In Pursuit of Woozles

There’s a delightful old story about Winnie the Pooh and Piglet where they are hunting a Woozle.

As some of us well know, having read these classic Winnie-the-Pooh stories as children, Woozles are rather cunning creatures. They have an affinity to honey and are hard to identify by their tracks. Some of them inhabit the East Pole. And sometimes tracks on the ground may lead to a Woozle, but sometimes they don’t. It’s all rather complicated and serious, this business with the Woozles (and Heffalumps), and you really should read more about it in the books.

“Tracks,” said Piglet. “Paw-marks.” He gave a little squeak of excitement. “Oh, Pooh! Do you think it’s a–a–a Woozle?”

“It may be,” said Pooh. “Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. You never can tell with paw-marks.”

The story “In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle” appears in the third chapter of A.A. Milne’s original “Winnie-the-Pooh” novel.

In that story, Pooh finds tracks around a spinney of larch trees and begins to follow them. Piglet runs after Pooh and joins the hunt. The tracks seem to go around the spinney and soon Pooh and Piglet notice that there’s a new set of tracks alongside the first; another Woozle, perhaps!

As they brave onwards, they find that a third set of tracks has appeared next to the other two (might be a Wizzle), then a fourth (another Wizzle). Just imagine: two Woozles AND two Wizzles. It’s quite an adventure for Pooh and Piglet.

We know how this story ends, of course. Christopher Robin arrives to explain that they’ve been following their own tracks. This rather depresses Pooh for a moment, but Christopher Robin cheers Pooh up, as friends do, and it’s nearly lunch time anyway so all’s well.

 

As a metaphor, Pooh and Piglet tracking themselves in the snow thinking they are following a Woozle is similar to the modern-day expression, “chasing your tail”  – the condition of being busy doing a lot of things but actually achieving very little.

It is difficult to think of a better analogy for the modern test-based accountability system which has driven American school reform initiatives for the past three decades than “Chasing a Woozle.”

We have expended tremendous time and resources with very little to show for our efforts.

We all remember the publicity around the push for national common core academic standards (CCSS). The goal of the CCSS initiative was to establish consistent educational standards across the states as well as ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to enter credit-bearing courses at two or four-year college programs or to enter the workforce (“college- and career-ready”).

Since their release of the CCSS in 2010, forty-two of the fifty states have adopted the standards as their own. Oklahoma was one of the eight states (joining Texas, Virginia, Alaska, Nebraska, Indiana, South Carolina, and Minnesota) which chose to develop their own college- and career-ready standards.

Our newly standards were initially titled: Oklahoma’s Incredible, Super Duper Rigorous, World Class, Grade A, Best Standards EVER. While that has a nice ring to it, the resulting acronym (OISDRWCGABSE) was deemed too long and shortened to simply the Oklahoma Academic Standards (OAS).

As you know, our state also developed spectacular new assessments which, we are told, when combined with the new, more difficult academic standards, will reduce the achievement gap and ensure all future Oklahoma students are ready to compete in the fast-changing 21st century workforce.

Of course they will.

“Oh, Pooh! Do you think it’s a–a–a Woozle?”

Every student in America graduating from high school today has experienced nothing but the test, rank, and punish system spawned by NCLB in 2001. So, surely after nearly two decades of efforts and billions of dollars spent on new standards and “better” assessments, our country will have found the elusive Woozles of lowered achievement gaps and higher college readiness percentages by now.

Uh, nope. Still no Woozles.

Recently released results from the 2017 ACT, the nation’s most widely used college admission test, highlight in detail the persistent achievement gaps between students who face disadvantages and those who don’t.

“Scores from the ACT show that just 9 percent of students in the class of 2017 who came from low-income families, whose parents did not go to college, and who identify as black, Hispanic, American Indian or Pacific Islander are strongly ready for college.

But the readiness rate for students with none of those demographic characteristics was six times as high, 54 percent, according to data released Thursday.

‘That kind of shocked us,’ ACT chief executive Marten Roorda said. ‘We knew it was bad, but we didn’t know it was this bad.’

We didn’t know it was this bad, really, Marten? Where have you been for the last 15 years?

Despite two decades of test-based reforms, the ACT results seem to show the BILLIONS of dollars we have spent chasing test scores has been essentially for naught!

Isn’t it time for a modern-day Christopher Robin to emerge from the woods to tell us we’ve spent a generation walking in circles?

Subjecting millions of American children to a regime of test, rank, sort and punish has simply turned many of our public schools— particularly in urban areas— into joyless, drill-and-kill test factories completely disassociated from real learning and the development of meaningful employment skills.

“Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” ~George Santayana

We have lost sight of the true aim of public education. By focusing so narrowly on test-based measures, we ignore the myriad and diverse ways that children learn, grow, and develop.

Instead of redoubling our efforts on the futile and meaningless chase for higher test scores, how about we abandon those failed efforts and try something different?

At some point, don’t we need to acknowledge that standardized tests are far from meaningful measures of the potential of young human beings, because these unique children are far from standardized. They never will be, nor should we want them to be.

As Charles Murray wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “What we need is an educational system that brings children with all combinations of assets and deficits to adulthood having identified things they enjoy doing and having learned how to do them well.”

It is time to change our thinking, as well as our approaches for educating the wide variety of children who attend our schools, now and in the future.

Instead of continuing the fruitless pursuit of the Woozles surrounding test-based accountability, let’s gather to consider these broad questions:

  1. What does it mean to be an educated person in the 21st century?
  2. How will this definition continue to change throughout the lifetimes of children in school today?
  3. What does “career-ready” really mean for students projected to graduate from school in 2030 and beyond?
  4. What should be the central purpose of our public education system?
  5. How do we redesign and/or re-image our education system to better meet the needs (and address the strengths) of ALL students?

Of course, these are no easy answers to these questions. Tough problems are rarely solved with simple solutions. Yet, taking our attention off our own footprints in the snow might lead us to a new path. A journey which will recognize our collective strengths while confronting our own inadequacies as schools and education professionals.

It has to be better than spending any more time walking aimlessly in the woods, following footprints that lead to nowhere new.