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Time for schools to flunk failure

How standardized testing stifles students’ potential to succeed
Doug Green has been an educator since 1970, serving as an elementary principal, district computer director, K12 science chair, high school chemistry and physics teacher, and adjunct professor.
Doug Green has been an educator since 1970, serving as an elementary principal, district computer director, K12 science chair, high school chemistry and physics teacher, and adjunct professor.

We pretty much understand rocket science, says Doug Green. That is, we understand the complex math and physics that propel objects into space. “The human brain, however, which is the learning playground for students and teachers, is much more complex and less understood.”

An educator since 1970—as an elementary principal, district computer director, K12 science chair, high school chemistry and physics teacher, and adjunct professor—Green has witnessed education’s most pressing problems firsthand. And he has some ideas about how to fix them.

In his book, Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science, It’s Way More Complex (Outskirts Press, 2018), Green examines everything from flipped classrooms, standardized testing, special education, foreign languages, the arts and more. And he offers readers tips and strategies that have been successfully applied at schools around the country.

“I’m not pretending that I know everything,” he says, “but I’ve got some ideas people should consider.”

In the book you use the “rocket science” metaphor—that we’ve learned how to do something as complex as flying to space, but we haven’t been able to figure out the most effective way to do education.

Basically, we’ve got to look to people with true education expertise to run things. They’re run by politicians, getting bad advice from businessmen.

It goes back to the factory model of education that we taught back in the 1800s—the one-size-fits-all instruction, which is convenient for the adults but not that great for the kids. Then in the late 1980s the businesses got involved, and said educators had to be accountable.

Well, yes, we do, but accountability based on invalid and unreliable standardized testing isn’t the way to go either.

And then came No Child Left Behind.

No Child Left Behind made things worse because it set one bar for 99 percent of the students. That made no sense. Every student should have their own bar.

It causes the teachers and administrators to change the way they do business—cut back on subjects like social studies, science and recess; bring in some bad teaching practices to try to raise the test scores. It shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all testing. Every kid should take the test they’re ready for.

We should be trying to personalize education as opposed to standardizing it.

You talk about how the political class gets advice from business people.

Well, let’s face it, the business people really do own the political class. How much does it cost to buy a congressman? Not that much. They are locked up and payrolled by the business interests. I think the business folks have their hearts in the right place.

We keep hearing how they want kids who can collaborate, solve problems and be creative. But they also want us to be accountable. So they force this ridiculous accountability system on us, which promotes none of the things that they even want.

There is nothing about open-ended problem-solving, creativity or collaboration that comes out of the standardized testing program. Standardized testing works against all those things that the businesses want.

But, as you point out, thanks to the media, the public doesn’t realize this.

It’s fashionable to bash the education system because we’re producing kids who don’t have the qualities that the businesses want. The media is complicit in that bashing. They are not exactly out there defending our teachers.

What can educators do to change that perception?

They have to get the message to policymakers—let them know that, to personalize education, we need to change how we make schools accountable to allow kids to progress at their own rate.

We should have kids create portfolios. “Show us what you can do, show us some open-ended problems that you’ve solved.” Put this in an online portfolio and see how the student progresses from year to year.

How is this year’s project better than last year’s project? Assessing learning doesn’t lend itself to 100 percent objective accountability, which is what the business people are pushing for with standardized testing. They want a number.

But the data we have to work with is pretty bad. Sifting through crappy data isn’t a way to improve what we are doing. So there will have to be a subjective component.

I’ve been observing teachers since 1976. I can tell whether a teacher is doing something in a classroom that’s engaging students. I can tell when students are bored. I can tell all that in about 10 minutes. I don’t need to do some mumbo-jumbo with before-and-after test scores as a way to evaluate a teacher.

You say that high-stakes testing has the effect of dumbing down the curriculum.

Right. It narrows the curriculum to the subjects that are being tested. Furthermore, it is narrowed to the scope of  the questions that will be asked on the test—it’s not even the entire subjects.

The worst thing is probably cutting recess, which a lot of schools are doing. Recess is good for your brain, especially for kindergartners.

So this begins right away?

Kindergarten is now first grade, which is even worse for disadvantaged kids. In my district, they enforce 90 straight minutes of reading activity in kindergarten.

What that means is that the poor kids who come in with the big deficit are going to hate school even sooner. They are not going to be playing and socializing. They are going to be forced to do something that they’re not developmentally ready to do.

Conversely, then freshman year of college is senior year in high school for many kids. That’s another crime from the political class.

You want to see higher graduation rates?

Heck, we can do that—we’ll just graduate them. So we send kids to college who aren’t ready for college work. At the community college in my town, about two-thirds of the kids have to take high school classes. They get no credit for this work, and it lessens their chance of getting their associate degree in two years. That’s criminal.

What I tell people is, if you’re not ready for college, flunk gym so you can stay in high school an extra year. You can’t graduate from high school if you don’t pass gym.

You list a number of suggestions for fixing the current model.

I think the flip mastery program has a lot of promise for kids. It’s direct instruction online. They spend their time in the classroom working with teachers one-on-one or in small groups.

When they get to the end of the unit, they take the unit test. If they master it, they go on to the next unit. If they don’t, they work with the teacher to figure out what they didn’t know, and take the test as many times as they want.

There should be no such thing as failure. There is no reason education has to have that concept. It should be, “I haven’t finished yet.”

You finish it when you finish it. Some kids will finish in April, some kids may take until next September to finish.

What do we do in elementary school or secondary school now? If you don’t finish it by May or June when the school year ends, you go back to the beginning. It’s like Chutes and Ladders, where you get near the top and hit that chute and you go down to the beginning. That’s criminal.

Technology can help. Give every kid a computer. When kids fall behind, they go online and, with a teacher facilitator, work at their own pace—but they finish the course.

What can district leaders do to help change course?

They can stand up to the state and federal government. Some have, of course, but too often most of them just say, “We’re only following orders.”

The key concept is to ask what can we do to personalize education. We should get rid of the grading system, and get rid of grade levels. Let students progress at their own rate and don’t flunk them. It’s cruel.


Tim Goral is senior editor.