A Child's Life
Volume 25 Number 2
Photo © Tyagan Miller
In the debate over the future of public education in America, Jesse Goodman is swimming upstream, fighting the current.
An independent fish making slow progress. The Indiana University Bloomington education professor is at odds with current trends in public education. He writes about and argues against the contemporary emphasis on testing and the business mentality driving today's educational policy and practice.
Business models may make great sense in the economic realm, but "educating children shouldn't be confused with producing, marketing, and distributing a product or service," Goodman says. "Helping children to be thoughtful, knowledgeable, caring, and curious is infinitely more difficult."
In the focus on preparing students for the work force, Goodman says, relationships between teachers and students are suffering. Creativity is being exchanged for test drills and a narrow curriculum that coincides with state-established standards. Children in American classrooms are missing opportunities to engage in the richness of learning.
"Many teachers no longer have the time to build authentic relationships with their students," he says, "so they can't gain insights into reaching them, especially students having difficulty with academics."
Schools are becoming like factories, where kids are the workers, teachers the shop-floor supervisors, and standardized test scores the product, says Goodman. "That's a gross overgeneralization, but there's truth in it. The national push, the initiatives, are toward measuring learning by test scores."
As a co-director of the Harmony School Education Center, a collaborative effort between IU and Bloomington's Harmony School, Goodman works to promote school environments that foster intellectual development, democratic values, and leadership in young people.
Harmony is an independent prekindergarten through 12th-grade school, recently recognized for its efforts in promoting First Amendment freedoms to children. Goodman wrote about the school in his 1992 book, Elementary Schooling for Critical Democracy. He was impressed enough with the school to send both his children there.
After the book's completion, Goodman proposed the creation of a center to provide direct services to children and to promote exchange among administrators, teachers, and educational scholars about democracy in education. Goodman and his colleagues at the center believe that, like a democratic state, a classroom should be a place where each child's interests are valued and where students play a key role in determining their studies. The ultimate goal of education, Goodman says, is to enable children to "live meaningful lives and be thoughtful, involved members of our imperfect, democratic society."
While assessing student success with such a goal may be difficult, it is essential if students are to reach their full potential and meet their civic responsibilities, according to Goodman. Educators and schools should be held accountable to making a student's learning process vital to living in the world at large, not solely preparing a student for a particular job.
"Societies do have an obligation to prepare children so that they will have occupational options as they become adults, but we make a very big mistake if this becomes the only rationale driving school improvement plans," he argues. "The overemphasis on producing the best test scores has disastrous, if unintended, consequences. It undermines teachers' creativity, their relationships with students, and the intellectual climate in the classroom."
Meaningful curriculum, he says, goes out the window when teachers are expected to "produce" a certain test score at a certain time as proof of good education. A teacher considering a learning experience beyond the required textbook lesson, for example, might fear that she will lose too much time, time that is needed to drill students on what will be on a state assessment test.
Goodman notes that many of the best teachers rebel against the "teach-to-the-test" mentality. They find ways to integrate curriculum standards into challenging projects that help students learn. But even top teachers find it difficult, over time, to keep students engaged while meeting curriculum standards, he says. And pushing good teachers out of the classroom is no way to improve schooling.
"After a while, too many of these teachers get discouraged. It's not a burnout, but a slow charring," Goodman says. "Many teachers develop engaging projects, but eventually, they start to feel like shop-floor managers, not teachers. They didn't go into education to be an assembly line overseer, so they leave."
When it comes to determining how a school is progressing today, test scores do the talking. In Indiana, the stakes are particularly high. State education officials can take over management of a school perceived to be failing because of low standardized test scores. Goodman cites the case of Bloomington's Templeton Elementary School.
In spring 2002, the Indiana Department of Education said Templeton's test scores indicated the school was a poor performer, failing to meet standards set by President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" legislation. In reality, says Goodman, the school's scores were skewed because of the school's highly transient student population. In any given year, as many as half of the students come and go, meaning many students may be unprepared for the test. A closer look at the data reveals that students who stay at Templeton from year to year usually meet and often exceed state standards.
Goodman calls the state's approach unfair. "I have no problem giving kids standardized tests as one way to measure academic performance," he says. "But again, I shudder when it's the only standard we use. Responsibility for assessment should rest primarily with the teacher, acting as an academic anthropologist of sorts, someone who understands not only what students know but also how they learn it."
He proposes using teacher and peer observation as tools to assess student progress. He also advocates the use of strategies that showcase a student's work throughout his or her school years. He recommends thematic curriculum designs flexible enough to appeal to diverse students and build upon their talents. Most of all, he wholeheartedly supports teachers' involvement in curriculum development and pedagogical decision-making: "Why should we trust a small group of åexperts' who write the standardized tests to determine what students should know, when they don't know or work with the children in our classrooms?"
Goodman encourages his IU students, the teachers of tomorrow, to embrace the creative challenge of teaching. "I tell them no occupation allows you to do all that you want and that creative, thoughtful people always feel hemmed in by constraints. I encourage them to find freedom within the constraints."
Despite his concerns, and there are many, Goodman looks with optimism to the future of public education in America. He predicts that the public will grow skeptical of grading education by single test scores. Meanwhile, he sees evidence of much creative teaching and socially responsible schooling in the country.
"The love of knowledge and teaching keeps vital learning alive," says Goodman. "That will continue."
Laura Lane is a writer for the Sunday Hoosier Times in Bloomington, Ind.