In his essay, “The two-edged sword of SOL reform” [Nov. 8], Chris Braunlich takes issue with calls for state assessment reform. He suggests that assessing critical thinking and problem-solving skills is not appropriate for low-income “[l]ow performers, whose parents struggle just to make it each day.” Those children, according to Braunlich, need “different strategies” than their peers from wealthier households. The “high-performing students” from higher-income, better educated households, in Braunlich’s view, should “by all means” be “prepared in the high-level skills increasingly necessary for many careers.” But Braunlich warns that we must maintain another track for students whose best hope, if Braunlich is right, is an education in facts and “basic skills.”
The pernicious myth that children from less-advantaged backgrounds need drill-and-kill teaching methods fundamentally misunderstands how all children learn. “Critical thinking vs. facts” is a false narrative. Higher-order thinking skills — questioning, analysis, creative problem-solving — are not built atop a foundation of “facts.” On the contrary, those skills are a child’s best tools for understanding the world around them. Facts learned in the abstract, isolated from context and purpose, are poorly retained. Our job as educators can not be to stuff children’s minds with facts they can easily find on their smart phones. Our job is to give them the tools to question, analyze, apply and, perhaps most importantly, create information.
Leaders in the quest for better measures of student learning can find many exciting examples in the U.S. and around the world. Some examples are right here in Virginia. The Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts has an innovative partnership with Head Start programs and public schools that incorporates STEM and the arts to teach creative problem solving to at-risk preschool and kindergarten students. The Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts proves not only that critical thinking skills can be successfully taught to children from needy families, but that those skills also can be reliably measured. I recommend the program’s website to readers who are interested in what’s possible (www.wolftrap.org/Education/Institute_for_Early_Learning_Through_the_Arts.aspx).
I always hear “the soft bigotry of low expectations” in the argument that fact-based standards and assessment regimes are good for our less-advantaged students. That argument accepts as inevitable that children who begin kindergarten behind their peers will always need a separate and, I would argue, unequal curriculum. As an elementary classroom teacher with a decade of experience with children from every walk of life, I could describe many children whose early gaps foretold nothing about their academic potential, their innate creativity, curiosity and resilience. Every child can be taught to think critically, to communicate effectively, to collaborate empathically and to solve real-world problems. Every child deserves a foundation in those skills, so measuring mastery of those skills is how we should hold ourselves accountable. To every child.
The call for reform is reasonable and long overdue. We need fewer, smarter tests that hold us accountable for the right things. The pendulum is at long last swinging back away from the insanity of high-stakes tests of every child, every year, in every subject. School boards, educators, parents and students across the Commonwealth are calling on Virginia’s leaders to lead.
The writer represents the Hunter Mill District on the Fairfax County School Board.