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The Opportunity to Excel

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By Mary Broderick, President of the National School Boards Association and the former Chair of Connecticut's East Lyme Board of Education

As President of the National School Boards Association (NSBA), I have the opportunity to meet hundreds of educators, mainly school board members but also administrators, teachers, and other staff. I've heard their hopes, dreams, and passions for their students. Not surprisingly, the problems with the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law have dominated many of those conversations. As we prepare for its reauthorization, I reviewed some of the ideas and themes I've heard recently. There is, first, an overwhelming plea to shift federal policy to prepare our students to be competent and effective decision-makers and leaders in a far more uncertain world than we have ever known.

Our experience — in our schools and communities and research — tells us that a relentless focus on standardized tests is eroding our national competitiveness and deadening our children's curiosity and drive. Most of us agree that we need some testing to gauge student learning, but we have swung to a far extreme that is significantly hurting our children's learning. As Sonny Savoie, a school board member from Louisiana, puts it, "Students are numbing over testing for testing's sake.... We can't test this country into excellence."

School board members often look at systems used by other communities and nations. I've found that those that traditionally focus on testing, including most Asian countries, recognize the shortcomings of their systems and come to our shores to learn how we inculcate a spirit of innovation. Time magazine columnist and CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria grew up in such a system. He recently wrote that the Asian educational system "gave me an impressive base of knowledge and taught me how to study hard and fast. But when I got to the U.S. for college, I found that it had not trained me that well to think. American education at its best teaches you how to solve problems, truly understand the material, question authority, think for yourself and be creative. It teaches you to learn what you love and to love learning."

Motivation theorists help us understand why a focus on testing and standards may not cultivate the learners we want. Daniel Pink captured their work in his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us: "Goals that people set for themselves and that are devoted to attaining mastery are usually healthy. But goals imposed by others — sales targets, quarterly returns, standardized test scores, and so on — can sometimes have dangerous side effects." Others have found that such goals narrow focus, restrict views of what is possible, and even cause unethical behavior, such as the rash of testing scandals here and abroad.

By contrast, Finnish schools have many traits we'd like to see: achievement is consistently high, students are self-motivated and engaged in their learning, schools have wide latitude to decide on their own programs, and there are no intrusive sanctions. And students do not experience "mind-numbing" standardized tests. Instead, broad and loose federal standards guide local schools, and local professionals enjoy lots of discretion.

As our teachers and school officials try to meet the mandates of NCLB and Race to the Top programs, our children are being denied the inquiry and problem solving they crave. Our challenge as we go through the process to rewrite NCLB is to move to a model where we unleash curiosity, drive for excellence, and creative potential and generate a love of learning in our students and staff members.

School board members share the urgent sense that each and every child, no matter their circumstances, must have the opportunity to excel. We know we must ensure high quality experiences so that each child evolves fully. Only then will America continue to lead the world in innovative and creative solutions to the world's problems.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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