10/06/2014 01:41 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2016

How to Improve Literacy and Numeracy Skills (and Scores if You Care About Such Things)

The most important thing I've learned from my 10 years of classroom experience, six years of literacy leadership, four years of parenting, and two years of graduate work in Curriculum Studies and Teacher Development is this: children are not widgets; they are unique, full-fledged human beings, deserving of real respect for who they are, where they're from, and what they know. This fact should underpin all education policies and practices at all stages.

Yet in the relentless pursuit of accountability and rigor, we continue to misunderstand what makes complex educational environments healthy, what standardized literacy and numeracy curricula and testing actually measure, and how to actually improve skills.

The only way to improve data-driven scores en masse is to use public policy to address the main cause of low test scores: poverty. The only way to improve them in a given school is to teach to the test.

Skills, on the other hand, can only be improved in individuals, and the only way to do this is to use a recursive loop of assessment and teaching tailored to individual students' needs and interests, and to promote the reading and writing processes and thoughtful reflection. To improve skills (and scores, for that matter, if you care about them -- and no, skills and scores are not 1.0 correlated) we must stop trifling with policy and instead cede control of curriculum and professional development to teams of teachers who are given time to collaborate on questions relevant in their local contexts. The results: more instructional time spent on real skill development through inquiry-based learning, more 'authentic' teacher-student discourse, and more holistic human flourishing in the classroom and beyond.

The intensely political nature of public education leads governments to reach for that which they say is objectively and quantitatively measurable by standardizing curricula, enforcing with top-down professional development, and measuring with tests. Politicians and consultants with no classroom experience control school boards who control teachers who control kids who grow up trying to recover from boredom and the consequences of spending much of their childhood disengaged and anxious in school as they turn and turn in the widening gyre. Many escape just fine, but far too many don't.

Public education has always been, and may always be seen to be in a state of crisis. Questions of what should be taught, assessed, and evaluated, how teachers should teach, assess, and evaluate, and how money gets used will never go away. Given this truth, one can understand governments' impulses to quantify and measure returns on their investments.

There's so much money and power to be lost and gained on education; how could they possibly leave something so important to chance, or leave things in the hands of people with so little social, political, and economic clout? How could they be expected to cough up precious tax dollars for the nation's teachers to just creatively read and respond to the needs of their individual kids, classrooms, and communities? The thing is, doing just that is not the reckless leap of faith you might think, because teacher collaboration works, and it's the only thing that makes teachers deemed to be less effective more effective (and, no, teacher effectiveness cannot be measured by standardized test scores).

This may be hard to accept, but education done well is essentially ungovernable. Sure, the political allure of being able to claim that you're cracking down on bad teaching or improving literacy and numeracy is tantalizing, but the only way to improve teaching and to improve achievement is to build collaborative time into school operations, and then, as my older daughter would advise (at the top of her lungs) let it go. Instant gains in literacy and numeracy are merely functions of gaming the system and teaching to the test. I know.

My job has required me to do so for years. People with experience know that standardized tests merely measure socioeconomic status, culturally-specific knowledge, fluency in English, and knowledge of how to beat the test; people without experience cry havoc for more accountability in teaching and more rigor in the curriculum.

Ceding control of curriculum and professional development to educators isn't an example of leaving anything to chance. I'm not saying individual teachers should always be able to do what they want. I'm saying that when teachers in a particular school collaboratively design curriculum, and involve students in the process, expectations are appropriately responsive, and usually elevated.

The pitch for standardized curricula focuses on the idea that with common core standards, all kids will graduate from high school 'college-ready.' The notion that there is a single form of college-readiness, one based on shared cultural knowledge, misconstrues the idea of college, where inspiration, creativity, and critical engagement facilitate success more than anything else. In schools, responsive curriculum and pedagogy + teacher-led PD + investment in staff morale = higher literacy and numeracy scores. We can wish as hard as we'd like that other formulas might work -- for example, inadequate funding + denigrating teachers + enforcement -- but they never do.

The real way to improve education 'outcomes' broadly is by addressing other public policy issues. That is, schools can only do so much. This is explained eloquently in the Harvard Educational Review by recently deceased scholar Jean Anyon:

"Job, wage, housing, tax, and transportation policies maintain minority poverty in urban neighborhoods, and thereby create environments that overwhelm the potential of educational policy to create systemic, sustained improvements in the schools.

We need not only better schools, but also the reform of these public policies. Policies to eliminate poverty-wage work and housing segregation (for example) should be part of the education policy panoply as well, for these have consequences for urban education at least as profound as curriculum, pedagogy, and testing."

Put somewhat more provocatively, in discussions of how to improve education, 'schools' can be essentially a red herring, except where curriculum and professional development are concerned. There is such a thing as effective teaching, of course -- and it should be promoted -- but top-down professional development presumes there's such a thing as 'best practices' in education. I tell my student teachers that effective teaching is a combination of building an extensive pedagogical repertoire, deep subject knowledge, compassion, and an ability and willingness to respond to need. Since needs change, best practices can't exist; everything in education is local, relational, and contextual.

One-size-fits-all 'best practice' PD is routinely tuned out because it seldom comes from people with one hour of experience, let alone ten thousand, and because what works in school A in jurisdiction X seldom works in school B in jurisdiction Y. Not one educational administrator anywhere would disagree with the assertion that effective teaching and learning are always fluid and responsive to need. So why have ministries of education and school boards done their best to turn Principals (short for Principal Teacher) into site-managers and required them to implement edicts and initiatives from 'on high' when they, too, live the frustration and futility of standardization and high-stakes testing? We need to get our heads out of the stratosphere and back to reality, where school board technology seldom works, where every school needs a full-time social worker, where teachers need more autonomy to engage their students, and where real kids have real needs that cheerleading and rhetoric can never address.

Finland, renowned globally as the world's best education system, has no teacher evaluation process and no standardized curricula or tests. Finland hires great teachers, supports them, and lets them work (collaboratively with each other and their students). Why are we not emulating this eminently logical and deeply effective system? Pasi Sahlberg, preeminent Finnish education scholar, offers this: "How do we evaluate our teachers? We never speak of this. It is irrelevant in our country. Instead, we discuss how we can help them."

Schools that function properly welcome and cultivate curiosity and awe. Because kids care and are looking to be engaged, schools in which teachers have the freedom to teach a balance of what they think their kids need to know and what the kids say they want to know will necessarily involve less struggle and frustration for kids and teachers, and could therefore have a lasting and significant impact on crime, public health, the economy, and many social and environmental problems. The only reason a recent study showed teens rank achievement as being more important than caring is that when presented with this false dichotomy, they went with what they're told is most important.

So, addressing poverty, prioritizing students' needs over common core standards, and consulting teachers on how education dollars should be invested is a 'no brainer.' The reason teachers need control over curriculum and professional development is that they know best -- they direct and think about classrooms, and people, every single day. They know the social costs of disengaged, resistant students who learn to loathe learning (or, at least, schooling). To kids, school is essentially the world, and school 'sucks.'

What I'm advocating is not an expensive dream -- on the contrary. If teachers had more of a say in how both individual schools and education systems ran, schools would be more cost-efficient. Above and beyond cost-efficiency, education may even cost less in absolute terms, and finite government money could be spent as necessary on other essential issues like public housing, health care, and the protection of the environment. Teachers know what investments make differences for kids. Again: put a full-time social worker in every school, and trim the bureaucratic fat and standardization secretariats.

Times have changed, and now, skills only flow from engagement. Nothing is more alienating to kids in the classroom than bludgeoned, beleaguered teachers forcing standardized curricula. Einstein is believed to have said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. And instead of trying a new philosophy of curriculum and teacher development, we continue to let those with no classroom experience bean-count kids and what they know, thinking the counting means something.

For what I'm proposing to work, we would need to be willing to a) trust teachers, b) care about kids, c) listen to women, d) resist systematic and indiscriminate incorporation of private interests, e) be willing to de-fund certain things and re-fund others, and f) care about poor people.

More "accountability and rigor" are not the answer. If we want reading, writing, and arithmetic skills to improve, we must let teachers teach the human beings in front of them. We'll stop feeling the need to fake gains in student success and actually realize them.

Follow me on Twitter: @MishaAbarbanel