What I learned at the Education Reimagined Symposium 2019: #whyLCE

I was excited to learn recently that a new learner-centered school, Gantry Academy, is launching soon in Round Rock. Soon after, I had the serendipitous pleasure of meeting its founder and director, Jennifer Phillips, at the Education Reimagined Symposium in Washington, D.C. It was the best education conference I’ve ever attended, and I’m grateful that Jennifer offered to share her takeaways and insights from the symposium in this guest post. —Teri Sperry

The time is now. Kelly Young, president of Education Reimagined, at the organization’s symposium, January 17, 2019.

The time is now. Kelly Young, president of Education Reimagined, at the organization’s symposium, January 17, 2019.

While many parents feel that the standard modern education system doesn’t work for their child, we might not know that there is another way. We just have this nagging feeling that our children are not widgets to be produced by an educational factory. So, some of us are moving to private schools, where lower ratios and individual attention give us hope for a better outcome. But then we hop from school to school, looking for the right fit that we can’t articulate, only knowing that something about each offering is just not working for our child. What we are developing alone together is the concept that education should start with the learner, rather than the institution.

Education Reimagined hosted a one-day symposium in Washington, D.C., on January 17 focused on sharing the message of Learner-Centered Education (LCE). There were over 200 educators, philanthropists, vendors, and learners present; chances are you missed it, quite possibly just because you haven’t even heard the term LCE, and you aren’t alone.

A true learner-centered education is more than a majority consensus on a thematic unit topic. It allows each learner to strive for mastery at their own pace (competency-based), with personalized, relevant, and contextualized content that they themselves engage in designing (learner agency). It is rooted in meaningful relationships (socially embedded) and it does not stop in the classroom (open-walled).

As it turns out, I was sent to the symposium because the educational goals I have for my own children align directly with the purpose of Education Reimagined. This organization is fully committed to transforming all education into the learner-centered paradigm. I didn’t realize it before, but my family is just a small piece of a much larger movement. I knew intrinsically what I wanted education for my girls to look like. I could describe it to other parents as “learner-driven” or “passion-driven” or even a “hack school” model, and I could cite specific studies supporting this approach, but what I lacked was the common vocabulary and the knowledge of the sheer magnitude of the existing efforts pushing in the same direction.

After a full day of immersion with these passionate, dedicated innovators, I came away inspired and recommitted to building a better educational method for every single child! It may sound fantastical or like an unreachable goal, but here are my top takeaways from the symposium that make this dream possible. 

1. This is not a “fancy liberal fad.”

At the conference, I spoke with leaders from both private programs and public school districts, from northern states like Vermont and from heartland states like Missouri. I was not the only person from Texas there. The idea that each person is unique and learns best in their own unique way has so much research to back it up that LCE is not just trending; it’s only a matter of time before it is the new standard. How can anyone make that claim? It’s already happening in most other major industries, from personalized television programming from Netflix and Hulu, to personalized medications based on your DNA. Personalized education is not just preferable; it’s inevitable.

Jasmine McBride, a student who spoke at the symposium about her experiences in a learner-centered high school.

Jasmine McBride, a student who spoke at the symposium about her experiences in a learner-centered high school.

2. Kids are people NOW.

While this may sound like an obvious statement, how many times have you heard “Children are our future?” Implying that age limits the usefulness of a person is not only harmful but also wasteful. There are now high school students who are published authors, Emmy award winners, and mentees of Broadway superstars, all thanks to their experiences with LCE. Learner agency, the ability for a student to make decisions about their own education, seems to generate one particularly interesting outcome (among the many additional benefits): sense of self. Self-confidence. Self-esteem. Self-efficacy. I heard from the young learners I spoke with directly that even one year in an LCE program can have a major lifelong impact. The more this seed grows in learners now, the more exponentially it will take off as they take on leadership roles in the community.

3. This is the best-kept secret in your neighborhood.

Remember when I mentioned that we are each developing this feeling “alone together”? The latest study shows that up to 60 percent of the public feels that education should be aimed at preparing individual learners for personally fulfilling lives. And yet, those same people think that only 5 percent feel the same way! Start the conversation with those around you. Even if they don’t have the same vocabulary, it’s something we can discuss together rather than in isolated pockets.

What can I do for my child NOW?

First, read about Learner-Centered Education at Education Reimagined to learn more about the national conversation happening now. Familiarize yourself with the vocabulary so we can all be having the same conversation locally as well as nationally. Decide if a fully personal, engaging educational path is right for you or your child. 

Second, act locally! While some public schools near us have shifted to competency-based report cards and portfolio assessments, they are still required to teach to the standardized tests. Work with your PTA to encourage change within your school. Some private schools are run democratically. Take a proposal to your leadership circle to discuss the LCE concept in depth.

Third, drop in to one of the regular workshops hosted by Gantry Academy to help us develop the LCE method that best offers custom, individualized programs to each learner right here in Round Rock, Texas!

[For a more comprehensive review of the symposium’s specific events, read Suzanne Freeman, Ph.D.’s blog post here.]

Jennifer Phillips

Should all children be provided gifted education?


Guest contributor Srinivas Jallepalli is the founder of Sankalpa Academy, a growth mindset school that seeks to offer gifted education to all children. Sankalpa Academy is located a few blocks from the Thinkery in the Mueller area and will be launching in Fall 2018.


Srinivas received a B.Tech. degree from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (now Chennai) in 1991 and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Texas at Austin in 1993 and 1996 respectively, all in Electrical Engineering. After two summers at AT&T Bell Laboratories, he joined Motorola in 1996 and spent the last two decades researching advanced semiconductor process challenges affecting low power and high performance circuits. He also had the honor of serving on the modeling and simulation sub-committee of the International Electron Devices Meeting in 2006 and 2007 and finally as its chair in 2008. He is currently a Technical Director at NXP Semiconductors and holds four U.S. patents and has contributed to over fifty papers in IEEE conferences and refereed journals.

Srinivas has a keen interest in understanding child development research and the challenges that are preventing us from bringing this research to our schools. This passion has led him to conduct an extensive meta-analysis of published research and to also author a broad-ranging survey of parents and teachers.


“It has been a disastrous half. His work has been far from satisfactory. His prepared stuff has been badly learnt, and several of his test pieces have been torn over; one of such pieces of prepared work scored 2 marks out of a possible 50. His other work has been equally bad, and several times he has been in trouble, because he will not listen, but will insist on doing his work in his own way. I believe he has ideas about becoming a Scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous, if he can't learn simple Biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a Specialist, and it would be sheer waste of time, both on his part, and of those who have to teach him.” Mr. Gaddum, an Eton College science teacher, made these comments on the 1949 report card of a 16-year-old John Gurdon. A short 13 years after the summer at Eton, Gurdon showed that the DNA from specialized cells of frogs, like skin and intestinal cells, could be used to generate new tadpoles. The pioneering work of Gurdon has opened new doors as scientists now attempt to create replacement tissues for treating diseases like Parkinson's and diabetes. Sir John Gurdon was the 2012 winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

While it is tempting to dismiss the comments of Sir Gurdon's teacher as the product of a culture of a bygone era, this episode does offer a valuable lesson. We see time and again that profound learning and growth happen only when one has agency and is invested in his/her work and is inspired by the challenge in front of them. This is the underlying premise of Dr. Maria Montessori’s work and the Waldorf movement and of most child-centered schools. Yet, how many of us would go so far as to offer gifted education and higher expectations as the solution to struggling students in failing schools? Henry (Hank) Levin is just such a pioneer.

Hank Levin is an education economist who first came to fame in 1966 when he challenged the findings in the Coleman Report and the statistical analyses on which they were based. The Coleman Report, requested by the U.S. Office of Education, sought to identify the determinants of academic achievement. Levin’s passion for improving the educational outcomes of disadvantaged children led to decades of research in the areas of education reform, equity, and efficiency and eventually to the launch of the Accelerated Schools Project for at-risk children in 1986. The idea was that treating at-risk children as gifted and talented students was the best way to engage them and to significantly accelerate their learning. His program built upon students’ strengths and creativity. By immersing them in relevant and meaningful real-world projects, he built their capacity for insight and thus their agency. Contrast this with the prevalent remedial approaches in 1986. In fact, even today, many schools offer drills, worksheets, and other “chew and pour” approaches to disadvantaged children and thus drive them farther away from the love of learning. An independent evaluation of the Accelerated Schools found that they produced strong academic results on test scores (as weak an indicator as they are!) at a relatively low cost (Bloom 2001). In 1992, the New York Times named Levin one of “nine national leaders in education innovation,” and American Educational Research Association presented him with the Distinguished Contributions to Research in Education Award in 2017.


Through a very different path, Professor Joseph Renzulli, educational psychologist and distinguished professor in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut, arrived at very similar conclusions as Levin. While many look at IQ and processing speed to determine giftedness, Renzulli proposed a three-ring model that looked at ability, creativity, and task commitment. Based on his model for giftedness and his understanding of child development, he advocated that schools should provide all students with the opportunities needed to develop higher-order thinking skills. He felt that all children can and should pursue more rigorous content. His Schoolwide Enrichment Model or SEM (Renzulli 1985), which supports child-led exploration through enrichment clusters, has been gaining significant popularity in recent years. Laurel Mountain Elementary school in RRISD is one example of a local public school that has adopted the SEM approach.

As one might expect, similar improvements have been taking place in schools outside the United States as well. Levin’s Accelerated Schools have also been established in Hong Kong, for example. It is noteworthy that in Ghana's capital city of Accra, about 80 percent of children are now enrolled in preschool by age 3. More interestingly, the preschools in Accra are in the process of retooling their programs to enhance their children’s learning and development. They are moving away from rote memorization to a curriculum that values open-ended questions, reasoning, and reflection. Very similar fundamental changes are also taking place in the elementary classrooms across China, only on a much grander scale. For example, Adream Foundation has built over 2,700 “Dream Centers” across China to foster curiosity and creativity in their young children. To promote risk taking, the foundation has explicitly prohibited judgment and criticism at these centers.

The large body of research on human abilities (Gardner 1983; Sternberg 1984; Bloom 1985; Renzulli 1986; Reis 1995; Levin 2013) bolsters the claim that the strategies employed in gifted and talented education are essential for general education as well. Given the decades of research and investment, and a lengthy federal report on improving education for the gifted and talented (National Excellence: A Case for Developing America’s Talent; U. S. Department of Education, 1993), is there consensus on what gifted education entails? Please stay tuned as I explore this further in my next blog post (the second of a three-part series) here.

Srinivas Jallepalli



Bloom, B. S. (Ed.). (1985). Developing talent in young people. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Bloom, H.S., Ham, S., Melton, L., & O’Brient, J. (2001). Evaluating the accelerated schools approach: A look at early implementation and impacts on student achievement in eight elementary schools. New York: Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Levin, H. (2013) “Acceleration for All,” with Pilar Soler, In J. Hattie & E. Anderman, Eds., International Guide to Student Achievement (New York: Routledge, 2013), 209-211.

Reis, S. M., Gentry, M. L., & Park, S. (1995). Extending the pedagogy of gifted education to all students (Research Monograph 95118). Storrs: University of Connecticut, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

Renzulli, J. S. (1986). The three-ring conception of giftedness: A developmental model for creative productivity. In R. J. Sternberg & J. E. Davidson (Eds.), Conceptions of giftedness (pp. 53-92). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Renzulli, J. S. (1993). Schools are places for talent development: Applying “gifted education” know-how to total school improvement. Unpublished manuscript. The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented: The University of Connecticut, Storrs.

Renzulli, J. S. (1994). Schools for talent development: A comprehensive plan for total school improvement. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.

Renzulli, J. S., & Reis, S. M. (1985). The schoolwide enrichment model: A comprehensive plan for educational excellence. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (1984). Toward a triarchic theory of human intelligence. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 7, 269-287.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement. (1993). National excellence: A case for developing America’s talent. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

A conversation with Dr. Karen Rayne about transgender students and SB6

Of the Texas respondents, 73 percent of transgender schoolchildren said they’d experienced mistreatment because of their gender identity, with nearly half saying they’d been physically attacked and 14 percent leaving a school because of how they were treated.

Another 14 percent of those surveyed said a professional—like a psychologist or religious adviser—had tried to stop them from being transgender, and 41 percent said they experienced “serious psychological distress” sometime in the month before they took the survey.

Lauren McGaughy, “Transgender Texans skip the bathroom to avoid violence, new survey says,” Dallas News, January 26, 2017


With all the controversy heating up in the Capitol over SB6, and growing concern over the problems faced by transgender kids in Texas schools, I decided to talk with Dr. Karen Rayne, a local educator and author with expertise in gender and sexuality issues, particularly related to teenagers. Below is some background on the issue, followed by an edited account of our conversation.

Many thanks to Dr. Rayne for her time and thoughts. Alt Ed Austin highly recommends her UnHushed, “Sex Ed Done Right,” classes and her book, Breaking the Hush Factor.

The debate over SB6, the Texas legislature’s so-called “bathroom bill,” is one that continues to dominate political media, but more important, it is one with sweeping consequences for students across the state. If approved, the bill would prohibit trans people from using bathrooms and locker rooms matching their identities in schools and other public buildings. The law also allows Texas businesses to ignore local ordinances that protect trans citizens’ rights to choose facilities in keeping with their identities.

Nearly 150,000 American teenagers (1 in every 137) would identify as transgender according to a new report from UCLA’s Williams Institute, cited in a recent, enlightening New York Times article by Niraj Chokshi.

Last week the White House weighed in on the controversy, declaring that the federal government would no longer support a stance by the Obama administration that defended transgender students’ rights under 1972’s Title IX, which bars discrimination based on sex for schools that receive federal funds. The decision to stop supporting the Title IX argument affects not only states and localities that want to pass laws requiring that students behave according to the gender listed on their birth certificates, but it also affects an upcoming Supreme Court case originating in Gloucester County, Virginia, in which Gavin Grimm was barred from using the boys’ bathroom at his school.

Last week national attention again focused on transgender rights in Texas. Trinity High School junior Mack Beggs, the 17-year-old boy who competed in and won the girls’ state wrestling championship, was in the news because he had to compete under the gender listed on his birth certificate.

I asked Dr. Rayne to tell me a little about how she sees kids and schools reacting right now to the SB6 issue in Texas.

The reaction of a lot of kids, including my teenage daughter, is “Why should anyone care?” The interest in where someone chooses to go to the restroom is oddly invasive, putting the government in someone else’s personal space. It’s strange that we’re in a place where Republicans are no longer the party of small government in many areas, including this one.

The best-case scenario for schools in the future is probably that transgender kids’ classmates will not care at all and will not comprehend that this was ever a serious controversy. I think in the long run that’s where we’re headed, but we’re not there yet.

In general, how do schools and students cope with the process of gender transitioning?

A number of schools are good at supporting students—both public and private schools. The problem with public schools is that they are so large, with very diverse communities. So, in a large community of students and educators, there will always be some people who are not supportive. I do find that in some smaller schools you have a whole community that is supportive of trans kids.

Austin ISD has an array of LGBTQ resources for students and parents, and hosts its own Pride Week in October. Area alternative schools that specifically welcome LGBTQ kids and faculty include, but are not limited to, KọSchool, Skybridge Academy, Griffin School, Integrity Academy, and Radicle Roots Community Schoolhouse.

My experience is that younger kids—elementary school age—are still strongly under their parents’ influence, so if parents are willing and strong advocates, the kids follow their lead and become strong advocates for themselves. Parents can talk with school administrators and are often able to make transitions easier. And of course, transitioning isn’t quite as salient for a six- or seven-year-old, and most other kids that age are fine with it because fewer judgments are made in that pre-adolescent stage.

The older kids are when they transition, the tougher the social, cultural, and biological structures are. The stresses and strains that play out in social lives at school are difficult for all teenagers, and they are less under their parents’ protective wings, so there’s just less that parents can do, even if they want to be supportive.

I think we have to remember that teens have a rough time navigating identity issues, even without the added complication of gender transition. There are issues with self-esteem and self-compassion, and figuring out who you are in relation to the rest of the world. For all teens it’s a socially and politically charged time, and for transgender teens the stresses are multiplied.

Out Youth is a Central Texas organization serving LGBTQ young people with a variety of programs. Right now, they are sponsoring a campaign called #TakeMyHandTexas, and giving away free buttons to symbolize support for transgender rights, explaining: “When you wear a #TakeMyHandTexas button, you’re showing that not only are you an ally to this community, but you’ll also gladly accompany someone to any gender-specific space they feel uncomfortable going to alone, including the bathroom.” 

How can allies talk with legislators, friends, and family about issues of civil rights, privacy, and fairness when it comes to the transgender community?

 It really depends on whom you’re talking to. Some people are lacking good information and quite open to incorporating new ideas when they’re presented. So in that case, statistics and examples you might find in news coverage are helpful. I think one of the best books on the subject is Sam Killermann’s A Guide to Gender: The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook, which is coming out in a new edition on March 8.

We can talk about the real-world impact of SB6 on vulnerable students, and we can talk about the fact that if protecting people against sexual predators in private spaces like restrooms is the goal, those laws are already on the books. If you think someone is open to new information, then have some solid facts available.

A 2015 Media Matters report found that in 17 school districts with a total of 600,000 students, protections for trans people resulted in no problems with harassment in bathrooms or locker rooms as a result of the protections.

I think one of the biggest problems this kind of legislation introduces is that it encourages and gives license to ordinary people to police others’ behavior.

One real-world impact that people may not be aware of is how laws like the one proposed in Texas stratify gender-nonconforming communities into those who “pass” in the larger community and those who do not. So, for example, if you have undergone hormone treatments or had surgery as part of your transition and you look very feminine, you will be much less likely to be questioned or attacked for using the women’s restroom, and more likely to be questioned or attacked for using the men’s. Transgender women who still look more masculine and cis-gender women who happen to look and dress in a more traditionally masculine way face questions and attacks no matter where they go.

Two advocacy and support organizations with great collections of resources for students, families, and schools are Trans Youth Equality Foundation and Gender Spectrum.

And what about talking with people who don’t seem as eager to receive new information, facts, and statistics?

There are people who have a perspective on gender that is narrow and specific, so for them the idea of a transgender person is an emotional and cultural assault. I think it’s usually not about religious doctrines—I’ve found many religious communities that are strong supporters of transgender people. A lot of religious people hear and feel salience in the notion that “God made me a girl, but then my body did not follow instructions.” Often religious communities support people trying to align themselves physically with what they feel God intended for them.

So, for those who feel assaulted by the idea of transgender people, I think it’s more about inherited cultural values and expectations than religion. We often grow up tied to our culture’s gender structures, without much evidence as to why. In that case, it’s hard to break through unless something happens that makes them question those values and structures.

Do you have any predictions on what we’ll see in terms of both the politics of SB6 and the culture as relates to transgender students?

I would never underestimate how conservative the legislature is, so I would really be stunned if the bill doesn’t pass. But that said, the way our school districts run is somewhat independently, so the implementation might vary a lot.

It’s an interesting time to be alive and looking at these issues. And overall, I think we are coming into a time of more openness. I see us swinging toward openness and acceptance among young people toward each other and toward diversity in terms of gender and sexuality. The current political climate is about reacting to that swing toward openness, and we may lose some footing for a while, but in the long run, openness and compassion and diversity will overcome.

Recommended Reading:

Finally,  for some good laughs with a Texas-style political edge, don't miss this short web ad by Oscar-nominated Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater!

Shelley Sperry

Media Monday: Writers explore the transformation of America’s public schools

We’re always so pleased when we can highlight a public school with an alt ed soul. Last week Dawn Johnson wrote about Cunningham Elementary as a visionary public school in South Austin on our blog, and it’s a terrific, inspiring read. Recognizing that public schools across the country are in a period of new challenges and changes, Slate magazine is featuring a five-part series, “Tomorrow’s Test,” right now that’s also a must-read. The series is produced in cooperation with the Columbia Journalism School’s Teacher Project.

The focus of the series is one that’s not news to anyone interested in education in Texas, California, or other parts of the country that have seen many new immigrants in the past couple of decades. Changing demographics have a wide range of consequences for our public schools. As writer Sarah Carr explains in the series introduction:

Over the last 20 years, the number of Hispanic public schoolchildren has more than doubled, and the number of Asians has swelled by 56 percent. The number of black students and American Indians grew far more modestly—but the number of white students fell by about 15 percent.
The majority-minority milestone has arrived in our public schools early—a consequence of white children’s overrepresentation in private schools and the relative youth of America’s black and Hispanic populations. It is not a fluke. It is a preview of a transforming country. 

One of the things Carr points out that we may not think much about is the lack of diversity among our public school teachers and how that can sometimes affect their ability to connect with and mentor students of color and students from less affluent backgrounds. At a time when half our public school students are students of color, more than half are low-income, and almost a quarter are foreign-born or have a foreign-born parent, about 80 percent of our teachers are white.

This week, the Tomorrow’s Test series will visit 11 schools across the country, starting in Alaska and New Orleans. The articles will look at questions of diversity, immigration, segregation, and poverty, and will chronicle kids, families, and schools all looking for better education alternatives in this time of change.

Let us know if you’re reading the series and what you find inspiring, surprising, and relevant to our schools in Austin.

Shelley Sperry

Media Monday: Where do the presidential candidates stand on education?

The 74 Million ’s presidential election coverage includes news, analysis, and opinion on the education policies of candidates from both major parties.

The 74 Million’s presidential election coverage includes news, analysis, and opinion on the education policies of candidates from both major parties.

We’ve noticed over the past few weeks that education policy is not getting much coverage by traditional media sources in the noise of the presidential campaign, so we went looking for some solid information comparing the candidates’ positions on a range of education issues, from pre-k to college. Here’s what we found. Please let us know if there are other sources you recommend!

One of the most interesting sites we discovered is called The 74 Million, named for the number of school-age kids in the country whose needs ought to be on our minds as we vote this year. It covers a broad spectrum of education issues, looks fresh, is easy to navigate, and adds new content regularly. There are opinion pieces from a variety of viewpoints as well as features on school-related topics, including reporting on SWSXedu here in Austin. But for our purposes, the section on Election 2016 is of interest for its coverage of what the candidates are saying and not saying about education. For a quick hit of information, the Election Scorecard details candidates’ stands on six key issues.

A “just the facts” site, Ballotpedia.org’s education page does a good job of rounding up presidential hopefuls’ statements on a broad range of topics and laying them out in one handy, clickable spot to make them easy to compare and contrast.

And if it’s higher education policy that’s of interest to you, take a look at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators explanations of that hot election-year issue.

Shelley Sperry


Examining our exam mania: A review of “The Test” by Anya Kamenetz

Shelley Sperry is a writer, editor, and researcher who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. She's currently writing an article about volcanoes for National Geographic's Explorer kids magazine and having a blast.

Anya Kamenetz is a veteran reporter on the education beat and the mother of a daughter on the verge of entering preschool. In her new book, The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing—But You Don’t Have to Be, Kamenetz is driven by her need as a journalist to assemble evidence and anecdotes to make her case. But her work is equally inspired by her desire as a parent to protect her child’s “innate resilience, curiosity, and joy.” What she ends up with is a valuable read for anyone who wants to understand the role standardized tests have in the lives of the vast majority of American children today—a role that is becoming even stronger with the implementation of new Common Core tests in the majority of states this year. Texas is one of a handful of states that have not adopted Common Core testing.

Parents of public school students will find the final section of the book especially useful. Kamenetz provides a checklist of strategies to help families cope with mandated testing—from how to emotionally prepare kids for hours of test prep and the tests themselves to how to approach and implement a decision to opt out of testing entirely. The rest of the book includes a fascinating history of how early intelligence tests evolved into school achievement tests, how and why testing went off the rails in the past 20 years, and innovative suggestions for getting our schools back on track.

Texas was on the cutting edge of the modern high-stakes testing movement in the 1990s. The use of carrots and sticks to push states to adopt stricter, more frequent tests to measure achievement became national policy under No Child Left Behind in 2001. NCLB is still the law of the land, but Congress is now debating various ways to revise and improve the law’s approach. There is fairly broad agreement that the tests most states use in assessing students each year are ineffective and actually may be counterproductive in promoting quality teaching and learning. Unfortunately, Common Core and other attempts to reform the system in recent years ignore that consensus.

The intentions of the policymakers and educators who embarked on NCLB and the standardized testing experiment were noble for the most part, but were based on false premises, according to Kamenetz.  In the 1980s, reports of failing public schools and a “rising tide of mediocrity” were probably the result of inaccurate data, but the belief that the United States was falling behind other countries played on Cold War–era fears, so policymakers ignored or suppressed questions about the data. The 1980s and ’90s stock market and tech booms influenced the business-management and number-crunching mindset that now permeates education reform: collect and analyze data, provide incentives to improve performance, and demonstrate to shareholders (also known as taxpayers) that investments in public education are sound.

What’s more, all that data collection, test writing, and test prep provided a huge windfall—now in the billions of dollars—for a few big publishers and testing corporations. Now, of course, those corporations lobby for maintaining and expanding their business. Academic and charitable institutions—especially the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (the 800-pound gorilla of education philanthropy)—also contribute mightily to the demand for more quantitative assessments of kids and teachers.

As demonstrated in last week’s protests in New York in which thousands of families opted out of spring testing, we are approaching a point when demands for change may reach a critical mass. Kamenetz outlines several possible solutions for schools that are testing the wrong things, wasting teachers’ and students’ precious time, and driving good teachers away from the profession.

The Test’s look at alternatives to NCLB, Common Core, and standardized testing in general will ring true for parents who are already involved in the alternative education movement. Kamenetz suggests that we need approaches—two of which she labels the “butterfly” and “unicorn” models—that encourage students to be creative and collaborative and to embrace their own unique learning styles and interests. As an ideal goal, she favors a “multiple-measures” system for public schools, akin to that promoted by Stanford researcher Linda Darling-Hammond, that can assess and help guide students to meet their potential as learners. She offers many examples of schools that are experimenting with new visions, including mindfulness and meditation, student assessments based on video games, and more humanistic ways of “doing school” that include peer review, portfolios, and self-reflection. Teachers should also be evaluated using multiple measures, she says.

Kamenetz argues that change “has to come from families who are not only fed up, but also can see the alternatives clearly.” Those alternatives look an awful lot like innovative schools operating right now in Austin and across the country:

Students work together and separately to build, make, read, write, conduct experiments, solve problems, and present their work. ‘How am I doing?’ is a question answered continuously, by self-reflection, teacher feedback, peer review, and public exhibition as well as by referring to external standards such as the Common Core.

There is still a place for national, standardized assessments, she thinks, but only administered sparingly.

Kamenetz makes a strong case for reform of student and teacher assessment, and reform looks achievable if a broad coalition of parents, teachers, and policymakers agree to pursue it, especially because there is now some bipartisan agreement in Washington that something must be done to reform the testing system. Unfortunately, what seems less likely is that a broad coalition will be able to agree on the “kind of world we are creating for our children,” which Kamenetz suggests is also essential to debates about school reform. “Child welfare, foster care, juvenile justice, and maternal health are all part of this conversation. So are minimum wage, the pay gap, and maternity leave.”

Kamenetz notes that a 2013 study demonstrated that in North Carolina 85 percent of school performance issues can be explained by the economic well-being of a child’s family, as measured by eligibility for subsidized lunches. Today, of the 50 million students in American public schools, almost half receive free and reduced-price lunches, and only 14 of 50 states attempt to give poor schools more aid than rich schools.

If you have questions about the standardized testing and anti-testing movements, it’s likely that you'll hear the answer in the video below. It was taped at Politics & Prose, a bookstore and community center in Washington, D.C., where Kamenetz recently gave a fascinating talk about her book and how high-stakes testing is affecting learners everywhere.

Shelley Sperry