09/20/2013 03:33 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

The Drownings Will Continue Until Test Scores Improve

"We can't wait... We have to just jump into the deep end."

The quote above was delivered by the head of the Regents, the most powerful governing body regarding educational policy in New York State. (No surprise in a state whose governor recently said, "There has to be a death penalty for failing schools...")

The Chancellor's remark was made at a Brooklyn school, one of several schools that city and state education officials visited to express support for the new tests, tests based on the Common Core, despite strenuous objections from educators throughout the state that the students and the teachers did not have enough time to metabolize this new curriculum. The tests results, as predicted even by state education officials, reflected a dramatic decrease from the previous year's scores -- from 65% to 31% in math proficiency and from 55% to 31% in English Language Arts proficiency.

The image of kids flopping around the deep end of a pool to help with their academic achievement reminds me of the oft-repeated quip I heard when I was a school principal: "The beatings will continue until morale improves." This was a reminder -- to any of us who thought that beating up on people would lead to an improved school culture -- that we were sorely out of touch. In fact, those who study culture and motivation know that the quickest way to defeat individual or group goals is to make things uncertain, scary and threatening. I guess the chancellor and the governor have been too busy fueling the testing juggernaut to catch up on their reading. If they would stop their obsession with numeric accountability for a bit, they might become aware that there have been thoughtful studies examining issues of motivation for decades. I have a few suggestions for them to consider.

Read the monograph, "Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform," by Michael Fullan (arguably the world's foremost thinker on educational change) to understand how wrong-headed the standardized testing plan is from an organizational standpoint. One of Fullan's four main 'wrong drivers' is using test results... to reward or punish teachers and schools. Or, I recommend a review of the work of Edward Deci (the co-author of the widely influential self-determination theory) on self-regulation, self-motivation and healthy psychological development where we learn that, "One who is interested in developing and enhancing intrinsic motivation in children, employees, students, etc., should not concentrate on external control systems... " Or, if we really want a deep dive, I suggest a familiarity with the zone of proximal development introduced by Lev Vygotsky (a seminal thinker born at the turn of the century who studied social, cultural and societal contexts in relation to children). The ZPD, as it is commonly known, is where we find activities that children can accomplish with the assistance of sensitive adults or more capable peers. Vygotsky called traditional testing a measure of "fossilized" knowledge, rather than the truer, dynamic nature of cognition.

I would also suggest a deeper reflection on our own personal experiences with children's development. I wonder if those who make and enforce policy can relate to the experience I had with one of my children.

When my younger son was learning to swim, we took him to a local swim instructor who had a pool in his backyard. For some reason, my wife and I were not up to our usual due diligence when checking out this instructor. Right from the start I thought something was amiss because he discouraged parents from watching. I stayed anyway. Over the course of the first few lessons I was not particularly pleased to see the way the instructor demanded skills from the youngsters. I told myself that it was my over-protective side and I let things slide. Then it came time for a demonstration class, where the students had to perform for their parents -- in the deep end. When my son's turn came he was petrified and starting sinking instead of swimming. To my horror, the instructor let him go down. I rushed over to the side of the pool and pulled a crying, humiliated 4-year-old out of the water. As I made my way out of the pool area I could hear the instructor say to everyone else: "See, this is why I discourage parents from attending lessons."

Fast-forward to the next swimming season and we take a different tack. This time, we go for someone we've heard is gentle, coaxing and in physical proximity at all times to the tiny new swimmers. At first I watched these lessons with some apprehension. Was the damage already done? Would my son be afraid of the water? Would he ever learn to swim? Miraculously, within a short time, he regained confidence, started using all kinds of arm and body movements to propel him across the water and most surprisingly of all, was not afraid to hold his breath and dive deep to the bottom of the pool. Today, a grown man, my son swims like a fish and enjoys every minute of it.

Those who make policy need to immerse themselves -- dare I say in the deep end -- of the literature on motivation, particularly as it relates to learner self-concept. I would also suggest they remember those personal experiences when they have seen children flourish, reflecting on the conditions present at the time. Right now, their shallow approach -- based on draconian test score mandates accompanied by bizarre notions of motivation -- is out of touch with the reality of sustained and meaningful growth for children.

Note to policymakers: If you do decide to take the plunge, i.e., do the in-depth research and reflection that is called for before making decisions (or comments, for that matter), don't worry. If you start to go under, we'll be there for you.


Laura E. Berk and Adam Winsler. Scaffolding Children's Learning: Vygotsky and Early Childhood Education. National Associaton for the Education of Young Children, 1995

Edward L. Deci, Richard Koestner, and Richard M. Ryan. Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education: Reconsidered Once Again. Review of Educational Research, Spring 2001

Michael Fullan. Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform. Paper No. 204, Centre for Strategic Education, 2011