Grassroots Movement in New York City May Relate to Current Testing Scandal in Atlanta

The Grassroots Education Movement, a group of citizens in New York City, are organizing a campaign against the high stakes use of standardized testing in their schools. Their first meeting will be on July 18th at the CUNY Graduate Center.

According the organizers of the Grassroots Education Movement, many citizens feel that their school have become testing obsessed, forgetting to focus on learning and teaching.   In a research study cited in Schools Matter:

Data from interviews reveals that teachers experience negative emotions as a result of the publication of test scores and determine to do what is necessary to avoid low scores. Teachers believe that scores are used against them, despite the perceived invalidity of the tests themselves. From classroom observations it was concluded that testing programs substantially reduce the time available for instruction, narrow curricular offerings and modes of instruction, and potentially reduce the capacities of teachers to teach content and to use methods and materials that are incompatible with standardized testing formats.

In whose interest is it to promote and continue with the CRTC as the determiner of student learning and teacher and school success?

What is happening in New York (and in most large school districts in the nation’s biggest cities), has implications for the city of Atlanta. High-Stakes testing has taken its toll in Atlanta, not only on the citizens and their children, but the current cadre of professional teachers who work in the Atlanta Public Schools.  The Investigative Report ordered by the Georgia Governor’s Office clearly stated that a “culture of fear and a conspiracy of silence infected this (APS) school system and kept many teachers from speaking freely about misconduct.”

The Governor’s Report contains the scandal that occurred in the Atlanta schools to within the walls of the school system, when in all likely hood it was the State’s CRCT Program, and the NCLB Act that created the environment that led to a “culture of fear,” as stated the Governor’s Report.  It is not enough to simply silence, fire, and publicly humiliate the teachers and administrators named in the report.  The investigation, that has been set into motion, need to address some very “tough questions.”

  • In whose interest is it to promote and continue with the CRTC as the determiner of student learning and teacher and school success?
  • Does the CRTC corporate style of education promote a simplistic, dumbing-down educational system by encouraging teachers to “teach to the test” and is this supported by research in the learning sciences?
  • Why has the state ignored research on cheating by teachers and other school personnel, and not attempted to get to the root cause of this culture?
  • Why hasn’t the research bureau of the state education department investigated and reported to the public the substantial evidence exists that high-stakes tests do create negative, unintended consequences?

Smith, M. (1991). Put to the Test: The Effects of External Testing on Teachers Educational Researcher, 20 (5), 8-11 DOI: 10.3102/0013189X020005008

Small is Beautiful: A View from the Gates Foundation

In a recent issue of BusinessWeek magazine, an article appeared that is entitled Bill Gates Get Schooled. The article focuses on the struggle that Gates and educators working with funds from Gates Foundation experience as they try and reform high schools. The foundation is trying to find out what makes high schools work so that students from inner-city neighborhoods who traditionally have not done well in school—do well, and can advance into higher education. Have they been successful?

Since 2000 the Gates foundation has funded several hundred high schools, with a very large cluster of them being in New York City. As the article points out, the Foundation has raised the awareness that high schools need to be given the attention they deserve, given the horrendous drop-out problem this country faces.

One of the key approaches to high school reform is making high schools SMALLER (200-600) students. Researchers 30 years ago recommended this, but it was not implemented as high schools instead of getting smaller, increased in size. Anyway, the Gates schools have attempted to manipulate the school culture of high schools by making them smaller, and therefore more intimate. Students won’t fall through the cracks–they’ll be noticed, and involved.

Did the students do well acadmically? Yes and No! They did well in English and reading. Not as well in math. I am not sure whether science was studied. But even when the writers of the article pursued the academic question, the evaluators of the Gates programs were not satisfied in this area. Simply making a school smaller, they say, will not result in increase academic performance. What needs to be done?

In their opinion, greater attention needs to be given the pedagogy implemented in the high schools. Although there was not much discussion of what pedagogies, the fact that this is addressed is important. My suspicion is that an inquiry-oriented, problem-based approach is needed. Students need to be involved with each other, and with the subjects that they are exploring. Didactic, text-book based environments are not the way to go. A constructivist philosophy, with cooperative learning fully implemented and understood by the teachers is essential.

I have first hand knowledge that more than 30 years ago a high school of more than 3800 students was divided into “units” of 300 students. Students had their own physical environment—classrooms, assembly area, lunch area. Teachers were organized by unit, so that within a unit there would be several English, mathematics, and social studies teachers. The science department had it own building, so students left their “unit” to take science, as well as art, music, and physical education. It was an experiment in making a large high school more intimate for students by dividing into several smaller schools. One of the differences in the Gates model is that in one case in NYC, an existing high school was divided into three schools within the building (separated only by a floor or two)—and each was a distinct and separate high school. That was not the case in the experiment I described from 30 years ago.

I recommend you check out the Gates article in BusinessWeek, and also the Gates Foundation.

How do you think high school education should be reformed? Let us hear from you.