The Constructive And Enduring Impact On Teaching And Learning

Jeff Palmer
8 min readJul 21, 2022

The fundamental premise of 21st Century curricula is the need for students to acquire new knowledge and skills that are essential for success in a globally competitive world. We cannot expect the assessment of these skills to be rigorous, complex, and consistent when the assessment of the adults responsible for teaching and leadership are weak, simplistic, and fragmented. There is a significant risk that educational policymakers have wasted the crisis, diverting economic stimulus funds to preserve the status quo rather than challenge it. The triumph of the urgent over the important is hardly a phenomenon unique to the United States, as resistance to assessment reform is remarkably common in democratic and authoritarian regimes around the world. Cheap and easy assessments are more seductive than those that are expensive and complex. Technology can be either our servant or master. It assumes the former role when we recognize both its power and limitations, and insist that everyone in the educational enterprise must not only work smarter but harder. Technology becomes our master, however, when the exaggerated claims of its advocates are exempt from critical analysis.

The blame game surrounding the gap between standards and assessment resembles a circular firing squad. Every participant’s aim might be perfect but no one is left standing at the end of the exercise. States blame the federal government for creating incentives for low proficiency thresholds; the federal government blames states and schools for failing to implement research-based programs with sufficient fidelity; administrators blame collective bargaining agreements that restrain their ability to require performance improvements; teachers blame disengaged students, inattentive parents, and feckless administrators. Everyone blames school boards, legislatures, Congress, testing companies, and lest I forget, writers, researchers, and academics who attempt to survey the damage from a safe distance. While there are many lessons to be learned from both the successes and failures of the past several years, one of the most striking and consistent is this: No child in any educational system will be more accountable than the adults — parents, teachers, administrators, and policymakers — who create the conditions that sustain or impede student learning.

Some state legislatures have been zealous in their support of punitive measures for students. There is, in brief, more enthusiasm for holding 7 year old children accountable than there is for holding adults accountable. Teachers are more likely to be struck by lightning than to be terminated for inadequate performance. It’s not quite as bad as all that; it’s worse. When teachers are held accountable for poor performance, it is most likely to occur in an environment when economically advantaged children are served, and least likely to occur in schools with economically disadvantaged students. Although there are many heroic and wonderful teachers who serve economically disadvantaged students, they are the exceptions that test the rule. Poor and minority students are significantly less likely to learn from a highly qualified teacher than are their advantaged Anglo counterparts.

While teacher assessments have received the lion’s share of the press, administrator assessments have been largely distinguished by their ambiguity and disassociation from student results. If there is an educational jurisdiction that conducts systematic assessment of policymakers, it has eluded my notice. In fact, elected board members, legislators, members of Congress, and parliamentarians are regularly forced with the choice of popularity or effectiveness. Because their turnover rate is approximately the same as the Politburo in the former Soviet Union, it is apparent that they regularly elevate the former over the latter. For example, each of the following policies will earn the acclaim and appreciation of voters in the long term, but are certain to elicit complaints in the short term:

- Rigorous and demanding curriculum and assessments. Every list of 21st century skills includes requirements for critical thinking, teamwork, effective communication, and problem-solving. But the more demanding the assessment, the more likely it is that students will need to practice, fail, and receive corrective feedback. This is the most effective method of learning new skills, but it is the least popular with parents and students.

- Tough consequences for poor student work (not the zero or failure, but intervention, re- teaching, and the requirement that students complete the assigned work).

- Limited choices for students — fewer electives and more demanding courses. Trustees of private schools routinely limit choices for students. They understand the paradox of choice — fewer choices in youth yield more choices for a lifetime; more numerous choices in youth, including the choice of failure and the path of least resistance, yield fewer choices for a lifetime. But the same logic is rarely applied to public education settings. Students are treated as customers whose every whim is to be satisfied and whose parents cast votes for school board members and legislators.

- Creating “mandatory opportunities” for post-secondary education. In most high schools, the best that state standards requirements have created is a demand for minimum competency. Many seniors expect their college acceptance letters or other post-secondary plans to be placed well in hand and to enjoy half-day requirements. This tradition of leisure ignores the reality that the majority of high school students are, in fact, ill- prepared for college, technical school, or the world of work after high school.

- Saving parents money and require college-level work from every high school student. While this requirement would seem to be a political goldmine — what voter would object to saving money? — reality diverges from common sense. The opposition to saving parents money is based on the premise that too many students go to college anyway and — this is the easy laugh line delivered by the Ivy League — that about 50% of American students are below average anyway. That Harvard is burdened with too many applications seems an inadequate premise on which to subject another generation of students to the underclass associated with an inadequate education.

Imagine that you report the results of your medical examination to two different physicians, both of whom are evaluating the same data. The first doctor delivers the bad news: Unless you make substantial changes to your diet and lifestyle, you will die a slow, lingering death well before you have the opportunity to see your grandchildren graduate from high school. The second passes you a plate of warm brownies and a martini, assuring you that your dissolute habits will, in the long term, be overcome by advances in medical science. Which doctor do you prefer?

Even with a lethal wake-up call, most people prefer to continue their present behavior rather than make significant behavioral changes. Educational policymakers are not immune from these trends. State and local educational leaders are not venal, but rational. If they tell the truth about the performance of their students, they risk losing money, votes, and political support. If, by contrast, they embrace the fantasy of universal success, they can — at least for the next election cycle — secure another round of power, popularity, and public funds. Here is the acid test for long-term educational policies: Name the candidate for local, state, or national office who will make the following statement:

According to our most recent assessment data, our students are ill-prepared to compete in the 21st Century global economy. This happened on my watch, and I accept full responsibility for the failure of our educational policies. The only solution to this challenge is a series of assessments on which only a tiny fraction of our children will succeed the first time they take it. This will be unpleasant but necessary news for every parent in my constituency. The good news is that our students will get better, and as they work harder and practice more, their performance will improve. The bad news is that hard work and practice is not popular either. More than 80% of parents have told their children how smart they are, leaving them with the impression that they are immune from the necessity of hard work. Nevertheless, I prefer to sacrifice my electoral position in service of the truth, and therefore I offer the following assessment data that shows how you — parents and voters — and your children must work harder, be more disciplined, and produce better results. I’m sure I can count on your support in the next election.

Are you having difficulty identifying the author of the previous election speech? So am I, because I have yet to hear it. If any educational system is to assess 21st Century skills, then it must first consider the question, “How will we react if we find out that our students and teachers are not very good at it?” If we expect students to learn 21st Century skills and if we expect teachers and administrators to facilitate that learning, then system leaders must have the political courage to state the obvious: students, teachers, and administrators must improve their performance.

Sir Thomas Gresham posited in his eponymous Law that “bad money drives out good.” If some money is pure gold and the other is tainted, then we will hoard the pure coins and flood the market with the tainted ones. There are even subtle, if ultimately destructive, rewards to bad currency — as it loses value, then eventually everyone is a millionaire, even when they recognize too late that such a designation is of little comfort if a loaf of bread costs a million units of currency. Gresham’s Law of Assessment, or the law that he might postulate if he were witness to the present educational scene, is that bad assessments drive out the good, because the bad ones are cheaper, easier, and in the short term, more appealing. Effective assessment practices are learned, not purchased. Effective assessments are complex and difficult, consuming time and resources from teachers and administrators.

If the evidence is that overwhelming, then why do educational systems pursue the facile rather than the substantive? These decisions are neither accidental nor the result of inadequate analysis. Nor is this uniquely a North American challenge. China, which has made exceptional progress in the past decade, increasing the number of major universities and expanding educational opportunity to poor rural students on a scale unimaginable in the 20th Century, continues to use an assessment system that is redolent of the Ming Dynasty. This imperial reign, which lasted from 1368 to 1644 A.D, has been credited with creating the first standardized tests for admission of commoners to the ranks of the Emperor’s civil servants and redefined the term “high stakes,” as students who failed the exam were known to have plunged to their deaths by jumping off the precipice of the palace. Today, as then, it is easier, cheaper and, except for the mess on the sidewalk outside the palace, more convenient to use a single standardized test to evaluate student skills. Writing, communication, analysis, collaboration, invention, self-management, creativity — all of these skills are profoundly more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to assess. Besides, they are too subjective, so why not just have a quick and cheap standardized test and be done with it? How educational leaders answer that question will determine the fate of 21st Century skills.

Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of https://Ebookschoice.com. Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.

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Jeff Palmer

Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of https://Ebookschoice.com.