Edward Udel: GPS for education


DALTON >> Sir Winston Churchill once quipped that Americans will try everything else first and then do the right thing. Though Churchill's words were directed at America's late entrance into World War II, they could easily apply to public education in the United States.

Unfortunately, we are still in the try-everything-else-first stage and we will remain there for the foreseeable future. Since we lack any consensus on our definition of success and since "reformers" are so stubbornly determined to prove the validity of their respective and often contradictory approaches, obstacles that cry out for attention are either dismissed or ignored.

Advocates are divided

Currently, high stakes tests are used to gauge student learning and to rate schools. Even among those who favor this approach, there is contentious debate.

Gregory Sullivan, research director at the Pioneer Institute, wrote a scathing Eagle op-ed "Be vigilant about pro-PARCC bias" questioning Commissioner Mitchell Chester's plan for a new hybrid test composed of both MCAS and PARCC and Massachusetts' adoption of the Common Core. He also accuses Chester of dumbing down the MCAS test since 2011, citing recent reductions in Massachusetts' NEAP scores as evidence of deterioration.

He is joined by Jamie Gass, director of the Center for School Reform for the Pioneer Institute, who complains that adoption of Common Core standards by Massachusetts is already having a deleterious impact, weakening the literature curriculum and the quality of instruction.

This argument is countered directly by Lindsay Sobel, executive director of Teach Plus Massachusetts who states, "Far from declining, the commonwealth's literary culture will only get stronger under Common Core (letter to Eagle editor, March 4). Meanwhile, in "Growth of state held back by achievement gaps" (Eagle, Feb. 21), Michael Norton writing for the State House News Service, provides the following quote: "The upshot is that the failure of many school districts to successfully prepare their students to compete for newly created jobs will have increasingly negative economic consequences "

The turf war is on, producing more heat and confusion, more detours and wrong turns, but little light. Lost is the irrefutable fact that many public school teachers spend much of their instructional time distributing previously used MCAS questions and leading practice sessions that narrowly focus on these test questions rather than the instructional standards, Common Core or otherwise. Also lost in the argument is that fewer students enter school with an appetite for reading. Some are exposed to little or no reading at home and they quickly develop a preference for screens, key pads and joy sticks.

As we ratchet up our requirements for childhood literacy and we passionately argue about the best ways to compel our schools to produce literate children, we do so within a culture that is abandoning literacy. Our children now spend seven hours each day using technology and like many of the adults who set the example for them, fewer and fewer read for pleasure and information.

For many of our children, reading is an intrusion rather than a welcome opportunity to activate their imaginations. And when they are required to spend a significant amount of time preparing for high stakes tests beginning in kindergarten, their anxiety and their distaste for school grows stronger and sometimes transforms into rigid resistance. Concern for motivation has been usurped by our mandated obsession with measurement and data.

And to those who consider charter schools as a viable solution, consider State Auditor Suzanne Bump's testimony before the Joint Commission on Education: " there is still little more than anecdotal evidence of outcomes to support the contention that charter schools are better suited to meet the needs of our students and charter schools are still experiments." In 2015, Bump's audit found that charter school waiting list numbers were "significantly overstated."

Yes, some charter schools have produced good results on the MCAS assessment but some of those same schools have jettisoned underperforming students before the testing date so that their MCAS scores will not be factored into the school's performance. Data manipulation is not a firm foundation upon which to build the future.

Allow experimentation

There are several exceptional private schools in the area and not one of them is burdened or limited by mandatory high stakes tests or common core requirements. They are free to be creative and to provide opportunities for their staffs to develop and implement curricula. Perhaps the state should free some public schools from the shackles of mandates and high stakes testing to experiment with the development of schools rather than be test preparation centers.

We need to get to the pedagogical promised land rather than spend another 20 years wandering in the desert, chasing false messiahs and catering to the demands of "reformers" who spend little or no time in our classrooms. We can't afford more detours and wrong turns. We need to activate our GPS now!

Edward Udel was a long-time teacher in the Pittsfield public school system and former chairman of the Taconic English Department.


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