Speaking during her organization’s 72nd annual conference, Mary Broderick, outgoing president of the National School Boards Association, described a letter she wrote to President Obama urging him to reduce the federal emphasis on testing and give local schools the latitude to nurture students’ creativity.
“During my travels, I [have] observed brain activity in a young child with a complicated puzzle to solve,” she told conference attendees. “You could see the fascination and engagement on this child’s face as he used trial and error to manipulate the puzzle. His brain was stimulated, and he was learning. But, as soon as that little boy was told the answer, he lost interest—and the brain activity stopped.”
She added: “You know what that looks like on the face of a child. Their whole body is in motion when problem-solving, but their eyes glaze over when we pour information into their heads. They feel powerless and disrespected. This is what we are now doing to our children—and to our teachers.”
Federal policy makers and many school reformers seem oblivious to current research about learning and motivation, Broderick noted. And while standards and accountability have their place, “we cannot build our children to spec and expect consistent results. Children are not golf balls.”
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The nation’s education leaders must find a better balance between accountability and innovation, Broderick argued. She referred to a letter she wrote to President Obama April 17, in which she made this very point.
“The focus on strict quantitative accountability has never worked for any organization, and it has not worked with No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top,” Broderick said in her letter. “Teachers’ focus on tests is undermining their potential and initiative, making it more difficult to share a love of learning with their students.”
She added: “Though intended to encourage equity, our current policy is, in fact, driving us toward mediocrity. Our students may be becoming better regurgitators, but what we need is excellent thinkers.”
The jobs that today’s students will pursue will be “significantly different” from the ones we have known, Broderick said. “Future work will be more complex, so we had better prepare students differently than through standardized tests.”
What’s more, she said, the carrot-and-stick approach to motivating educators that the Obama administration has embraced has been proven by researchers such as Daniel Pink and others to be ineffective.
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