Back to school 2010: Why we're all education experts today

Standards-based school reform didn't come out of nowhere. It's rooted in the relentless system of grading that we all went through in school.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor/File
First-grade teacher Sonny Wong welcomes her students back from recess in San Francisco. Testing to determine proficiency in reading and math now occur nationwide. In the past, schools and teachers varied enormously in their approach to ensuring students had basic skills.

On that dread day when we first set foot in school, hefting a satchel and worrying about whether we’ll fit in, we enter a world of grading, scoring, and judging. A gold star is better than a silver, we quickly learn. “Excellent” beats “improvement needed.” Score 100 on a math test and you’re an ace, but a D in history means you aren’t cutting it.

For better or worse, grades define us and motivate us. Your scribe remembers coming home from second grade and happily telling his mom that there were two reading groups, the bombers and the jets, and that he was a bomber. This was 1959 at a school outside Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. The coolest bombers of the day were based there, and I was one of them! Umm, said Mom, those aren’t groups, they’re grades. Bombers are slow. Jets are fast. I was mortified.

A life of juvenile delinquency lay before me. I resolved to become a jet.

What everyone who has ever sat in a classroom has in common is this: We are experts on education. This is why education reform has been a part of schooling since the first perplexed student emerged from Socrates’s parlor and muttered, “Man, what’s with all the questions?”

Whether we are teachers, parents, or students, each of us has theories about what makes the best teachers, the right size for a classroom, and the most effective ways of learning. We all agree that kids these days are falling short – always have, always will. If only they were taught more facts. If only they were free to explore the wonders of the world. Sorry, hippie, the key is long division and sentence diagramming. Wrong, caveman, it’s all about learning how to learn, building self-esteem, and accessing one’s inner child.

Everyone knows that individual educators can have a profound effect on students. But if Room 202 has a brilliant teacher, Room 204 might have one who is just phoning it in. Education policy is meant to fix that problem. In the postwar years, education policy focused on a “life adjustment” curriculum. Why should everybody learn higher math? Most people need to learn just enough to master home, shop, health, and citizenship. Ivy League grads can take care of the hard stuff.

Then came Sputnik and the mad push for science and math to counter the Soviet threat. This was the era of “new math” and a blizzard of new ways of teaching. As the long, strange trip of the 1960s progressed, some schools detoured through “open education,” a movement rooted in the Rousseau-ish ideas of the Summerhill School in Britain. Children should learn what they want to learn, Summerhill’s founder, A.S. Neill, said, not what “anxious parents” want or “an educator who thinks he knows best” instructs. Let the kids decide. Let the sunshine in.

By the 1970s, those anxious parents began to worry about out-of-control classrooms and Johnny being unable to read. By the 1980s, American education was seen to be so lacking that a presidential commission declared the United States “a nation at risk.” Japan and other countries were gaining ground with their disciplined, educated workforces. US workers were bombing out at reading and math.

The ’80s were when the penny dropped. Why not grade education itself? What followed was the introduction of standards-based reform. By the next decade, states were putting rigorous testing in place. By 2001, with the No Child Left Behind Act, standardized achievement tests had gone nationwide. Education is now all about preparing children for those tests and holding schools accountable for the results.

These tests generate rivers of data. Inevitably, that data gets massaged in ways that not everyone likes. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times used student test scores to estimate the effectiveness of teachers in the LA Unified School District, building a database with the names of teachers who were helping students achieve and those who were not. Teachers were outraged. But Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was not. He is a true believer in grading at all levels – students, schools, and teachers.

Whether or not grading, scoring, and judging is the most enlightened way to learn, it works for most people most of the time. I started second grade as a bomber. Every night, month after month, I read aloud to my mom. By midyear, I said goodbye to the bombers. Since then? I’ve been a jet all the way.
John Yemma is the editor of 
The Christian Science Monitor.

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