Accountability Opinion

Test Results Are Not a Good Stand-In for Achievement

By Deborah Meier — June 04, 2009 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

You are right. We agree on the civil rights movement’s history. Schools were never the primary focus—but one of many interconnected ones.

The connection between schooling and the economy interests me—but for different reasons than the usual PR-linkage (you’ll make more money). As long as there are jobs that pay poorly there will be “the poor,” but a well-educated underclass will have a better shot at defending their social and economic interests—as citizens. And a well-educated citizenry in general will give us a better shot at a healthy economy. Maybe. It depends on what we mean by being “well-educated.” And the latest headlines about 46 states joining together to decide year by year school curriculum (and tests) is not the way to decide this.

I was talking about the end of childhood play in Washington last week to legislative aides et al—the hours spent in front of TV and the hours spent at prescribed “literacy” tasks. When we speak of the “information age,” or the “knowledge age,” we act as though the brain lived in a world of its own, rather than one interacting all the time (even in sleep) with the world around it—people and things. When we complain that poor children don’t think in abstractions and have limited conceptual understanding, we imagine “concepts” as disembodied, disconnected, and alien to ourselves. It’s the interplay—the “conversation”—the back-and-forth between ordinary “things” and “ideas” that education must build on. TV and worksheets are not appropriate 5-year-old discourse.

We forget that the American economy lived off the ingenuity of “ordinary” people, including many with limited or no formal educations, and not just “the best and brightest.” They sometimes saw themselves as anti-intellectuals—because we mistakenly created a false divide. Too many so-called intellectuals missed the connection between hand and eye and brain—not to mention ear, feet, and stomach! Americans turned their “ordinary” fascination with the world of work into hobbies and into finding new ways to do old things and old ways to do new things as well. They produced actual goods and products—good decently paid work was a source of pride.

In less than half a century we have lost it. “We” (Americans) produce less and less. We give General Motors our taxpayer charity so they can close factories here and open them elsewhere? I was stunned to read that we put a financier in charge of rethinking the auto industry. We need dreamers and tinkerers to invent a new America, not more fancy financial handlers.

Obama, alas, has surrounded himself with all the financial wisdom that got us into this economic meltdown, people who couldn’t predict it a week ahead of time, and he is, alas, doing the same in education. Hosts of rich or would-be-rich young people are now eagerly planning to save our schools as long as they can own a few. (Eva Moskowitz was paid $371,000 for running four charters with a total of 1,000 students in the 2006-07 school year. And, the retiring leader—not the principal, more like a CEO—of the Beginning with Children charters was paid close to $700,000 for her last year on the job.) Yes, it’s scary.

The leaders of business and industry (of which there are not many left) may have messed up our economy, but they still have enough money left over to bring the same mindset to schooling. The masters of manipulating symbolic goods—money in all its varied forms—are now designing our schools with the same manipulative mindset.

But “if they work, Debby,” say a few of my critical friends, “why not?” But what do we mean by “it works?” Oddly enough, even on the measures they have chosen, the answer is, “they don’t.” But it wouldn’t convince me either way. How kids do on school tests that measure (at best) school learning is petty compared with…. It’s not a good stand-in for achievement. I want to see how those kids “produce”—the books they write, the movies they make, the cars they invent, the families they raise, the gardens they plant, the medicine they practice, the songs they sing, the fast train system they put into place, the better ways they show us to grow food, to produce energy, and on and on and on. I want to see graduates coming back to see us who are good cops, teachers, nurses, architects, furniture-makers, inventors of new products and new ideas. (And powerful, noisy, feisty citizens.)

We need studies on the impact of schools on real life. We need not only the quantitative data on their future lives, but the anecdotal, the narrative ones that help us see our uniqueness, not only our uniformity.

I visited a school last week, a charter in D.C. that I’m enthusiastic about. It’s an outgrowth of the work of Experiential Learning (which grew out of Outward Bound) and the Coalition of Essential Schools. It’s got its feet in both as it seeks to grapple with the conflicting pressures of our times. But for all its immense strengths I worried at the lack of time devoted to work/play stemming from children’s own interests and passions, or even the passions of the particular adults. When I re-read what the CPE/CPESS kids said about our school 10 years later I was struck with how often they reflected on the school’s impact on their strong life-enduring pursuits. My granddaughter referred to something similar when she described a seminar with a particular faculty member at her high school: “I literally felt my mind expanding.” He had passed on something no test can measure. But not everyone in class, she noted sadly, felt the same way about her teacher’s philosophical musings. We are not, conveniently, all the same.

I suspect there is a connection between such schooling and real-life achievement, between schools that prepare us for “The 2lst Century” rather than schools that expect us to actively invent it.


P.S. Diane, I just re-read “Keeping the Promise?: The Debate Over Charter Schools” * with chapters by Ted Sizer, George Wood, and Linda Darling-Hammond that fit nicely into our conversation.
*A Rethinking Schools Publication. 2008.

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