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In Defense of Politics—Sort of

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Dear Diane,

It's fun occasionally to be reminded of why we were considered by so many to be "in opposition." When you took pleasure in the NY Times editorial promoting tests (this time national), I was reminded of our disagreements!

Allowing a national definition of success to rest on so many unaligned tests is patently absurd. You would "align" them, I would eliminate them! My quarrel with NCLB is with its power to define success, and then with its use of tests to do so. A more "sensible" NCLB, with a single consistent test, would make it more, not less dangerous. If teaching to the test is bad now, it would become suffocating if tried on the scale the NY Times suggests.

As I gather, however, you are not for tests that are high stakes, but just "fyi". It's important, if you hold this view, to spell that out. I doubt if it's what the NY Times has in mind, nor am I sure it's do-able until the politicians (and reporters) understand the limits of test data. I would argue that the task of strengthening schools that serve the larger purposes of education cannot be achieved until we flesh out the possible definitions we each hold of what being "well-educated" looks like. There may be more than one answer—which is why I go back to that other idea: a Consumer Reports on schooling. One that allows us to compare and contrast, but does not seek a single answer.

You suggest, as does NCLB, that if folks were forced to acknowledge their failure (by true scores, and true consequences) they'd go about fixing them in ways that would improve true test scores. For reasons good and bad there's no evidence for that. Just suppose Atlanta's improvement is related to just better prepping? Would you recommend we all do the same? No. You wouldn't. But once we go down that road…….

There is no way to be well-educated in everything by age 8, 12, 16. And which qualities of mind or skill we think deserves to push out others is hard to agree about. And unnecessary! We don't all agree about cars either, or any of the other stuff covered by Consumer Reports. But we can make our own judgments—or at least better ones than we might without it. Probably we rely in the end on what our friends and relatives also say, but that's fine, too. For cars and schools.

So, I want to pursue this. I met with a few people recently who were really struck by the idea of a CR-type review of NYC schools. I think it's do-able.

I ought to quit now. But I want to shift ground a little to an old obsession: where in the world do folks think we learn about the arts and science (and history and practice) of democracy? We once based it on such small, geographically close and "common" constituencies that it didn't take as much counter-intuitive understanding. But even then, the Federalist Papers did quite a job bouncing the ideas around. How can we ignite a similar debate? What role could a Consumer Reports play in such a debate?

Why aren't the major Universities—and I don't mean the education departments—convening folks to dig into the deeper question of the relationship between democracy and K-16 and beyond. We know that there are stress points in a democratic society—what do we know about how we weather them and what we lose during such historic moments. How instinctive was Giuliani's idea of postponing the election in NYC after 9/11? Or Chavez's retreat from democracy in Venezuela, or Putin's or Musharraf's dodges? Why do reformers look for the man on the white horse over and over? Or for technocratic solutions—the perfect test? I enjoyed James Traub's comment in last Sunday's NY Times piece ("Persuading Them"): "What we say about ourselves no longer has much effect; but what we are seen doing—on occasion, what we are caught doing—matters immensely." Maybe too many youngsters reach 18 without ever having seen democracy "done"—much less reflected on the dilemmas involved, guided by wise adults.

How can schools—without being inappropriately political—teach politics? How can we counteract our natural tendency to elevate "nonpartisanship" above politics, rather than seeking a more vigorous politics, with all its self-interested warts?

When we knock politics, we undermine the struggle to make democracy work. No politics, no democracy! While you and I are both feeling a little weary about how politics has distorted schooling, we both know that it takes renewing that discourse again generation after generation, not giving up on it.

Part of our weariness is that it takes a somewhat leveler playing field for the game to work at its best. When we lay the task all onto schools we undermine what schools can do, and forget about all the other parties to democracy's warts.

Ted Sizer and I once tried to get Harvard interested in the topic. Everyone said "yes yes", "great idea". But it never happened. Maybe NYU? Meanwhile we can also look around for folks to help us launch a CR for schools. Anyone else out there interested?

Deborah

8 Comments

I just read the article you refer to in this entry and I must say that it is startling to see that there are so many different tests that set differing standards across the country. I was unaware of such dissonance, but the idea of creating one national standardized test es even more startling to me. I am with you in getting rid of these tests altogether. I am a college student working on an elementary education major, and we often talk about the concept of "teaching to the test" which is obviously very limiting (as you mentioned). I would love for when I start teaching to have the freedom to teach on my own terms rather than preparing my students for an assessment written by someone who lives a thousand miles away from the world in which I live and teach. I think that different parts of the country progress academically at different rates, so it doesn't make sense for there to be one standard that accepts or condemns the accomplishments of every school in the nation. These are people who are very different from each other, and as small as some people claim the world is getting, it just isn't that small yet.

I just read the article you refer to in this entry and I must say that it is startling to see that there are so many different tests that set differing standards across the country. I was unaware of such dissonance, but the idea of creating one national standardized test es even more startling to me. I am with you in getting rid of these tests altogether. I am a college student working on an elementary education major, and we often talk about the concept of "teaching to the test" which is obviously very limiting (as you mentioned). I would love for when I start teaching to have the freedom to teach on my own terms rather than preparing my students for an assessment written by someone who lives a thousand miles away from the world in which I live and teach. I think that different parts of the country progress academically at different rates, so it doesn't make sense for there to be one standard that accepts or condemns the accomplishments of every school in the nation. These are people who are very different from each other, and as small as some people claim the world is getting, it just isn't that small yet.

Whoops, sorry about the double post.

Diane - are you really not for high stakes testing?

Hmm, sadly, that is a good option - to have testing that gives a view of student achievement but not to cut off kids in getting their diplomas.

My future brother-in-law is a principal. He makes our state test part of student grades. That way the students don't just mess around when taking the test. There is another option....

Here is an article in the Oregonian that points to schools that are opting out of NCLB:
http://tinyurl.com/ynvmlj

I haven't found anything that tells me that if a school opts out, does the school also lose federal special ed money. It does appear that schools that opt out have their federal funds redistributed to other schools in the district. Weird.

Dickey47,

IN MY EXPERIENCE, the kids would be better off if we just turned down the money like those schools did in Oregon.

I'm opposed to the values that high stakes testing imposes, but I could make the argument solely in practical terms. In my experience, panicked administrators just dusted off the same approaches that failed in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and paid inflated prices for the same old thing.

We have the same number of kids getting tutoring as before, but now teachers are being paid for time they used to volunteer. They donated their time because of the hope that after-school instruction would work, and it did within reason. Now kids are just sitting in mandatory recess after school with no pretense of trying to learn, meaning that bad practice drove out good. Our impoverished school has millions of dollars of online tutorials and computers that have not been unwrapped. The central office rams the stuff down our throats and we react in a human manner. I snuck in and borrowed some materials because if they work, I want to use them. If they don't, I don't want to be forced to use them and I sure don't want to leave a written record that I have a) been given a teaching tool, b) been instructed to use it, which means c) I'm insubordinate if I don't implement their educational malpractice.

You can say we're wrong, but actually all your saying is that we are human.

And there is the argument of fiscal prudence. How are we helping kids if we just spend money in a way that we consider wasteful? Why do we think society will continue to fund practices that have largely failed under NCLB?
John

Oregon doesn't have high stakes testing. Other than my future brother in law using the test as part of a grade (which is pretty fair in my opinion), there is no high stakes to the STUDENTS. If high stakes is defined as - you lose federal funding - then oops, my bad, I didn't define it that way. But yes, it should not be tied to funding either. I'd hate to have school lying on their test results, the state dumbing down their testing, or teachers teaching to the test.

Funny, that future brother-in-law, he's quoted in the article I linked above. I have no idea of how I missed that.

And I have yet to find out if schools that opt out of NCLB also lose federal special ed money.

Dickey47,
"High Stakes" usually means that the data are used to make big decisions (financial) and create labels for the school, such as "Failing". If there are problems with the validity of the test to begin with - because the test does not get students to really demonstrate what they know and can do - then the results would impact students. A label like "Failing" on a school does more than cut funding - it cuts into the heart of the school community, fostering mistrust and confusion. There are better ways to capture students' learning besides a multiple choice test, but those types of methods are very expensive to reliably assess (portfolios, essays, group work, etc.) Accountability is needed, but it's complex work because it involves humans and human endeavors are always messy. kate

"High stakes" testing has several connotations around the country. In some states it indicates grade retention if kids fail to reach a specified score on the state's NCLB test. In other states it can mean the difference between graduating from high school or not. These "stakes" were initiated to counter social promotions which a 1944 article quipped that, "...passing pupils (who were not academically ready for the next grade) was passing the buck."

In defense of the graduaton requirement (now in 22 states): (1) kids have multiple opportunities to pass their state graduation tests, often five to six attempts before the end of senior year; (2) most of these "graduation" tests are written at an 8th or 9th grade level - almost beyond belief; and (3) these kids are identified as early as grade three and most states offer multiple tutorial opportunities for them to be remediated before grade twelve.

Obviously none of these "stakes" are desirable or ideal but many will argue are necessary. When "A Nation At Risk" came out with its infamous "...rising tide of mediocrity," in our schools, pressure was brought to bear by the business community and eventually state legislatures.

One postulate from these contemporary reactions: the US has never been, and probably never will be, satisified with the performance of its public schools. That, I contend, is a good thing.

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