Reform movement based on faulty data?

We are living in an era of educational reform. These reforms almost always focus on improving the existing system of education.  Which really has two huge assumptions.  The first is, that the system is fixable, and the second is that the system is not working and therefore needs fixing.  The evidence we used to determine that the educational system was broken was A Nation at Risk published in 1983, which wrongly identified what was ailing our nations schools.  It blamed schools for national economic stagnation which is not related to the education of kids, and it concluded student achievement was declining.  Since publication in 1983,  far too many researchers to name have rebuked A Nation at Risk and in fact student achievement was not declining and that the usage of only SAT data in the report — misrepresented the actual performance of students.

This sent us down the path of reform and the remains the basis for more testing, more accountability, more punitive punishments for those that fail to meet the lofty goals set for schools.  It seems no one really questions this reform movement.   In my short career, I have seen initiatives come and go with little or no success.  Goals 2000 , then NCLB and finally Race to The Top have all been federal initiatives that sought to bring reform.   The main problem with all these initiatives is that they are targeting one aspect of the system and never bothered to address the whole system.  The system likely did not need fixing it needed transforming and all those initiatives were too narrowly focused.

What those reform movements have managed to do is seriously narrow the curriculum.  Even the current controversy around Common Core misses this point.  It is not about high standards or who created them. It is also not about how we have increased the rigor within Common Core.  It is about how we have narrowed our curriculum.

We have focused ourselves on Reading and Math at the expense of all other subjects. Districts pushed out other subjects to focus on Reading and Math.   Many of those subjects and in particular the Arts are what make education exciting.  What happened to the well-rounded student?  Why is it we no longer value a Liberal Arts Education? All this reform and testing has sharply narrowed our curriculum and it will be at our own peril.

If you ask kids what their favorite subjects are in school “Math” is rarely mentioned.  They love Art, Music, and of course Gym.  This meshes with my own personal experience as a teacher and school administrator. Kids dread school, but love co-curricular activities.   Whenever I talked with kids, we rarely talked about particular classes.  We always talked about sports, theater productions,Clubs, Band Concerts etc…it is what they get excited about.  It is those activities they remember, it is those activities and subjects that shape and mold who they are as a person.  Even Social Studies and Science have suffered as we place an inordinate emphasis on Reading and Math.

Why such a narrow focus?  It is those areas we test and the test has become the end all be all for schools. No need to waste time on the Arts or Music…its not tested.  We have tossed out even in the tested subjects material that does not show up on the test even if that material is considered foundational.  That is how we have narrowed our curriculum.

What we need to do is stop testing our kids to death and start letting them learn, experience and enjoy what education has to offer.  We need to simply use the test for what it is intended for and that is as a diagnostic. It should help teachers focus on the skills kids need to develop and not be used to punish, rate or evaluate schools, teachers and administrators.  I have seriously wondered at times if A Nation at Risk is never published would we be so obsessed with testing and accountability?

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About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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