Reforming, Deforming, Transforming

By Dr. Eugene Maier

A few weeks ago I was at an end-of-the-school-year gathering of teachers, their spouses and friends. The conversation turned to the Oregon version of the educational reform movement.

The teachers agreed that the aura of their classrooms was changing, especially in those grades (3, 5, 8 and 10) in which state mandated assessments were taking place. Their students are being tested to see if they are attaining "benchmark expectations" in meeting "content standards" adopted by the state department of education. Since the public and, especially, politicians view the results as measures of teachers' effectiveness, the teachers felt compelled to make preparing students for these tests their number one priority. The tenseness of testing permeated their classrooms, replacing the comfortable feeling of students engaged in learning. And, everyone agreed, their enthusiasm for teaching was diminished.

The state's assessment program is sophisticated—complicated may be a better word—requiring much more than filling bubbles with No. 2 lead, although there's some of that, too. On the problem-solving portion of the math tests, students are graded on five criteria: conceptual understanding, processes and strategies, verification, communication, and accuracy. (Because of confusion about how one gives evidence they verified their work, the verification score is not used for "decisions about students" but "will inform the field test"—whatever that means). In order for students to obtain the new, much-touted-but-of-unknown-significance Certificate of Initial Mastery, a student must achieve state-established scores on the tests as well as on 64 "work samples" in areas and grade-levels designated by the state. The "completed, scored student work" is to be "kept together in any fashion, from a portfolio, to a file folder or other system, as determined at the local level." This is just for the Certificate of Initial Mastery; the Certificate of Advanced Mastery is yet to come.

Teachers in a local school estimate that if they did all the preparation, testing, and assessment suggested by the state department they would spend a third of the school year on testing and "work samples." One fifth grade teacher reported that his 28 students collectively generated some 200 work samples this past year. With each of these graded according to 5 or 6 criteria, his students generated more than 1000 separate grades on these samples alone. In some school districts, student portfolios are passed along with the student from teacher to teacher. Supposedly teachers will study them to acquaint themselves with the students level of achievement. But this is more information than a teacher can digest in a reasonable amount of time. Most teachers will learn more in a couple of weeks of observation than they will glean from perusing portfolios.

Teachers aren't the only apprehensive ones. Reader response to articles in the local paper about the new look in Oregon education are largely negative. Expecting something more, one writes, "The only reform-related product to reach the classroom is the assessment portion." Another chimes in, "Nothing but tests have materialized." The parent of a high school freshman observes, "We have proficiency tests in everything but spitting." Parents are asking that their children be excused from taking the tests. The parent of an about-to-be third grader writes that his child has decided he won't take the test: "[the child] felt, as I did, that it would be a waste of time to take the CIM test just to find out that he is reading above grade level and is very good at math. We already know these things. So why should he take the test? On test days we'll do something enjoyable." Students wonder, "Why all the testing?" "When you try to tell them it's important," says the director of instruction in a local district, "they say, 'For what?'" Apparently, there's no good answer. The Oregon Educational Act for the 21st Century isn't reforming education, it's deforming it—into an assessment quagmire.

Except for bogging down the system with assessment, Oregon's reform act has fostered no fundamental change in educational practices. A few things have been redone. New "content standards" and "benchmarks" have been established. But the standards are simply another listing of what somebody thinks everybody should know. An attempt is being made to replace diplomas with "certificates of mastery," but these, like diplomas, are earned by fulfilling a list of content requirements and passing a bevy of tests. The only essential difference is that requirements are being set at the state rather than the local level, which is not surprising given the increase in state funding of education, the decrease in local funding, and the high correlation between funding and control. Little, if anything, is being done to address the problems endemic to mathematics education: rote learning, debilitating instructional practices, elitism, math anxiety and abhorrence—to name a few. If it's generated any excitement about teaching or learning math, I haven't heard about it.

That's not to say exciting things aren't happening in mathematics classrooms. I was reminded of that by a message from a teacher that had an entirely different tone from the conversation I had heard a few days earlier. The teacher talked of the aversion to mathematics she developed in her school days and how, despite this, she had been "turned on" to teaching math the last two years. She was finding ways of making math interesting for her students. They "love it" and she loves it, especially "that sparkle in their eyes."

What, I inquired, brought about this transformation from someone with an aversion to school mathematics to someone who was excited about teaching it. Her response had much in common with that of other teachers who have made a similar journey: A teacher somewhere along the way who helped them see that mathematics wasn't a collection of incomprehensible rules and procedures and enabled them to make sense out of what they were expected to learn; a chance to experience instructional strategies that bring math to life and honor the learners' insights and intuitions, supportive colleagues who are also excited about teaching math, and the freedom and confidence to find their own way in the classroom. A scenario far different from that produced by mandating what's to be taught and what constitutes learning.

If we are serious about changing the course of mathematics education, I suggest we stop re-forming lists and requirements, give up our preoccupation with testing and, instead, spend our resources transforming mathematics classrooms. Transforming them from places where students, under threat of failure, survive by rote learning of prescribed rules and procedures—which only adds to the disdain of mathematics abroad in the land—to places like those described above. Such classrooms do exist—created not only by those teachers who have always been on friendly terms with things mathematical, but also by teachers, like my correspondent, who have overcome their own adverse experiences with school mathematics.

Such transformation doesn't happen by edict. It's more likely to happen one classroom at a time. The process to help teachers transform their classrooms isn't complicated—it's outlined above. Carrying out the process may not be easy; it requires time, patience and commitment. But once accomplished, one doesn't need an elaborate testing program to determine if students are learning—you can tell by the sparkle in their eyes.