The Last Word March 2012

Dear President Obama:

The night of your election, in Grant Park, you said, “I will listen to you especially when we disagree.” We are all committed to the best educational future for the children of America. Yet, as the nation prepares for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), school board members and top educational thinkers overwhelming urge abandoning the current “command and control” federal educational oversight. America’s treasure lies in unleashing the creativity of our youth. Though well-intentioned, the current federal direction is working against much of what we know about student motivation and achievement. Instead, the federal government should support local efforts to ignite curiosity, creative potential, and a drive for excellence among students and staff.

School board members across the country have shared their ideas about what needs to change. We share your sense of urgency: We must give every child, no matter their circumstances, the opportunity to excel. We must ensure high-quality experiences so each child evolves fully. Our major disagreement comes from how we go about this task.

We want for each American child the same things that you and Michelle want for Sasha and Malia -- inspiration, aspiration, creativity. I know you don’t want an overemphasis on testing. I have heard you say it. Experience -- in schools, communities, and research -- tells us that relentlessly focusing on standardized tests erodes our national competitiveness and deadens curiosity and drive. Clearly, we need some testing to gauge student learning, and we have no problem with appropriate accountability. But we have swung to a far extreme that is significantly hurting children. “Students are numbing over testing for testing’s sake. ... We can’t test this country into excellence,” says former NSBA president and current Louisiana school board member Sonny Savoie.

Other countries that traditionally focus on testing come to learn how we inspire a spirit of innovation. And decades of work by motivation theorists such as Daniel Pink help us understand why a focus on testing and standards may not cultivate the learners we want. Others have found that such a narrow focus restricts our views of what is possible, and even causes unethical behavior, such as the rash of testing scandals seen here and abroad.

By contrast, Finnish schools are now “exemplars of many of the success indicators we ... want to see in American schools. Achievement is consistently high. Students are self-motivated and engaged in their learning. Schools have wide latitude to decide on their own programs, and there are no intrusive sanctions,” says California board member Jill Wynns.

The focus on strict quantitative accountability has not worked with No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top. Teachers are trying to meet the mandates of those programs and, consequently, “our children suffer and are not getting educated to their individual potential,” says Illinois board member Carolyne Brooks.

Our students will never be first in the world on standardized tests. Nor is that something to which we should aspire. We simply are not a compliant people willing to absorb facts without challenge. But we have had the most innovative workforce in the world (and now vie with Finland for that top position). Though intended to encourage equity, our current policy is, in fact, driving us toward mediocrity. Our students may be becoming better regurgitators, but what we need are excellent thinkers.

We have significant challenges in many of our communities, especially those that are underserved, yet we continue to boast some of the best schools in the world. Our vision should be to empower excellence -- to draw out the best in each and every individual in our schools. We should recognize that our children’s brains are our most important resource. We should aspire to having children take responsibility for their own learning. We can have a common curriculum as a guide, but leave it to our local “civic labs,” as Thomas Jefferson envisioned them, to find optimal ways to inspire learning.

That said, we won’t achieve any vision without significant teamwork. Finland’s process may offer a model. The country spent years developing a national consensus. Collaboration can promote independent thinking and action. As a nation, we have been blaming some for blocking student achievement. It is time to inspire all toward a pursuit of excellence for each of our children.

In the May issue, I will conclude this letter to President Obama by offering suggestions for a redirection of the federal role in education. Please continue to send your advice for the president to me. The complete letter will be shared at NSBA’s annual conference in Boston in April. 

Mary Broderick (mary-broderick@att.net) is the 2011-12 president of NSBA and a member of Connecticut’s East Lyme Board of Education.