The U.S. public education system currently serves more than 50 million students. In the last 30 years, many of the policies and rules that have shaped our educational system have gone against so much of what we know from research, the professional knowledge of educators and the intuition of parents and students themselves. These policies threaten our democracy, our economy and our ability to know and understand each other across our differences. Not only is this system stifling our students’ voices, ideas and preparation for democracy and a global economy -- but it is also bad for our increasingly diverse society because it perpetuates a system of narrow understandings that do not reflect our different histories and cultures, it rationalizes punitive disciplinary practices toward some students and not others, and it pushes us further from each other.
Children Left Behind: Time to Reimagine Education explores how our current assessment system influences curriculum, sorts and segregates students and feeds the school to prison pipeline. We tell the story of our education system from the inside-out, focusing on the voices of students, educators, and researchers. This film also highlights the innovations and cutting-edge, transformative work being done within the system for the benefit of all our children that we can learn from and expand on across the country. We travel to Revere, Massachusetts, one of six school districts participating in an experiment to develop authentic and direct gauges of student performance and Los Angeles, California to see how Ethnic Studies is making a difference in the lives of students. These portraits of possibility, along with the film’s attention to restorative justice as an alternative to traditional disciplinary practices, offer compelling counter-narratives to educational policy and practice as usual.
As education researchers, our team has focused on certain aspects of the education system – namely, issues of student access to schools, parents’ efficacy in the school choice process, and the socio-cultural issues that affect school culture and climate- and their connections to prominent education policies related to student assessment and school accountability, curriculum and pedagogy, and school discipline. Throughout our work with schools and families, the mismatch between research and policy became increasingly obvious. Thus, a story of the research evidence needed to be told. Behind each theme in the film are mountains of research evidence we presented to Firelight Media as they worked collaboratively with us to bring our vision to life. The major takeaways from each theme are below.
When it comes to Accountability and Assessment Policies and Practices, the evidence is clear that the U.S. public schools place far too much weight on one or two standardized tests to decide the fate of students, educators and schools. While standardized tests can be one of many measures used to assess students, we must acknowledge the research that tells us these measures have baked-in cultural and contextual biases that enable some students to perform better than others based simply on their prior life experiences and not their innate ability. Furthermore, the high-stakes nature of the testing policies and accountability systems have created perverse effects on the system, as too many teachers are forced to teach to the test, too many students experience severe anxiety trying to perform on tests that do not measure their full understanding or ability, and parents are increasingly frustrated with the lack of time educators have to focus on other critical aspects of child development and learning. To make matters worse, the research is clear that equity cannot be achieved through test-based accountability policies alone.
The research takeaways on our assessment system were underscored in the research on Curriculum and Pedagogy, which underscores that the way we measure student learning and hold schools accountable has a profound impact on how educators shape the curriculum they provide in schools and classrooms and the modalities used to express the knowledge that students must learn. The research shows that a pedagogical emphasis on test prep is harmful to students’ ability to develop critical thinking skills and processes to express and convey their own thoughts and opinions. Meanwhile, we know from large bodies of research that approaches to teaching and learning that center the experiences of students and families, including Multicultural Education, Culturally Sustaining/Relevant Education, Ethnic Studies, and Progressive Education, have had very positive outcomes in engaging and empowering all students, but especially students of color. Qualitative and quantitative research shows us that students learn better and deeper when the curriculum is aligned with their ways of knowing and when pedagogy allows them to learn from each other.
When it comes to issues of Discipline, we also found ample evidence that narrow forms of assessing “good” and “bad” students and curriculum that reinforces those narrow definitions can perptuate a system of harsh disciplinary practices as schools actively try to push out students with low test scores or those most frustrated with a curriculum that excludes the experiences and history of people from their backgrounds and cultures. Furthermore, evidence shows that the zero tolerance policies and other common practices (like metal detectors) are ineffective, harmful to students and inhibit learning as they perpetuate huge racial disparities in rates of suspension and expulsion and create pathways to incarceration.
As we noted above, the connection between these three major factors of narrow measures of assessment, narrowly focused curriculum aligned with the assessments and strict discipline policies that seek to push out students with low test scores combine to perpetuate Racial Segregation across schools and classrooms as we come to define “good” and “bad” schools based on test scores and their antecedents. This leaves those families that have more options in where their children attend schools – either through housing choices or school choices – to steer away from schools with students of color even when those schools and communities have many assets.
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