Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Three cheers for adequacy.

Photo by Terrapin Flyer
Years ago I sat in a staff meeting at a school which shall remain nameless, but which, I feel certain, was very similar to hundreds of other American schools, and I was struck by the excitement over achieving the greatest goal imaginable in public schools: making adequate yearly progress.

Yay. We're adequate. 

Since when did being adequate become something to strive for?

Yay. I'm good enough. Not great, really, but y'know, I'll do as long as there's no one more than adequate around.

For all the lip service given to 21st century skills in schools: collaboration, communication, creativity, innovation, problem-solving, critical thinking in addition to the old stand-bys, the educational system itself is not set up to encourage the mastery of those skills. It's not set up to achieve anything greater than adequacy. Standardized tests, the be all and end all of the educational system, as a general rule, don't necessitate any of the above skills. Some of the skills, in fact, are completely contrary to standardized tests.

Creativity and innovation, for instance, both require a learner to consider several possibilities that have never been considered before. That's the very essence of these skills: generating new possibilities. Problem-solving, likewise, requires the thinker to consider multiple ways to tackle difficult situations, acknowledging that there are several acceptable solutions to most problems, and that the best solution can vary from one circumstance to the next.

Such is not the case with standardized tests whose stems are written as such: Choose the best answer. (The best is generally italicized to draw attention to it.) Of course, best implies that there is more than one answer that could be correct, but only one is best. That best gives the illusion of choice, the illusion of problem-solving and critical thinking. Regardless of the phrasing, however, what the test-makers mean by best is simply...what your teacher would tell you...what you memorized (and will promptly forget after the test). 

The system, at times covertly and at other times aggressively, throws up obstacles to the very skills that are needed in the modern era. Efforts to turn around failing schools with innovative curriculum like the Quest Schools and the Turnaround Arts Initiative - programs that truly, unapologetically embrace the 21st century notion that our students need to be more than automatons, that they need to be independent, well-rounded thinkers - are thwarted by testing paranoia. Tests that don't even begin to measure the skills necessary to thrive in the world keep schools and students as well as teachers from achieving anything beyond adequacy by intimidating them, frustrating any attempts at positive transformation.

Until our educational policy-makers become more creative and innovative, until they communicate and collaborate with teachers and students to discover what is really needed to make classes places of authentic learning, until they recognize the problems in the traditional modes of instruction and think critically about how to solve those problems - in short, until our policy-makers become greater than adequate - we certainly can't expect much more from our schools.

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