With the adoption of programs like George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama’s Race to the Top, national education policy has continued to be a hotly contested topic in recent years.
Vassar Education Professor Chris Bjork and Ford Scholar Kyle DeAngelis ’15, are studying these policies in preparation of developing a senior seminar on corporate education reform, which Bjork will teach this upcoming spring semester within the Education Department.
Current trends in national education programs favor the utilization of the corporatization of education which encourages policies that treat the public education system much like a business. At the heart of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are two central ideals: 1) The generation of more competition through the creation of charter schools and 2) The implementation of standardized testing as a primary tool to measure the effectiveness of teachers.
Both Bjork’s and DeAngelis’ interests in the topic of educational reform stem from first-hand observations and experiences with the current policies in the United States.
For Bjork, the pressure placed on teachers to prepare students for standardized testing became evident through both his interactions with Vassar student teachers placed in local schools and through his own experiences as a parent.
“My own children attend high school in Poughkeepsie, and I’ve seen how the curriculum has become narrower, and the amount of instructional time dedicated to testing has increased,” he explained.
As a work-study student at Wimpfheimer Nursery School and a VAST volunteer at Poughkeepsie Middle School, DeAngelis became interested in education reform upon seeing the vast inequalities that could develop within the system.
“I saw how American education system is characterized by deep and pervasive inequalities, as children born into privilege have access to virtually unlimited opportunities, where children just a few blocks away born lacking these same privileges are shut out from these same opportunities. It was an incredibly formative experience.” DeAngelis said.
He went on to elaborate about the inequalities he has observed during his time working within the American education system. “America’s education system is characterized by severe inequalities that disproportionately affect Black and Latino students, children of immigrants, ESL students and poor students.”
Achievement gaps like these are one of the main reasons why policies like No Child Left Behind were initially adopted. Politicians affirmed that increased pressure from frequent standardized testing with higher score targets for reading and math would benefit struggling students. However, according to Bjork, these policies have remained relatively ineffective in decreasing inequality in the system.
“In my experience, children who live in economically-challenged neighborhoods benefit from a rich curriculum that encourages their active engagement in learning—not more test preparation,” he said.
In addition, high-stakes standardized testing distorts the education system to focus on only tested subjects, leading to a narrowing of the curriculum, according to Bjork. “Schools have reduced instructional time for areas such as the arts, social studies, P.E. and recess. Non-tested subjects like these are especially neglected in economically challenged neighborhoods, only serving to exacerbate the inequalities already present.”
“Non-tested subjects, especially the arts, receive a disproportionately small amount of time, attention and respect in the age of the test. This is true even for wealthy districts, but… it disproportionately affects students from under-served communities,” said DeAngelis.
Because of the inherent ties between socioeconomic inequality and educational inequality, DeAngelis believes that both must be addressed in tandem for a successful national educational policy.
“Any attempt to improve schools must be combined with a robust anti-poverty agenda, focusing especially on child poverty, which in this country has reached 22 percent—an obscenity for this country. Many reformers today argue that we can improve schools without addressing poverty, but this is a complete cop out; there is no reason we can’t address both problems at the same time,” DeAngelis stated.
In addition, DeAngelis believes that teaching, as a profession, needs to become more respected and prestigious. In order to make it so, higher pay and more rigorous training, with more collaboration between colleagues, between beginning teachers and more experienced ones, must become the norm.
DeAngelis looks at Finland as a primary example of these policies.
“Finland has been pointed to as a place that has been quite successful making meaningful, long-term improvements to its educational system. Teaching in Finland is a very exclusive and prestigious profession, and it is incredibly difficult to get into a teachers college,” he said.
However, DeAngelis does not believe emulating the Finnish system would work in the United States. “There is some debate on how easy it would be to import Finnish education policies to the U.S.,” said DeAngelis. “After all, Finland is a country with a massive welfare state and homogeneous population that is roughly equivalent to the population of Minnesota. You don’t get much more different than the U.S. than that. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make some meaningful changes here today.”
Bjork, meanwhile, has been comparing US educational reform policies with policies adopted in Asian countries in preparation of writing a book.
He looks to countries such as Japan, whose educational systems focus on holistic development at earlier levels of education, instead of relying on testing for motivation and evaluation.
“My research suggests that Japanese students do so well on international achievement tests because of the strong foundation they receive at the lower levels of the system… Japanese elementary students learn challenging concepts through child-centered, multi-sensory activities,” Bjork said.
However, in his upcoming seminar, Bjork aims to encourage his students to keep open minds when developing their own opinions about educational policy and reform.
“It’s easy to make an ideological argument based on general impressions of schools or your own personal experience. I hope to help students develop a deeper understanding of the ways schools are organized and students learn,” Bjork said. DeAngelis agreed, stating, “I think it will be better for the students in the seminar to form their own opinions. It is better for them to learn how to rebut arguments by becoming familiar with them, rather than being exposed exclusively to one side of the debate.”
Bjork added, “The course will examine the gradual evolution of market-driven solutions to educational problems in the U.S. We will start by examining the logic that drove the A Nation at Risk Report, and trace the evolution of that line of thinking up to the present day.”
Whatever conclusions students reach in the seminar, both Bjork and DeAngelis encourage not only a critical evaluation of the education system, but also an active effort to voice protests to problematic policies and to inspire innovative solutions.
As a future teacher, DeAngelis is especially conscious of the problems facing the US school system as he enters the workforce, but remains motivated.
“While there is clearly much work to be done, I am committed to working towards solutions that work for all students. Success in teaching, I think, depends on the right mix of idealism and cynicism, and I think that my time at Vassar has allowed me to develop both to an ideal balance of both.” he said.