A New Deal: Thoughts on Our Anti-High Stakes Agenda

Throughout the country, but in New York in particular, a lot of education talk has been focused around three things: (1) high-stakes tests for K-12 students (unfortunately aligned to the Common Core State Standards), (2) high-stakes tests for pre-service teachers designed in coordination with and assessed by Pearson… very interesting, and (3) current teacher compensation plans. To this last point, New York teachers have been without a contract for years; a tentative agreement is in the works as I write.

Looking across all of this activity, it is clear that there is an issue of trust between “Education” and “Society.” I put these two groups in quotes because I actually don’t believe that there is actually that wide of a gap… many parents think that their children’s teachers are great and many teachers feel respected by their students and the community. On the national stage, however, these groups are at odds. The use of high-stakes tests indicate that “Society” does not trust teachers when they say that their students are ready to be productive members of society. The inability for regular contract agreements indicates that teachers don’t feel appropriately valued by “Society” and that “Society” may be questioning “Education’s” worth.

The good news is that it looks as if things might be turning around. Contracts are being negotiated and voices are finally crying out of the harmful effects of high-stakes testing. What Education needs to think about now is, “What’s next?” We have a great opportunity now to re-define our social contract with Society. Society wants to know the value Education intends to provide to the common good and how Education intends to monitor and regulate that value. This is hopeful! This is good news!

While I certainly don’t have all (if any) of the answers, below are some thoughts for a New Deal that Education can make with Society:

1. The value of good education is based upon active citizenship. Citizenship (action civics, to be more specific) requires citizens to (1) have strong content knowledge, (2) have skills by which to collaborate with diverse other citizens, and (3) have the ethical values to work for the good of the whole. It does no good for our students (your children) to be able to fill-in the right Scantron bubble… it matters if they can use that knowledge for their own benefit and ours. We want intelligent, versatile, ethical citizens; Education can provide that. With these knowledge, skills, and dispositions, we can feel confident that our students can provide for themselves, their families, and Society.

2. The value in teaching is based upon facilitating constructivist learning. There is little factual information that anyone with an internet-enabled device can’t find in today’s world. The value of teaching is not in our lectures; it is in our ability to create constructivist learning environments for our students. These environments may look different depending on age, grade, subject, etc. but they all require students to think and act. To be sure, this can be scary. Sometimes students don’t think and act the way we expect (or want them to). The value of teaching is to guide students through these experiences (good and bad) so that they can gain the most benefit from them.

3. The value of the Education profession lies in its connections with Society. If any New Deal is to be struck, it must rely on constant connections with Society, including business. Education can use and learn from all aspects of community assets and can adjust to the growing needs and various directions of the world. The Education profession can be flexible. What the Education profession needs from Society is a conversation rather than legislative mandates and big-business monies. Educators pledge their lives to working hard for and with students. Connections with Society are integral to that work. What is also integral is the ability to make ethical, professional decisions regarding that work without the influences of those who have not pledged their lives to such work.

We are all concerned for the students/children of this country. Maybe it is time to strike a New Deal, regain trust and respect amongst all parties, and get back to focusing on meaningful learning.