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The Dangers Facing Us

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Dear Diane,

I enjoyed (and agreed with) practically every word in your last letter. And I identified with your grief over Molly, too.

I sometimes think I'm exaggerating the dangers facing us—and then I read the Daily News about math scores and think I'm maybe not worrying enough! More on this below.

We may have some sharp disagreements, which we ought to pursue carefully this coming year, but at stake, at the moment, are two greater concerns. One, the continued existence of a public school system. Two, turning the public one that's left into a super-centralized enterprise run by a combination of unaccountable businessmen and distant political interests (ala Mister Barber's British experiment.) Both of these undermine the bottom-line tools for accountability—democracy and honest information.

I note with amusement that, much like education, every few years a new guru arrives with the new answer to how to guarantee business success. He gets fat consulting fees and is soon replaced by another. Yesterday's wonder turns into an ordinary mortal.

You and I are struggling to find democratic ways to bring ends and means together, to serve accountability and good schooling. It's tough. But imposing our pet ideas on over a million unwilling teachers, families, kids is not an answer. Nor is the smash/disappear-the-past strategy. Dictators—too harsh a word for NYC Chancellor Joel Klein?—have an impulse to destroy the old, "fall-back" institutions in hopes that in doing so we can't undo their reforms. That's why I found James Scott's "Seeing Like a State" such a great read, a reminder of what some of us have lived through in the 20th Century. I'm still traumatized by that history of good intentions. Have I over-learned that lesson?

The Klein proclamation in the Daily News is a caricature of the little dictator. An "era is over," he declares. We've gotten rid of the obstructionists—educators. "Accountability", he continues, "isn't optional." Tell that to your friends in high places, Joel, who seem content with their nonaccountability: bail-outs and golden parachutes. See The New York Times, Sept. 2—NY state's fastest growing industry riddled with fraud! Honest data is another victim of dictatorships as the Daily News, generally a friend to Klein, notes in a story on September 4th. "When test scores rise, politicians crow that schools are getting better, but a Daily News analysis of recent standardized math exams and a News experiment suggest another reason: The questions might be getting easier."

Klein acknowledges our discomfort. "Some educators and parents won't be happy, and that's the way it should be. … The truth hurts sometimes." But, too bad, because these tools will "help us manage the entire system more effectively." He truly is a believer. It send chills up and down my spine. It's exactly the mindset that I want schools to help future citizens overcome; because it's a way of thinking (like a State) that is a danger to the concept of democracy itself.

But, Klein and company, like Fred Hess, another pro-business reformer (see The American online July 17) have learned a different lesson from history. Hess urges reformers to "…smash the regulations and support the entrepreneurs who will shake things up." (It's '60s "new left" talk from the right.) Shaking things up over and over is a common thread. You are right, Diane, it does serve a purpose; it makes the objects being shaken feel less and less confident and more hapless. Fear interrupts "resistance."

The other day a friend complained about teachers and principals "resisting" her plans (which I happened to like). We all need to watch our language. Maybe, I queried, they disagreed with you? "Opposition" (even questioning) looks like resistance when given no choice. But, "eventually," as you say in your final sentence, parents and teachers will "find their collective voice and say loud and clear: "Enough'"

I take that same lesson to the school and classroom level. When kids can disagree they are less prone to take their opposition underground, and the same goes for teachers. It's the above-ground way of doing public business that is at the heart of democracy. If there's ever been a regime that hides its policymaking, and is accountable only to itself (including its own manipulated data)—it's the Klein regime. (Oops, I forgot the Bush one.) Enough!

Meanwhile, there are all those kids whose teachers and principals need to figure out how to negotiate the spaces that are left to them. My old mentor, Lillian Weber, reminded us—years ago—that there are those cracks in the sidewalk, where some things manage to grow. It's our job to find them and feed them, she told us. The kids in front of us can't wait. I pass the word on.

Deborah

P.S. For the record, I am not "opposed to tests." More on this later.

7 Comments

Deborah,

"Democracy and honest information?" Is the following letter from the Boston Globe an example of the honest information you're referring to???

________________________________________



MCAS Foes, Grade Thyselves
September 8, 2007

IN HER Aug. 30 letter "State ed policy and the 'whole child,' " Deborah Meier recycles myths perpetuated by opponents of school reform, claiming that the dark phantom of the Pioneer Institute had an "extraordinarily narrow hold" on "the state Board of Education for years." Sadly, Meier and too large a segment of the education establishment oppose greater school accountability and high standards. Why?

Consider the record at the Mission Hill School in Boston, a small K-8 school that Meier founded and ran from 1997 to 2004. According to Massachusetts Department of Education statistics, between 2004 and 2006, approximately 80 percent of the students tested at Mission Hill scored in the "needs improvement" and "warning/failing" categories on the MCAS test. In the last two years, Mission Hill was also placed by the US Department of Education on the federal "in need of improvement" list for low academic performance.

Results are what matter, and Meier's conspiracy theories are no more than a convenient distraction from the low academic achievement of too many schools - unfortunately including her own.

JAMIE GASS
Boston
The writer is director of education research and programs at the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research.

I feel reassured that so many people of so many political perspectives are sounding like you two. I've been so dismayed by progressive supporters of NCLB who are convinced they are on the side of the angels who have systematically denigrated teachers. (and before the civil rights organizations changed their positions on "multiple measures" I have been so unhappy about opposing them.)

When I was a grad student in a left-wing dept on the east coast in the 70s, I was too young to REALLY understand why the bitter conflicts of the 40s and 50s were so much alive. Many of my friends and mentors were old "Troskyists" who remained pure because they never had a real system to defend. And many became neo-conservatives. I fear that the same is true of the ED Trust and others who seek utopian solutions, and condemn us liberals in the teachers unions. So many NCLB supporters are "social engineers" advocating collectivist solutions worthy of the old Soviet Union. They may be sincere, but they have a narrow vision of humanity and education.

We Baby Boomers and our mentors need to educate new teachers into:
a) professional ethics - "first do no harm" and then draw a line refusing to cooperate with standardized testing when it damages or students, and
b) teach them about the "great chain of being" and traditions of education that predate us by centuries.

Deb,

I agree completely with your statements about having our public school system be democratic and minimizing the exaggerated effect that wealthy businessmen can have on our schools.

But honestly, our public schools as they now stand are neither democratic nor particularly effective. And I can hardly blame wealthy individuals from spending money/time to try and make our schools more effective.

Even if you like our schools as they now stand, all the international comparisons show that our children are learning substantially less than peer nations (all measures TIMSS, PIRLS, OCED etc…) and everyone, including wealthy businessmen, should be concerned.

I, too, am leery of educational fads and in particularly the latest fad that insists that accountability will solve all of our educational ills. The idea that we hold people accountable for their actions sounds great, business-like and has broad appeal with educational neophytes. While good information and transparency about student achievement is very helpful for the democratic process and evaluation of our schools, this compete focus on accountability to the exclusion of EDUCATION will never result in better learning. When politicians/businessmen talk about accountability, what are teachers supposed to be accountable to?

What we do not have in our county is any agreement about what a public education should be and we have no processes/methods of discussing the fundamental goals of education.

Other countries develop a consensus of educational goals in a centralized education department and schools are expected to adopt this view. That is educational goals are established, curriculum to meet those goals and testing are all determined and aligned by a central authority; a view of education that Americans would have great difficulty with. Even with the adoption of specific standards by a few states (MA, CA, etc…) the translation of these standards into our classrooms have been less than seamless as the curricula/tests rarely well-match the standards.

So if not a centralized authority, how do we, the American public, discuss and come to agreement with what a public education should be?

Erin Johnson

One of the many things I learned while becoming a family therapist was that psychoanalysis' "resistance"—something bad to be overcome—was instead evidence of an old problem-solving strategy. Resistance is a good thing; it keeps us from being bullied (as by the standardistas and corporatizeers), and gives us time to make rational decisions.

Dear Paul Hoss

Thanks for alerting me about Gass’ letter. Abigail Thernstrom, one of James Gass’ Pioneer Institute colleagues, used the same gambit on me 7 years ago. I urge readers to get a copy of Will Standards Save Public Education? (2000, Beacon Press). She was wrong then, and so is he On two counts: the test scores which he gets wrong, and the data that he ignores.

He is not all wrong, Paul.. For example on the scores of fourteen (yep, that’s the number) 4th graders last spring he is on target. But District-wide scores are only slightly less abysmal. Full disclosure—“honest information” as suggest-- would have compared our scores to some norms—as well as note that it’s hard to be sure what scores mean when the numbers are that small. In contrast, for 6th graders the MH figures look better and surpass the District's. That number is small also. What's worth thought is that Mission Hill's scores are about the same or better than District averages. Thus raises questions about the impact of MCAS for the past decade, as well as the nature of the tests.

Given the school's public views about the harmful role of standardized testing, it's only mildly surprising that they don't do better. Because they do very little test prepping, the school has diligently maintained a range of alternate objective measures. Examples: tape-recorded reading interviews twice a year; scored samples of various forms of writing; regular one-on-one math interviews, etc. Mission Hill’s own 8th grade graduation exams are public--each includes a public examiner and a sample are video-taped. They measure authentic as well as on-demand performances in each of 7 different areas. Records are kept of the work and the examining team's critique. Lots of data to pore over.

In math, where scores have always been worrisome, the school has followed the students high school performance, and discovered that virtually 100% pass the math MCAS necessary for graduating high school—mostly on the first try in 10th grade. They also proudly note that nearly 100% graduate, and go on to college with flying colors. The kids who leave before 8th grade are usually the best test-takers, some of whom decide to go to selective schools—and they are not included in this data.

Yes, even the worst of standardized tests provide interesting and potentially useful data. The staff of Mission Hill have several theories—particularly re math; some of these theories look promising and some don't--since the cure would be worse than the malady. I

Next time I write an article or letter-to-the-editor that irks one of Pioneer’s colleagues, I hope they will lay off Mission Hill and its test scores. What got Gass going was my defense of the Governor’s appointment of a MCAS critic to what has for long been a very narrow range of views on the State’s Board of Education. Especially since I’ve been gone for nearly 4 years and hate to see them maligned every time someone is mad at me.

Deborah Meier,

Dear Mr. Gass,

I wonder if you have ever visited the Mission Hill School? Have you had the opportunity to speak with any of the staff or students there? If not, I highly recommend that you make the trip. Then you might see what test scores -- good or bad -- can never hope to capture: the sense of community, the depth of the curriculum, the ongoing opportunity for students to explore and develop their own interests, the high expectations that teachers have for students' work and the pride that students take in their achievements...to name just some of the ingredients that go into the complex workings of a high functing school.

I used to teach 2/3 grade at MH and recently had the opportunity to interview several Mission Hill alums,(my old students!) who are now seniors in high school -- all of them applying to college.

They have all taken and passed the 10th grade MCAS (even two of them who told me that they are "not good test takers") and most recently they had all taken the SATs. I asked them how getting grades and taking tests compared with their experience presenting their portfolios in 6 subjects before a committee in order to graduate from 8th grade at MHS.

All of them spoke articulately about their experience, but I think this comment sums up their sentiments most succinctly:
"...I feel like I don’t get something in return [from tests] besides my scores. With portfolio presentations you really learn how to be a good presenter, how to, like, put your work together and present for your teachers – I was really proud of myself, I remember [after presenting]"

I will leave it at that. But I think your assumption that MH -- power house that it is -- is a failing school based soley on test scores (and, as Deb points out -- on decontextualized data) only underscores Deb and Diane's argument -- that looking at scores alone is as ludicris and misleading as it is dangerous.

I hope that you take me up on my suggestion and that you visit MH sometime soon. It's a truly wonderful and powerful place of learning, for both children and staff.

Best,
Emily

Dear Mr. Gass,

I wonder if you have ever visited the Mission Hill School? Have you had the opportunity to speak with any of the staff or students there? If not, I highly recommend that you make the trip. Then you might see what test scores -- good or bad -- can never hope to capture: the sense of community, the depth of the curriculum, the ongoing opportunity for students to explore and develop their own interests, the high expectations that teachers have for students' work and the pride that students take in their achievements...to name just some of the ingredients that go into the complex workings of a high functioning school.

I used to teach 2/3 grade at MH and recently had the opportunity to interview several Mission Hill alums,(my old students!) who are now seniors in high school -- all of them applying to college.

They have all taken and passed the 10th grade MCAS (even two of them who told me that they are "not good test takers") and most recently they had all taken the SATs. I asked them how getting grades and taking tests compared with their experience presenting their portfolios in 6 subjects before a committee in order to graduate from 8th grade at MHS.

All of them spoke articulately about their experience, but I think this comment sums up their sentiments most succinctly:
"...I feel like I don’t get something in return [from tests] besides my scores. With portfolio presentations you really learn how to be a good presenter, how to, like, put your work together and present for your teachers – I was really proud of myself, I remember [after presenting]"

I will leave it at that. But I think your assumption that MH -- power house that it is -- is a failing school based solely on test scores (and, as Deb points out -- on decontextualized data) only underscores Deb and Diane's argument -- that looking at scores alone is as ludicrous and misleading as it is dangerous.

I hope that you take me up on my suggestion and that you visit MH sometime soon. It's a truly wonderful and powerful place of learning, for both children and staff.

Best,
Emily

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