One of my all-time favorite films is Dead Poets Society, the story of an English teacher in an elite college prep school for boys, whose unconventional teaching style gets him fired in his first year. The Welton Academy's school slogan is Tradition, Discipline and Excellence. But Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, promotes the slogan, Carpe Diem (seize the day). He commands his docile students to tear out the first page of their literature textbook, a pedantic introduction to the mechanics of poetry that, he assures them, will guarantee their hatred of it.

As I watched the film for the third time a few days ago, I was struck by the lesson it can teach us about school reform. Our focus on test scores may be doing more to kill a love of learning than cultivate it. I remember far more about my high school teachers, and whether they captured my interest and inspired me to learn, than the subject matter on which I was tested.

National school reformer and former District of Columbia Chancellor of Education, Michelle Rhee, is a strong advocate of standardized tests as the only reliable measure of student learning. As chancellor she fired teachers for low test scores and gave salary hikes to those whose scores showed improvement. When she after two years she boasted of dramatic improvement in scores District-wide.

But a shadow was cast on Rhee's claim when an investigation showed an unusual number of erasures of wrong answers on multiple choice tests. There's no proof to date of widespread cheating. But the temptation is understandable, with test scores the only measure of teacher salaries and employment security.

The best thing about No Child Left Behind was that it demands measured accountability from public schools. The worst thing about it, to paraphrase a warning about the military-industrial complex, we've created a public education-testing industrial complex, robbing teachers of precious time and resources that could be spent cultivating in their students a love of learning.

So what can be used in place of our obsession with testing to measure knowledge and skills and the effectiveness of teachers in imparting them? Here's my five-point modest proposal.

  1. Listen to students. In an October 2012 Atlantic Magazine article titled, Why Kids Should Grade Teachers, Amanda Ripley writes, "Test scores can reveal when kids are not learning; they can’t reveal why. They might make teachers relax or despair—but they can’t help teachers improve." She cites a research study of a quarter-¬million students who took a survey designed to capture what they thought of their classroom culture and their interactions with the teacher. The research showed if you asked kids the right questions, they could identify, with uncanny accuracy, their most—and least—effective teachers. The student feedback can be used for in-service training.

  2. Enable teachers to work together on self-evaluations. Incorporate a career ladder, with master teachers taking rookies under their wing for their first year. In-service training should include reciprocal classroom visitations among colleagues to identify and incorporate best practices in teaching methodologies.

  3. Confine testing to end of year tests only to determine readiness for promotion to the next grade. Implementation of California Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will enable schools to assess each student's mastery of the specific knowledge and skills expected at that level and to prescribe whatever summer school or after school remediation is required to enable that student to be successful at the next level.

  4. Require a Senior Portfolio or Performance Assessment designed to show how students have achieved the knowledge and skills identified by CCSS.

  5. Survey alumni three years after graduation. In addition to asking them what they think about the quality of their education, find out if they're voters, have continued their education, are employed, like to read, and have been involved in their communities.

This is not exactly a modest proposal, since it would require substantial financial support in the face of budget cuts. And even if the money could be found by cutting ties to the testing industry, local schools can't cut their ties to state and federal government. It's just a dream inspired by watching Mr. Keating, the Welton Academy English teacher, inspire a passion for learning in a group of compliant and complacent rich kids.

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