Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Problem with Public Schools, finale

Schools are also in a messy spot to the extent that they are charged with ‘educating the whole child’ while they are assessed by the number of students who pass annual tests in reading, writing, math and science. To say this is not to claim that a standardized test is in itself a bad idea, or that schools needn’t face some measure of accountability. But rendering proof of meeting our responsibility to the whole child by test scores is incomplete and even inadequate.

School reformers gush over the plans (of the type undertaken by Michelle Rhee before she departed her post superintending the Washington, DC schools) to develop a scoring system for teachers, so they can evaluate performance. To the extent this scoring will be based on the standardized test score outcomes of their students, teachers, being no less rational than the general population, will respond to the incentives before them, and find it harder to resist ‘teaching to the test.’ It doesn’t take much imagination to see the Gates Foundation studies a few years from now, “Teachers aren’t as ‘Effective’ as they seem--Too many just teach the test”.

Frankly, an emphasis on the test is already a great temptation, especially because the gold ring is merely a high, or at least increasing, pass rate. In other words, if a teacher could get 100% of his students to pass the exam, even if they all achieved the minimum passing score, while some showed significant decrease from their prior scores, that teacher would be garlanded with glory for such a remarkable achievement.

By contrast, imagine a teacher whose students all missed the standard by only one point. Further imagine that teacher got a substantial number of students to make significant gains in score, though just short of passing. This teacher would not be heralded in the newspaper or on the district web site or anywhere else.

It’s just too much to explain that while everybody failed, most made really great growth. But those test scores carry so much weight in the discussion of schools. Practically every teacher in-service now starts with the requisite hand-wringing over the United States’ pitiful rankings in international test score comparisons, where we’re falling behind the likes of Latvia and Spain and so many others. The United States, of course, has the highest school participation rate in the world, and nearly every child is tested in the United States, including a large swath of students who simply would not have any school involvement in some of the countries that are supposedly outpacing us.

But seriously evaluating these many complicated situations is just too awkward. It’s too awkward to raise questions about the standard--how it’s set, for what purpose, to the neglect of what other values (there are no tests for right conduct and attitude, in part, of course, because nobody wants to discuss what these might look like), or about parental responsibility in children’s education, or about students’ responsibilities to their own education. And it’s too awkward to point out that education really is a socially costly undertaking. The most awkward of all is thinking about the ways that schools are, in fact, doing remarkable things under pretty demanding circumstances.

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