One reason why we support charter schools and the school reform movement here in the Empowerment Network is that reform is theorized to radically serve all students without excuses. Minority and low-income students need a schooling model that is based on their achievement—not based on the achievement of others. I make this distinction frequently because research is available that shows a gap in not only how disenfranchised learners produce (compared to their affluent white counterparts) but also in how they are taught. So, in short, charter schools are reportedly closing the achievement gap by closing the instructional gap.
But, this is where the rub exists. In the modern climate of the charter school movement, the primary means in which the instructional gap is closed is through standardization. Not with the intent to standardize instruction but with the intent to standardize achievement. Many charter schools report a no-excuses commitment to outcomes as measured by test scores. But they fail to realize how, with this focus on standardized outcomes, instruction itself then becomes standardized… being reduced to only those competencies that are captured (albeit effectively) on standardized tests.
This concern over standardized instruction is not a campaign against academic standards. Trust me it is not… because academic standards are so very important!! The problem with standardization is in the emphasis on the standardized test as the single way to measure the achievement or mastery of those standards and the way it standardizes instruction… reducing it to drill, practice, and rote memorization. When a standardized test becomes the end, teachers wanting to be recognized as effective, often fall victim to the enticement of pedagogy linked to banking style instruction.
Freire, in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, said that banking style instruction, where the teacher knows and then deposits knowing into the minds of the learners is seriously negligent in the development of critical skills. In problem-posing education, the opposite of the banking model, students develop a critical understanding of self and the world and learn how to thrive in it successfully.
According to Gee and Waks, thriving in the world must be driven by critical mandates of the 21st century readiness. Such readiness requires individuals to value and sort through massive amounts of rapidly changing information as well work autonomously and collaboratively and think critically and creatively. Unfortunately, banking style instruction, shaped by a test-driven climate, doesn’t capture this. Instead, it develops learners who can master knowledge consumption as well as behavioral compliance. Unfortunately, success in the real world, even in college, requires a praxis of knowing that encompasses so much more.
For all intent and purposes, standardized tests provide a way to measure progress and to hold all stakeholders in the learning process accountable to progress. But, in the construction of the tests, only certain competencies are measured… competencies that do not capture the full essence of 21st century readiness.
Through the Empowerment Network, I want to see more schools act responsibly toward 21st century mandates and act courageously in instituting instructional processes that readies students for these 21st century mandates. I want to see more schools continue on in their mission to serve all students with rigor and high standards but with a more inclusive model for learning and achievement. In order to achieve this end, I want to see more schools liberated from the standardization trap.