Steve Nelson Believes America’s Obsession with School Policy Based on Standardized Tests Is All Wrong

Steve Nelson is the former Head of School at the private, progressive Calhoun School in Manhattan, but he has also spoken passionately about the danger of current trends in public school policy.  I recommend his book, First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk, and I also enjoy his new blog, where, last week, he warned against the problems in federally mandated standardized testing—a big issue right now as education advocates are urging the new U.S. Secretary of Education to grant states waivers to cancel federally mandated standardized testing in this COVID-19 school year.

Where did our fixation and obsession with standardized testing come from? Nelson weighs in: “Education reformers and so-called policy ‘experts’ are constantly collecting and analyzing data.  Many of these experts are, not surprisingly, economists. It’s not for nothing that economics is sometimes called ‘the dismal science.’ The hostile takeover of education by non-educators is filled with intelligent sounding phrases: ‘evidence-based,’ ‘data-driven,’ ‘metrics and accountability.’ At every level of schooling, mountains of data are collected to inform ‘best practices’ based on the alleged cause and effect implications of data-based instruction and the feedback gleaned from tests.”

Today’s accountability-based school reform is, writes Nelson, “an increasingly rigid, closed loop of assessment… systematically making schools worse: Define things children should know or be able to do at a certain age; design a curriculum to instruct them in what you’ve decided they should know; set benchmarks; develop tests to see if they have learned what you initially defined; rinse and repeat.”

Nelson calls this sort of teaching “direct instruction,” and he describes the direct but fading results: “‘Direct instruction’ does increase scores on the tests the instruction is aimed toward, even with very young children. This self-fulfilling prophecy is not surprising. But multiple studies also show that the gains in performance are fleeting—they completely wash out after 1-3 years when compared to children who have had no direction instruction.”

What kind of education does Nelson believe is consistent with normal child development?  “If we measured the right things (social development, curiosity, empathy, imagination and confidence), we would engage in a whole different set of education behaviors (play, socialization, arts programs, open-ended discovery).”

“After nearly 20 years of reading, observing, teaching and presiding over a school, I’m convinced that this simple statement—‘Measure the wrong things and you’ll get the wrong behaviors’—is the root of what ails education, from cradle to grave. Measuring the wrong thing (standardized scores of 4th graders) drives the wrong behaviors (lots of test prep and dull direct instruction). In later school years, measuring the wrong thing (SAT and other standardized test scores, grade point averages, class rank) continues to invite the wrong behaviors (gaming the system, too much unnecessary homework, suppression of curiosity, risk-aversion, high stress).

Last year, Betsy DeVos cancelled the federally mandated standardized tests in the midst of COVID-19. I think it is safe to say that Steve Nelson would tell Miguel Cardona that we can safely allow states to cancel the tests again this spring as COVID-19 continues to disrupt our schools and our children’s lives.

In Fine, New Book, Steve Nelson Urges New Education Path that Is Less Dangerous for Children

Steve Nelson’s new book, First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk, is refreshing in the author’s declaration of privilege as he applies all that he has learned in nineteen years as Head of the Calhoun School, a private, progressive school in New York City to an analysis of what’s gone wrong in public school reform over the same period.

Nelson begins: “I am mindful of the position from which I write. Those of us in independent schools enjoy great privilege. This privilege allows us to draw our students into deeply satisfying and thoughtful lives. But we must recognize that these experiences should not be limited to only those children who are wealthy and/or lucky enough to enroll in our schools. Non-sectarian private schools enroll only about 6% of America’s children. So what about the other millions of children? Do we who carry privilege also bear responsibility? I think so.” (p.5)

This is a refreshing and deeply grounded book for these times when so many of our long-held values about education are being tested.

Nelson isn’t utopian; he doesn’t imagine that all public schools could possibly afford to indulge children in classes of 15 students where teachers personally appreciate each student’s learning style and developmental level, but he does believe the constructs of progressive education are a far better way to organize schools than the test-and-punish system that came with No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Every Student Succeeds Act.

A good teacher, Nelson summarizes the history of progressive education from Socrates and Aristotle through Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, A.S. Neill, Rudolph Steiner, John Dewey, Francis Parker, Felix Adler, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, and Howard Gardner.  He also explores the neurobiological and psychological research supporting progressive education.

What is Nelson’s definition of the kind of education he’d like to see for more American children in their public schools? “While the distinctions between progressive education and conventional education are not always stark, it is reasonable to differentiate between ‘education and training,’ between ‘learning and being taught,’ and between ‘discovery and instruction.’ Conventional schools tend toward training and instruction, while progressive schools insist on learning and discovery. Perhaps the most powerful and misunderstood facet of progressive education is the notion of democracy. Progressive schools see themselves and their students as inextricably connected to the society in which they operate. The problems and fascinations of the world around them are the problems and fascinations they examine.” (p.11) He adds: “Education should cultivate the capacity to recognize and create beauty. School is a place where empathy and compassion should be honored and developed. The flames of curiosity should be fanned, not smothered. Skepticism should be sharply honed.” (p. 48)

Nelson’s critique is biting. Writing at the end of the Arne Duncan era, when mega philanthropy collaborated actively with government to drive “corporate reform,” Nelson comments: “In short, business leaders and free market economic principles have gained increasing control over education. Education has become highly dependent on philanthropy, as public funding has declined.  Philanthropists didn’t make their fortunes as violinists, so they bring their business perspectives to bear on the institutions they support. As the old saying goes, ‘If your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail.’  Today’s economist-driven version of education reform is the hammer that mistakes America’s children, particularly the poorest kids of color, as nails to pound.”

Nelson considers just how A Nation at Risk misunderstood our educational challenges; how testing and the intense pressure of high stakes works in children’s brains to undermine memory; how children who are drilled never learn to question and inquire; how the no-excuses charter schools enforce compliance and destroy curiosity; how scripted learning aimed at test scores hurts children and makes it impossible for good teachers to do what they know best; and how our notion of IQ which focuses on linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence is insufficient and leaves out the seven other domains identified by Howard Gardner. And we learn why schools need to nurture these other domains through the arts and physical activity—the classes schools are cutting these days as test prep takes more and more time.

Nelson’s strength is his experience—nearly twenty years in his most recent position alone—working with children and adolescents at school. As he defends the needs of public schools that serve the mass of our children and emphasizes the need for reallocating our society’s resources, his focus is on what money can do inside a school to free the teachers to teach and create space for children to explore.  He doesn’t cover what he doesn’t know—meeting the children’s needs in a school where all the students qualify for free lunch, for example—assembling the resources and expertise for a quality English language program for immigrant children—finding the resources to serve severely disabled students.

Nelson style is fresh and engaging.  He is not ideological despite his strong belief in progressive schooling. He nudges schools and policy makers to move in a progressive direction. And while a lot of books about progressive education are dated, this one is very much up to date—exploring progressive education theory in the context of the destructive pressure of  “corporate reform” accountability.

While the book was written in the last year of so of the Obama Department of Education, it speaks clearly to the problems we are likely face in a Trump administration with Betsy DeVos as education secretary. As the Head of an exclusive New York City private school, Nelson knows precisely why the kind of school choice being promoted by Trump and DeVos won’t work: “The private schools where privileged parents send their kids are expensive and highly selective. I know. I’m the Head of one of them. Calhoun’s tuition is an embarrassing $48,000 per year—about average for Manhattan private schools. Poor families in New York City don’t have the ‘choice’ to attend Calhoun or any of the other private schools. At Calhoun we offer a great deal of tuition assistance so that our students are not all from wealthy families, but the glib come-on in support of privatization is inaccurate and dishonest. Try taking a $5,000 to $7,000 voucher to a place like Sidwell Friends, where the Obamas sent their daughters. Sidwell’s tuition is also about $40.000.” (p. 112-113)