Why do we send our kids to school? So that they will learn.
Learn what? The basics; reading, writing and arithmetic, of course.
But those acquisitions actually come second. The first and most important things children learn in school are how to think, how to learn, how to organize facts and retain them, and how to behave. Then come words, dates, concepts, and understanding and communicating them.
If you follow my flow chart, you understand that in my concept, the teacher is only secondarily the inculcator of facts or techniques. Teachers’ primary tasks are to be motivators and models. Students learn best and learn the most when they want to learn, and when they are surrounded by encouragement, support and civility. Good teachers make their classrooms work for students who want to learn.
By almost all accounts, this heavenly vision rarely happens in the real world of American public education. By almost all evidence, too many students leave public education with unacceptable levels of basic literacy in words and numbers, and with shocking deficits in factual knowledge.
Have they failed to educate themselves or has the system failed them by organizing information badly, communicating it ineffectively, or by providing too few models of intellectual motivation and proper behavior?
Our dismay at the outputs of our public schools shouldn’t distract us from recognizing that crucial inputs in every child’s cognitive and social growth are beyond the control of teachers and schools. The roles of parents, and of the cultures of the neighborhood and the world, can complement, undermine or overwhelm what teachers are trying to teach.
None of these inputs; teacher motivation, student engagement, encouragement or disparagement from outside sources is easily measured, but they are crucial to the mission of schooling.
Outputs are important, but again the most important ones; the desire to learn, the patience and discipline of rational thought, the ability to communicate and interact successfully with other people, are all harder to quantify than skill levels for reading, writing and working with numbers. Of course, the easiest thing to quantify through testing is a skill for taking tests.
Is this an otherwise valuable skill? Is it so valuable that the real focus of public education should be teaching students to get higher scores on standardized tests?
The state of Louisiana has since 2012 been embarked on an ambitious reform of its public education. The good news is this has brought fresh attention and more state funding to early childhood education, teacher training and preparation at all grade levels K-12.
Is it working? When it comes to public policy, anecdotal evidence won’t do. Proof of success has to be validated by evidence, quantifiable evidence, like scores on standardized tests.
But standardized tests mean standardized texts and curricula, which are themselves focused on passing the test. Does this narrowing of focus stimulate teachers or students, and if not, is this not an exercise in falsity, grinding-out test results that have no relation to learning, or a student’s future uses of it?
Julia Kaufman is a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. Her primary areas of interest are the measurement of teacher instruction and how policies and programs can best support high-quality instruction and student learning. Her expertise includes gathering and analyzing data from observations, interviews, and surveys to understand the complex factors influencing teaching and learning. Her current projects include investigations of how Louisiana state policies are implemented and connected to educational improvement; how the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are understood and implemented in schools; costs associated with strong school principal pipelines; and implementation and outcomes associated with alternative pipelines for preparing, selecting and hiring new teachers. She holds a Ph.D. in international education from New York University and an M.A. in teaching from the University of Pittsburgh.