards have or have not been met. Schools have been said to use standardized tests to determine if children are ready for school, separate them by level into instructional groups, to diagnose for learning disabilities, college acceptance, and to decide whether to promote a student to the next grade or hold them back (Fairtest, 2008). The results of the tests also determine how whether a school is successful or not and in some cases, the salaries of teachers. Parents and real estate agents will often use the evaluations to locate neighborhoods with the highest achieving schools (Fairtest, 2008). The most substantial benefit is that schools which are shown to be scoring very low are identified for improvements.
Since 2001, standardized testing has taken a much higher priority than ever before as the result of the passing of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. George W. Bush’s highly controversial education-reform bill sought to raise education standards through increased testing and tougher accountability in schools. Proponents of NCLB say that it, “benefits children, empowers parents, supports teachers and strengthens schools” (U.S. Department of Education, 2006). The ideal is that there is accountability for all children and that schools are more responsible than ever to make sure that each child is meeting the agreed upon standards. Parents are said to be given more specific information on the true standing of their child’s learning and also new choices for improving that level. Teachers can use these data to improve their methodology and schools that do not meet the standards are given additional assistance and resources. No Child Left Behind advocates cite unprecedented student achievement in reading and math, with all-time highs in improvements for minority children (U.S. Department of Education, 2006).
Opposition to Standardized Testing
“Intellectuals, who memorize everything, reading for hours on end, slaves to the text, fearful or taking a risk, speaking as if they were reciting from memory, fail to make any concrete connections between what they have read and what is happening in the world, the country or the local community.”
-Noam Chomsky (2003, p. 28)
Not many people disagree with the grand goals of No Child Left Behind which are equality in schools, school accountability, basic literacy and math skills for all, and extra help for those in need. However, there is a strong movement of people who believe that in actuality NCLB is doing more harm than good. A divergence in opinion exists amongst those in opposition to the system of standardized testing. While some are completely against it, many recognize the value that tests have in combination with other tools for assessment. Yet, a search of anecdotes on internet forums revealed that many of those who are in opposition feel that overuse and misuse of testing is having grave affects on teaching and learning. In the following section, I will illustrate ways in which this system (NCLB and overuse of testing in general) takes away from learning values that promote the Culture of Peace.
The school ratings and annual tests create a system that relies far too heavily on the scores to understand the achievements of students. This raises many questions that our communities need to address: Are high test scores the only way to understand success? Is proficiency solely in the areas of reading, writing, and arithmetic the key to successful employment or does today’s global economy need both literacy and creative, critical thinkers? Are we measuring intelligence, ability, or test-taking skills? Not to mention, what are the effects of the pressure to succeed that is put upon children starting at age 5.
Another very important question to ask is: what is being sacrificed in order to raise the test scores? Standardized testing in its current form is said to pressure teachers into spending excessive amounts of valuable class time preparing children to take the tests. Students are not the only members of the learning community who are overwhelmed with the pressure. Teachers today cite feeling very stressed in being unable to provide a developmentally sound program that is relevant and inspiring to a child (Fairtest, 2008).
More and more, teachers are found to be “teaching to the test,” meaning that they are using the test to decide their class program and focus instruction. The danger in this is that it “limits educational possibilities for children, resulting in distortion of curriculum, teaching and learning, as well as lowered expectations” (Association of for Childhood Education International, 1991). Methods of teaching often conform to the multiple-choice format of the tests which most commonly reflect skills in short-term memory more than reasoning ability (Chomsky, 2003, p.32). Experiential learning has considerable evidence with regard to its efficacy (and will be discussed in greater detail in the next chapter). Yet, teaching is more and more resembling testing. This is extremely problematic if we want to raise children to become adults who can make sound decisions with strong problem solving skills.
“The desperate response of the schools to test pressure has been to excise history, science, and the arts, and replace them with still more such exercises in reading,” writes Hirsch, founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation. “This is a futile strategy, since reading achievement depends on broad knowledge of [these subjects].” (Manzo, 2005, p. 2)
As the emphasis of the testing lies solely on reading and math, classes in science, social studies, music, art, and the languages have suffered. While many schools are seeing higher scores in those tested disciplines, a recent study of the legislation’s impact by the Council on Education Policy showed that 71% of the schools surveyed reported having reduced instructional time in at least one other subject to make more time for reading and math. Also, schools reported a 22% decline in their art and music instruction (Lynch, 2007). The benefits of exposure to the arts are vast and innumerable, ranging from self-expression to self-esteem. The question that needs to be answered: is teaching art and music actually incompatible with creating students prepared for the global economy? The United States is making $134 billion in economic activity off of the nonprofit arts industry per year and yet these skills are not seen as valuable (Lynch, 2007).
Other areas that have taken a hard hit in the same manner are social studies, government, economics, history, and geography. These are the very subjects that encourage citizen participation, empowerment in our students and enhance higher level critical thinking skills. The following quotebythe American Youth Policy Forum and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development illustrates this point:
“[There is] a disturbing imbalance in the mission of public education. The recent preoccupation of the nation with reshaping academics and raising academic performance,” it says, “has all but overpowered a task of equally vital importance—educating our young people to become engaged members of their communities as citizens” (Manzo, 2005, p.46 ).
When reflecting upon the values and attitudes that define a Culture of Peace or Violence, the issue militarization of public schools one of grave concern. The No Child Left Behind Act actually requires that schools distribute the name, home phone number and address of every student enrolled to military recruiters and institutions of higher education, unless the student (or the student’s parent) specifically objects (Education U. S., 2002). There is also an interesting program initiative that is a feature of NCLB found on the websites for the U.S. Department of Education. This is the “Troops to Teachers” program that gives financial support to former military personnel in order for them to train to become classroom teachers (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). The connections between militarism and education today come in both subtle and not so discreet forms.
Learning languages, art, music and social studies are all equally important subjects that help our children understand their place in the world; as each subject reveals a new perspective of the complicated and diverse place we live in. As an educator and concerned citizen, it is my belief that it is very important to question the connection between the decreasing amounts of time that is spent in these subjects in order to make room for test preparation with the type of citizen that this education will produce. For example, it has been said that "encounters with the arts nurture and sometimes provoke the growth of individuals who reach out to one another” (Greene, 2007, p. 37). Additional benefits of art classes have been documented to show "gains in math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking, and verbal skill. Arts learning can also improve motivation, concentration, confidence, and teamwork" (Smith, 2009). What are we losing by decreasing time spent exploring these areas with our youth?
The ranking of students that occurs through standardized testing is not productive given all of the variables that affect test results. There are many alternatives to testing that can more holistically capture the level of not only student growth, but also give indications for how learning should proceed. Successful models of these methods include the act of reflection through journaling, small to large group discussions and the use of student-created portfolios (Peterson, 1999). The point that is being stressed here is that our public schools are encouraging competition over cooperation and collaboration in a way that will inevitably lead to global conflict.
“One of the most important tasks of critical education practice is to make possible the conditions in which the learners, in their interaction with one another and with their teachers, engage in the experience of assuming themselves as social, historical, thinking, communicating, transformative, creative persons; dreamers of possible utopias" (Freire,1998, p. 112).
As Freire (1998) suggested, now that we understand the global proportions of today's crises, it seems as though it is past the time for us to move beyond our competitive and individualistic modes of living.
While I am not convinced that the country-wide obsession with standardized testing was created intentionally to promote a Culture of Violence, it seems that by critically analyzing the content and pedagogy of our current system we can argue that this is a consequence.