The end of summer: back to school, back to work. No more play — at least that’s what the usual end of vacation and the resumption of routine mean. Aside from the return of football, play seems pretty low on our to-do lists in September.
But one of my favorite quotes from John Dewey turns that on its head: “Work which remains permeated with the attitude of play is art — in quality if not conventional designation.” We play because it’s fun. We work because we have to. If we are able to fuse the two, Dewey says, we become artists of a sort, creating and making not out of necessity but out of enjoyment.
Schools today are little concerned with play, fun, or enjoyment. Whether it’s getting rid of recess or cutting back on art and music, the dominance of test-based accountability in U.S. schools is increasingly driving “non-tested” subjects — music, arts, P.E., drama — out of the curriculum.
And the effects are significant: often these subjects keep kids engaged in school in ways that math and reading cannot. Participation in extra-curriculars (like chorus, sports, the school play) is a strong predictor of kids staying in schools.
And these stripped down schools are increasingly the schools that poor and working-class children attend. It’s not simply because of budget cuts, although those are bad this year. Instead, a pernicious logic has emerged for the education of children in poverty and the working class. Because schools with higher percentages of students in poverty perform worse on standardized math and reading tests, they need ever more attention to basic skills and test-taking to close the gap. Given the time squeeze, non-tested subjects are the first to go.
I teach a lot of undergraduates who go on to teach in poor or working-class communities across the nation, and the story they tell is remarkably similar: Beginning in about January, all attention turns to “drill and kill” routines of test preparation for the tests in May. In many schools with high numbers of poor and working-class students, test-based accountability has produced stultifying classrooms, even those with talented teachers.
The overweening focus on math and reading test scores to the exclusion of other subjects produces a pale imitation of an education, one in which context, understanding, even love of reading are jettisoned in favor of getting a few more kids over a mostly arbitrary bar.
My objections here aren’t simply a romantic yearning for simpler, stress-free childhoods. This is about getting schools to fuse hard play and smart work into the art of education. It happens all the time in top-quality public schools and in private schools. It comes about through energetic and engaging instruction that captures the imagination and in which teachers have sufficient training, knowledge and professional autonomy to make individualized assessments of what students need. It is, in fact, something that affluent families expect in their children’s education — even take for granted.
International comparisons are enlightening here. The results from the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, which tested students’ ability to problem-solve and apply knowledge, indicate that the U.S. performs, roughly, in the middle of the pack of advanced industrial economies. In math, we score below slightly below average. When you examine those results by poverty-level, however, a sharp and clear line of inequality emerges: students attending U.S. schools in which less than 10 percent of students were in poverty scored higher on reading, as a group, than any other country in the world. In contrast, students at U.S. schools with poverty rates of 75 percent or more scored nearly dead last among all nations.
In other words, U.S. schools with low levels of poverty are among the world’s best. On the other hand, schools with high concentrations of poverty are among the worst schools in industrializing nations. In a nation with nearly 22 percent of all its children in poverty in 2011, it doesn’t take much economic segregation to produce a school with 75 percent poverty rates.
A lot of this confirms what research on poverty and test-taking has shown for a long time: both individual-level of poverty and high concentrations of poverty in schools produce lower test scores. But test-based accountability as it has been practiced in the U.S. of late focuses on the wrong end of the equation. Rather than either addressing the poverty of children or their economic segregation in schools, we force poor students in poor schools to undergo mindless test preparation in an effort to overcome their poverty and economic isolation.
The notion of accountability becomes farcical here. Without attention to inputs — to budgets, curricula, school infrastructure, the class composition of schools — we will have a much harder time improving the quality of education for poor and working-class children. The fallacy of test-based accountability as a model of school reform rests in its perversion of what an education is. In its worst forms, it punishes students for their poverty by robbing them of any opportunity for real education.
The next major development on the horizon — the Common Core of State Standards — purports to raise standards for all children, in an effort to make the U.S. more competitive in an international arena. But at the top end of the income distribution, we already more than hold our own.
At the bottom end, expecting test scores to jump solely by raising the rigor of the standards becomes something of a cruel joke played upon children in poverty whose schools face growing class sizes, reduced staff support, and stripped out curricula. School budgets have been wracked by the Great Recession. In Philadelphia this year, all guidance counselors have been eliminated at schools with fewer than 600 children, meaning roughly 60 percent of Philadelphia schools don’t have counselors.
For kids with few resources available to them, a counselor can mean having a coat to get through a Philly winter or getting enrolled in an after-school program. These concerns and distractions take their toll on students and families, but test-based accountability ignores those real-life consequences as it imposes sanctions on schools — and, increasingly, teachers — unable to overcome those challenges. Of course, those challenges do not confront more affluent children.
Until we can pay closer attention to those inputs and those contexts of learning, the capacity of test-based accountability to improve education for poor children is about as likely as trying to launch Fourth of July fireworks in a thunderstorm. You could do it, but it wouldn’t be very much fun.
Douglas S. Reed
Douglas S. Reed is an Associate Professor Government at Georgetown University and a 2013-2014 Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He is the author of the forthcoming book Building the Federal Schoolhouse: Localism and the Education State.