Episode 6: Blog – Reclaiming the Standards Debate

sam-quiahBy: Samuel C. Quiah, Director of Professional Development
Development Without Limits

Throughout this episode of Please Speak Freely, Dr. Paul Heckman raised many important and sometimes controversial points about the current state of our education system. One of the key points he highlighted is our education system’s movement towards standardization, through increased testing and focusing on “achievement” i.e. grades and scores rather than “attainment,” engaging young people so that they understand the value of their education and become life long learners. Working in the youth development field for almost a decade, as an educator and a staff developer, this topic struck a chord with me. All kids should know how to read, write, and understand basic math and science concepts. Likewise, all kids should learn about music, art, and be engaged members of their community, possessing a critical mind and sound leadership skills. But what happens when we put an overemphasis on grades and not learning?

Over the last 10 years, since the inception of No Child Left Behind, young people have become all too familiar with the term “high stakes testing” or standardized tests that presumably measure their mastery of specific concepts and subject matter at a particular grade level. School administrators have had the added pressure to improve, in many cases failing test scores, to stave off threats that their schools may be shut down if they don’t meet the grade. I’ve spoken to teachers who have had to fundamentally shift their teaching methods to ensure that students are prepared to answer questions on standardized tests, and so that they are viewed as “high-quality instructors,” worthy of incentives and raises.

The kind of impact this has had on young children should give us pause—lack of engagement and interest in school, unhealthy anxiety around test taking, and increased reports of kids feeling burnt out before they even reach middle school. All of this compels me to ask:  are students who score better on standardized tests actually getting smarter or are they just better equipped to pass a test?

The standardization offensive does not stop there. Afterschool programs have often been the creative oases for kids. The outlet where kids are given a choice to participate in a variety of activities and not judged by their test scores. Historically, these programs have complemented the academic learning taking place during the school day by focusing on social and emotional learning through arts, sports, leadership, and community engagement programs. Small learning environments, one-on-one attention, interactive group work, community projects, guest speakers, and trips are all hallmarks of an engaging program.

More recently however, many afterschool programs are starting to look more and more like the school day. Instead of having a balanced approach of homework help and social enrichment activities, many programs are spending the majority of their hours solely focusing on providing additional classes on literacy, science and math to help their students (and schools) bolster test scores. Now, I want to emphasize that schools and afterschool programs should support each other and rally around common goals like effective student engagement, parent involvement and ultimately, graduation. However, I don’t believe afterschool programs should just be additional school hours.

This off-balanced approach has been further legitimized by a growing number of funders and government agencies requiring afterschool programs to provide academic programming and improve academic outcomes, such as many state managed 21st Century Community Learning Center (21st CLCC) afterschool programs. Let’s be clear, developing high standards are a good thing, and all afterschool programs should have them, but if we are going towards standardization, than we run the risk of asking programs to dismiss their creative missions and develop a one size fits all approach to working with kids—an approach we already know is failing millions of students around the country. But, since many non-profit organizations rely on this funding to run their afterschool programs, resisting this trend can ultimately mean shutting their doors.

So how do we reclaim the standards debate? For starters, we need educate ourselves and the people who design education policies about how children really learn. All children have the capacity to learn and they learn best when they are encouraged to question and engage in a dialogue about how what they are learning relates to the world around them. Their level of engagement is magnified when they work in small groups to come up with solutions to problems or thought out answers to questions.

Asking students to demonstrate what they have learned through presentations or projects actually fosters deeper inquiry and increases their ability to actually retain the information they are learning. Think about it, what do you remember more, something you had to present or something you memorized? The answer is probably obvious. For the afterschool funders who would like to see afterschool just look more like school, we need to inform them that increasingly employers are looking for people with 21st century skills like critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation and not just stellar test scores. Last I checked, job descriptions didn’t ask for my SAT score. Traditionally, these skills have had an intentional focus placed on them during the afterschool hours. However, if educators are all marching towards the beat of standardization, we are missing the boat in terms of the range of skills and competencies children need to succeed in later in life. It’s inspiring to see many afterschool programs fight this trend by instituting more arts, life skills and project-based learning into their offerings. They continue to be a safe space where struggling and successful students alike learn, develop community, and the confidence to succeed. These organizations are led by innovative staff and managers—pushing the definition of what it means to be “smart” everyday.

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Please Speak Freely

On Please Speak Freely, Eric Gurna, founder of Development Without Limits interviews leading thinkers, artists and others to shed light on key issues and explore different perspectives about youth development and education. The idea is to get past the platitudes and institutional positions, and have honest, nuanced conversations about things that really matter to young people and communities. Please Speak Freely guests include:

  • Raffi, Children’s Troubadour and Founder of the Centre for Child Honouring
  • Alfie Kohn, Author of several books including Punished By Rewards and The Schools Our Children Deserve
  • Dr. Pedro Noguera, Professor of Education at New York University
  • Karen Pittman, President & CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment
  • Tony Smith, Former Superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District
  • Lenore Skenazy, “America’s Worst Mom” and Author of Free-Range Kids

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