By All Measures: 'Just Another False Chase'
The pressure to look for answers via national curriculum and national testing is wrongheaded, dangerous, and counterproductive. At best it's a waste of resources; at worst it will injure American democracy. Most likely it will be just another false chase.
We are on the brink of an important and hopefully exciting new age for education. The American public-school system did what was asked of it a century ago. The new century demands a very different kind of institution. The change is as dramatic as the transformation of a horse-and-buggy society to an automotive society. What is required will be a change in the way people think.
To try to mandate and regulate what schools should teach and how to teach it is wrongheaded. Testing is a powerful way to maintain practice, but a terrible way to unleash the kind of entrepreneurial risk-taking, the kind of intelligent practice that is desperately needed by tomorrow's professionals.
This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.
We tried to change mathematics education this way a generation ago. The ideas were right. The mathematics profession today has not come up with better ones. They are simply trying once again to find a way to influence the practitioners to adopt a more thoughtful and contemporary mathematical pedagogy. Last time, the strategy was top down. They influenced testing, textbook publishers, and curriculum designers. But neither teachers nor parents understood the changes; they conformed outwardly and balked inwardly. The reforms became the stuff of jokes, and our kids were shortchanged.
Similarly, when I entered education in the 1960's, I was told that my "slow'' and steady ideas for reform were not responsive enough to the crisis in literacy. We needed to get Johnny reading in a hurry. So, against the advice of those who knew schools best, we stepped up the pressure via demands for improved test scores. We decided to hold teachers, schools, and kids accountable for results. We got the results. Higher test scores came pouring in. But not better educated and more literate students. New York City's scores went from nearly two-thirds reading below "national norms'' to less than one-half in 10 years. Miracle of miracles. And the new scores have held and improved steadily ever since. But what about reading? No one I know claims our students are reading more or reading better. They tell us this time they'll have better instruments. But even the leading expert psychometrician of them all, the Educational Testing Service's Greg Anrig, is dubious of that claim.
Whether we can or should ever devise a single central system for monitoring real intellectual achievement, I do not know. I am among the doubters. I think a democratic society requires a continual debate about the meaning of being well-educated. Testing stifles such debate. I think the quality about America that all the world loves is precisely our irreverence: a willingness to challenge authority, to question those in the know. How to preserve that irreverence while also fostering greater respect for intellectual achievement should not be decided quickly or thoughtlessly, under the pressure for quickie test results. More centralizing, more "thought control'' is unwise and unwarranted.
And as a school person I know also that it is counterproductive. We are just beginning to see the fruits of the new ideas that emerged in the 80's--the ideas represented by such leaders as Ted Sizer, John Goodlad, Howard Gardner, James Comer, et al. We are on the verge of seeing new approaches to assessment flourish, as different schools and systems try different methods. And quite likely what we will discover is that no one approach will do the job, but all are useful for different folks at different times in the process of reform. Federal assistance directed at supporting these varied efforts to get the incentives right on one hand, and the information needed right on the other hand, can be very useful. Funds for on-site research are desperately needed. Retooling schooling requires R & D.
Meanwhile, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, if continued on a sampled basis, can keep us abreast of what's happening, to provide an honest, if limited, thermometer. Anything more intrusive will kill the baby. The baby is just waking up from a long sleep; nurture her, don't kill her in a new bureaucratic testing and measuring morass.