Thursday, September 5, 2013

Educational Reform: What's Dumb about Smart? Part II

Following up on my August 10 Detroit Free Press Letter to the Editor, Feedback: Schools put too much emphasis on tests (, here is Part II of my III part series on What's Dumb about Smart.

Educational Reform: What’s Dumb about Smart? Part II
by Rod Rock, Ed.D.
Superintendent, Clarkston Community Schools, Clarkston, Michigan

It is universally agreed upon, mistakenly, that the United States’ educational system is broken. Yet, in all of the discussion, debate, and legislation related to fixing it, rarely do we ever read or hear any suggestion that what is broken is not the system itself, but rather the very concept of achievement and intelligence that the system pursues and promotes. This fundamental flaw makes dumb the educational system’s pursuit of smart.

Reform in the current context means revised governance structures (such as charter schools, virtual schools, and district consolidation); school choice (such as vouchers); one-size-fits-all standardized tests for every student every year, the use of test results to rank schools, teacher evaluation and merit pay, new curricula, and more tests. Since reform discussions began in the US nearly 65 years ago, this list has not changed. Reform is almost exclusively and perpetually about governance structures, standardized tests, curricula, and placing blame.

Essentially, this means that not much ever actually changes in our educational systems. Yes, more laws are put in place. Yes, the money for education goes to different providers. Yes, parents have choices. Yes, curriculum is different. Yes, kids take more tests. And, these reforms are remodels as opposed to true changes. The facade looks different, and how the system measures, acknowledges, and fosters individual differences in children remains static.

The reason: because the reforms never addressed the fundamental element of education--intelligence. From 1947 to 2013, our educational systems have never--despite overwhelming evidence--adjusted what it means to be smart in school. In opposition to prolific begging from universities and the business world regarding the skills today’s kids need, our educational systems remain profoundly focused on a unimodal concept and measurement of intelligence. Education attempts today, harder than ever, to fit more and more students into an accepted, antiquated, singular, and highly prejudicial definition of intelligence. This is really shameful.

There is one curriculum, generally speaking, in your local school. It is expected that students born in the same six to ten months of a calendar year will experience and thrive within this curriculum, and as a result, achieve at a high level on the same standardized test each October or March. When this does not occur, the child, the teacher, the school, and the district are considered to have failed and reform sets in. Yet nothing ever really changes.

This approach makes perfect sense in a factory model of education. It is highly efficient, predictable, portable, manageable, reportable, and reliable. However, it is completely dumb if you are the parent of a child who demonstrates intelligence in a different way. Say your child is an excellent listener and does not enjoy writing or taking notes. In fact, his motor skills are so poor that the process of writing actually distracts him from learning. Since the standardized test is designed for kids who read and write well, as opposed to listen well, there is a very good chance that your child will not do well on this test and that he is currently being reformed. Does this mean he’s dumb?

Suppose your child is a highly active learner. She can go into the woods, build a fire, catch a fish, filter creek water for drinking, and identify plants, but despises sitting in a classroom, facing the front of the room, reading from a textbook, and memorizing facts. Despite your child’s obvious smarts, she is unlikely to do well on the standardized test that takes into account only reading and memory skills. Does this mean that she’s dumb?

In a system where the definition of smart is dumb, the answers to these questions is simply, uniquely, and profoundly, “Yes, your child is dumb.” This is the message that the child receives as he or she is reformed each day. This is the message that the teacher receives as she looks at her students’ standardized test scores. This is the message that the media sends as it compares one school’s effectiveness to another.

So, what is dumb about smart is the way that standardized tests measure it, the ways in which the media reports it, and the ways in which the government uses it to constantly reform the educational system? If we measured a tub of butter in acres instead of ounces and pounds, and then tried to sell it by the pound, we would be very confused. And, if we surveyed land in ounces and pounds and then tried to sell it by the acre, we would have a messed up system. Yet, this is exactly what we do in schools. We measure the intelligence of our students on a unimodal, universal assessment, and then we use the results to try to fix the kid or the school. Only after they graduate do they come to realize how they are smart. We have a messed up system.

We have to stop this nonsense. We must stop assessing to determine who is smart and start assessing to see how each child is smart. The present assessment system is patently unfair to children, teachers, and schools. It marginalizes kids. It tells kids that they are dumb and that they cannot be smart. It connects failure to learning, which is an absolute oxymoron. It’s what is dumb about smart. It is time to change it, fundamentally and universally.
In Part III, I will discuss the elements of a non-dumb educational system.

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