We’ve spent a lot of time here lately talking about tests and test scores. You can’t ignore ‘em – they’re a ubiquitous part of the educational landscape in the U.S., and their salience has only increased in the NCLB era. To the extent that they are able to tell us about students’ mastery of core academic skills, they can be a useful tool to guide education policy and practice.
But some of the importance of testing comes from the way we use tests for sorting, selecting and certifying individuals, and not from the intrinsic qualities that the tests are seeking to measure. I would never say that literacy and numeracy skills are unimportant; but there’s a lot more to being a competent adult and citizen than high test scores.
This point is driven home by a cool person you should know: Mike Rose, Professor of Social Research Methodology at UCLA. The son of working-class Italian immigrants, Mike was classified as a remedial student, until some perceptive high school teachers figured out he had the potential to go to college. He spent much of his early career teaching literacy skills to students at various levels of schooling who had not been well-prepared. His autobiographical book Lives on the Boundary is an inspiring account of the power of good teaching to engage struggling students in the study of written English.
In an article entitled “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” published in the June, 2008 issue of Atlantic Monthly, “Professor X,” an adjunct English teacher at a private college and a community college, turned a lot of heads with his palpable resignation at teaching students who he believes don’t belong in college and are destined to fail. Rose, in his recent foray into blogging, considers how he might teach James Joyce’s short story “Araby,” which “Professor X” views as outside the ken of his students, to a group of underprepared students. I’ve never taught English, but it’s a tour de force.
Rose’s most recent monograph is entitled The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker. Through portraits of blue-collar workers such as carpenters, waitresses and hair stylists, he persuades us that there is a tremendous amount of mental work involved in manual labor. People don’t live their lives taking tests; they live them engaging with tools, symbols, and, most importantly, with other people. Mike Rose calls for a conception of intelligence that acknowledges school, to be sure, but also the workplace and the public sphere of our democracy.
On his blog, Rose writes, “If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.” As we approach the 4th of July holiday, it’s hard to imagine a philosophy more consistent with the founding ideals of this country.
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