End remote-control education

Susie Kaeser

My friend has a remote control for her gas fireplace—the epitome of luxury. Curl up on the couch, pick up a good book, click the remote, and you have instant fire and comfort. Clickers are great for making instant and inconsequential decisions, such as whether to watch TV, listen to music or enjoy a fire.

Politicians, though, have decided that to be educated now means to pass an unreliable standardized test and, through a program of education reform that focuses on testing to make serious decisions about children, teachers, schools and money, are using a remote-control approach to improving schools.

By using quick and dirty measures of achievement to make life-changing judgments, a faceless bureaucracy has intruded into decisions that are complex and should be made by people who are close to the situation.

The classroom teacher, not a test, should decide who should advance to fourth grade. Teachers, not tests, should determine if their students have earned their diplomas. Principals who work closely with their staff and know their day-in and day-out contributions should assess who is competent. Test results should never be a basis for doling out public money for vouchers. The test as decision-maker is nothing more than education by remote control!

Each fall, as I resume tutoring kindergartners at Boulevard Elementary School, I am reminded of how special these children are. There is nothing standard about them. Neither their identities nor potential can ever be captured by a number, but that’s exactly what test-based decision-making tries to do. A machine grades tests and then makes consequential decisions.

Ohio education policy now intrudes into decisions which are best made by those close to the human beings who are teaching and learning, and who are part of the school communities that are raising children. Issues and decisions that can only be given proper attention within the context of individual children and their needs, within the daily lesson and the complex responses of individual learners, or within the aspirations of a community and its investment in education, are now being defined by—click, presto—remote-control decisions. The human process of education has been reduced to a number.

Growth—or as it is now described, performance—should not be limited to mastering a specific, testable skill; it should also include an awakening of passion and curiosity, a desire to know more, think deeply, and build meaning around individual identity and reality. When it is reduced to something testable, it is automatic—inauthentic—and it does not serve anyone well.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of this reliance on test scores and report cards is the focus on grading education rather than improving opportunity. This focus on the school as the only relevant factor ignores, as Jelani Cobb wrote recently in The New Yorker, that history and social inequality have been ignored in the test-and-blame culture.

Remote-control education sanitizes history and absolves policymakers of responsibility to address structural inequality, an underlying cause of achievement gaps. They claim that their goal is success for all but refuse to address any of the fundamental barriers that create social inequality and perpetuate educational inequality. Grading schools does not create equity.

The historic exclusion from the rights of full citizenship of whole groups of people over generations created deep-seated social inequality. This inequality led to the civil rights movement, school desegregation and now the movement to proclaim that black lives matter. You can’t sweep this reality under the rug and deny that unequal access to opportunity doesn’t affect education outcomes.

The current system claims that the only thing that matters is what the school does. That is wrong.

Persistent achievement gaps cannot be blamed on teachers and will not be solved by fine-tuning the curriculum, focusing on the bubble kids, beseeching teachers to work harder or hammering communities that seek to be inclusive.

No matter how willing our learners are, test scores are not going to move in a significant way without a fundamental commitment to improving the lives and life chances of those who have been left out over many generations.

I believe in education as a great equalizer and I believe that every child comes into life with the curiosity and ability—regardless of their economic status—required for learning. I see it every time I tutor.

Measuring and judging education will neither create an equitable society nor universal success. It is more likely to marginalize a critical public resource and further marginalize those who depend on it.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 8, Issue 11, Posted 3:03 PM, 10.29.2015