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Accountability Opinion

Simplify Everything Else, Not Kids & Subject Matter

By Deborah Meier — November 05, 2009 4 min read

Dear Diane,

The absurdities you describe are on the mark and ought to kill the idea of paying teachers based on their students’ test scores. But we both know the idea won’t die that easily. Even the most renowned of testing experts argue that we’re nowhere near being able to produce tests that can do the job of pay-by-score that folks want. I do wonder at times what “they” think they are doing?

The trouble is that when I start down that path I see conspiracies everywhere—for example, that these schemes justify hiring inexperienced and low-paid teachers—who can do scripted test-prep as well as the next guy. It has the handy side effect of destroying solidarity which from a businessman’s perspective (perhaps) is a good thing, and keeps teachers away from controversial subjects—and tightly aligned to the stuff being tested. It probably weakens unions. And finally, it paves the way for a marketplace system of schooling instead of a public one (which is then relabeled a bureaucratic monopolistic model). Of course, the latter can be true—and as you know I was an early champion of choice and increased school autonomy for just that reason—within the public sector.

The charter schools have also become I fear another name for vouchers. Operated by private chains with public funding, they offer a kind of distorted marketplace, controlled by test scores standing in for profits. Thus, they kill two birds with one stone: public education and human judgment.

A test of intellectual rigor always in part rests on judgment. Democracy is built on that shaky foundation of trusting our fallible judgments. The central purpose of K-12 schooling in a democracy is thus the training of human judgment. The young can only learn how-to in the company of adults who are doing it. The means and ends are one.

But where you and I may disagree re. the Obama agenda is on the question of nationwide “standards"—e.g. curriculum. I think we are in agreement that NAEP—the only existing national exam—should remain separate and untainted by high stakes. A better labeling/benchmark system—or even doing away with any labels—would be wiser still. We can then focus on in-depth analysis of a wide range of interesting data. Those who want a 50-state common core grade-by-grade curriculum won’t be satisfied with sampled NAEP scores because they want to make state-by-state, school-by-school, student-by-student comparisons. They see the competition for test scores as healthy. So, where do you stand?

In that regard, I found the recent Brookings Institution research by Grover Whitehurst et al a helpful warning. He argues that “the creation of common standards will have little impact on our future in a system in which there are also aligned assessments, and aligned curriculum, educators, and accountability for students, and aligned professional development....” And on and on. “Faith,” he concludes, is not enough, and a closer look at our most successful “competitors” internationally demonstrates that this is not the path they have taken.

I don’t recall the exact data, but someone once noted that teachers make dozens (or hundreds?) of decisions a minute. More than almost any other field (e.g. doctors), partly because they are simultaneously educating 20 to 30 different kids every minute. That’s why they need eyes in the back of their heads and a trained instinct about those peculiar silences, mutterings, etc., which only experience teaches us to notice. Kids are complex—and each one is different. The subject matter is hopefully difficult, too. Thus, as Ted Sizer reminded me, be sure and simplify everything else you can, or you’ll find yourself simplifying the kids and the subject matter. We’ve done the opposite under the new “deform” agenda: as school people follow ever more complicated analysis of statistical data! Becoming themselves more like machines. Truly! I sometimes wonder how many hours it would take to accomplish five hours of school time. If we each were teaching one child—home-schooling, in short. Simplifying complex people and information consumes us. It’s not all wasted time, but.....

Once in a while, I’d try to make a quick round of my classroom to assess who was catching on to what. The trouble was that I usually got so intrigued by the first child I sat next to that I didn’t get to the second. I exaggerate, a little.

Finding the right metaphors and analogies that work for each child is in part an art that takes time to accumulate into wisdom. It takes wariness, too, and sometimes only a good observer can catch our mistakes. It’s hard not to hear our own meaning rather than the one the kids are making. Besides, many kids know how to fool us by “looking” smart.

I found this as true in my relationships with adults when I was a principal or head teacher. Because once again we don’t all respond to criticism or close questioning the same way and can open up or close down very quickly. Sometimes quite politely.

I wish I could convince the new reformers—those who truly want a better way—that we need to improve and deepen NAEP while school-by-school we develop better tools for assessing that are simultaneously better tools for teaching.

Our final exercises at CPE and Mission Hill and Urban Academy and Beacon and on and on are the culmination of years of teaching/assessing approaches. At culminating years, the staff pull together to show off more formally before real-live audiences, who are assigned the task of “judging.” They are, as I say over and over, real “road tests"; what people encounter in the real world of college or the workplace, and they simultaneously respond to the skills and knowledge that we need as citizens who are not easy to fool—at least not often. They serve, in short, democracy first and foremost.


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