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Tests, Taylorism, and Frauds


Dear Debbie,

The reason that I directed your attention to the AIR study was that it included only the dozen nations that participated in both TIMSS and PISA. Otherwise, it is confusing to refer to the U.S.'s standing in these assessments because many nations participated only once. When several less-developed nations join in the assessments, our scores look better and better. Should we really congratulate ourselves because we got higher scores on TIMSS than Cyprus, Yemen, Botswana, and Iran? These countries were not included in the AIR study, nor was the “one district of China” to which you refer, because they did not participate in both assessments.

I agree with you about the rise of Taylorism. Frederick Taylor was the best-known proponent of scientific management and efficiency in the early part of the 20th Century, and he had a wide impact on American society, and certainly on American education. The best book on the subject, in my view, is Raymond Callahan’s "Education and the Cult of Efficiency," which was published in the early 1960s. Taylor emphasized that there was a best way to do everything and that the determination of the “best way” should be taken away from workers and put into the hands of the managers. As you acknowledge, Taylorism was thought of in its time as progressive, because it was supposedly “modern” and “scientific.” And certainly anything that was scientific was considered to be a great advance over traditional methods.

I tried to show in my book "Left Back" that John Dewey’s ideas resonated more with affluent school districts and elite private schools than regular public schools, while Taylor’s ideas had a profound impact on the public schools that most children attended. In addition, the I.Q. testing movement that burgeoned after the First World War was embraced in virtually all schools, even by leaders of the progressive education movement because it too was considered “scientific” and was promoted by the top pedagogical experts of the time (such as Edward Thorndike of Teachers College).

We don’t seem to be able to escape our history, so it seems awfully important to study it, to know which coils have wrapped themselves around our brains, which ideas undergird our assumptions.

The present small school movement has become a vehicle for some of the pernicious ideas that we thought our society had long ago discarded. Under the rubric of choice, children are sorting themselves (and being sorted) into different silos. A strange sort of vocationalism is emerging: I just read about a new high school that will open soon in Brooklyn called the High School for Innovation in Advertising and Media. How strange is it that children of 14 and 15 are supposed to decide on a career in advertising? How likely is it that any of them will actually engage in such a career? Yet, we have countless examples of small schools geared towards a specific job title like this one.

As it happens, I received several emails today from academics explaining that many of the new small high schools are deeply committed to “credit recovery.” That is, the students don’t actually attend classes, but they do “projects” outside schools that are not monitored by teachers and they receive credits toward graduation. This is social promotion, intended to speed kids toward graduation, to burnish the school’s reputation, and to boost the city’s 50 percent graduation rate. A teacher said, “They have to do this, they have to move the kids out regardless of their performance or they would have very little room to admit new students.” As a colleague wrote, in reference to the new small high schools: “Everyone is doing it; social promotion is rampant.”

There are all sorts of fraud being perpetrated on the public, but worse, on the students. Does anyone care?



As Pogo famously said, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

The modern education profession is so fixed on finding quick fixes to chronic problems that it no longer values the study of the history, sociology, and philosophy of education. Hence, to "coin" a phrase, "Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it." I would bet a good steak dinner that issues such as the effects of Taylorism on the organization and operation of schools are no longer studied in graduate schools of education, nor are the classic works of John Dewey or progressive histories and critiques of U.S. education by the likes of Lawrence Cremins and Raymond Callahan on required reading lists. Instead, there is frantic, technically-rational search for the how detached from the why.

Diane and Deb,

You two have become too eclectic in your entries. It's very difficult to respond to your columns because there's too much to digest (tests, Taylorism, frauds - well-educated v smart, multiple problems of urban schools, etc.).

Tests are good in that they are an objective indicator of whether a youngster has learned something or not. If they have learned something, good. If they have not learned it yet, more time needs to be spent with them on the concept/skill. TESTS SHOULD NOT BE PUNITIVE IN NATURE. The international results have always been a problem for me because of the multiple variables (language, size, history, etc.) from one culture to another.

Frederick Taylor's factory model for school, like most models, has pluses and minuses. It was good because it categorized kids by age (for the most part) into grades as opposed to the one room schoolhouse that had to accommodate everyone. This made schools more manageable for teachers and administrators. His factory model was negative in that it attempted to create a one-size-fits-all model. Not all eight year olds should be in third grade. Not everyone can graduate from high school at seventeen.

Social promotion has been the scourge of America's public schools. Authentic assessments? Talk about a fraud, an oxymoron. And of course the ones who get short-changed here are the kids. As the Boston Globe called them, "loophole" diplomas are a meaningless piece of paper that robs youngsters of a legitimate opportunity at life. It doesn't take an employee long to figure out which workers have the ability to get something accomplished and which do not. Of course the unemployed worker, with minimal reading and math skills will be hard pressed to remain on the job for a prolonged time with their empty/loophole diploma.

I have just completed two graduate studies in order to be certified for teaching positions. It is true that there is little or no discussion about the why's of education and all empahsis is on lesson plans and the "how's", such as classroom arrangements, making rules, and methods that I will never remember or use, since the cost of materials for these methods are prohibitive.

During interviews I have had in the last couple of weeks, I have been asked repeatedly, "What do you do if a child does not open his book?" As a substitute for two years, opening a book was the least of my problems. Fighting, disrespect, name-calling, and children literally climbing the walls were my problems. It usually started out with the comment from the class leader, "You are not a real teacher, are you?"

Now that I am certified, but with little experience except the disheartening substuting jobs, I do not fit "curricular" needs.

My first degree was obtained from a College of Arts and Sciences, not a College of Education. I am often amazed at the insular, box-like thinking of Colleges of Education.

My mother, a full professor of Art History, at a state institution that was originally a Teacher's College, has always said that Colleges of Education have their prepositions mixed up. It is not that you teach children, you teach a subject to children. She was once told by the chair of the department, if you can teach, you can teach anything. Although the "highly qualified" movement may try to address this, it has never really addressed this basic attitude. Superintendents of Instruction do not want to hear about the excitement of exploring history, rather they want to hear how I teach math and reading, use post-it notes, and create projects.

As there were not any jobs in history, I went on to pursue a LBS1 certification: 45 more hours in lesson plans, four state "highly qualified" tests later, I am still at a loss at how I am going to get Johnnie to open his book if he truly refuses.

Debbie and Diane;

Have either of you ever looked at a study by V. A. Krutetskii, "The Psychology of Mathematical Abilities in School Children?" It was a book report published in about 1971 in which the author examined the learning behavior of students in the Soviet Union. He tried to classify the students by ability, then examined the ways they approached math problems. What he discovered is that talented students have behaviors that are counter to school methodology. For example, these students "preferred" to solve problems a multitude of ways. In contrast, multiple approaches tended to confuse the students who had difficulty. We tend to teach single procedure methods (line up your decimals, etc.) which would satisfy the least talented. However, what I found interesting is that in most cases, the middle group, the average students were able to develop the same skills as the capable ones. The question I ask is, do we want our "average" students to be taught as if they lack talent, or to somehow (Dewey style) try to design schools that eventually have students thinking analytically, etc.

My guess is that teaching kids by rote is much easier because every students is doing the same thing. Teaching students to think is quite difficult and require a great deal of flexibility on the teacher's part.

Teaching is an art, an ever changing art. Teachers guide students towards and along learning paths. Learning involves change and happens constantly. The learning is not always in the desired direction, but it is always occuring. The job of the teacher is to manage and guide the learning experience. Teachers do not make students learn, nor do the make students open books or answer test questions correctly. Teachers guide students to their individual potentials.

Problems galore--including how to not be eclectic, Paul! You've got a point.

Janice--maybe if you kept both maxims in your head at once it would help you get "Johnny to open a book." We're here to teach children and subjects--we can't do one without the other--they are what unites us with kids (our shared interest in the subject matter); but it's the kid we need to keep our eye on as we explore together. He's the prize.

The concept, Fred, that we should teach the "talented" one way and "the others" another way has been around a long time. It worries me, although no doubt there's value to it too. It's imperative for us to tackle this dilemma if we want to teach the "untalented" more than basic arithmetic. Along the way those who don't "get it" drop out--if not literally, then at least in their heads. Even that wouldn't be so serious when we insist that all kids take 12 years and more of math--an hour or more a day! A little rote learning won't make Johnny a dull boy, but when done endlessly, day after day, year after year it's a life-killer.

Maybe confusion is okay, if we are patient long enouigh?



Clearly, the practice of social promotion causes many problems. Whether it’s an officially sanctioned process, or one that teachers have merely become accustomed to, social promotion undermines student achievement and teacher morale.

But now let’s look at the situation from where a principal or superintendent might sit. What would happen if we instantly combined high expectations and more rigorous curriculum with accurate grading in low-achieving schools? Over 3-5 year’s time we’d see over-crowded elementary schools and near-empty high schools. Logistically, this is a non-starter. Hence, the culture of social promotion has a practical, albeit pernicious, aspect.

Now, logistical reasons are no excuse for such a heinous practice. But this conundrum does bring to mind a very serious and important issue: we can’t structure out way out of reform. Testing, standards, charters, vouchers, and merit pay are all structural reforms. But school, being the slippery beast that it is, defies restructuring.

Our only hope is to teach our way out.

This is why I find it so fascinating that so few people want to talk about changing teaching. They want to talk about changing tests, changing standards, changing charters, changing unions, changing pay, but they rarely want to talk about the only change that might actually make a difference.

Social promotion is unethical but it arises out of the need for survival. This doesn’t make it OK but it does give us a sense of the magnitude of the problem. It also tells us that social promotion doesn’t exist in isolation. And lets not forget that social promotion exists on a smaller scale in virtually every school in our country – or at least I can say that it has been a part of the “playbook” of each and every one of the 200+ schools I’ve worked with over the last 15 years. How else does one explain the number of high school students who are three, four, or even five years behind?

Smaller and wealthier school districts hide their socially promoted kids by skimming them off into special programs. But in many of our urban schools, the majority of kids fit the description of those who are so far behind that the correlation between their grade level and the number of years they’ve spent in school is meaningless. As such, special programs are also meaningless.

So what’s the answer? Again, it’s teaching. But we can be even more thoughtful than that. If we acknowledge that literacy is the foundation of academic success, and if we acknowledge the brain window for language learning, and if we acknowledge the traditions of elementary school teaching and the natural separation of instructional styles that seems to occur after 3rd grade, we can make simple plans for solid interventions early enough in kids’ lives that strategies like social promotion would be unnecessary.

There are two key places to intervene in a young student’s learning life: at the beginning of 1st grade and at the end of 3rd. It is perfectly reasonable to get kids extra help in the first half of first grade if they are not yet reading and writing independently. And it is perfectly reasonable to retain less successful 3rd graders for an additional year if they have not yet become confident chapter book readers and conventional writers of multi-paragraph essays.

At the same time, we can do several things that make intervention and retention much less likely. First of all, we could concentrate professional development in literacy at the primary grades. Bringing teachers of young children up to speed with the latest and best methods like Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop would improve outcomes tremendously. Second, we can move our most successful teachers to first and third grade. And finally, we can employ the use of high quality early interventions like Reading Recovery for kids who are struggling out of the gate.

The root cause of social promotion is not poor kids, it’s poor teaching. Until we recognize the connection here and actually do something about it, schools with many under-performing children have no logistically sound approach but to pass kids along year after year. This reality does not excuse what is surely a detestable behavior but seeing it for what it is and why it exists should heighten for all of us the importance of making sure our teaching – especially in literacy at the early grades – needs a serious overhaul.

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