In the wake of the Atlanta cheating scandal and recent cheating allegations in other school districts (including Washington, DC), On Leadership convened a roundtable on how best to approach teacher incentives in the U.S. education system — with opinion pieces by Duke University behavioral economics professor Dan Ariely, teacher and education blogger from Georgia Vicki Davis, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Howard Gardner, and Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein.
“The last thing I will do is refuse to take your test,” said an angry 15-year old to a math teacher who’s a friend of mine in Georgia. “I just wanted to teach him to balance his checkbook, something he would use in the real world,” she said, “but the school system made me sit there and watch him sullenly refuse to write on the ‘high stakes’ standardized test for the two days before his 16th birthday when he would quit school. This is not teaching.”
My friend is just one of the many dedicated teachers who are losing hope in a system that has lost its way.
In our rush to make teachers accountable, we have made them accountable for the wrong things. We are pushing them to turn kids into memorizing automatons who remember a lot of facts only to forget them right after the test. These tests are not the products of educational research. In fact, according to Bloom’s Taxonomy, “remembering” is considered lower-order thinking. It doesn’t even require understanding.
In the video “No Future Left Behind,” made by students at Suffern Middle School in New Jersey, there’s a memorable line: “You can’t create my future with the tools of your past.” They’re right. We’re using a 20th-century measuring stick to measure a 21st-century learner. No wonder businesses are yelling that education is getting worse: We’re using the wrong stick. Students should graduate with portfolios of work ready for a world that will value them on their ability to create. Take for example a student I know from Evansville, Indiana, who finally fell in love with learning during his senior-year project. Using a netbook purchased with curriculum funds, he engaged in stop-motion animation using Legos. His school attendance went up, his grades went up, and he is now graduating and going on to college.
We need to define what it means to be a well-educated person in the 21st century and then support our schools to move toward that vision. And the greatest incentive we can give teachers to improve learning is to let them start focusing on teaching.
What we need in our schools are
like they have in Finland, where the “teachers choose their own textbooks and customize their lesson plans.” Reginald Garrard, who left his Camilla, Georgia, teaching job after 33 years says, “My biggest complaint was the trend towards cookie-cutter teaching. The fact that we were expected to be on the same page at the same time in the same way. Your creativity is being stymied with the pressure to pass the test.”