On the Matter of What Matters in Public Education
Doug Wren has served as an elementary school teacher, a research specialist, and director of research & evaluation with the DeKalb County School District in Georgia, and as educational measurement & assessment specialist for Virginia Beach Public Schools. He currently works as an author and consultant; his latest book is Assessing Deeper Learning: Developing, Implementing, and Scoring Performance Tasks. Doug’s website is at https://wrenedconsult.com.
On the Matter of What Matters in Public Education
by Douglas G. Wren, Ed.D.
My original plan for this post was to focus exclusively on how teachers can assess deeper learning. But that changed. Before writing a piece, I google terms related to my topic. Then I read what others have to say about the topic, which helps me refine my thinking. For this post, I googled the phrase “measuring what matters” (in quotation marks) along with the word “education.” Google rewarded me with approximately 100,000 hits, so I spent the next several hours sifting through articles, reports, and blogs. Embedded throughout this piece are numerous links for readers to review my sources and locate further information.
While considering what the experts and relatively unknown authors wrote about measuring what matters, I came to the somewhat obvious realization that it’s senseless to measure what matters if students aren’t being taught what matters. Then I came across a 2018 article by Carol Ann Tomlinson titled Measuring Doesn’t Come First. Precisely!
What Matters and What Doesn’t Matter
Dr. Tomlinson’s not-so-short list of “attributes to which schools should attend most vigorously” includes many of the same elements identified by other authors and bloggers whose stuff I read. Critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity/innovation kept popping up. So did social and emotional learning (SEL), though not everyone called it that. I couldn’t find anyone who said that standardized test scores mattered most.
In a guest column aptly named Measuring What Matters Least, a high school junior wrote, “the educational system is supposed to prepare students for life; however, standardized testing is doing the inverse.” That is the unfortunate legacy of the No Child Left Behind Act, federal legislation that increased accountability testing to (supposedly) improve the performance of our schools. Thus was born America’s culture of testing, where standardized test scores matter most and test prep is rampant.
Despite strategic plans and mission statements that suggest otherwise, countless school districts are still beholden to state-mandated tests. This is in part because (a) old habits die hard in the education field, and (b) public shaming is a powerful weapon. Are critical thinking, innovation, SEL, etc. being taught in the classrooms of districts that talk the talk? Often it depends on individual teachers and their principal. The sad fact remains that the instructional focus of many schools is on test scores.
The Purpose of Education is one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s lesser known works, perhaps because he wrote it when he was a teenager. In 1947, Morehouse College’s campus newspaper, The Maroon Tiger, published MLK’s essay, which included the following excerpts:
Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.
The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.
Why What Matters Most Matters More Than Ever
Now we are in the middle of a pandemic and priorities have changed. In an April 2020 blog post, my friend Mark Diacopoulos wrote, “In the K-12 environment, the pandemic response has demonstrated how standardized tests, teacher evaluations, seat hours, and ‘covering content’ doesn’t really matter.”
What continues to matter to parents is their children’s education, and they have become increasingly worried about their kids falling behind due to the schooling irregularities. Here are three titles that topped a list of over seven million results when I googled “education” and “falling behind”:
The third article paints a bleak picture, which is much bleaker for students with limited or no access to computers, internet connections, or someone at home who can help them with their studies. While the majority of children who have these advantages will rebound after the pandemic is over, experts predict that existing socioeconomic and ethnic achievement gaps will widen. This in turn will widen the economic gap that separates the haves from the have-nots in our country.
It seems ironic that learning loss and achievement gaps are measured by the same standardized tests I decried earlier. To clarify my position, most of the content on these tests does in fact matter. Children need to learn how to read, write, and do math; they should also have a basic understanding of the sciences, geography, history, civics, and economics. The problem occurs when these subjects are taught in isolation using rote methods meant to prime students for those all-important multiple-choice tests. Traditional teaching does not engage today’s students in their own learning, especially in virtual classrooms.
The current pandemic is accelerating the downward spiral of American education. The number of at-risk students is rising due to circumstances beyond their control. Schools and districts have deployed the trial and error method in attempts to put together an educational system that resembles what they had prior to March 2020. Going back to the way things were will not prepare all students for the world that awaits them.
This year will be remembered for the pestilence and civil strife that racked our nation. History will record that most Americans voted for change in the 2020 presidential election. I can’t think of a better time to revamp K-12 education in the US than when we finally emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. But it will take policymakers and educational leaders who are brave enough to admit that the status quo just isn’t cutting it. These individuals will need to be braver still to overhaul a well-entrenched system. Business leaders are sure to support these changes. Study after study after study indicates that employers prefer to hire people who are creative, can solve problems, and possess emotional intelligence, among other soft skills.
Charting a Vastly Different Course
At the end of Measuring Doesn’t Come First, Carol Ann Tomlinson asked, “What do we really believe matters most to the welfare of our students—then, how will we chart a course in that direction?” In this section, I’ll present a plan for districts to head in a different direction.
Politicians and superintendents interested in transforming the way pedagogy looks in their schools can take lessons from Finland, a country whose education system many consider to be the best in the world. Compared with their American counterparts, Finnish students learn in a more relaxed, harmonious school environment. Students in Finland:
wake up later and attend fewer classes each day.
have multiple breaks and participate in recreational activities during school.
are expected to design their own learning activities.
work collaboratively with peers on engaging, multidisciplinary projects.
typically have no more than 30 minutes of homework each day.
do not take annual standardized tests.
In addition, Finnish children are often taught by the same teacher for up to six years. What about students who get stuck with a bad teacher? Fat chance. In Finland, it’s easier to become a doctor or lawyer than a teacher. Take note that teacher pay in Finland is modest by international standards. In other words, like American teachers, Finnish educators are not in it for the money.
Replicating a nationwide Finnish model of education in our country would be impossible. Unlike the US, the Finnish culture supports a strong social contract. Over here, we have a testing culture driven by misguided legislation and the standardized testing industry, which reaps more than $1.7 billion annually in taxpayer dollars from states.
On the other hand, copying the Finns on a much smaller scale is doable. The first step would be for local school boards and ed leaders to enlighten their constituents, explaining to them that students are better prepared for life in the 21st century when they learn skills that really matter. Next, they should make plans to launch a primary magnet school (K-2) that conforms to Finnish educational practices. Finally, fill the school with skilled, innovative educators—including a principal who inspires and is venerated by students, staff, and parents—and a student body representing a cross-section of the district.
Each subsequent year after the school’s initial year of operation, another grade level should be added to accommodate the rising cohort of students. No worries when it comes time for these older magnet students to take state-mandated tests. Besides Finland’s stellar performance in reading, math, and science on PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment), there’s evidence that American kids taught in nontraditional schools score high on standardized tests.
Plans for expanding the magnet program to middle school, other elementary schools, or both will depend on the prototype school’s success and the will of constituents. It would be wise to continue educating the public about teaching what matters. Recruiting ambassadors from local businesses to advocate for the magnet program would be a smart move as well.
Questioning Is What Matters in the Classroom
Editorials, articles, and blog posts that point out or complain about a problem are lacking if they don’t recommend at least one viable solution. The plan I outlined above is simply a suggestion for districts. For teachers who seek to improve their practice, there is a way to teach what matters most by using tried-and-true questioning approaches. Effective questioning allows teachers to cover content while they simultaneously develop students’ higher order thinking skills. It even works at schools with administrators who worship at the altar of state-mandated test scores!
The importance of questioning in pedagogy cannot be overstated. Socrates recognized this about 2,400 years ago, and great teachers have utilized Socratic questioning with their students ever since. The purpose of Socratic questioning is to develop students’ critical thinking on specific content or an issue. If you didn’t know, Socratic methods can be used with young students who are not yet abstract thinkers, and critical thinking is best taught within a discipline instead of in isolation. Now you know.
Socratic questioning is just one way for teachers to bolster students’ subject area knowledge and thinking skills. To learn more about the art and science of good questioning, click on a title below:
What Really Matters: The Final Word
Right now, in the midst of a pandemic, educators are being asked to do too much. In a profession where teachers are already overworked and underappreciated, current working conditions have led to an ever-increasing number of teachers and principals having to choose between the jobs they love and their own mental, emotional, and physical well-being—not to mention the health and well-being of their families.
As soon as safer and more manageable conditions at schools are established, district policymakers and leaders should grant amnesty to employees whose resignations were submitted in the wake of the pandemic. Even though districts have saved money by not replacing staff or hiring rookie teachers, students will be better served once the best, most experienced educators are brought back.
However, throwing additional personnel and money at a broken system isn’t the answer. In general, K-12 education in the US is not effective because it does not adequately prepare all of our youth for success as contributing citizens. If we fail to teach what matters most—critical thinking, problem solving, innovation, SEL et al.—our country will continue its descent from a beacon of hope to the world to a place where conspiracy theories have equal footing with science, party politics overshadow national interests, and hatred toward fellow Americans is considered normal.