I finished reading “Whatever it Takes” and I found it truly fascinating because it challenged a lot of my thoughts on the education system. It’s hard to argue that the Promise Academy isn’t a wonderful thing: it’s educating children in poverty and helping them get into college by staying on grade level. However, Canada’s primary measurement of success is entirely based on standardized testing. Kids are drilled for the test. There are early morning classes and afterschool classes and even Saturday classes all aimed at further test prep. The book talks about how test prep during the school day started to squeeze out time meant for things like the arts and projects and physical activities and the biggest supporter of these programs, the first middle school principal, Terri Grey, was eventually fired because her priorities didn’t align with preparing students for the test.
This method of schooling goes against pretty much everything I’ve come to believe about education. I think assessment is important – this is how we get feedback and measure progress – but, the traditional methods of school assessment, such as grades and standardized tests, are no longer measuring the right outcomes of schooling. To truly be prepared for college and beyond in today’s world, a student needs more than the ability to memorize information and control anxiety and focus long enough to take a four-hour long test. Students need to be critical and creative thinkers that know how to solve complex problems on diverse teams. They need to know how to network, present, research, listen, empathize, and take agency just as a start. These skills are not measured on standardized tests, so if you only teach to the test, how do you develop all of these other skills? I don’t think it’s possible. As Grey hinted at, these are two very different education paradigms that would be paradoxical to co-exist.
Sure, soft skills were mentioned from time to time in “Whatever it Takes.” It seemed certain teachers tried to incorporate soft skills in their classroom, but these were often minor lessons about being polite and talking and listening in a professional manner, and these are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of important soft skills to know. There was no mention of collaboration or giving presentations or complex problem-solving or anything to that caliber.
Now I understand that, as a new charter school, Promise Academy had a duty to perform. They had to do well on standardized tests in order for the city to let them continue with their charter. Furthermore, while I don’t think standardized tests should be the ultimate measurement of success, I can’t deny that they do help measure basic knowledge (ignoring the elements of test anxiety and being distracted, etc). For the students in Harlem attending Promise Academy’s Middle School, the vast majority were below grade level. I can understand how it might be hard to think beyond, “We need these kids at grade level on these tests,” and going into testing bootcamp mode is one solution to this problem. It’s hard to spend time on projects and developing soft skills when there is the hugely apparent obstacle of kids lacking basic math and reading skills. I can empathize with this train of thinking, but I can’t accept that teaching to the test is the best method for preparing students for college and beyond even for kids who have “fallen behind.” But I also can’t deny that Canada was successful. His methods got underperforming kids up to standard and even off to college.
That in itself is still pretty remarkable and that’s exactly why this book has been challenging for me to read. It’s made me wonder: how can a school that to me is focusing on all the wrong things, also be doing so much good? And while struggling with this question for past few days, I think I’ve finally come to an answer: it’s because traditional schooling is not inherently bad. Traditional schools can still help kids learn, be a safe environment, be supportive, help kids get to college and be a place alum are proud to come home to. Traditional schooling isn’t all bad, it’s just that it needs an update – the core principals of our education system haven’t changed in the past century since it’s founding, but we live in a very different world now.
Our world requires more of employees now, like the soft skills previously mentioned. We’ve learned that our students can do more now, like contribute on community projects no matter how young they are. Our colleges expect more now, like participation in the arts, extra projects, and sports. “Whatever it takes” has made me realize that most of the time when I’ve thought about learner-centered education, I’ve a – mostly been discussing high school students, and b – not given a lot of thought to educating underperforming students. But most of all, this book has reminded me why it can be so hard to convince skeptics of learner-centered education; it’s because some traditional schools are in fact doing good for society, but the thing is, now it’s time to be doing even more.