The State of the Education Union

Several things President Obama said in his State of the Union address stayed with me long after the channels covering the speech cut back to their reality shows. First he asked schools to stop teaching to the test, an allusion to the No Child Left Behind program. Then talked about rewarding excellence .

Having consulted with one of the major companies that develop that test, I have a firsthand understanding of what No Child Left Behind is all about and how the tests are developed. I was struck by the thought that in this country, when we teach to the test, two things happen.

First, when we do test we are not asking for a very high bar. Too high a bar and too many would fail. Too low a bar and too many would pass. The test question for all of us is which group determines where we set the bar, and what committee decides what’s just right?

Second, as we have seen, when we teach to the test learning becomes a competitive sport. It’s crazy at this point in the evolving history of Thomas Friedman’s flat world to be competing against each other, student against student, teacher against teacher, class against class, school against school and district against district. For what prize? To not fail the Annual Yearly Progress report and continue teaching for another year? To score on or slightly above the mean?  To be average?

In China, one of our real competitors, there is no expression for “Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.” The closest equivalent is “Fool me once shame on me.”  The schools in China work together to help their students reach excellence, to be amazing and know awesomeness. They set the bar so high that everyone is better for trying to reach it.

We need teachers who will raise the bar. Teachers who will help students reach as high as possible. Getting rid of tenure for teachers who entered the profession without any passion or excitement or a love of teaching, who should never have entered a classroom in the first place is a good thing.  And letting go of those who, if they ever had it, have forgotten it, who are simply tired and ready to move on, is also a good thing. We are not the competition in this new Idea Economy. And this is surely one case where just showing up is much less than 90% of the job.

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