Torres: Wait, we are done Maslowing? (column) | VailDaily.com

Torres: Wait, we are done Maslowing? (column)

JT Torres, Ph.D.
Valley Voices

I appreciate the recently published, cleverly titled “First, We Maslow, Then We Bloom” column from Eagle County Schools Superintendent Philip Qualman. As an associate professor of teacher education at Colorado Mountain College, I congratulate the author for continuing the important conversation regarding standardized testing. Yes, it is time we “evolve our thinking about standardized tests.” However, I have some questions about the author’s own thinking.

Most of my questions revolve around the title, which, while clever, requires some unpacking. The author situates Maslow as a verb signifying “whole child” education and Bloom as a verb signifying standardized testing. In regards to the title’s temporality, the author seems to suggest that we are done Maslowing and are now ready to Bloom. This is hardly the case — not in Eagle, not anywhere. I do not mean to take away from the progress Eagle County has made in our commitment to the whole child (all noted by the author), but we have so much more work to do.

When we say “whole child,” what exactly do we mean? Are we only referring to the physical features of the child, using their skin as the defining ontological boundary? What about the child’s history: their prior knowledge, their cultural background, the language they use at home, their relationships with the world around them? According to researchers of dynamic systems of identity, like Gregory Bateson and Lev Vygotsky, a concept like “whole child” would have to include the social systems (e.g., relationships, beliefs, languages) in which the child exists.

It’s the same way one cannot think about a marmot without also thinking about the tundra. And yet, the majority of the country insists on a standardized curriculum that makes difficult the inclusion of place-based education and cultural and linguistic diversity. As a result, children in much of the country celebrate Thanksgiving but do not understand the religious practices, social structures, or the ecological relationships of Native Americans.

Curricula need to be standardized, after all, to remain aligned with the tests. To be clear, this is not to say tests are terrible. They are one perfectly valid form of assessment, but so are portfolios, presentations, poems, stories, performances, and so on. Leading cognitive scientists and educational psychologists, like Susan Brookhart and Robert and Elizabeth Bjork, have conclusively called for the use of multiple measures to provide a “holistic view of a child.” Currently, the national and local climates privilege a single assessment method — the standardized test — which directly opposes the very “holistic view” the author suggests we have met.

My final question has to do with the author’s suggestion that proceeding onward into Bloom (i.e., standardized tests) will somehow not affect the Maslow we apparently just finished. Are we to say the standardized testing movement has not threatened the well-being of children? Haven’t we all read Michelle Alexander, Jonathan Kozol, and Jesse Hagopian, educators and scholars who clearly demonstrate the ways standardized testing contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline, to performance segregation that privileges white, middle-class populations, and to the loss of creative, entrepreneurial thinking in schools?

I want to reiterate that tests are not inherently bad. The very definition of assessment validity concerns the use of a test. Every test sets out to measure a particular construct, such as the levels of Bloom’s cognitive domains: comprehension, analysis, or evaluation. Therefore, every test has a specific use based on the particular construct the test sets out to measure.

When tests are used to determine school funding and teacher pay or used to politicize school choice platforms, which systematically redirect resources away from schools with vulnerable populations, they have not only become invalid, in that funding or choice were not the intended measured constructs, but they have also violated the entire premise of Maslow. Since No Child Left Behind legislated the correlation between resources and test results, several thousands of schools across the country have closed. Last time I checked the hierarchy, shelter, social relations, education, food, and safety (all things provided by schools) were still there, still part of any child considered “whole.”

Local school districts must continue fighting for schools that prepare students for a multicultural, intellectually diverse, constantly changing world. This means districts might draw more from TeachingTolerance.org, which offers standards for a culturally responsive and democratic curriculum, and less from the billion-dollar corporations pushing for more tests. This means students might be exposed to new ideas, new forms of practice and assessment, and new social experiences as often as possible. This means students work together to complete tasks and demonstrate their intelligence instead of isolating a child’s memory as the primary determinant of their worth.

With the recent teacher strikes, elections of new voices in politics and schools, and alliances with parents across the country (see: Rethinking Schools), the resistance has gained momentum. New ways of schooling are being imagined. We need to keep striving for our whole children, not throw an olive branch to the private enterprises that profit by reducing children to scores.

Dr. JT Torres is an associate professor of teacher education at Colorado Mountain College. He can reached via email at jtorres14@coloradomtn.edu.