October 25th, 2021


President Obama finally opts in for personalized teaching over standardized testing

Nat Hentoff

By Nat Hentoff

Published Oct. 28, 2015

( Nat collaborated with his son, Nick Hentoff, on this week's column.)

As the national opt-out movement against mandatory standardized testing gathered steam earlier this year, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan began to sound retreat. On April 21, the website reported that Duncan -- speaking at the Education Writers Association conference in Chicago -- said that his department would be forced to intervene if states failed to address the surging number of students opting-out of federally mandated standardized tests.

Later that same month, the website reported that Duncan, speaking before the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, surprised audience members when he "acknowledged serious flaws in the standardized tests that currently drive American schools."

On Oct. 24, President Obama finally surrendered, to my surprise, as he announced on a video posted to Facebook that his administration had gone too far in fostering an over-reliance on standardized testing.

"The administration called for a cap on assessment so that no child would spend more than 2 percent of classroom instruction time taking tests," The New York Times reported.

Back on July 15, I wrote a column on the success of the nationwide opt-out movement titled "Personal Teaching Breaks Through Nationally."

"Over time I have learned that when students are liberated from the effects of being taught as members of a group -- say, for a standardized test -- they are allowed to shine as individuals," I wrote at the time. "Making teaching personal, and not based on the limits of standardized testing, is the first step to leading students to become active American citizens."

The U.S. Department of Education learned a long time ago -- notwithstanding the Obama administration's seven years of amnesia -- that a curriculum focused on personalized teaching is the key to success for low-income students.

This past summer marked the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Education's Upward Bound program, launched in 1965 to use innovative, personalized teaching methods to help some of America's poorest kids succeed by graduating from high school and going on to earn a college degree.

Among the eligibility requirements set by the Department of Education for student participation in the program are a demonstrated academic need, a desire to earn a bachelor's degree and coming from a family where neither parent has a bachelor's degree.

A 2014 study by Kaemanje S. Thomas, then a doctoral candidate at Clark Atlanta University, examined the effectiveness of the Upward Bound program. "This research study has shown that the successes of many low-income students are due to the personalization of the Upward Bound program structure," Thomas concluded. "As such, the value of the staffs' relationship cannot be underestimated as it embodies a cultural practice of student centeredness."

Thomas also wrote that the personalized "emphasis of the program structure provides students with a sense of belonging ... The Upward Bound supportive environment prevents low-income students from dropping out of school and motivates them to attend college."

In Connecticut, 80 students from failing Bridgeport public high schools participate in the Upward Bound program sponsored by Fairfield University, where my sister, Janet Krauss, has taught creative writing and poetry for the past 37 years. Only students from three of Bridgeport's most desperately challenged public schools are eligible to participate in the program. Two of these schools were labeled "dropout factories" in a 2007 Associated Press investigation into nationwide high school dropout rates.

The personalized teaching methods used by Fairfield University's Upward Bound program go well beyond standardized test preparation and include, according to its website, "tutoring, mentoring, academic instruction, academic counseling ... life skills workshops, cultural events, college visits, assistance with the college admissions and financial aid processes, financial literacy, career exploration, leadership development, and a summer residential program."

The Fairfield Upward Bound program requires students -- in addition to the regular coursework at their high school -- to attend instructional, tutoring and enrichment classes at Fairfield University two to three Saturdays per month. The students also receive regular visits from Upward Bound staff members at the student's high school.

Personalized teaching has long been a feature enjoyed by students in elite private schools -- and many wealthy suburban public school districts -- which can afford to attract the best teachers and support the low student-teacher ratios essential to a student-centered approach to education.

While running for president in 2008, Sen. Obama gave a speech at a school in Thornton, Colorado, in which he invoked Thomas Jefferson's declaration that "talent and virtue, needed in a free society, should be educated regardless of wealth or birth."

It is now time -- in the last year of his presidency and through a renewed partnership with Congress -- for Obama to take action and turn his promises into an everyday reality for America's low-income school children across the nation.

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Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of several books, including his current work, "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance".