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The fallacy of test-driven school reform


John Thompson January 16th, 2013

There is a lot wrong with the Oklahoma City Public Schools, but the blame game is not a solution. OKCPS, largely made up of low-income students (88 percent), earned a D in the Oklahoma Department of Education A-F school grading system. But the state also earned a D for improving outcomes for low-performing students. To serve our children and help those who struggle, we must stop blaming individuals and address systemic problems that have stymied all urban school systems.

Credit: Mark Hancock

I have taught in the inner city for 19 years, have served on the MAPS for Kids Steering Committee and have been intimately involved in local education reform. MAPS promised policies based on our best social science and the collaborative exchange of evidence.

We promised high-quality early education, intensive instruction of reading for comprehension by third grade (not decoding for test prep), early warning systems for combating chronic truancy, expanded alternative education so that no student would perpetually disrupt class because alternative slots were full, and the creation of a “learning community” culture so that students could learn for mastery.

The goal would be improved student performance measured, in part, by standardized tests, but not improved scores, per se.

Then came No Child Left Behind, which encouraged top-down micromanaging and rote instruction. It empowered consultants peddling cheap and easy silver bullets. The result was a narrowing of the curriculum and excessive test prep. NCLB deputized educators as the agents to reverse the effects

of poverty and the breakdown of the family. When we failed, a firestorm of scapegoating resulted.

Being a fervent supporter of President Obama, I hate to admit that he doubled down on the worst aspects of NCLB.

His policies inflicted as much damage on the OKCPS as any mistakes we have made locally.

Perhaps test-driven reform was once worth a try. It could have been argued that this simple playbook might have solved our complex problems. By 2010, however, the National Academy of Sciences documented the failure of test-driven reform. Classroom instruction alone cannot turn around schools serving intense concentrations of poverty and trauma. The key to improving low-income schools is socio-emotional interventions and the building of trusting relationships.

The biggest problem with OKCPS is not our players but our failed playbook. We had to choose between two incompatible goals: meeting the promises of MAPS for Kids or playing by the rules of bubble-in accountabilty. Whether we are discussing the fabrication of student performance data or the failure to produce college-ready graduates, our discord mirrors the educational civil war in the rest of America.

We must now call a truce to our “great school wars.”

In Oklahoma City, we already have a blueprint for coming together. The last dozen years of national research have added even more support for MAPS for Kids’s policies. The terminology has been updated; now the best practices are called “wraparound services” and “full-service community schools.” They are just refinements on the MAPS playbook. If we get back to science-based, common sense policies, OKC will attract and retain school leaders and educators for the team sport of teaching and learning.


Thompson blogs on national education issues at The Huffington Post, This Week in Education, Schools Matter and Living in Dialogue.

 
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