‘Dear President Obama … We can’t test this country into excellence’


Federal policy makers and many school reformers seem oblivious to current research about learning and motivation, Broderick noted.

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.”

For more news from the NSBA conference, see:

How to expand students’ ed-tech access—and stay out of court

Why Khan Academy is so popular—and why teachers shouldn’t feel threatened

NSBA Conference Information Center

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.

“Adults learn best, experts say, if they feel competent, autonomous, and a sense of belonging,” the letter stated. “Much in our current school systems works against these, and our new national focus on teacher evaluation will continue that trend.”

Schools won’t become great through threat or intimidation, Broderick told attendees. “Let’s make them safe places to take risks, where staff and students feel valued for their ideas and talents.” She added: “We should invest [more] in teacher training and professional development embedded in the work, through coaching and ongoing support.”

Beyond monitoring performance, federal policy should identify, support, and share proven best practices, Broderick said. It also should focus more resources on the poorest students if these students are to succeed.

For more news from the NSBA conference, see:

How to expand students’ ed-tech access—and stay out of court

Why Khan Academy is so popular—and why teachers shouldn’t feel threatened

NSBA Conference Information Center

“And finally, I asked the president to convene a national dialogue, not made up of politicians, but including the breadth of educational thought, to reconsider our policy direction,” she said. “Current policy jeopardizes the keys to our national success: our ingenuity, our openness to innovation, and our creativity. Let’s marshal the nation’s brain power and tap into the research, proven practice, and demonstrated evidence of excellence.”

Broderick noted that this challenge applies not just to the president, but to lawmakers, educators, and school board members as well.

“Board members, working as a team with our superintendents, can move mountains,” she said. “If we are not teams, we flounder. When we wallow in our disagreements, circle the wagons, and shoot inward, our children suffer. … So let’s get beyond what divides us and come together around a vision that unites us.”

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