An education revolution beckons. In Connecticut, who will lead?

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Recently I had the opportunity to testify before the Education Committee of the Connecticut Legislature.  I commented that education policy in our state sadly resembles the phenomenon of the “Macarena.”

Play along for a moment.  Let your mind drift back 20 years or so to any random wedding.  When the “Rent a DJ” wanted to get the dance floor moving you could hear the drumbeat and the lyrics, “Dale a tu cuerpo alegria Macarena.” Suddenly, the house was jumping, hips were swaying, hands were clapping, and everyone from your 5-year-old nephew to your great aunt were doing the Macarena.

Now fast forward to present day.  The same stale “Rent a DJ” reaches back and tries to conjure up some dance magic.  You hear that familiar drumbeat.  But, instead of filling up the dance floor, all that is left are two embarrassing guys, hips swaying and hands clapping, all alone on the floor, while family and friends shuffle uncomfortably in their seats trying not to make eye contact.

Sadly, this metaphor is an illustration of education policy in Connecticut.  We are the state left on the dance floor with tired policies, while other states are running away.  We are overdue for a bold statewide vision that matches the uncertain and ever-changing world our students will enter when they graduate.  But who will lead?

Codified by state law, and enforced by a bureaucracy utterly consumed by compliance, tens of thousands of educators across the state are suffocating, desperate to be exhumed.  Consequently, this suffocation is stifling the young, inquisitive minds of children from all backgrounds and colors.

Have we seen the types of educational changes we want for our kids in the past 10-15 years, particularly as the world endures revolutionary changes?  If not, why continue the same ineffectual practices?  Can Connecticut jump to the forefront and lead in innovation, or do we stand on the dance floor with the two embarrassing guys clapping and swaying?

As we careen through rapid global changes that have profound implications for the worlds of work, citizenship, and lifelong learning, it is safe to assume that the traditional promise of “go to school, get good grades, go to a good college, get a good job” no longer applies.  If you are clinging to that promise, you are probably still searching for your music at Tower Records.

The world continues to decentralize its economy, and the flow of information, at an unprecedented rate.  The “sharing economy” rewards innovators and diversity of thought.  Yet, Connecticut clings to a command-and-control educational approach destined to homogenize children.

Either directly through prescriptive laws, such as ones that mandate precisely how local boards of education must evaluate their employees, or indirectly through schemes and mechanisms that place high stakes on invalid and unreliable tests such as the SBAC, we rank and sort kids, schools, and teachers based on test scores. Our 8-year-old students take more state tests than what is required to pass the bar exam to become a lawyer.  All the while we are missing the point.

We are educating our children for the wrong era.

So, how is this era different?  The list is endless.

Our kids must be able to think analytically through incomparable volumes of information, to imagine, to work effectively with others, to find their voice in a sea of noise, to tell a compelling story, and to ask incisive questions to name just a few.  Getting better at taking tests, answering mind-numbing “text-dependent questions” by finding facts in non-fiction texts, and limiting opportunities for original thought will only serve to further divorce important authentic learning from schooling.

Sudden, almost instantaneous changes are reshaping our democracy and the global economy.  Will Uber, with a valuation about to surpass the levels of GM, DuPont, and Time Warner, evolve beyond online transportation and be the standard business model that will employ the next generation of professionals?  Might patients someday demand the attentive droid instead of the human doctor for time sensitive procedures, such as keyhole kidney surgery?  What about entry level or service jobs?  iPhone manufacturer, Foxconn, has already replaced 60,000 workers with robots, and Royal Caribbean’s luxury cruise line now uses a robotic bar, Shakr Makr, developed at MIT, to serve customers.

What does the automated car mean for the insurance industry?  What about the “sharing economy”?  Airbnb is now the biggest hotel chain in the world.  What happens if the startup company, Otto, with engineers from Google, Apple and Tesla, perfects technology that enables fleets of robotic self-driving trucks?  Have you noticed that a multi-billion dollar industry has been reduced to a red tin box of DVDs outside of gas stations in the matter of a few years?   Couple all of these rapid transformations with an increasingly polarized interpersonal climate across the nation and an imposing landscape emerges for this and future generations.

And our response in Connecticut?  We cling to a flawed test (i.e. the SBAC), conflating measures with goals, while other states, and organizations in private industry leave the dance floor and run in the opposite direction.

Over half of the states that initially adopted the SBAC have dropped it, and the remaining states inevitably will in due time, including Connecticut, but by then how many more students will have been harmed?

Oklahoma and Hawaii have removed the coupling of student test scores from the evaluations of individual teachers.  Massachusetts is the next state to follow suit, interestingly enough, led by a coalition of superintendents and teachers.  A recent New York court decision invalidated the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations due to the arbitrary and capricious nature of the process.

Even outside of education, private industry behemoths such as, Morgan Stanley, Microsoft, Google, and Accenture have eliminated the use of numerical ratings for employees, an immovable piece of the Connecticut evaluation scheme.  And finally, there’s New Hampshire, which has aggressively pursued a statewide assessment model that put teachers in the position of creating tasks where students apply their learning in real world situations, rather than flawed standardized tests.

Could Connecticut innovate on the same level?  Of course.  Will we?  Listen closely…”Dale a tu cuerpo alegria Macarena.

In Connecticut we will commission a “study” of the practice of assessing teachers’ performance on student test scores even though the actual makers of the test, and mountains of literature, warn against the practice.  We’ll grade schools and districts on a 1-5 rating scale, although that practice failed miserably across the nation.  We will count on the SBAC to predict career readiness… quite a miraculous endeavor given that the World Economic Forum recently predicted that 65 percent of the jobs our children will occupy do not even exist yet.

We will base 80 percent of elementary and middle school performance on a singular, flawed test, thus distorting the perception of schools.  We’ll place the SAT at the center of high school accountability with more than half of a school’s performance rating based on SAT scores, while a growing number of colleges and universities recognize that the SAT fails to properly predict college success and move to drop the testing requirement.

Worse yet, we apply the greatest pressure to districts with the greatest challenges, plagued with economic disadvantages and generational poverty.    Can you hear it?  “Dale a tu cuerpo alegria Macarena.”

And how do we justify such practices?  Perhaps most offensive of all, we equate the need for high stakes testing , and command-and-control policies, with the obligation to ensure the protection of the civil rights for our most at-risk children without any conversation about the funding, or even more necessary, accountability for those holding others accountable.

The obsession with dehumanizing students and equating them with data points has muted any discussion about inputs into the system (e.g. funding, class size, innovative curricular and professional development).  One need to go no farther than a short drive down the turnpike to civil rights expert, Dr. Yohuru Williams of Fairfield University, who has demonstrated with thunderous authority, through the actual words and sayings of Dr. Martin Luther King, that the leader of the U.S. civil rights movement would have never stood beside those who seek to privatize and monetize public education, nor would he have supported the high stakes testing obsession that has crippled the promise of public education, dehumanized children, and driven countless educators out of the profession.

If that is not enough, perhaps civil rights icon James Meredith’s most recent comments criticizing these same intellectually and morally bankrupt practices will finally put this myth to bed.

And yet, in Connecticut, we remain on the dance floor.  Our dance partners are dwindling, running in the opposite direction.  An education revolution beckons.  One that engages, imagines, inspires, and personalizes.

Soon, it will just be us and the two embarrassing guys.  Who will lead?

Thomas R. Scarice is the superintendent of the Madison Public Schools

 

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