I love and believe in public education. As a school superintendent, I am fortunate to work with children, parents, teachers, administrators, staff and community members.
Unfortunately, public education is under assault -- by an overemphasis on testing students and the "command and control" mentality of the state Education Department and the U.S. Department of Education -- and we are on a road that will lead to a hard crash. That's because the departments are paving the road just as we drive on it. We have no say about the road conditions, how fast we must move or what our destination is.
When we do crash, what will happen to our children?
In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education crafted a report titled "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform" at the behest of the federal government. As I read it recently, I asked myself: If our nation was at risk years ago, are we in a better place now? To my surprise, when I finished and compared the report's recommendations to our reality in New York and the United States, they seem like a better alternative.
I found these items absent from that report:
Test children into oblivion.
Use children's test results to grade and assess teachers and principals.
Do not trust anyone at the local level.
Ensure government has significant influence over teacher accountability systems and assessments. It should decide what is best for children.
Guarantee corporations will make billions of dollars in the age of compliance and testing.
The recommendations by the commission -- which included college and university presidents and other education experts -- were meant for us to consider and possibly act on in an effort to make education more effective. I found the following report recommendations enlightening:
Focus on scholarly literature and on the quality of learning and teaching. Best practices dictate that teachers need time to collaborate with each other and students need to be inspired by their teachers and encouraged to take risks. That's almost impossible in this climate.
Examine, compare and contrast curricula, standards and expectations of several advanced countries. The federal and state education departments did not listen to this recommendation. If you look at top-performing countries, you won't find an overreliance on standardizing and testing. They don't reduce people by ranking and sorting. They have curricula focused on critical thinking, problem solving and project-based learning.
Hold hearings to receive testimony and expert advice to foster higher levels of quality and academic excellence in schools, colleges and universities. I don't recall hearing any testimony from experts when the new standards or tests were developed. But I think billionaire businessman Bill Gates and publishing giant Pearson Education were contacted. In my opinion, big business prevailed.
Ironically, we can learn from "A Nation at Risk." As education historian Diane Ravitch wrote in her book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," the "Nation at Risk" report "did not refer to market-based competition and choice among schools; it did not suggest restructuring schools or school systems. It said nothing about closing schools, privatization or other heavy handed forms of accountability."
What's the alternative? We need to trust the local control of our schools. I believe in the capacity of our teachers and administrators individually and collectively. Our focus must be on districts collaborating, teachers taking risks in the classroom and principals focusing on building more meaningful accountability processes for teachers and staff members.
Most important, we need to allow children to thrive in places where a one-size-fits-all mindset doesn't exist. Then I believe we will be on our way to being "A Nation at Risk" no more.
Michael J. Hynes is superintendent of Patchogue-Medford schools.