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Student-Centered Skepticism

June 05, 2012 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

I am what is sometimes called a “reform skeptic.” What this means is that I tend to oppose certain proposals – generally having to do with the use of standardized tests and the way we evaluate, pay, and retain teachers – that are favored by a particular group of education reform advocates.

Despite the fact that I have a broad record of support for many other reforms, it's this particular narrow band of issues that apparently separates the true reformers from the skeptics. I'm generally at peace with this. Where I have a problem is when those of us who criticize the favored few positions are then labeled as not being “student-centered” enough. Instead, we are told, we are “adult-centered” or (gasp) “teacher-centered.”

It's right there in the name of Michelle Rhee's group, Students First. Those of us who oppose Students First? Well, we must value someone else first, right?

Wrong.

Consider the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) or the New York Performance Standards Consortium (NYPSC). Both groups fervently oppose the current overuse of standardized testing. They do so not out of concern about what's best for teachers, but rather out of concern about what's best for students.

This same concern was an underlying factor in all the writing many of us did this spring opposing a policy that would require districts to lay teachers off using an evaluation system that gave significant weight to students' standardized test scores. Like the reformers pushing for the policy, I think improving teaching quality is important for student success. Unlike them, I don't think the approach taken by the required evaluation system will help.

On the contrary, it will hurt, contributing to a narrowed curriculum, continued focus on "bubble students" at the exclusion of others, and more time spent preparing for testing than engaged in authentic learning. My criticisms of Harvest Prep are similarly focused around concerns about a narrowed curriculum that I believe not to be in students' best interest. I'm willing to debate the issue, but I would hope it's clear that my motivations are, in fact, student-centered.

More telling than what reform skeptics are against, however, is what we're for. FairTest and the NYPSC both have concrete alternatives to standardized testing for which they advocate; they argue that these alternatives do a better job of encouraging higher order thinking skills than the usual state tests. I share this belief in aiming higher, and for the same reasons.

Taking a broader view, some reform skeptics (including me) advocate for a sustained focus on early childhood education, which thankfully also gets some support from “purer” reform groups like MinnCAN. Some argue, including me, for broader engagement with the effects of poverty, looking to address, among other things, the “summer slide” and student mobility. Some look at the negative effects of segregation on students and push for ways to address those problems. All of these are student-centered concerns.

So, too, are issues around how teachers treat students based on gender and race. So is pushing for the state to do a better job meeting its financial obligations to schools. So is calling for increased diversity of school types within traditional districts so that those districts can do a better job meeting their students' varied needs.

The point here is that there are plenty of student-centered ways to push for better results from our school system. Disagreements about how to build that better system only point to differences of opinion about what is best for students, not the degree of commitment to students' well-being. Accusing one's critics of being insufficiently “student-centered” is too often a derailing technique meant to end conversation, not advance it. It alienates potential allies and risks the spread of groupthink within the “pure” reform movement.

Sometimes what's good for kids – like better-paid teachers or smaller class sizes – is good for adults. Sometimes what's bad for kids – like a teacher evaluation system that drives out good teachers – is bad for adults. Sometimes what's best for kids – like access to affordable health care – has little or nothing to do with what's best for adults.

Progressives should acknowledge the need for a broad education reform agenda. They should also be proactive about the entirety of the issue, including early childhood, summer break, increased school innovation, and more school funding, rather than letting the issue shrink to the hunt for bad teachers. And at the end of the day, let's be very careful about who we accuse of being too adult-centered.

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