TESTIMONY BEFORE THE COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE

OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COUNCIL

ON BILL 17-0001, "DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA PUBLIC EDUCATION REFORM AMENDMENT ACT OF 2007"

Dorothy Marschak, President, CHIME (Community Help In Music Education)

February 7, 2007

The Mayor, the Council and the School Board are to be commended for the priority being given to dealing with the long-standing problems plaguing the performance of our public school system.  I believe that if we considered the level of student achievement in the schools was outstanding, or even acceptable, we would not feel the urgency of dealing with issues of control, oversight and structure, which is what the Mayor’s bill deals with. It does not deal with the basic question of student achievement, although some of the systemic changes proposed deal with conditions that affect student achievement.

 

The purpose of my testimony today is not to address the provisions of the Mayor’s bill, but to raise another public policy issue that I feel needs to be addressed in concurrence with that of the proposed systemic changes. That is the question of what the goals of our public education system, however structured, should be, in the light of which we should  evaluate student achievement.  What is it that we want students to know and be prepared to do when they graduate (and how do we assure that they will graduate)? I believe the public should have an input into these goals and how well they are being met. It should be up to the Chief Instructional Officer to ensure a quality curriculum and effective teaching and learning practices that will help achieve them.  I believe without addressing this issue, no matter what proposed changes are made in structure, we are not likely to see much improvement in student achievement.

 

Instead of asking what the goals of education should be, we have been asking “how can we raise the standardized test scores in reading and math?”  In discussing the role of the arts in the curriculum, for example, one is asked to justify them by how they will impact test scores.  I believe this focus, paradoxically enough, is contributing not only to the failure of our schools to prepare students for rewarding personal, career and civic lives, but also to failure of most of our students to even achieve “proficiency” on these tests. The School Board bill promises an 18-month crash program to raise proficiency levels on test scores in reading and math.  One might ask how they intend to do this. Why, when most DC schools already focus on teaching students how to pass these tests, do most students still do so poorly on them?  Social studies, science, the arts, PE, civics---all have been marginalized to teaching to the test. Most schools are governed by fear, not by a spirit of inquiry, because the careers of principals and teachers and the future of the schools themselves, depends on the test scores.

 

I’d like to point out that the schools that are always singled out as models are ones that do not teach to the test: eg the KIPP public charter school in DC. Their students do well on tests because they are given a good balanced education (and also, to be fair, because they have small classes, motivated teachers, more time in school, and don’t have to keep disruptive students). Students with a good background in humanities, science and the arts learn to read, comprehend, and analyze in the context of mastering useful and interesting subject matter. They do well on standardized reading and math tests without focusing on teaching to them. KIPP students begin their day by participation in string orchestral practice, by the way.  I am not aware of a single DC public school that still has an orchestra—few of them even have bands anymore.

 

This is not the time or place to go into a discussion of the nuts and bolts of teaching—that is the province of the Chief Instructional Officer.  I do think, though, that it is a vital matter of public policy to discuss what the goals of education should be.  I’d like to propose four, and to point out that they are not being met for most of our students by our current focus on teaching to the test.  To meet these goals, our students would have to become literate and numerate as well, and therefore do well on the standardized tests which have become national policy. However, we should give them much more and expect much more from them in return. I would like to hear from the Mayor as well as from the School Board and the Superintendent what their views are on the goals of education, and hence how we should evaluate and facilitate student achievement

 

The four I propose are as follows:

1. To produce good citizens, and those who learn how to listen to and understand those with differing backgrounds and opinions.  That was historically considered to be a main function of the public school system.

2. To prepare students for rewarding careers, on HS graduation or after needed higher education. In today’s “knowledge” or “creative” economy, employers seek those who can work well and empathize with others, who can express themselves well, who can think critically and out of the box, who are flexible and have the kind of background that can adapt to new needs and technologies. These are the kind of skills students learn through the arts, for example, and not in drilling for tests.

3. To provide students with a common background in, and ability to think critically about, our historical and cultural heritages and science.

4. To develop the potential of each student. Not all students learn the same way or have the same abilities. Despite the obstacles presented by family, linguistic and socio-economic problems facing so many of our public school students, they should be given the same educational opportunities and challenges as those from more fortunate backgrounds, although this will require more individual attention (and therefore resources) given to them.  

 

I believe that if we provided such a balanced educational diet in our schools and considered the development needs of the whole child that, along with some of the proposed reforms in the Mayor’s bill, we could go far to graduating students who will go on to rewarding personal, career and civic lives. By putting more of our resources into our children at the front end of their lives, we could save much of what we now have to spend later on the social consequences of failing them, and we would also reap the economic benefits of a workforce that could meet the needs of tomorrow’s economy, and the public benefits of an informed and involved citizenry.

 Thank you.