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What Good are Tests?


Dear Deborah,

Tests inevitably gauge a student’s fund of knowledge and experience, not just what was taught in school. If a student comes from a family where he or she hears a large vocabulary, where there are many books in the home, where reading and learning are valued, where there are excursions to the library or the museum, the tests will reflect that huge amount of social capital.

Tests of math and science are more likely to reflect what was taught in school because most students learn those subjects almost entirely in school. The same is probably true, I suspect, for history tests. Most students are not likely to live in homes where the family talks about the causes of the Civil War or the meaning of the Bill of Rights or the role of immigration in American history.

I think it is reasonable for teachers to use tests to find out whether students have learned what they were taught. Teachers can learn a good bit from test results about how effective they were in teaching lessons and they can learn about the needs of specific students. I also think it is valuable for districts to know whether they are making progress towards their goals, so they can make corrections if they are not. The best uses of tests, I think, are to improve teaching and learning.

We are, as no one knows better than you, in a whole different era. Tests are now being used to reward and punish principals, teachers, and students. They are being used for purposes for which they have not been constructed or validated.

Like you, I am opposed to testing 5-year-olds for admission to a gifted program. It is not surprising that this is happening today in New York City because the school system is in the hands of non-educators who think that everything and everyone can be tested. They are first-class examples of the pernicious application of the term “data-driven decision-making.” They want to eliminate human judgment (too subjective!) and base all decisions on test scores.

Of course tests for 5-year-old children are unreliable! Experts on value-added assessment also say that changes in the test scores of students based on the changes from one test to another are unreliable. Yet the non-educators who run the NYC schools have been trying to use one-year changes to reward and punish teachers and principals.

There are big bonuses available for principals who get their school scores up. There are bonuses for teachers in certain schools if their scores go up. Some kids are being paid for higher scores. I assume the scores will indeed go up. I also assume that higher scores will not mean that any child is getting a better education. Chances are they are being test-prepped to a fare thee well. There may be other causes of rising scores. But no one can persuade me that higher scores produced solely by external punishment and reward equal good education.

The sad fact is, Deborah, that New York City’s public schools now have a leadership team that is clueless about what good education is and how to make it happen. NYC is the local version of NCLB. After five years in control of the city’s schools, it is clear that our leaders know nothing about education. Yet this district won the Broad Prize, which just goes to show how meaningless the Broad Prize is. As a few people in NYC said last fall, it was one billionaire giving a tip of his hat to another billionaire.

And I agree with you: The goal of 2014 in NCLB as the date when everyone must be proficient is impossible. I don’t think the date was set with malice. Just ignorance.



I agree that it's problematic to have non-educators run a school system, especially when they feel it's their charge to "do something...anything!" And I certainly agree that tests and data are being used as the cure-all.

But outside of these thoughtful pages, one encounters the usual pendulum swinging of "tests solve everything" vs. "tests are useless." Why is a happy, balanced medium so difficult to achieve in our profession?

And why do so many writers on education (professional and non) treat NCLB as though it were created ex nihilo? Standards, testing, and the idea of data-driven instruction were born as reactions to a system that, in many of our cities and for many of our kids, did nothing and were utterly unaccountable for their actions. There are schools in New York that have not simply failed children; they have failed generations of children. And this is hardly unique to New York City. So let's just accept that, in many places, "Leave our poor teachers alone to do their jobs!" is not a sufficient or useful answer to the situation in which we find ourselves. We cannot go back to where we were. We have to find a way forward.

What we need is a dialogue that begins where Diane and Deb have started: "What are tests good for, and what can't tests tell us?" and continues into the territory of, "If we agree that we need accountability, and we agree that we need standards of proficient performance for teachers and students, what else is there we can use besides testing?"

We've taken such tremendous steps backward under NCLB and Bloomberg/Klein that unfortunately, finding the way forward means going back to the way we were and "leaving the poor teachers alone to do their jobs," as Andrew says. Only this time, maybe there'll be some actual support from administration and society in helping teachers just do their jobs, unlike the past where we failed generations through societal neglect that hardly was the fault of teachers who chose to pick up the pieces and salvage what they could. For this we can now fail current and future generations with (un)professional threats in our constant drumbeat for war on teachers (the proxy for unions), which really boils down to war on urban-and-not-the-elitists students. These children are guinea pigs in the giant social experiments conducted by business-philanthropy-academia, one of which uses endless testing to see if we can replicate a highly profitable business model in the education industry.

Bloomberg/Klein love to say that the interests of the students are more important than the interests of the teachers, as if somehow people have to check their rights at the door upon high school graduation and submit to a life of complete subjugation, (except those unaccountably in charge of school systems). Anyway, that's like saying that the interests of the child are more important than the interests of the mother. To even suggest this shows a fundamental lack of knowledge about why people teach, and education in general.

"Leave the poor teachers alone to do their jobs?"

Twenty five years ago, a Nation At Risk stated, ""If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament."

The education reform movement of the past quarter century has at least objectively identified where the problems formally exist in our public schools. Before a NAR, the problems and inadequacies existing in our schools were too often dismissed as hearsay or simply negative propaganda. Teachers were left to their own devices as THERE WAS NO FORMAL PROMULGATED PLAN IN PLACE ANYWHERE TO DEFINE WHAT OUR SCHOOLS WERE TO TEACH OR WHEN THEY WERE TO TEACH IT. Local school boards and publishing companies determined what they thought to be important enough to be covered in our public classrooms. The problem with this pell mell approach was one of equity. While one district (usually more affluent) taught a rich desirable curriculum K-12, an adjacent district (usually less affluent) was stuck with a far less demanding and less rigorous program to exacerbate the plight for children of poverty.

"Leave the poor teachers alone..." didn't work twenty five years ago and it would only perpetuate centuries of problems for our neediest students.

All of these uses of test scores deserve a fair hearing, a hearing like this.

Lawyer: Do you believe in the concept of data-driven decision making?
School: Absolutely.
Lawyer: Do you believe that a teacher is the most important factor in student learning?
School: Yes. Research has shown that.
Lawyer: Can one or more good teachers can greatly increase students' test scores?
School: Absolutely.
Lawyer. And bad teachers can have bad, lasting effects?
School: Yes.
Lawyer: Do you calculate a measure of how much a teacher can increase students' scores?
School: Yes, a value-added measure.
Lawyer: Do you publish teachers' scores?
School: Yes. We were required to do so by law.
Lawyer: You published Teacher Z's scores in the newspaper, right?
School: The newspaper did, yes.
Lawyer: And you used the results to award financial bonuses?
School: Funded by private money.
Lawyer: So, you know exactly how much you can expect a particular teacher to increase students’ scores?
School: ...Yes.
Lawyer: And to do this calculation, you keep a record of individual student scores?
School: Yes.
Lawyer: You can even predict what a student's score will be in the future, whether he or she will be "proficient" and pass in the future?
School: Yes. For NCLB.
Lawyer: So, you knew that my client, Student X, would have to increase his test score by 6 points going into Teacher Z's class to pass this high-stakes eighth grade math test?
School: We… Well, yes.
Lawyer: You must have known that, by assigning him to a teacher who was historically not a very good teacher by your own calculation, he would not pass. Did that factor into your data-driven decision to assign him to this teacher?
School: We don't use these data to make those kinds of decisions.
Lawyer: Did you know Teacher Z has never increased any student’s score by 6 points?
School: I cannot comment on an individual teacher.
Lawyer: Did you know my client had no chance to pass before the first day of school because you assigned him to Teacher Z?
School: No.
Lawyer: Why not?
School: I don’t understand all of the calculations, I just --
Lawyer: Could you tell the court what is meant by the phrase "opportunity to learn?"
School: I am not a lawyer.
Lawyer: (To judge.) Permission to treat as a hostile witness...

Tests aren't useless, but they also aren't useful when they are misused. One fundamental flaw with test-driven reform is the propensity to use tests in ways that violate fundamental psychometric principles. Those of us who know, for example, that a test designed to measure student knowledge of, say, mathematics, is not designed to measure teacher effectiveness find it difficult to praise or criticize teachers based solely on the results of said test. Further, we would be loath to presume that anything meaningful had happened, positive or negative, with that student based SOLELY on one test score.

Yet many people, politically-motivated ideologues, politicians, members of the media, etc., are quick to ignore such principles and make much out of very little. Test scores, especially those allegedly objective ones grounded primarily in multiple-choice problems, tell us much less than many folks would like to believe.

I believe a bit of disingenuousness informs Ravitch's comments, given which bandwagon she was on regarding NCLB and so-called accountability for so long. Did she just now realize that tests aren't adequate for telling administrators, teachers, students, et al., whether meaningful learning and effective instruction and administration is going on? If so, she owes this nation a HUGE apology, along with "Checker" Finn and others who suddenly woke up recently to how absurd NCLB not only is, but always had to be as contructed.

My school internally administers a standardized test three times a year in order to comply with NCLB regulations. The data produced is used to recognize strengths and troubleshoot problems within the school.

Here’s what happens (and I write without any exaggeration). A bright second grade female answers 99% of questions correctly on the second grade test. This translates to a grade equivalent score of 12.0 (12th grade). The next fall, as a third grader, she takes the third grade test. On this test, her grade equivalence score is 4.0 (4th grade). The conclusion by the principals and administrators (as announced at a grave October in-service): Our students are falling back by as much as 8 grade levels over the summer.

I tried explaining to my principal that of course her grade equivalence score will be higher on the 2nd grade test than the 3rd grade test. She took the 2nd grade test at the end of 2nd grade, and the test covered 2nd grade content standards, which she had already learned. She took the 3rd grade test during Week 1 of 3rd grade. The 3rd grade test covers 3rd grade standards, which she hadn’t learned yet. Due to her natural intelligence, she was able to figure certain problems out, but she missed every single multiplication and division problem because they’re 3rd grade concepts that she had never been introduced to. It is therefore wrong to conclude that she had slipped 8 grade levels during the summer.

Blank stares from my principal.

A student with a mild learning disability decided that he didn’t want to bother with the test, and spent testing time making a complex pattern of ABACADACAB on his answer sheet. Though he consistently tested at a 1st grade level, this time, he jumped up to a 4th grade level. I was complimented for my fabulous gains with this student. No one believed my honest description of what had happened during the test, and no one wanted to bother to look at his test booklet to see if his math problems showed regrouping. When I spoke with the kindergarten and first grade teachers about the incident, they said that half their classes do the same thing each testing session. “How are your scores?” “They’re pretty alright.”

When it comes to hard data on student achievement, I have become very jaded.


"If we agree that we need accountability, and we agree that we need standards of proficient performance for teachers and students, what else is there we can use besides testing?"

It seems to me that Deb has the idea. Maybe 6 months ago she suggested evaluating schools with an independently-operating Consumer Reports-like publication. I was extremely excited about this idea—provided the ratings system is transparent and does not pretend to be scientifically-grounded when it’s not (think U.S. News on four-year colleges). Perhaps qualitative evaluation is the only way we can go. Investigate what’s going on at all the K-12 schools in, say, New York, and describe the bustling after-school program at one, the principal’s commitment to arts education at another, the quality of science instruction at a third. Describe failings, too—three hours of test prep. per day, robotic administrations of a scientifically-based scripted reading programs, and no social studies! I don’t know if the choice movement is the answer per se (definitely not if we speak of its current manifestation in Cleveland, D.C., etc.), but I would like to see more mobility between schools based on the educational philosophy of parents. Actually, I would like to see more parents having a philosophy when it comes how a child should be educated (especially in low-income areas, where too often I see parents trusting schools where trust is not due). If a parent had to make a choice as to whether his daughter should attend this school with this mission statement or that school with that reputation, philosophies would surface, and the parent would be empowered to look at schools with a critical eye.

Some final thoughts. In the era of high stakes testing, the movement is to appraise schools on the basis of subjects that are easily assessable (math and cookie-cutter reading comprehension strategies that do not reward creativity or any sort of divergent thinking). With this comes a parallel movement—namely, only teaching those subjects that are formally assessed. Yes, I’m a teacher who has been told by her administrator to replace social studies and science with test prep., and know countless teachers from different schools who relate similar experiences. However, assessing social studies in order to make teachers teach it is not the answer. Reducing a rich cultural history to select subjective views touted as fact in order to make social studies easily assessable is not the answer.

In an increasingly technology-driven world, data reigns supreme, and relying on a non-scientific method of evaluation seems like a step into the Stone Age. But, we shouldn’t try to quantify where quantification isn’t possible. In doing so, we delude ourselves into thinking that our numbers mean more than they do. The beauty of qualitative assessments is just this—they’re qualitative—and that they’re based on a team’s empirical observations is patently obvious. We shouldn’t pretend to be able to do better than this. In making assessment into a science, we are rewarding schools that don’t even teach science. That’s just messed up.

Interesting story, JP, and I don't doubt that you are telling the truth with regard to the various behaviors and understandings. The problem is--there is no NCLB regulation that requires a standardized test three times a year.

So where is this misguided attempt coming from? My guess would be that it is a district attempt at identifying the areas of strength and weakness in order to guide teaching. But whence cometh the test? Did someone spend local tax dollars on this thing? Is there a testing coordinator in your district that believes that a test on second grade material can come out with a grade level of 12? Are these the people who will be in charge if the government just gets out of the way?

I am all for meaningful testing, which is not what we have. It seems most people here agree on this point--we disagree perhaps on what would bring meaning. Meaning comes from many sources, including a strong curriculum (which many schools and systems lack) and timely, detailed results (scratch that one, too).

The ELA test in New York State focuses on skills, not knowledge. (Sorry, "main idea" and "inference" don't cut it as knowledge, especially out of context.) If kids were tested on specific works of literature, grammar, vocabulary, and concepts, then regular instruction would cover most of what the students needed to know. Very little "test prep" would be required. This has been said before, but it doesn't seem to get through to our leaders, who promote vague curricula and award big contracts to test prep companies, who exploit the vagueness by claiming to have special insight into the tests.

Also, we wait far too long for test results. The NYS ELA exam was administered in January. The results are ready, apparently, but haven't been released for some reason. Some kids have been asking every day for their scores. They believe the test is important--after all, that is what they were told, over and over. Where will they get their scores? Why can't we see the scored tests themselves, so that students, teachers, and parents can analyze what took place and where we need to go from here?

We're driving home how important the tests are--then we fail to disclose their content (via curriculum) or results. The kids end up confused about what really matters.

In an atmosphere of absurdity, values start to disappear. Kids become cynical and bored. (So do our leaders, apparently--they start playing with the tests as though twiddling their thumbs.) Teachers have to deal with the fallout while enforcing testing protocol again and again, test after test. Many of us complain about the loss of time to testing, but the loss of meaning is worse.

"Many of us complain about the loss of time to testing, but the loss of meaning is worse."

Here, here! So well put.


"The problem is--there is no NCLB regulation that requires a standardized test three times a year."

Let me clarify. We're a Title I school, and have been in corrective action for several years. NCLB delegates the supervision of the corrective action process to state boards of education. The improvement plan mandated by my state has a "monitoring" component, which can be satisfied with any one of several standardized and commercial internal testing platforms (recommended in the state guidelines).

Sorry for the confusion.

And a comment to Michael Paul Goldenberg:

Have you read any of Diane Ravitch's books (for instance, Left Back)? They might change your perception of her "bandwagon." Some of us in this huge nation don't feel that she has been disingenuous or owes us an apology. I feel quite the opposite--her books and other writings inspire me to persist and improve as a teacher, and to deepen my understanding of our education system. I am far from alone in that. Please do take us into account when speaking for the country as a whole.

Many initial supporters of NCLB later decried the culture and economy of finger-pointing. Perhaps the law's worst effect is that we have no room even to acknowledge our errors, as individuals and as a system. Everyone wants to look good and cast the blame on someone else. We need a way to address problems honestly, without fear. We also need curriculum, by golly.


How can our current tests even help teaching and learning?

To be of any help to the teachers the tests would need to be:

1. Timely, so that the teacher could get feedback with enough time to adjust teaching techniques

2. Aligned with classroom instruction.

3. Closely resembles the intended curricula. Where is the alignment between the textbooks and the tests? Should we not be testing what our children are supposed to learn, not the other way around? Testing should not be the sole driver for what gets taught in the classroom.

4. Wide dissemination of what teaching techniques worked well and what didn’t. Even with data from the tests, what are teachers to make of it? How do they use that information to improve their teaching? Just knowing that a teacher is not very effective isn’t enough. Teachers need to have a viable path forward. We have no systematic way of disseminating quality instruction.

Your critique of the NYC school system is well founded, but their difficulties do not lie in their desire to use data to guide their decisions. Quality data can always enhance decision making.

The NYC school system suffers from the same ailments that schools around the US do; a genuine desire to improve student learning without a system organized to encourage/evaluate continual improvements in curricula, teaching and testing.

Erin Johnson


Your clarifications don't actually diminish my point. A school doesn't arrive at a point of being several years into corrective action because all indicators were that everything is well. Even to get to a first year of corrective action requires a pattern of years not meeting AYP. I don't know what state you are in, but most states set AYP goals fairly low (I believe that the initiation point was the 20th percentile) for the initial years--with a expectation of being able to accomplish a more steep trajectory (or influence legislation to change NCLB) during the latter years.

Unless your school is unusually large (or you state has set the "n" number unusually low) the barrier to AYP is not those pesky English Language Learners or Students With Disabilities. Odds are that you have a sizable proportion of kids--most likely African American or low-income, not able to demonstrate profiency--at whatever (and again, in most states it is low) level your state has set. This is what has been the result of the "teachers left alone" (I will grant, it isn't only the teachers--there are administrators of various stripes in the mix)

Now it could be argued (and it has been frequently) that the school was really good at delivering on some other qualities that are far more difficult to measure (ingenuity, creativity, sense of self-determination, responsibility). Personally, I could get sucked into an argument of whether there ARE in fact measures of these things. But, as a parent, I have to assert, that if my kid isn't also learning to read and cipher well enough to show progress on some standard measure, there are some problems that need to be solved. When I look around and discover that (something that I was not able to do pre-NCLB) it's not just MY kid, but lots of others in the same building that aren't making it, I want there to be some changes made.

I really find you account to be both frightening, but also to have a ring of absolute truth. I have been presented scores that no one in the room understood (I have had to learn on my own the difference between a raw score, a scale score, a percentile ranking and some others, as well as the difference between norm-referenced and criterion referenced tests).

So--I believe your principal's blank look when questioned. I also have to question who told you that a test on second grade material could come out with a grade level of twelve. There is an extreme desire as schools are confronted with the black and white of test scores showing that some populations are getting it (education) and others not to find a way out of the spot light: blame the test, blame the state, blame the principal, blame NCLB. But the cold hard reality that we have known for some time, without the tests, is that the outcomes of education are far from equal in this country--and they vary by socio-economic status, by race and by disability. We really struggle between our sense of the American Dream of equal opportunity and what we know to be true.

Yes--the big tests may be OK as accountability measures but are too broad to guide instruction. Yes, we still lack administrators with a good grounding in understanding the diagnostic kinds of tests that can guide instruction. We absolutely lack the needed capacity to formulate (across the board) valid and meaningful diagnostic tests (and problems and activities) at the building and classroom level.

But these are problems we need to tackle and resolve. Making the tests go away will not do that.


It's true. My school is not doing what it's supposed to be doing--that is, providing a quality education to every student that attends. If anything, the standardized tests we make the school look better than it is.

Yes, better! In recent years, in order get out of corrective action, there has been a movement to improve test scores. This means: test prep, test prep, test prep. And you know what? Our scores are improving, because our students are used to the format of the test. Are they getting a better education? There's no art, no music, no social studies, no science (I'm a renegade who sneaks these in when no one's looking).

Again, our test scores reflect these flaws positively. I think a qualitative evaluation of our school would demonstrate that, not only are our kids not proficient in reading and math (non-standardized teacher-created unit assessments show this all the time), but we're not strong in other areas either. Kids are forced to complete uninspired test prep. workbooks which drain the zeal out of my most eager students. Any unannounced individual who cared to amble the halls of my school could see what is happening. No "hard data" is necessary.

Yes, NCLB is inspiring failing schools to get their act together. But so many schools immediately conclude, "We're doing a good job. Our students just don't practice bubbling like students in the suburbs." And so they have their students practice bubbling. Challenge schools to improve student test scores, and they'll take measures to improve student test scores.

Challenge schools to house bustling classrooms, full of discovery and wonder, and they'll...

Well, discovery and wonder can't be measured, so let's just stick with something that can.

Maybe this idea of quantitative evaluation is a pipe dream. I think a big problem, Margo, is that we don't have enough parents like you. If parents demanded excellence (most of ours don't), then there'd be constant supervision of teacher and administrative practices. We wouldn't have gotten ourselves into corrective action; it wouldn't have taken all these years and all this data to show what should be obvious to anyone who has a middle schooler clearly reading on a second grade level. Since parents aren't holding schools accountable, this task has fallen into the hands of the government, which is so far removed from the school that the easiest route is asking for some numbers.

"I also have to question who told you that a test on second grade material could come out with a grade level of twelve."

Right, grade equivalence scores (GE) are screwy. Yet administrators like them because they're easier to make sense of than stanines. The very term, grade level equivalence, seems to imply that the second grader's performance indicates her readiness for twelfth grade work. It's deceptive.

When a second grader scores at a grade level of 12.0 on her second grade test, this doesn't mean that she can do twelfth grade work. It means that she'd do as well as your average twelfth-grader taking the same second grade test.

JP--it is true that a walk through a school can tell a whole lot about some of the "unmeasurables." And I have walked through enough schools to know that if we were grading schools based on these things we would still have lots of schools in corrective action. And I suspect that the things that some would do to move out might be no more enlightened that the folks who focus on teaching "bubbling skills."

But I still hold that the biggest problem is not the test, or the government that attempts to monitor--it is the failure, at the district and building level to think deeply about these things. You are right also that the motivation to teach bubbling derives from some basic denial of the problem (they know the material, they just don't test well).

I don't know if there is truly a lack of parents like me--believe me, I am not greeted with open arms when I ask questions like "what is a stanine?" Even less so when I point out that not only is my son not passing but most of the students who are like him are not passing. Out in the world, I find mostly other parents who have concerns about what their kids are learning--or not. Many are less persistent than I--or have less access to resources that help me understand what is going on (like that stanine score), but generally no less caring or opinionated with regard to their childen's education. Frankly I am tired of asking about how to get involved as a parent and being pointed to the boosters or PTA (when the school has these things). There is a valid role for parents, in schools, in relation to questions of policy, or planning improvements, or understanding what is being taught. But schools have to be ready to accept the value of that relationship.

Well, Mr. Hoss, you seem to only want to acknowledge half my argument in your apparent attempt to blame the majority of education's ills on the ever-convenient scapegoat - the teacher.

You are exaclty right when you say there was no formal education plan in place for our students in past years. That is why I said it was teachers who stayed in the educational field knowing that nothing was expected of them other than to clean up the mess left by those in charge. And many nobly did, only to wind up the scourge of the "reformers" who really don't want to invest in urban children what all honest people know are the "reforms" necessary to educate the students. Smaller class sizes, lower counselor/student ratios, more extracurricular activities, universal pre-kindergarten, better housing programs, more and better jobs, etc., etc., etc. Boring stuff, I know, not quite the fad of the day, but tried and true.

It is also why I said that maybe this time, the teachers would actually have the bureaucratic and administrative SUPPORT to do their job, instead of the whips and threats now applied that, if anyone cared to notice while disingenuously congratulating themselves for implementing their bogus reforms, works even less in adequately educating our students.

Nowhere is the Nation at Risk statement that you quoted were teachers implicitly blamed for the failures of society in educating our children. At if it did, it would and should be discarded as mere propoganda.

The fact is teachers are rarely asked to contribute to the national dialogue regarding improving education and then the reformers demand of teachers fealty to inherently anti-student reforms that we know better than to support. That's how we wound up with an NCLB law that's been pretty much discredited by those in the know (read: those in the classrooms) and this outrageous test-prep industry passing itself off as education. This whole idea that we need to spend unbelievable amounts of time and money gathering data on what every inner-city teacher already knew about urban education but was never asked is just a plotline to profit off the backs of underprivileged children.


I apologize for my misleading statement, "Leave the poor teachers alone." More accurately, I should have said, "Leave the poor educational establishment alone." The educational establishment, of course, can be defined as local school boards, teacher colleges and schools of education, administrators, teachers, and especially, and perhaps to date, the leading roadblock to educational reform, teacher unions.

The most significant obstacle to educational reform, as I see it; INERTIA. A body (the educational establishment) tends to remain in motion, on the same wrong path, unless acted upon by an outside agent.

I was a Massachusetts public school teacher for three and a half decades. I witnessed first hand many of the problems our schools created, nurtured, and endorsed. Much of it was an embarrassment. From social promotions to administrators who couldn't get out of their own way, to school boards laced with individuals who knew next to nothing of the daily operations for which they were setting policy, to state and federal bureaucrats who knew even less than the local elected officials.

And then, along came A Nation At Risk and with it education reform. Thank God, a smitten of direction from a wider spectrum of individuals and organizations that attempted to right this sinking ship known as public education.

Did they get it right? Hardly! They have blown it almost to the same degree the alleged culprits, the educational establishment did, on a number of fronts; from the development of test prep classrooms to the elimination of major disciplines such as science and social studies from our schools; from NCLB's punitive focus of assessment to the once-again lack of promised funding from the feds who mandated this legislation. And these problems are simply the tip of the iceberg.

As we all know, the first step in solving a problem is acknowledging that a problem exists. I think we have passed that milestone in the past five to ten years. The second, and more difficult step to solving the problem, is identifying/developing effective strategies that can lead to better outcomes. And third, comes the implementation of the solution, not always easy either.

Everyone pretends to be an expert on what's needed to save our schools but the fact remains, they're still a mess and, to date, there is no identified solution . The only difference I see since 1983 is now, at least, we've quantitatively identified the achievement gap, which prior to ed reform many were reluctant to acknowledge because it might offend certain parties.

Can we remedy the problems in our poor, urban schools? The jury appears to still be out on that one but I’m confident we can at least get them headed in the right direction. We have many more parties involved today than we did in 1983 and that, I believe, is a good thing. Yes, channeling all the additional energies from these additional stakeholders will be difficult but everyone, agendas aside, appears to be on the same path; making our schools a better place for kids.


Well stated.

There is one additional intermediate step that we need. After recognizing that there are problems with our schools, we need to state clearly what the problem is.

Too often we jump to "solutions" without knowing what those "solutions" are trying to solve.

Could you share with us what you think the problem or problems are?

Erin Johnson


Not sure this is the answer to your question, but here goes.

The problems in our public schools? I suppose that would depend on one's perspective. Nationally, I believe the most obvious problems exist in many of our urban schools, hence our now defined achievement gap. Do rural and suburban schools have problems? Sure they do, but certainly not to the extent of their urban counterparts.

A review of the literature leads us to the conclusion the most significant problem in our urban schools is one of poverty, or more specifically, children living in poverty. Related to the poverty are a myriad of coping consequences endemic to most anyone having to live under such conditions: transient residencies, single-parent homes, high drop out rates, anemic parenting skills, teenage pregnancies, gangs and certainly gang related violence, a lack of positive role models, homelessness, and perhaps most exacerbating is the perpetuation of this doomed existence from one generation to the next.

All of the above have been well chronicled and while some of it can be addressed in our schools many of these problems would be more appropriately served by social service agencies as opposed to being dumped onto teachers or school administrators.

This is where a major paradigm shift in state budgeting is needed to get these kids the help they actually need AND to diminish much of the blame placed on our schools. As we know all too well, schools are often put in the position of picking up the pieces - after the fact. Not good, not good for anyone; the kids, the school, or society in general.

So absent Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty from the 1960's what are we to do? How do we persuade policy wonks that it's going to take more than an increase in per pupil expenditures to solve these problems?

Sure, universal pre-school and all day kindergarten would be helpful for many of these kids. It would go a long way toward giving a many of them a fighting chance in school and then life.

However, it’s, my belief that many of these problems need the more conscious, global approach of social service agencies COMBINED WITH the caring direction of positive role models teachers can present on a daily basis in schools.

Reading the above is interesting. Probably there was never a time that teachers in public schools had a seroious and respected voice in policy decisions affecting their work. There was no "good old days". Schools Boards have been powerful--local and State--and the loss of that voice is usually seen as a positive development by reformers. We rarely carry over our love of democray and "the people" when it comes to schooling.

But depriving teachers of a crucial role in their own practice is not merely "undemocratic"--but it creates an unhealthy relationship between students and their development of intellectually vigorous habits of mind. They need, above all today, to be in regular contact with adults who are--for better or worse--entrusted with important decisions, and who do so openly and publicly.

Such a public dialogue, in the presence of the young, and ideally the larger community, is an untappd educative force.

A Nation at Risk was a disservie in so far as it distracted attention at a key moment in the reform movement, away from schools to quick external fixes. For quick fixes we needed villains. Lazy parents, kids and teachers were the easy answer--especially since such a critique contains an element of truth! But it never did explain why the auto industry in America was outperformed by Japan, and doesn't explain it now.

It was, alas, the start of a movement to take power away from educators, communities and parents (not to mention kids) and place it more and more in the hands of mayors, governors, federal officials, legislators, corporate leaders, and Foundations!
Distrust has bred more distrust, and the people closest to the action are feeling more and more intimidated, fearful and powerless. That can't be good for the kids.



The difficulty that the public has with schools is a very real sense that we are doing a disservice to our children. That is the public believes, as you do, that our schools can be better.

The conundrum is of course in the how.

The fact that we have tried transfering "power" to "mayors, governors, federal officials, legislators, corporate leaders, and Foundations" reflects more a lack of understanding of how to improve student learning than a desire to take power away from teachers.

What our schools are missing is any support/system to improve teaching, curricula and assessments. Without which, student learning will not improve.

Erin Johnson

Dear Deborah and Diane,

I applaud your current exchanges, and as I read them, I find myself increasingly frustrated with the nature of the mainstream discussion of schools and what they need. The corker came in Diane’s June 17th post where she discusses the “Education Equity Project” – which calls for more testing and more charter schools as the solution to our woes. She then cites New York Times columnist David Brooks’ praise of the project and dismissal of another proposal that came out a few days earlier (sponsored by the Economic Policy Institute) that sensibly argues that poor kids need more than tests to boost achievement – they need health care, after-school programs, a few resources. Brooks calls this approach – one absent in the last seven years of NCLB – the “status quo camp.” Diane rightly calls Brooks’ characterization “hokum.”

Diane, you should write to Brooks if you haven’t yet.

The whole thing brings up for me something I’ve been stewing on for a while now – and trying to write about – and that is how to counter the powerful but narrow language of schooling that has overtaken education policy, how to enter it, alter it, even just add a little classroom reality to it. Hand-in-glove, how do we begin to alter the standard media storylines about school reform, one that Brooks seems to have adopted whole hog? As Deborah suggests, following political scientist James Scott, we need to “see like a state” in order to respond to the terribly narrow conceptions of education, reform, achievement, learning, etc. that so dominate both policy and media today. How do we do it when thoughtful proposals like the one from the Economic Policy Institute (or from the Forum for Education and Democracy a few weeks before) either get swept aside or utterly mischaracterized?

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