By Bob Houghtaling
It seems as though everyone wants a world-class education for the East Greenwich Public Schools (or at least have us listed in the top 100 for the nation). This sounds awesome, but what does it mean? Do we get there by achieving higher scores on standardized tests? Do we get there by offering more AP classes? Perhaps the most important question of all should be, does getting there really mean anything?
Driving home after attending a recent Crosby, Stills and Nash concert at PPAC, a bunch of their songs were replaying in my head. “Teach Your Children” was one of them. Upon awakening the next morning I began contemplating about what and how we teach our children. Is it about being a good citizen? Is it about having a love for learning? Or perhaps it is about compliance and conformity. I have always thought that questions were the parents of answers. If that is so, we need to look at the kids we are raising these days.
The East Greenwich Public Schools have been doing fine on standardized tests for some time. A peek at the statistics will show that we are usually in the top 2 or 3 districts around the state. What does that mean? Could it be that statistically we are at the top of a state that fares poorly on such measures? What then? In addition, is it surprising that Barrington and East Greenwich do well (in terms of testing) while Central Falls, Providence, Woonsocket along with other districts suffering financially struggle? Does having a world-class education entail money, or is there something more to look at?
Just about everyone knows that many of the nations that perform better than the United States on tests do so while excluding some students from participating. This might be great for test scores but it leads one to question what happens to those not on the academic track. Do we really want to model our education system after Singapore’s? How often did we hear of late bloomers making great contributions in our country? This would be eliminated if we adopted Singapore’s philosophy of education. Again, scores paint only one half of a picture. One of the strengths (and there are many weaknesses) of our system is that we have multiple options for success.
Now that the Rhode Island House and Senate have placed a moratorium on the use of standardized tests being used as a graduation requirement, it’s apparent that the Common Core is next in line for scrutiny. Around the nation many are beginning to question the efficacy of such policies. Perfunctory learning may one day produce high scores, but is that what we want? The Common Core will constrict academic offerings to students. It appears as though every decade or so there is some fad of the moment. One can only guess as to what is next.
All of this leads to the question of what constitutes a world-class education? It seems as though education reform has taken the form of statistics, conformity and standardization. Even big time supporters like Bill Gates and Bobby Jindal are beginning to question measures like the Common Core. While most folk agree that accountability is necessary in education, how this is accomplished needs to be re-considered.
Whatever happened to critical thinking? Whatever happened to relevance and applicability? On top of these concerns, whatever happened to recognizing a child’s developmental process? Maria Montessori and Jean Piaget were once factored into how we taught young learners. Apparently testing companies and business leaders have surpassed them in influence over the last few years.
Howard Gardner once promoted the notion of multiple intelligences. In doing so, he recognized that people are smart in different ways. One challenge for educators should be finding a way to create strategies that accentuate a student’s learning style. Sure, some basics are essential. However, a system that promulgates regurgitation of facts, and limited offerings, restricts learning to its narrowest form. Good for test takers and auditory learners. Not so good for the tactile and intuitive types.
Unfortunately education has become extremely politicized. Real change in education should center more on the learners than tests, penalties and conformity. Many of the loudest voices for reform have not been in a classroom since their own schooling. This helps make them more susceptible to the latest academic fads. Many of the loudest voices are also influenced by political platforms and the opinions of professional pundits. Sounds like too many adults are on one page and the kids on another.
How we educate young learners should be a major concern for this upcoming election cycle. It is great to hear, and read, that many running for office are making this a priority. Placing critical thinking, child development, multiple pathways to success and the student/teacher relationship at the top of the priority list, is a step in the right direction. Along the way some compassion, fairness and common sense might be helpful as well. Arne Duncan (the United States Secretary of Education) actually said that students with learning disabilities need more testing. He went on to explain how testing would make them better learners. How do you come up with stuff like this? Would a blind person fare better if we threw balls at them? That would teach him/her accountability.
We now have a slew of politicians who have seen the light regarding the NECAPs but still advocate for the Common Core. Interesting logic. Testing is too rigid, unfair to some populations and politically questionable while the Common Core, despite many of its leading proponents jumping ship, still has its advocates like Arne Duncan and Deborah Gist (at the local level). It sure sounds like “Don’t baffle me with the facts, my mind is already made up.” Is this the best way we should “teach the children”? It’s nice knowing that it is all about the kids.
Contributor Bob Houghtaling is the director of the East Greenwich substance abuse program.