Filling the Vacuum

First, a prediction: the anti-excessive testing drive is not going to lose steam and disappear. To the contrary, I expect that it will only pick up momentum during the coming school year.  Even if the Congress manages to agree on a replacement for No Child Left Behind that the President is willing to sign, it’s too late to counter the genuine revulsion many people feel about excessive testing.

**Too many people now realize that the US is the only advanced country that tests kids in order to judge (and sometimes fire) teachers.

**Too many people are upset about the intrusive nature of testing and data-collection, and too many parents are distrustful of a system that treats their children as a number, a test score.

**Too many people have lost faith in ‘big data’ in education and in the testing industry in general.

As we have reported on the NewsHour, the “Opt Out” movement is made up of strange political bedfellows, united in their opposition. How long these folks remain together depends, it seems to me, upon what happens next.

It’s never enough to curse the darkness.  Being passionately against something works for a while, but it cannot, in the end, carry the day. At some point, you have to be FOR something of substance.

But if high-stakes tests are on the way out, student learning must be assessed.  We also need reliable ways to evaluate teachers and measure school quality.  I hope the anti-excessive testing people will insist on being part of those conversations.

And the second big question: If kids are not going to spend their time prepping for tests and taking tests and reviewing tests, what will they do instead? What should they be opting into?

What will fill the vacuum?

How about arts-based education, which has been tried and has proven true for 20 years? I refer to the A+ Schools program now in four states, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas.  For a look at how an A+ school works, take a look at the NewsHour piece Producer Cat McGrath and I did last year.

Arts-based education unlocks student (and teacher) creativity. It’s often project-based and team-based, good preparation for what awaits young people when they leave school.  (You will see some of this in our new film, “School Sleuth: The Case of the Wired Classroom,” which will be on most PBS stations in November.)

I have written about one teacher at that school, and earlier this week I spent a day-and-a-half with about 250 teachers and principals in the A+ School program.  There are few better feelings than being in a room full of arts teachers, whose energy threatens to elevate the roof.  Their intelligence, vision and commitment are palpable and infectious.

The true test of an arts-based school, one person told me, is that you often are not certain exactly what class you are in, because music suffuses math instruction, and vice-versa….as it should because music and math are inextricably connected.

It’s not a quick, order off-the-rack way to re-form a school.  It takes time, energy and commitment.  Teachers have to learn a new way of working. A bigger challenge: Many school principals attended schools where ‘the arts’ were pushed to the side, a frill, and so those leaders have to be re-educated. The A+ program offers guidance and training, so that’s a help.

You’ve seen those protestors with their posters, “My Kid Is Not a Test Score.”  True, but what is your kid, and what do you want him or her to become?  Recalling Aristotle’s wisdom, “We Are What We Repeatedly Do,” what do you want your child to DO repeatedly in school?

Time to get together to decide on ‘post-protest schooling.’

10 thoughts on “FILLING THE VACUUM

  1. All important questions. There are places to look at, such as the NY Performance Standards Consortium (, Big Picture and High Tech High Schools, all of which focus on project-based learning and performance/portfolio assessments (tho most also have to negotiate state tests, I expect they’d be happy to ignore them and focus on worthwhile evidence of learning). Due to NCLB, much in elementary in middle schools on assessment was killed as drill and kill took over much of what schools did. Of course not all parents/schools would want to be organized around project-based learning, tho I expect most would be fine with some elements of projects and related performance assessment.

    In any case, we already know that grades are better predictors of college success than are test scores. How can schools/districts/states ensure grades do not hide inequities and exclusions? Can we ask for gathering evidence (work samples, portfolios) to back up grades (or written evaluation where people do not want grades)?

    All of which goes back to what schools should be and do and accomplish, what students (and staff) should live in day-to-day, what are qualities schools should have, what qualities should graduates have? In short, what should schools be if not reduced to test scores and ‘data points’? For that, much deeper and wider conversations are needed. When that is known, decided (inevitably, temporarily) then we can ask, how do we know we are getting what we want,and who should be responsible for what?

    And John, thanks for all your contributions.


    • Monty, you should have included your website, so new readers can find the latest information about the backlash. Friends, go to….you won’t regret it.


  2. John.. your reporting and thorough-going humanity will be greatly missed by all (even if they don’t realize it). I assume/hope your colleagues and proteges at Learning Matters will keep the home fires burning? Best wishes for this next stage of your life.
    Claude Goldenberg


    • Yes, Claude, the work will continue. Might even get better, deeper et cetera, because the NEW Learning Matters will be part of a stronger organization. The NewsHour audience is growing too, so that’s all good. I hope not to disappear completely, at least not overnight….


  3. About five years ago you sponsored a Kellogg application by Arnold Packer for what he called the Verified Resume ( We adapted that to general high school self-evaluation, and reflective peer and teacher evaluation, and it’s still part of the profile at Somerville (MA) High School (under ePortfolio Spotlight, here It is a much, much better way to teach students how to evaluate themselves, their peers, their teachers, and their schools than testing, of any kind, and it’s also a lot easier to track, to document, to use for college or job applications, and, don’t forget, it was YOUR proposal to Kellogg that started it all.


    • Thanks, Joe. Arnie (of US Department of Labor and later Johns Hopkins fame) and I spent a lot of time working on this, and I continue to believe that the portfolio/suitcase way of thinking makes complete sense. And the W.K. Kellogg Foundation does not get enough credit for its willingness to push the inside of the envelope, not only on this but also for supporting our effort to train disadvantaged kids in media production. Kellogg enabled Learning Matters to create Listen Up!, which became the world’s largest young media organization in a very short time and taught serious production skills to thousands of young people.


  4. There is no reason arts cannot be infused into “regular” classes even in a school that is not arts-based per se. Perhaps it is because I was a music major as an undergraduate long before I became a social studies that such infusion has always been part of my instruction. Perhaps it is also because I resonated in what I read in Gardner’s “Frames of Mind” when it first came out. I remember Thomas Armstrong writing of Gardner’s originla 7 “intelligences” that in theory any domain could be taught using one intelligence and assessed using another, giving in theory 49 possible combinations of instruction and assessment, yet 90% of what we seemed to ask kids to do was effectively read a book and write a report. That does not work so well for all of them, and often those who struggle are among our brightest kids whose brains are just wired differently (as was mine, which is in part why I was not in the top third of my high school class, nor did I graduate from Haverford until shortly before my 27th birthday).

    John, thanks for all you have done. Thank you especially for your work the past few years in calling attention to the corruption in DC schools under Michelle Rhee. Best wishes in whatever comes next in your life. Somehow I feel that like me you will never be able to fully “retire.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Ken, for your kind words, for all you continue to do for young people, and for your endorsement of arts-based schooling. It’s certainly true that no one model works for everyone, but I think we can say that the current approach (read and regurgitate) works very a very small number of kids.
      A paradigm shift is required, where we ask ‘How are you intelligent?’ instead of “How intelligent are you?”


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