09/04/2014 09:09 am ET Updated Nov 04, 2014

The Education Reform Movement Is Failing Our Kids

When my kids were growing up, parents seemed to fall into two groups regarding grades. There were the bribers/punishers (Fancy Nancy word: positive/negative reinforcement) who rewarded their children for good grades or disciplined them for poor grades. The other group was the intrinsic motivators who urged their children to do their best but also follow their passions. I was in the latter group. Maybe "learn for the sake of knowing more about the things that interest you" did not lead to the highest paying jobs. But I always believed that motivation came from within rather than from external bribes and punishments.

Maybe that's why I'm hoping the reform movement that has left our teachers and schools in the grip of the educational/industrial complex for over 10 years is starting to peter out. I'm waiting for another turn of the wheel in the cycle of trends in education.

Our current carrot and stick approach to education totally misses the point. Parents can give kids $5 for every A and ground them for every D, but this approach encourages cheating and grade grubbing, not learning. As every parent knows, positive reinforcement (bribes) may sometimes work. Punishment, especially if it is not a natural consequence, rarely changes behavior.

Take the example of what has happened at Stephen F. Gale Math and Science Academy, a school in the Chicago Public School system (CPS). Last December, Gale Academy was punished with probation and a "Far Below Average" rating.

How much further down could the Gale Academy scores go? An update published by Great Schools on May 7, 2014, gave Gale a test score rating of 1 out of 10 and a student growth rate score of 6 out of 10. Overall, the school was rated 4 out of 10. Third grade scores in reading for 2013 were 33 percent (state average was 59 percent) and in math they were 20 percent (state average was 55 percent). While the principal and school community had worked hard to improve Gale, the children's scores on standardized tests remained low.

But let's look at a different set of numbers that may shed some light on why punishment and probation failed to improve things. Here are some statistics about Gale Academy:

  • 97 percent of the students come from low-income families.
  • 25 percent of the students have limited English.
  • The school has a 50 percent mobility rate, which means that half the students either move in or out during the school year.
  • Many parents do not speak English and are illiterate.
  • 18 percent of the students need special education services.
  • 15-20 percent of the students are homeless.

Better yet, let's look at a story that reflects life for the children who attend Gale Academy. On April 15, 2014 16-year-old Keno Glass was killed in a drive-by shooting near Gale. Like far too many kids in Chicago, he was caught up in the gang violence that killed two young people and wounded nine others over the past few months in that neighborhood. His 14-year-old brother declared, "He was innocent. All he did is rap." Do you think that younger sibling will care how well he scores on standardized tests?

To make the situation at Gale Academy even more poignant, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel justified closing 50 public schools last year by promising resources could be allocated to improving education at those that remained open. But Gale now faces a funding cut, mostly due to declining enrollment. Can you blame families for not wanting to send their kids to a dilapidated facility that earns a 1 rating for test scores?

Recently, I have been seeing more and more posts expressing disillusionment with the road we have traveled from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top and the Common Core. Educators and parents are wondering if the billions of dollars that have gone to fund the private companies that create and process all of the tests might have done more good if they went directly to the schools and communities they serve. Perhaps smaller classes, adequate school supplies, improved school infrastructures, better training programs for teachers, and more efforts to help children in poverty would be a better way to go. Perhaps there are not enough rewards and punishments to make up for the violence and poverty that deprive kids of the internal motivation needed to succeed at school.

There's an old saying, "What goes around comes around." One meaning of that is that most things come back to their original value after completing some sort of a cycle. This is certainly true in education. All of the trends I've seen in my lifetime have done little to address the achievement gap between the haves and have-nots.

  • New math of the 1960s? Replaced by a more conventional approach in the 1970s, followed by a new version of new math in the 1980s and a newer new version as part of Common Core.
  • Teaching reading by learning sight words gave way to a phonics-only approach, only to come back to a combination of both.
  • Reading classic literature fell out of favor in the 1970s when "relevance" ruled, only to return with the notion that some of these works are essential to being an educated person.
  • Spelling? In, out, invented, essential, spell-check -- not sure where we stand on that one.

We may never go back to open classrooms, immersion in the arts, and curriculum totally driven by the interests of students. But I am hopeful that the creative spirit of that phase of education will creep back into our schools. It's time to switch from the reward/punish model and find our way back to becoming motivators of education as a vehicle for joy in learning. The kids at Gale Learning Academy are waiting.

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An earlier version of this post appeared in ChicagoNow on February 3, 2014.