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The Remedy Worse Than the Problem

December 14, 2010

In a recent discussion at the Teacher Leaders Network Forum, I asked about the effects of federal policies as they play out in the public schools where most of us teach.  However, one private school teacher, Bill Ivey, jumped into the conversation with this contribution:

Federal policy has affected my school by increasing the proportion of families who apply here specifically because they are worried the child’s public school is killing her creativity. Last year, when I outlined how students would be going about designing their own units, the first question they asked was, “But what about the MCAS [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System]?” When I explained they didn’t have to take it, they burst into applause.

Let me add in no uncertain terms that, while I love my students and deeply appreciate being able to teach the way I do, there is nothing in this story that makes me happy. I view it as an indictment of what federal policy is doing to our schools, and an affirmation of how kids themselves feel about it. I also have the utmost respect for those many teachers (like y’all) who do reach their kids and nurture creativity in such trying conditions.

thinking inside the box

photo: Shruti Moghe Panditrao (via

Think about all the problems with this situation.  The idea that any school is killing creativity should give us all pause.  Any teachers I know struggle to find an appropriate balance between delivering a particular curriculum (what Marzano calls a guaranteed, viable curriculum) and providing openings for student creativity within and around that curriculum.  I mean, it’s hard enough in ideal circumstances, but the focus on testing is doing serious damage in too many schools.  So then, look what happens.  Families most concerned about creativity and able to afford private schools are fleeing from the public system, and given the correlation between wealth and test scores, it’s most likely that these families are removing students who would score well on the state tests.  Next year, lo and behold, test scores are likely to go down, even if there has been no diminishment in the academic program or quality of instruction.  Still, we live in a world of accountability, so a conscientious school administration will go spend thousands of dollars on The Program That Raises Test Scores™. There are many such programs which come in a box, literally, and their goal is prevent teachers and students from thinking outside of the box.  It’s a remedy that’s worse than the problem it offers to help you solve.

The people espousing test-based accountability will say that they’re all about the children, and we are the “defenders of the status quo.” It was a clever sound byte the first few hundred times, but since it’s an intentional distortion of the truth, I have to believe we can combat it with good information about the ways teachers and unions work to improve education every day around the country.  People who deal in such misinformation are typically those who do not work in schools or classrooms; some of them did briefly, and most of them never have.  They have never met Bill Ivey’s students, and they do not really understand how the enriching education they value for their own children will be systematically restricted for other people’s children as long as we continue to reduce students, teachers, and schools to a test result.

Thank you to Bill Ivey for allowing me to share his comments, and for sharing his thoughtful viewpoint so consistently in the past few years.

One Comment leave one →
  1. RSA@PHS permalink
    January 1, 2011 1:13 am

    Thank you for putting up these important counter-arguments to the prevailing “wisdom” about the problems in school achievement. Unlike the main line argument espoused by almost everyone who seems to have power, from Arne Duncan to the Hoover institute, your information matches and illuminates my experience as a 23 year teacher in an urban school.

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