Some 30 years ago in Kenya, Eleanor R. Duckworth '57 was doing her thesis on a primary school science program when she encountered a problem.
The particular science program was one that encouraged children to explore their own ideas and fashion their own experiments. "There was nothing that I could do as an evaluator that would capture everything that every class had done," Duckworth, founder and director of the education department at Harvard, recalled recently. "So I developed a suitcase that I carried around with me of materials, half of which were fancy material from the northern hemisphere that none of the kids had ever seen before and half were local materials they'd all seen before."
Duckworth randomly selected a dozen children from each class and put them in a room where she had laid out the stuff from her suitcase. She told the students they could do whatever they wanted with the materials. And then she sat and watched. "We, in fact, developed a coding system," she said, "but it was much less convincing than seeing the kids work."
Seeing the kids work? In today's hard-numbers-oriented cry for school reform, assessing students by actually watching them work might seem quaint. But Duckworth brought up the Kenyan suitcase method to show that there are alternatives to plying students--and teachers--with standardized tests.
Education reform, ranked as the people's top concern in some polls, was the hot topic of last fall's presidential campaign. It's still a priority as the Bush administration and Congress grapple with ways to reverse what many see as a decline in the performance of the nation's public schools. Dissenting views on education reform like Duckworth's and others that follow here have been all but drowned out in the most recentdebate, but the fact is that other education reformers--including many from Colby--were at work long before Bush and Al Gore took the issue to the podium.
Duckworth, who studied with the child psychologist Jean Piaget, has been fighting the use of standardized assessment tests for school children for more than 30 years. She argues that such tests are "uncharacteristic of anything else to do with living one's life," that they do not assess a child's knowledge or confidence or creativity. Rather, the testing, and preparation for it, distracts students and teachers from more important ways of learning. Duckworth, who describes herself as "a teacher of teachers" at Harvard, said inventive teachers (and potential teachers) despair at having to teach to tests, and many of them turn away from the field entirely. The tests "are simple to carry out," she said. "They're simple to rank. You can do it all with a number and it looks so easy."
While Duckworth stopped short of espousing legions of suitcase-toting evaluators be dispatched to the nation's schools she cited the kind of sampling she used in Kenya as a possible alternative.
Carl Glickman '68, who heads the influential Program for School Improvement at the University of Georgia, worries about the underlying purposes of public education. He says the importance of the role public schools play in educating citizens in a democracy is overlooked. Democracy can't be sustained and improved without an engaged citizenry educated in public schools, Glickman says.
"In my mind, it's clear we're doing worse," he said. "Each generation of students today is less involved in civic life, is less involved in neighborhoods, is less aware of current events and issues, gives less time to being with people who are different from one's self. [We] have the lowest percentages, that keep declining, of the most minimal level of involvement, which is just showing up and voting. . . . Education is more and more being seen as a private commodity of I go to school for what I learn and the kind of wealth I can acquire with the kind of job I have.' And the idea that it is a public purpose that connects me to the life and improvement with others is something that has been glaringly missing in public education."
Glickman, a member of the National Commission of Service Learning chaired by U.S. Senator John Glenn, is among a growing group of reformers who want to return civic responsibility and participation to public education--Coalitions for Essential Schools, the Annenberg Challenge, the Big Small School Movement among them. He has worked with public schools throughout the country to develop curricula that require that students use their academic skills to provide a solution, or at least progress, on a real issue. Native American students have worked on soil erosion with scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory, for example. Inner-city students in Philadelphia mounted a successful campaign to increase census participation in their neighborhoods.
"The question is, how do you increase each generation's participation in improving a democratic society?" Glickman said. "Well, you've got to do it through public education. . . . I'm talking about every kid having a way of being challenged and [the expectation] that what they're learning in school will have an effect and a beneficial effect on other people."
So-called "school reform" can be an obstacle to that goal, he said: "It's getting harder to do this work. It's getting harder in the states that are creating more and more uniform testing systems, because it's distracting people from the idea that learning is not just [academic] discipline bound, it also cuts across discipline boundaries. And really powerful learning is learning that always can be connected and applied to other settings. . . . There's a lot of surface-covering of the material, so kids can pass the test, rather than deep, involved work in understanding how you use work across disciplines to make applications in community settings."
Similarly, the social and civil rights dimensions in Colby's own education program have been left out of the national schoolreform debate. In the past decade the program, with about 100 students declaring education minors, has emphasized social justice and multicultural and diversity issues, said Lyn Mikel Brown, associate professor of education and human development and women's studies. Students go into the education program--and area schools--with goals that often center on social justice. "They're idealistic," added Mark Tappan, associate professor of education and human development. "They're giving up other careers to make a change, make a difference in the world, and I think we promote that."
The current national education reform discussion leaves Colby's education professors uneasy. Karen Kusiak '75, assistant professor of education and human development, said she worries that testing mandates will leave some students behind and that voucher programs will hurt others. Brown, meanwhile, is dismayed that the presidential campaign's focus on schools did not focus on the deeper social issues that underlie problems in public education--"the deeper conversations about poverty and racism," she said. "I don't trust a conversation that doesn't go there."
HOW SHOULD WE TEACH?
Small Triumphs: Alex Quigley '99 finds reason for both hope and despair in the Mississippi Delta
A Ray of Hope: Brittany Ray '93 inspires where she found her inspiration
An Education CEO: Robert Furek '65 brings accountability to Hartford public schools
Charting Success: James Verrilli '83 directs charter school turn-around in Newark
Perspectives on Reform: Colby experts discuss reform and the purpose of education
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