March 23, 2010

There Are Big Ideas, and There Are Small Implementations

Justin Katz

Diane Ravitch offers a wonderful example of a particular strategy for rebuffing education reforms:

As an education historian, I have often warned against the seductive lure of grand ideas to reform education. Our national infatuation with education fads and reforms distracts us from the steady work that must be done.

Our era is no different. We now face a wave of education reforms based on the belief that school choice, test-driven accountability and the resulting competition will dramatically improve student achievement.

Ravitch claims to have been a supporter of choice and accountability for some years, having now adjusted her view based on "empirical evidence." But even as one espousing the concepts, she must not have had a very thorough vision for them.

I make that assertion because her empirical evidence against the broad concept of "choice" is the aggregate performance of charter schools across the countries. As has been readily apparent, in Rhode Island, even just establishing such schools can be an arduous process, and the union hounds are ever at the door. A more fair assessment of school choice would have to include private schools, as well. Indeed, implemented as many of us on the right would like, choice would encompass every accredited school to which parents might want access, including different public schools, because the idea isn't just to give students a way out, but also to give schools a way to compete.

As for Ravitch's argument against test-driven accountability treats the proposition as all or nothing. As I've said before, professional accountability in a field like teaching cannot be handled as if by formujla — assessing the number and quantity of something produced. Rather, educational results must be measured as improvements against difficulties, and for that, subjective measures are required. Standardized tests are a critical component of that process, but accountability must flow up the chain, with administrators examining scores in the context of other circumstances, observations, and institutional objectives and accountable to the people above them for their results. Of course, unions dislike such structures, claiming it lacks protection, while the opposition sees talent and performance as all the protection that professionals ought to require.

The impression that one gets from essays like Ravitch's is that the intention isn't so much to examine an experiment and explain lessons learned as to dismiss ideas that haven't really be tried so that the principles on which they're founded can never be proven successful.

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One thing I've never understood is any time I speak with teachers about standardized testing, and suggest they simply teach to the test, they all say that the test has the wrong things on it. So why don't these teachers get more involved in the question creation process? What *is* important? And is it a question of what is important to one teacher is not important to another? Why don't the two teachers' unions in the state put together a committee to review the question bank and update it to reflect what is *important* and then teach to the test, indirectly?

Posted by: Patrick at March 23, 2010 2:32 PM

Pat.....Many teachers have a lot of problems with “teaching to the test.” Most importantly, many of us would rather “teach to prepare the student for life” or “teach to prepare the student for college” than teach to the test. It is lot easier to get the students engaged when there is some "real life application."
Secondly, success happens when the kids want to learn. Teaching to the test often deflates this. These standardized test are a thorn in the students side. Not only do they hate them, in the case with RI’s students often they don’t try to do well. They do not really count for anything. Performing well on state testing does not help them get a better grade or help them get into college. An equation for apathy! Weigh that against grades that count, sports, activities, a part time job and above all, their social life and, you get the picture, standardized test are not high on the importance scale. Many people don’t understand just how hard it is to get a rebellious 17 year old to do something he/she do not want to do.

Despite this, I think testing place in education. However, the method of testing needs to change. There has to be a broader spectrum than just a test with fill in the dots. A student’s ability at critical thinking, writing,and demonstrating are all factors that should be assessed. Portfolio assestments are also useful. These skills transfer well to the job market. To me, “fill in the dots” doesn't quite do the same.

I was on a Massachusetts DOE Committee for science, math and technology in the late 90’s. One of the DOE members stated a interesting opinion on the MCAS. “It will make low performing teachers accountable but it could also have a negative effect on those highly creative teachers who work outside the box but are often brilliant. These talented individuals will now have to become more mainstream and this is a shame". Kids learn differently according to their personality. Teachers teach differently.

Posted by: ed davis at March 24, 2010 4:06 AM

Ed, I can appreciate your comments, but I guess if you want to teach someone to prepare for life, great, put it on the test how to compound interest or balance a checkbook. If you want to prepare someone for college, I guess I don't understand how that differs from the current goal of high schools.

As for the student apathy, *make* it matter. Just like in MA where you don't graduate without the MCA, or maybe make a passing score on the test be another course with a P/F grading system. The student is then subject to all the same rights and penalties as if they flunk Math or Spanish. Make the test be a credited 'course' that counts toward graduation. It would be the easiest credits ever for a student who takes the test seriously.

"Despite this, I think testing place in education. However, the method of testing needs to change"

I agree completely, but what are AFT and NEA doing about that? Why aren't the teachers clamoring for improvements to the tests? Why aren't they ready to walk out over this? As the local radio host says, "You'll walk in circles all day over your compensation, but talk about curriculum and you just say 'there's nothing we can do!".

Show me teachers who fight for changes to curriculum for the betterment of students and you'll see a great many, many taxpayers on their side.

Posted by: Patrick at March 24, 2010 11:51 AM
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