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Our Creaky Architecture

by Jeff Bradley, Director of the Commission on International Education at NEASC


The College Board cancels dozens of test dates across the globe. In the US, tests by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the Nation’s Report Card”, are delayed until at least 2022. Nearly 1700 college admissions offices drop standardized testing requirements. Schools and colleges toss once strict grading rubrics in favor simple pass/fail grades. Counting “seat time” inside schools is sacrificed to keep students safe – and yet still learning.


Such bedrock elements of schooling as counting credits and testing have faced criticisms for generations. It took a global pandemic for some to crumble, or at least to stumble.

So let’s now ask ourselves, which of our once-unassailable features of schooling offer enough benefits to outweigh their drawbacks? Do they deserve to live on post-pandemic? Can we continue to tolerate the many unintended consequences of outdated systems?


Before deciding if some structures and systems have outlived their purpose, it helps to know, What was their original purpose? To be sure, much of today’s schooling architecture was erected in times and places facing vastly different conditions than we face today. It is high time to inspect this house of ours, to judge its ongoing suitability and habitability.


The College Entrance Examination Board – the “College Board” – grew out of the muddle of late 19th c. American education where individual colleges and universities issued separate admissions tests to applicants, and where the quality of high school preparation in America’s decentralized K-12 school system was uneven and unpredictable. College Board exams, so its creators argued, gave a standardized and fair opportunity to all applicants. Are they appropriate today?

These standardized, high-stakes exams faced a familiar controversy from the beginning. Nicholas Murray Butler was the first leader of what is known today as Teachers College at Columbia University, in New York City. In 1901 he assumed the presidency of Columbia University, and was also appointed Chairman of the College Board. In that same fateful year – 120 years ago – Butler revealed a worrying impact on “normal education” (and foretold the arrival of the test prep industry) now that high school ended with high-stakes admissions tests:

[S]ome schools bring in special coaches, or ‘crammers,’ in April or May of each year, who are supposed to be specially skilled in getting pupils ready to pass the tests prescribed by a given college. While this process is going on, normal education is, of course, suspended. (Fuess, 1950)

As the US entered WWI, the Army Alpha test was administered to 2 million recruits to help military officials to hire, rank, sort and assign its soldiers and staff. That early IQ test with its coolly calculated outputs led directly to the creation of the College Board’s first SAT exam in 1926. Standardized testing and the College Board grew in proportion to the rapidly expanding American middle class and college-bound population. Confidence in efficiently organizing people and institutions gradually embedded itself in the American mindset and landscape, crossing borders as American schooling spread abroad.


The so-called Carnegie Unit, a commonly-used tool reflecting seat-time in specific courses toward meeting a required minimum of units – or credits – started as a measuring stick not for learning in schools but for teaching in universities. Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie’s enormous donation to establish a fund for retired professors depended on a reliable standard of time since only full-time professors qualified – hence, teaching time became the standard measure. Soon that same standard migrated to high schools and to the other side of the classroom where the students sat. And sat. Most student transcripts in the US and in US-style high schools around the world still count seat-time – i.e., credits (usually 20-25 over a 4-year period in a distribution of subject areas). Starting in late March 2020, many seat-time counters simply looked the other way; learning online, like much of learning it turns out, is not well measured by screen time or even by time on task.

Single score ratings – think Grade Point Average (GPA) – arose from the early 20th century fixation with numerical rankings, mechanical efficiency, and the belief that ‘the purpose of schools was not to educate all students to the same level but to sort them, according to their innate level of talent,’ with weaker and stronger students all deviations from the all-important ‘average’ student. (Rose, 2016) Human beings are not linear creatures; nevertheless, linear measuring tools like the 100-point scale are well suited if schooling – and the larger culture beyond school – like the clean precision promised by averages and ranks. So alas, these over-simplifying tools still hold sway.

Today, this spotty inheritance from earlier generations of educators and bureaucrats groans under the weight of a global pandemic.


Generations of students and recent research suggest that many of our closely held beliefs and structures around schools may have outlived their usefulness.

Notably, Carnegie Foundation President Henry Suzzallo publicly recognized that their vaunted standards to measure learning were impaired, writing:

None recognizes more clearly than the Foundation that these standards have served their purpose… They should give place to more flexible, more individual, more exact and revealing standards of performance as rapidly as these may be achieved. (Tagg, 2019)

When did the President Suzzallo admit this? In 1934. Old habits die hard.


To confront old habits and structures that may have outlived their purposes is to bravely face the future. Here’s how we can start:

  1. Question our closely held assumptions, including those that powered our own (highly successful, above average!) personal educational journeys.

  2. Reflect on the world of today and what our non-linear students will face in the non-linear future 5, 10, 20, 30 years from now when they will have significant influence on local, national and global matters.

  3. Embrace pathways to “more flexible, more individual, more exact and revealing standards of performance,” as relevant an approach as when first articulated 86 years ago.

  4. Rethink learning’s role in school. If learning – not test scores, not GPA, not seat time – is what we really value, then we should design everything at school that way. The Mastery Transcript Consortium (www.mastery.org) offers a compelling, learning-focused, individualized record of student learning recognized by more and more universities, giving teachers license to focus more on meaningful mastery than over-simplified measurements.

  5. Reach out. Our own community of NEASC-accredited schools pursue an accreditation protocol that puts learning at the center and invites frequent sharing and collaboration. Schools are held to clear foundational standards while seeking to live out ten Learning Principles – a format that we believe makes sense now and in the future.

A more recent President of the Carnegie Foundation, Lee Shulman, expressed the challenge we all face in moving forward, writing in 2013, “There is nothing simple about measuring the quality of learning. The reason for the robustness of the Carnegie Unit is not that it’s the best measure, just that it’s much more difficult than folks think to replace it.” (Silva et al, 2015)

As we power our way through a global pandemic and beyond, folks need to commit to the difficult work of redesigning for the future.

References:

  1. Claude M. Fuess, The College Board: Its First Fifty Years (New York: Columbia University Press, 1950)

  2. Todd Rose, The End of Average (New York: HarperCollins, 2016)

  3. Silva, E., White, T., & Toch, T., The Carnegie Unit (Washington, DC: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Available at: https://www.carnegiefoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Carnegie_Unit_Report.pdf

  4. John Tagg, The Instruction Myth (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2019)

 

BIO:

Currently the Director of the Commission on International Education at NEASC, Jeff Bradley served as a NEASC Commissioner from 2009-2015, and has conducted accreditation visits around the world. From 2008-2016, he was a partner at Educators’ Collaborative, an executive search and consulting firm, assisting schools worldwide with leadership recruiting and development, strategic planning, and governance. Jeff was founding Director of School Year Abroad – Italy and served as Headmaster of TASIS-The American School in Switzerland.

Twitter: @jeffbradley99

A version of this article originally appeared in The International School Leader Magazine in December 2020.

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