To understand many educators’ concerns with an exclusive focus on high-stakes, standardized testing, imagine a piano teacher who gave his students worksheets on the keyboard, and the history of the piano, but never asked his students to play.
What ails American schools and what to do about it has been a national conversation for decades now. In the maze of standardized tests, teacher accountability, metal detectors and school take-overs, we must take care that our efforts to ensure accountability are not counterproductive. Curriculum that is stripped of any connection to real community problems and to the lives of the students will not raise test scores, result in authentic learning, increase teacher retention or more result in more peaceful schools. Nor will it prepare our students to be the global leaders that our increasingly connected and competitive world will demand that they be. The key to successful curriculum reform is designing curriculum around a community’s most pressing challenges, rather than reducing it to multiple choice questions. Such curriculum reform also empowers especially at-risk students to address the violence and inequities which impact them and to understand the relevance of their classes to their lives. The kids become the curriculum.
What does this look like in practice? Consider the opportunity in one of our most challenged school systems, Washington D.C. Reducing gang violence, AIDS and other public health threats, community food security, environmental degradation, and unemployment all remain entrenched challenges. As history’s greatest educators, such as Paolo Freire, Maria Montessori and John Dewey, might point out today, these problems themselves make great curriculum. Yet only rarely, especially in our most violent and troubled public schools, are students invited into such critical inquiry of their own lives and communities. Multidisciplinary projects in which students are invited to be young leaders in their communities, which make math, science, reading, writing and research come alive, are possible. I have seen this in my own writing and literature classroom in a Virginia Juvenile Detention home, where my students have used their writing to grapple with everything from domestic violence, gangs, addiction, homelessness on their streets, racism in their schools and the origins of genocide. Additionally, this approach to curriculum design directly addresses the needs of the very students that NCLB most intends to reach: the poorest rural, urban and minority students. The most effective reforms will be those that empower students to actively use the skills and knowledge we want them to gain in authentic ways, and empower teachers to assess them in authentic ways. Standardized assessments, while they do have their utility, cannot really measure the communication, collaboration and problem solving skills that the 21st century is going to demand if the U.S. is to remain competitive, let alone a global leader.