So why would anyone, let alone an untenured public school teacher, suggest publicly that we lower the bar for our nation’s students? How can lowered expectations lead to anything but educational disaster? Well, for my first post I’m going to try to go big picture, and in that spirit I’m going to take a step back and consider a more fundamental question first.
What exactly is the bar?
We all understand that “the bar“ is a metaphor for our overarching educational goal, but what does that goal look like? Does it refer to the goal that our students will master the grade level curricular standards that have been adopted by their state? Does the bar refer directly to the standardized testing that has become the focal point of every academic year? Or rather, could the bar refer to the broader goal that our students maximize their academic potential to become productive, informed, healthy and engaged members of a democratic society?
If I thought all this talk about raising the bar had much to do with the third option, then I wouldn’t feel compelled to start this blog. I would be content to teach my class and cheer on the educational reform movement from the sidelines. When I refer to “the bar“ in this blog, I’ll be talking about the state standards and the fill-in-the-bubble tests that are meant to measure students’ mastery of those standards. Most of the major efforts of the reform movement over the past 20+ years seem to have been focused on standards and testing, and I see those manifestations of “the bar”, at least in their current state, as serious obstacles to the goal of an appropriate, meaningful and relevant education for our schoolchildren.
So why lower the bar? Well, most importantly, it’s too high. The high jump analogy should make that one kind of obvious. Imagine a child who is trying to clear a five-foot high jump bar. She is not even close to being able to reach it, but rather than start with a lower height that is just out of her reach and then giving her the appropriate training and coaching to succeed at that height first, the coach comes up with the brilliant solution of raising the bar still higher. Whether in athletics or in the classroom, it’s not a great motivational technique and it doesn’t lead to very good results. Any teacher who has watched a child on the wrong side of the achievement gap take a standardized test can tell you that the self-esteem movement in educational reform is officially over. It’s not easy to set up a group of your students to fail, and that’s precisely what we’re asked to do every spring.
The bar is also too narrow, though the high jump metaphor breaks down a bit here. Our standardized tests only address the standards for the current grade level of each student. If a student is significantly below grade level (and we know that many are), there is no way to demonstrate how much they have improved until they’ve actually caught up completely. This disincentivizes teachers from actually filling in the gaps in struggling students’ educations and giving them the educational foundation they need to move forward. Instead, teachers feel the pressure to “teach to the test” even though the material on the test is more or less incomprehensible to students who don’t have appropriate prior knowledge and skills. It’s also important to note that in the current system there is very little incentive for teachers to challenge students who are already performing at or above grade level.
So what am I really suggesting? First of all let’s toss out the fundamentally flawed notion that we should have one blanket expectation for all of our students. Our assembly line approach to education is hopelessly out of date, and we all know full well that our students come to class each year with a huge range of prior knowledge, skills and intellectual abilities. Focusing our energy on one set of expectations for all students assures that we will be failing to reach many of them. If we set the bar too high, we can’t show the progress of our struggling students. If we set it too low, we don’t challenge the rest or give them a chance to shine. Our standardized tests should cover a much broader range of skills and knowledge, and they should make more of an effort to test reasoning and conceptual understanding. In that sense, we need to spread the bar out (and I guess make it out of better material). Also, we should be setting individual goals for every student based on where they are academically. I guess that means that every child should get his or her own bar. Now a blog entitled “Ok, Spread the Bar and Give a Personalized Bar to Every Child” would not have quite the same ring, but if “Ok, Lower the Bar” ever makes it into a sound bite on the news or in a political speech, at least you’ll know what I really mean.