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Personal Reflection on School Improvement and Social Justice

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In 1965 The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed to help elevate the academic achievement in students from low economic backgrounds. At this time period, lower economic school systems were given less funding because they were based on property taxes which had a lower cost than their more affluent counter parts. ESEA allowed these school districts to receive federal funding to offset the lower state funding but also required a measure of accountability. Originally, states could test students, but they were not testing every student and they were not gathering enough information to show achievement in all student groups. Some states could look at the average score of all students in the state to gauge how well they were doing overall. Soon the federal government was requiring individual student testing so that specific student groups could not be intentionally withheld to highlight more positive results.

New requirements to obtain federal funds were enacted with the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act. Schools were required to meet yearly goals with the lofty idea of having every child in the school be on grade level. In theory this is a great idea, but the logistics proved to be difficult to achieve. Schools that did not meet the progress goals suffered harsh penalties resulting in a lack of federal funds. Some states tried to get around these stipulations by lowering the level of proficiency so they could increase the number of students passing the exam. The problem with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 was that no credit was given to schools with students that did not achieve proficiency on the standardized test. Even if students showed some type of progress, they would still not be considered proficient if they did not meet the required exam score.

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The Every Student Succeeds Act was adopted by reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The authorization brought some changes and improvements, but the basic idea was kept intact, to increase academic achievement in students from lower economic backgrounds. ESSA gave states more autonomy in setting yearly goals and the penalties that would come from not meeting the annual progress report. States were also allowed to choose their own testing materials and student growth was factored instead of just one score on an exam.

Test scores were not always the focus in schools across the country but just a way to show that students were achieving. In the past few decades, test scores have become the telltale sign and a sort of status symbol for administrators to obtain the highest scores in the land. The idea of well-rounded students that have exposure to languages, art and music is desired by every principal but not at the expense of achieving higher test scores. Policy makers have become the experts on passing legislation that affects every aspect of the school environment while not having any type of background in education. The typical legislator has more of a concern about their own career instead of what is best for students and their futures.

Educational philosophers of the early 19th century such as Dewey and Counts believed that the purpose of schooling was to prepare students to be productive members of society. An educator by the name of Mortimore Adler believed that schools should be used to develop citizens, encourage self-growth and prepare students for the workplace. Adler believed that students should have a well-rounded education encompassing intellectual and manual training including cooking, sewing, typing, and machine repair. He believed this curriculum would not be used for just vocational purposes but learning with one’s own hands. These ideas became the basis of schooling for many years until only recently when data and test scores became the driving force in education.

Creating a democratic school environment is not a new concept but one that has not been stressed in many school districts in recent years. Most schools are currently not democratic, they neither function as democracies nor do they prepare students for democracy. We have gotten away from the idea of creating a global society and are more concerned with an achievement driven system that is more concerned with scores than the needs of the students. Standardized tests have created a new breed of anxiety laden students who require therapy after taking an exam. No student likes taking a test but the extreme timing and format of many standardized tests have taken their toll.

How can we create a more democratic school environment while still following the curriculum and state mandates? A democratic school should promote all students to participate by giving students choices while promoting classroom discussions. Democratic classrooms should be diverse, promote equality while stressing the importance of empathy and cooperation. Politics have become ingrained in our students through the Internet, social media and their family opinions. By teaching democratic ideas in school, students will learn to accept others ideas and be open to varying perspectives. Teaching a student that their beliefs and opinions are not the only ones that matter is an important concept as children mature.

“Teaching to the test”, has become a phrase that many teachers now use because of the importance of test scores in the school districts. Test scores do not only affect the student but now the teacher is held accountable for the success of their students. In New Jersey, teacher evaluations have a portion that is directly linked to how well their students scored. This score is factored into their final evaluation to show how effective they are as an educator. This practice has caused many educators to take a large portion of their curriculum and devote it entirely to preparing to take the test. Teachers are concerned they will get a bad evaluation because of their student’s achievement on tests. In addition, students are also anxious about taking the test because of a variety of other factors creating a culture of fear in the school.

Are principals concerned with more than achieving higher test scores when they create a vision for their school? It would be idealistic to believe that every principal is concerned with creating globally responsible students that will grow up to be great citizens. State education agencies are not measuring the democracy levels in school districts, but they are rating the district on their test scores. If these types of standards stay in place many principals will still be stressing student achievement linked directly to test scores.

Gathering data in school districts is not a problem but using that data to create a district vision is the challenge. Administrators must use this data to create a strategy to improve classroom practices that in turn will increase student achievement. Just gathering data on the successes or failures of students passing a standardized exam is not an appropriate plan to ensure that students are prepared for the future. The whole purpose of collecting data is to understand how different instructional strategies will increase student achievement through motivation and engaging materials.

Administrators enter the field of education with the best intentions, to help all students achieve success. External pressures have caused the focus of learning to be reflected through scores on an exam instead of directly through classroom work. Student growth can not always translate into a passing score on a standardized exam. If we allow scores on a standardized test to judge the achievement of all students, we will be depriving them of a wealth of education. In NJ we are fighting against the over testing of our students and I strongly support the idea.

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