After a semester of studying education policy and the sociology of education, I find myself incredibly frustrated and discouraged about the state of education in America. It seems that for every solution there is a potential failure, and the failures continue to outweigh the solutions. For this reason it is crucial to continue to think creatively about ways to improve the American educational system, even if the proposed solutions are flawed. It seems nearly impossible to address every issue within one solution, but we must continue to try in the hopes of eventually developing a workable plan for the future. I suggest a reform that certainly does not solve every problematic facet of the educational system, but addresses two major components: the evaluation of students and teachers. I propose that the public education system eliminate standardized evaluation for both students and teachers, as standardization is detrimental to both of these parties. Alternative models of evaluating progress are put forth below with the broader goal of placing education policy back into the hands of local communities.
There are many reasons that standardized testing is an ineffective and often counterproductive measure of student achievement, including bias against certain demographic groups, culturally irrelevant curricula, and teaching to the test. In light of the often-cited failure of standardized testing, we must ask: what are alternative forms of student evaluation? Chris Kafoglis, a teacher and teacher leader at High School in the Community in New Haven, CT, offered a very compelling argument for such an alternative. He discussed the method of Mastery Based Learning (MBL) that is currently being implemented at High School in the Community. MBL is a system of teaching and learning that eliminates traditional letter grades, replacing them with numbers from 1-4 in the belief that letter grades are not representative of how much learning actually takes place for each student (i.e. students are often able boost their grades through extra credit, which does not necessarily reflect their breadth of knowledge). The numbers from 1-4 represent a student’s mastery of the material on any given assignment. 1 and 2 signify that the student does not sufficiently understand the material and must make significantly more progress before moving on. Earning a 3 indicates enough mastery to move on to the next subject, but communicates that the student must still do a bit more to achieve full mastery. Earning a 4 indicates that the student has mastered the material completely. In the classroom, students do a lot of group and individual work (rather than full group instruction) since they are at varying levels of mastery; the teacher moves throughout the room and works with the different groups. Mastery Based Learning allows each student to move at his/her own pace, meaning that some students will take 5 or 6 years to complete high school as opposed to the traditional 4 years. While there is some uncertainty about the potential consequences of students taking longer than 4 years to complete high school, the benefits of MBL likely outweigh the disadvantages.
Mastery Based Learning offers a better alternative to simply pushing students through school and graduation without ensuring that they have the skills necessary to succeed in life. MC2 (Metropolitan Cleveland Consortium) STEM High School in Cleveland, Ohio is another example of the successful implementation of MBL. This school adopts a slightly different system from High School in the Community; instead of evaluating progress with numbers from 1-4, the school requires that every student demonstrate competency of at least 90% in order to earn an “M” for mastery on a given task (Nobori 2012). In the curriculum, teachers utilize interdisciplinary project-based learning and draw upon real-world experiences to make material more accessible and interesting to students. The school sets a high bar for academic achievement, believing that every student is capable of reaching this standard and offering the support to help them succeed. With these high expectations inherent in MBL, students are guaranteed to graduate from high school with a solid mastery of the skills they will need for college or for whatever they go on to do. In the current public school system, students often graduate with huge gaps in knowledge, since they were not forced or given the time to master the material. MBL is an appealing approach because it is a more transparent way to communicate students’ progress in school and to hold them accountable for their success; they will quickly understand that if they do not make an effort, they simply will not advance toward graduation. At the same time, with the elimination of letter grades there is more opportunity for useful and substantive feedback so that students can truly understand how they need to improve. MBL is a viable alternative to traditional student evaluation that is worth exploring further in more schools.
Just as standardized tests administered to assess students’ knowledge are in many ways flawed, standardized teacher evaluations are also problematic. Barbara Madeloni spoke about the ways that today’s discourse about accountability and standards unfairly reduce the teaching profession to a set of data. For Madeloni, teaching and learning are about making meaning from the complexity of our human experiences, rather than from something that is abstract and imposed upon us, such as a test. Her solution/ideal for eliminating standardized evaluations is to implement community schools where teachers, parents, and students frequently discuss how things are going for everyone. Such schools would be communities of trust, part of a democratic project where there would always be opportunities to disrupt existing power structures. All of the actors involved would therefore be welcome to voice their opinions and contribute to the education of students and the improvement of teaching practices.
Similar to the ways that Mastery Based Learning places greater responsibility on students and encourages them to take ownership of their own education, community schools will help to improve teaching practices and general school functioning. In a community school the onus for creating a successful educational environment falls on those who are directly involved and who will benefit from the school’s success (students, teachers, and parents). They will be more motivated to do well if they have a stake in the school’s success. Deborah Meier echoes many of Madeloni’s points about trust in democracy, not specifically in terms of community schools, but in relation to local school boards. She argues that standardization leads to a disconnect between the curriculum being mandated from the federal level and the material that community members believe should be taught in their schools. This threat to participatory democracy is the truly detrimental consequence of testing. Such a shift away from the local voice “undermines small schools’ most important educational characteristic: that they are places where citizens and professionals can exercise judgment and build trust,” (Meier 2004, 69). Consequently, Meier calls for a return to active local school boards in order to place more power in the hands of the citizens and to reinvigorate community involvement in education policy. Community schools would have a similar effect of creating a school system that community members can trust.
Given the powerful potential of Mastery Based Learning and community schools to incite positive change in the education system, we should make efforts to implement these solutions on a broader scale. It will certainly be challenging to slowly overhaul the current system in order to incorporate these new strategies, but step-by-step it is a surmountable goal. MBL and community schools will shift the focus away from the standardization of students and teachers’ skills, moving toward a more holistic, comprehensive system of evaluation that takes everyone’s needs into account.
Chris Kafoglis lecture, October 23, 2012
Barbara Madeloni lecture, November 13, 2012.
Meier, Deborah and George Wood. 2004. Many Children Left Behind: How the No Child Left Behind Act is Damaging Our Children and Our Schools. Boston: Beacon Press.
Nobori, Mariko. October 31, 2012. “Mastery-Based Assessment Builds Accountability.” http://www.edutopia.org/stw-college-career-stem-assessment?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=post&utm_content=stw&utm_campaign=masteryassessment