At first glance, Maureen McCann's classroom looks like a cauldron
Homemade posters cover the walls and papier mache globes hang
from every fluorescent light fixture. On this day, she even lets her
kids have a pizza party and watch "Tuck Everlasting" - a story they
had studied in class.
But ask Ms. McCann, and she'll tell you that the picture is
deceiving. It used to be that such culminating activities - "the fun
stuff that brings it all together" - were relatively commonplace.
Now, a day like this is an anomaly.
Since Boston's Mather Elementary changed its curriculum to
prepare its students for Massachusetts' standardized test, she
simply doesn't have time.
"You need to stop and catch your breath sometimes," she says,
"and [the test] has taken that away."
Her story holds increasing relevance for every schoolchild and
parent nationwide. Congress is now poised to require testing for
public-school students in Grades 3 through 8 - a key provision of
the most sweeping federal education reforms in 40 years. It's a
change that, as McCann's classroom shows, can revamp entire
curriculums, altering what and how children learn.
While teacher prerogative and creativity, enshrined in the 1960s,
are likely to persist in classrooms across the US, the testing
requirement represents a fundamental shift in America's educational
course. The new legislation, expected to clear both houses of
Congress this week, is a sign of the new conviction that a more
businesslike, results-oriented ethic is needed to lift failing
"There's always a cyclical element," says E.D. Hirsch of the
University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "In the old system, what
was at stake was individual achievement, but that approach has had
disastrous effects on equity."
A mixed response
Massachusetts first began its Comprehensive Assessment System
exams in math, science, and English in 1998. In many suburban
districts of Massachusetts, this new direction has been met with
derision, as parents and teachers call the tests superficial and
ineffective. In urban and rural areas, however, more educators have
been open to the idea.
As a result, the changes in what is taught can vary hugely - from
stolid refusal to "teach to the test" to complete overhauls in the
curriculum - and those extremes are nowhere more apparent than in
the suburban Wellesley Middle School and Mather Elementary here in
Even from the outside, the schools are a study in contrasts. Set
along a quiet side street, Wellesley Middle School almost gives the
impression of a college campus in miniature, front quad and all.
Mather, meanwhile, rises from its black asphalt seat in a three-
story block of red brick. Sneakers squeak impatiently on linoleum
floors, and light fixtures in principal Kim Marshall's office rattle
as children play in the gym overhead.
Yet when Mr. Marshall looks at students both here and across the
state, he sees the same need: a better, more unified curriculum.
Massachusetts' standardized test, called the MCAS, is a step toward
that goal, he says, and has already helped his students.
"The target that MCAS gave us was much harder than we had
before," says Marshall, whose circular glasses and wavy hair give
his appearance the slightest hint of a trimmer Steve Forbes. "We
looked at the test and said, 'This is much more than we're getting
out of our kids.' "
So the school changed its entire curriculum - from kindergarten
through fifth grade - to match MCAS expectations. This might force
teachers to give up cherished subjects, Marshall acknowledges, but
it doesn't have to make instruction a colorless exercise of
"I draw a distinction between the 'what' and the 'how to,' " he
explains. "The 'what' needs to be fixed, but the 'how to' is where
creativity comes in."
As evidenced by McCann's classroom, creativity still has a place,
even in the more frenetic MCAS world. …