Hasn’t Worked, Can’t Work, Won’t Work

By BOB SORNSON

Cover content, give tests, and sort students. Our existing system of instruction does this effectively, in much the same way now as it did in the early 1900s, and in much the same way as it did the 1840s, when Horace Mann brought the Prussian model of education to Massachusetts and to our nation.

Cover. The system we use spends a lot of time considering what should be “covered”. We’ve developed a rich vocabulary of terms; including syllabus, scope and sequence, lesson plans, content expectations, grade level content standards, Common Core State Standards, Texas Teaching Standards, course description, curriculum map, and curriculum. They all refer to what will be “covered” in a course or in a grade.

In most modern schools, Coverage is King. Teachers strive to “cover” all the content expectations that may be included in a state assessment or in their own district assessment. Teachers have succumbed to the steady demand to “cover”, even when they know many of their students are confused, struggling, or disengaged. It must be covered is the almost unquestioned expectation. Pacing guides define the rate of delivery.

The students will range in age and developmental readiness, language, self-regulation and social-emotional skills. Some will come from poverty while others will be from affluence and privilege. Student ages will vary by at least one year, and the group will include both boys and girls. We will take this incredibly diverse group of children, put a large number of them in a classroom with one teacher, require the teacher to deliver standardized one-size-fits-all instruction while ignoring the different learning needs and readiness of her students.

Test. We cover the material using a time-limited instructional system. Students who might be capable of deeply understanding content and skills with additional instruction and practice will not get that additional time. Instead, it is time for testing. After each unit there is a test, which gives each student a grade, and then all students move forward in the curriculum at the pace dictated by the pacing guide.

In some disciplines, like mathematics, it is especially obvious how badly one-size-fits-all instruction and testing is failing our kids. Lacking deep understanding of essential math skills, we encourage students to memorize facts and formulas they do not understand. Without basic number sense, many students learn to hate and avoid math. More than a third of our students end up in remedial math courses and high levels of math anxiety are reported among school-aged children, beginning in the earliest grades. Many students report that math is their least favorite subject.

In recent decades, our time-limited one-size-fits-all system of instruction and testing has added the additional pressure of mandated standardized testing, first by state mandate and eventually by national mandates. We deliver more content than is reasonable in the time allowed, hoping that by “covering” the standards that might be included on the mandated assessments our students will get better test scores. We compare students by giving grades, and so we began to compare schools, districts, and states by test scores as well.

Teachers teach to the test. Precious instructional time is given to test preparation and the process of state and district assessment. The irony is that by choosing to use heavy handed accountability systems that push us toward an ever more standardized, superficial, fragmented and meaningless learning, we have completely failed to improve test scores and academic learning outcomes. We have stripped away much of the sense of community, joy, play, and social learning from our schools as we hold onto an archaic educational system that was never designed to help large numbers of students become quality learners for life.

Sort. We sort students by percentile rankings on state achievement tests and standardized reading and math tests. We sort them by grades on report cards and on end-of-unit tests. But mostly we sort them by the success they find or fail to find day in and day out in our classrooms.

Students who are fortunate to be fully ready for grade level instruction may spend time learning easily or with a small modicum of effort. But many students are not fully ready for grade level instruction, whether by age, stress, lack of self-regulation, developmental delays, mild auditory or visual processing disorders, poor home experiences, or difficulty sustaining attention for classroom learning. Some children, no matter how hard they might try, cannot keep up with the pace of classroom instruction. When instruction falls into their frustration zone, these students quickly disengage from learning, identify themselves as poor in a subject area, or poor at learning in general.

Cover content, give tests, and sort students. Our existing system does this effectively, year after year, until a vast majority of our students have been sorted away from the love of learning, sorted away from the economic and social opportunities that are part of the age of innovation, technology, and learning. Poor and minority students are especially vulnerable to the damage of a system that treats all kids as if they should be ready for one-size-fits-all high-pressure instruction.

As an observer and participant in this education system, the most amazing thing to me is how tenaciously we hold on to a model that offers such limited success. The Cover Test Sort education model was never designed to help all students become successful learners. It may have generally served the needs of society in the late 19th and early 20th century, but in recent decades, as learning and complex thinking skills have become more important for us to develop the academic and problem-solving skills that lead to good jobs and social opportunity, the CTS education model is failing our society.

All students are limited by standardized one-size-fits-all instruction, but it is a special catastrophe for vulnerable children who are less able to keep up with the pace of instruction.

  • By the beginning of fourth grade only 34 percent of American children are at proficient reading levels (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2013)
  • Only 20 percent of fourth grade children who are eligible for free or reduced lunch are at proficient reading levels (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2013)
  • Among 12th grade students — remember that a significant group of students has already dropped out by this point — 26 percent score at or above proficient levels in math, and 38 percent are proficient or better in reading (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2013)
  • Among African American 12th grade students tested, 7 percent are proficient or better in math and 16 percent are proficient or better in reading (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2013)
  • Each year about a million students leave high school without a diploma

NAEP Long Term Reading Trends, Average Scaled Scores

Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress, Trends in Academic Progress, 2012

NAEP Long Term Math Trends, Average Scaled Scores

Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress, Trends in Academic Progress, 2012

PISA Long Term Math, Reading, and Science, Average Scaled Scores for US students

Source: Program for International Student Assessment, 2013

Since the early 1970s, the National Assessment of Educational Progress has monitored student-learning outcomes in each state and across the nation. After all the political shouting, after all the school reform initiatives, after all the billions of dollars spent on school reform, NAEP longitudinal data shows no significant progress for 17-year-old American students. Results on international tests are similarly dismal, showing no progress at all for US students over the years PISA has been administered.

Between 2010 and 2015 the US Department of Education awarded more than $7 Billion in School Improvement Grants to “turn around” struggling schools. As the latest in a long series of federal and state turnaround school reform initiatives, SIG was offered as the solution to reform for around 5,000 failing schools. Individual schools could receive up to $2 million per year for three years, based on the adoption of one of the administration’s four preferred reforms: replacing the principal and at least half the teachers, converting into a charter school, closing altogether, or undergoing a “transformation,” including hiring a new principal and adopting new instructional strategies, new teacher evaluations and a longer school day.

But the final IES report on the School Improvement Grant initiative delivered more bad news. None of the reform strategies showed a significant positive effect. SIG didn’t improve math scores. Or reading scores. Or high school graduation rates. Or college enrollment.

And still we continue to perseverate on which list of content standards we should require teachers to “cover”, which standardized system assessment should be used to sort student outcomes, and how to grade schools and teachers as they work in systems designed to cover, test, and sort. We blindly hold on to a one-size-fits-all system that hasn’t worked, can’t work, and won’t work to serve the learning needs of our children.

“We covered it and tested it” is simply no longer a sufficient premise for a learning system that works in the 21st century. It is time for a systems change.

Bob Sornson is an award-winning author and international consultant whose work focuses on competency based learning, early learning success, and parent education. He works internationally with school districts, universities and parent organizations. His many books include Over-Tested and Under-Prepared: Using Competency Based Learning to Transform Our Schools (Routledge), Fanatically Formative (Corwin Press), and Essential Math Skills: Pre-K to Grade 3 (Shell Education). Contact Bob@earlylearningfoundation.com.

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