I’m afraid we’ve been brainwashed. I think most of us with 20 or more years in this field remember the age-old interview question, “What is your philosophy of education?” I can remember answering that question too. My answer then isn’t different from my answer now. I believe education can change the lives of children. I believe it can and does make a difference. I believe that for all children, but especially for children of poverty, education is the gateway to economic mobility, and gives all of us an opportunity to make the world a better place. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that it has the power to break generational strongholds of poverty, trauma, and more. Without my education, from Head Start to my Doctorate of Philosophy degree, my life would not be what it is today. And I am willing to bet, if this question was posed to educators across the country their responses would be similar to mine. Yet, when we begin to have vigorous debate about the value and use of high stakes assessments, our philosophies are often overshadowed by a narrative of weaponized accountability, competition among schools and districts, and our perceived need to sort, sift, rank, and label schools and students.
You might wonder why I am concerned that our colleagues have been brainwashed. There are lots of examples I could give, but here are a few that particularly trouble me. With the reauthorization of the ESEA, also known now as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, states were given the opportunity to exercise flexibility in meeting the requirements of federal accountability. Yet, few states ventured away from the assessment systems brought on by all of the previous named pieces of legislation, like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. I can’t help but wonder if the redundant inoculation of a narrative that has said we must label our schools to hold them accountable, and we must use high stakes testing to do so, and to prove our worth and validity as institutions of public education and recipients of public tax dollars, has led us to believe that there is only one way to measure success in our schools. This particular mindset troubles me because it creates a false positive, a perception or belief that a few days of high stakes testing can paint the wholistic picture of a school’s or district’s success. I learned early that 175 days are greater than 5 days, and I choose to believe that an absolute measure of our schools are better captured across the majority of time we spend instructing students and students spend learning. This isn’t the only thing that has led me to believe we’ve been conditioned to quantify the complex efforts and skills involved with teaching and learning in absolute fashion. There’s more.
This year, in South Carolina, there is a proposal to eliminate additional testing, not required by the federal government. This means we will no longer test Social Studies at the elementary and middle school level, and Science will be assessed once in middle school and once in high school. This proposal has brought on an onslaught of concern, specifically from Social Studies educators. In short, some of these folks have expressed concern that if Social Studies isn’t included in our high stakes assessment and accountability system, then it may not be taught. This is the epitome of the “tail wagging the dog.” I can’t help but strongly challenge such thinking. What students need to know and be able to do should not be determined by what is on the big set of tests at the end of the year. We know from a variety of research that our students must be problem solvers, collaborators, creative, persistent, authentic engagers of literacy of all kinds, kind, healthy, and whole people to become successful adults. If that is so, then it suggests to me, that reducing our practice as only valid if children participate in a high stakes assessment related to the content we have taught is counter intuitive to what many of us would articulate as our philosophy of education. With or without a high stakes assessment, what we teach students and the skills we want students to know and demonstrate are important. We don’t need a highly consequential assessment to prove that. I trust educators as professionals, who love the whole child, and want children to have the instructional and educational experience they deserve-tested or not.
So why then, have we allowed our philosophies to be disrupted by those who haven’t done the work we do? Why is it, that we buy into someone else’s philosophy, be it corporate or individual, about how we prove that we are doing good work? The futures of our students are the ultimate measures of our efforts. What they become, or fail to become, is a reflection of our work and the work of other important stakeholders such as parents, community members, etc. We do not do this alone. Yet, there are those of us who have allowed the assertions of others to define us. We have been conditioned to believe that if it doesn’t show up on a high stakes assessment as positive, if it isn’t colored in green, if the grade doesn’t show up as an A, if the rating doesn’t say excellent, then our work and our efforts are to be questioned and perhaps, viewed as ineffective or less effective. I whole heartedly reject that, and I hope you will too.
Dabo Swinney, the Clemson Tiger football coach, and two time National Champion, said it best: “Best is the standard.” Our job isn’t to try and be better than other schools or districts. We shouldn’t rests our efforts on how much better or worse our students perform than the school next door, or the state across the border. As educators, we must define best for ourselves and by ourselves. A failure to subscribe to our own educational philosophies has the potential to lead to a brainwashing of sorts-an adoption of a belief that we didn’t originally subscribe to when we started doing this important work.
My charge to educators today is to think for yourself. Make sure your efforts are aligned to your educational philosophy, not the accountability system of the school report card, or the mandates of those who choose to put our schools, districts, and states in rank order and label us because of a perceived belief that it will incentivize better performance. Tell them to apply this same thinking to the work of doctors, hospitals, engineers, IT work, and business. Produce a report card based on a few days of interaction with customers, patients, or clients. Use that data to rank, sift, and sort these entities and publish for all to view and make judgement of quality of their work. I can guarantee you that Apple isn’t trying to be better than Samsung, and Kroger isn’t trying to be better than Publix. They are all trying to be the best they can be…because best is the standard. Decide for yourself.
Until next time, be you. Be true. Be a hope builder!