AED Scenario (5-21-09)
Title: Preparing for Jobs or Life:
The Purpose of Schools in a Democracy
Author: Steven Baugh, Executive Director, Center for the Improvement of Teacher Education and Schooling (CITES) & the BYU-Public School Partnership
Overview/Context: To follow is a scenario involving legislators which demonstrates differences of beliefs regarding the purposes of schooling in our democracy by policy makers.
The setting is a state legislative education committee meeting. Though ten legislators are present, two seem to be doing most of the talking. The issue on the table is a piece of legislation to establish a state-mandated, end of year standardized test for all students. Though the specific issue has to do with standardized testing, the debate moves in and out of the larger purposes of schooling. As you read the dialogue, try to put yourself in the place of one or both of the legislators. Do you agree with what is said? Why or why not? How would you speak to the issues if you were one of the legislators?
The conversation follows:
Advocate for the legislation: We need to ensure that all students meet basic minimum standards. People are tired of kids leaving high school who can’t read. Employers continue to complain about having to remediate their workers who aren’t prepared to do the job. We must have an educated work force. I believe a standardized test given to all students at the end of the year is the best way to accomplish this. And I believe the results of the test should be used to hold teachers and schools accountable for any lack of student learning.
Opponent of the legislation: Certainly we want our children well-prepared to enter the work force or go on to higher education. No one is arguing this. What I’m questioning is the means to these ends. I’m not convinced that more testing, especially in the narrow way this piece of legislation prescribes, will give us the results we desire.
Advocate: Tougher standards tested through a rigorous end of year test are necessary to send the message loud and clear to teachers that they need to do a better job educating our students. Students need to get that message too. Teachers don’t hold the kids to high standards. Students do just enough to get by. We need to put the pressure on.
Opponent: Most teachers work hard and they work smart. But they need our help. They need time to work with their fellow teachers to determine what they want students to know and be able to do, to determine how they will know if the students learn this, and what to do if they don’t. Teachers are too isolated. They need to have time and ongoing professional development to focus on student learning. They don’t need the legislature prescribing the curriculum and a narrow, high-stakes test to, as you say, “Put the pressure on”.
Advocate: I’m not insensitive to the demands placed on teachers. Many work very hard. And the students certainly come to school with a variety of problems—problems that make teaching them very difficult. Still, I believe in setting high standards and holding schools, teachers, and students accountable. A standardized test is the best way to get at this.
Opponent: You mentioned in your first remarks the importance of schools producing good workers. What about other objectives of good schooling like helping children and youths to live productively and effectively in our democracy? What about helping them learn to be civil, to care about others, and to work for the common good?
Advocate: That’s the responsibility of the home—of parents. Schools can’t be expected to meet all these needs. Schools need to focus their resources on academics. That’s what schools are best equipped to do. That’s what parents expect.
Opponent: Parents are a child’s first and most important teacher—I don’t dispute that. But parents too often are concerned only about private interests—what’s best for their child. There’s nothing wrong with attention to private interests as long as it’s balanced with concern for public interests—what’s best for all the children. And we need schools to help with this.
Advocate: I still believe that this is beyond the scope of what we should expect from our schools. Our children need a high level of competence in reading, computing, science, and technology to compete in our global society. America is loosing its competitive edge because our children are not well trained.
Opponent: I also want our students to be competent in those academic areas. But we should be concerned as much with how our children will live as how they will make a living. What’s more, a single, norm-referenced test at a single point in time that decides whether students graduate, or whether they advance to the next grade or not, is unfair and unwise. There should be multiple ways to assess a student’s learning and most of that should be day-to-day by the student’s teacher as a part of the on-going instruction. There should be other forms of assessment as well, such as work samples, projects, and portfolios.
Advocate: My study tells me these are too difficult to administer and far too expensive. The advantage of the standardized test is its ease of administering, ease of scoring, and uniformity in interpreting the results. We can’t overlook these advantages.
Opponent: Many teachers currently use a variety of alternate assessments effectively. Others will learn them when given the opportunity. Teachers know the value of this. They know this focuses on what the student needs to know and provides effective means to assess if the student has learned it. And once teachers have properly assessed the student, teachers have the strategies to help the student when he/she hasn’t learned it.
Advocate: I still maintain that we need a standardized test. Such tests measure a common core of what our students need to know. Norms are easily established. Comparisons of our students to national averages are important and these tests facilitate this. The test can be administered efficiently and at a reasonable cost. Parents expect these tests. Teachers benefit as well from looking at the comparisons.
Opponent: Standardized tests do have a number of advantages. I agree we should have a standardized test. But we need other forms of assessment of student learning. And we need to be clear on how it is developed and what its purpose is.
Advocate: So what do you propose?
Opponent: There are plenty of models out there. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Bring a group of people together to examine what’s been done and to make modifications that fit the needs of teachers, parents, and community members. As far as group make up, I’d suggest teachers, parents, other community members, state office of education professionals for starters. We can fuss with the specifics later.
Advocate: You talk about the purpose of the test. I want to ensure that our kids learn what they need to know to get a good job. Our economy depends on that. We can’t lose sight of that. This generation of young people is in danger of having a life-style less than that of their parents. I don’t want to see that. I want our children to have good jobs so that doesn’t occur.
Opponent: I’m certainly not opposed to economic realities. We want our children to be prepared to get a good job, to be able to buy a home and a decent car if they want. I’m just saying that’s not all, and as important as that is, it’s not the most important thing. Our children need to be prepared to live with others. They need to learn to be civil, to be honest, to listen to others, to understand the point of view of others, to argue for one’s own position in a civil, respectful manner, and to have a commitment to nondiscrimination and nonrepression.
Advocate: Let’s agree on some common ground. We both agree on the need of a valid and reliable standardized test. Its purpose is to assess student learning which provides helpful measures to education professionals, community members, parents, and students. But you are saying that the standardized test should not be the only measure of student achievement.
Opponent: Yes. And assessing student learning is not the end. What we really want is to use the assessment to increase student learning. And I am arguing for student learning to go beyond reading and computing, beyond learning facts.
Advocate: And you are saying that we should exercise caution in the “high-stakes” nature of the test—that is, how we use the results. We should be careful about sanctions placed on schools, teachers, and students. I still think there is a place for such sanctions. Again, schools and teachers need to be held accountable.
Opponent: We can have an end-of-year standardized test. But it needs to be developed fairly and wisely. And it must not be the only measure of student learning. And it must not be used to punish teachers or students. And most importantly we need to agree that the purpose of public schooling is more than producing workers. It’s about helping our children and youths learn to live in our democracy in a way that not only furthers their private interests but the public interests as well—concern for the common good. I’m asking us to consider the effect of a “high-stakes” standardized test, to the exclusion of other forms of assessment, on the learning of our children. Our children need to learn, not only how to read and compute, but how to be ready to participate fully and fairly in our democracy.
Advocate: Let’s table this for now. We clearly have a number of differences of opinion on the issue. Perhaps with further study and more debate on the issue, we can come to some form of agreement before taking final action on the matter.
Additional questions for discussion
- The purposes of schooling in America undergird this dialogue. From what is said, what do you think each legislator believes is the purpose (or purposes) of schooling? What do you think is the purpose (or purposes) of schooling in America?
- Think about the legislators in your state. As you listen to them, read their statements, and/or observe their votes, what do they seem to believe is the purpose (or purposes) of schooling in your state? Do you agree with them? Why or why not?
- What effect does a legislator’s beliefs regarding the purpose (or purposes) of schooling have on his/her actions? Share an example to illustrate your comment.
- How important is it that legislators examine their beliefs about the purpose (or purposes) of schooling? How would you go about trying to educate legislators about the purpose (or purposes) of schooling?
Goodlad, J.I.; Mantle-Bromley, C.; & Goodlad, S.J. (2004). Education for Everyone: Agenda for education in a democracy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. This short and easily accessible book provides a rationale and history for ensuring that the public purpose of schooling is part of our schooling narrative.
Goodlad, J. I., Soder, R., & McDaniel, B. (Eds.) (2008). Education and the making of a democratic people. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers
Soder, R. (Ed.) (1996). Democracy, education, and the schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. This collection of writings “argues that the most basic purpose of America’s schools is to teach children the moral and intellectual responsibilities of living and working in a democracy”.
Soder, R.; Goodlad, J.I.; & McMannon, T.J. (Eds.) (2001).Developing democratic character in the young. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. A collection of essays that contributes to our understanding of and for schooling for democracy.