I believe that, in general, educational policy makers begin with good intentions. However, the hopes and goals they begin with are often lost in translation by the time the policy reaches the classroom. It is very similar to a game of telephone which begins with an idea from the federal government, but then quickly loses meaning after each retelling. In the end teachers receive an unintelligible version of the original idea.
In this case, the federal government sees that the educational system in the United States is producing fewer students who are prepared for college or for the workforce as compared to similar countries. They realize the long term problems this causes and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is created in an attempt to remedy the situation. NCLB seems reasonable on the surface: schools will have to meet certain levels of student proficiency which increase each year or the schools will have to make changes. However, after digging deeper, there are a multitude of flaws including whether the standardized tests being used to assess student proficiency actually measure a student’s preparedness for college or the workforce. Additionally, the yearly increases climb so significantly that schools are quickly overwhelmed and unable to make adequate yearly progress. As such, the message the teachers receive starts to shift from preparing students for the real world to passing the assessment.
School districts are very aware of the harsh consequences that come from multiple years without sufficient student proficiency. District administrators make it clear to principals and teachers as to what will happen if they do not improve. Thus, while the ultimate goal is still the same, the message received shifts dramatically to passing the state test. Since the assessment does not measure students’ preparedness for college or for the workforce, the goal becomes passing an assessment that does not measure what we are hoping to accomplish. Now teachers feel the pressure to teach students to be able to answer questions regardless of whether students understand the material. Think about how many tests you took where you were able to get the answer right but could not really explain what you did or why you did it. You knew that if you plugged a number into a formula, you got the correct answer, but you could not apply any of what you did to real life. These shallow understandings may be useful in passing a test but do not prepare students to be successful in college or the workforce.
The problem here is that the message keeps getting lost in translation. No one has bad intentions, but given the constraints they are working with, each group thinks they are doing the best they can. The good news is that the Common Core State Standards are intentionally much better aligned with the knowledge students need to be prepared for college or the workforce. As a result, there is hope that this message will be brought back into focus. The assessments being created by Smarter Balanced and PARCC will hopefully better assess these standards and, as a result, increase students’ preparedness. That will help redirect teachers’ attentions, but it will take years to shift educational culture back towards what the message began as: producing students who are prepared for college or for the workforce.