Accountability Opinion

The Emperor Wears No Clothes

By Deborah Meier — July 02, 2009 3 min read
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Dear Diane,

I don’t even trust myself to write standards (of the sort that can be specs for tests) for one school, one district, one state—much less the whole nation! I’m bound to have a better idea a week later.

And, given those who are considered the experts these days on matters of schooling, I cringe at the very idea.

I think it would be fair to argue that an institution that is funded by public monies must defend itself on the grounds that it serves, first and foremost, a public purpose—one which by its nature is held in common by all citizens, voters, and their offspring.

Here’s my suggestion. They must serve to prepare future voters to be knowledgeable and skilled citizens by the time they reach voting age—smart enough to preserve, protect, and improve the democracy of which they now are full members. We need a national “bar mitzvah” ceremony that seriously stops and takes stock of how well it has used children’s time (12-13 years of involuntary schooling) and the public’s money.

There is no reason the young can’t be offered “more,” or that we will all agree on precisely what “habits of mind” a voter needs to decide on matters of enormous complexity! But I’d have to connect the dots if I wanted to make it mandatory, not just accessible. There’s a difference, for example, between preparing future citizens to understand “the economy,” and preparing them for a specific job in it.

We cannot abandon democracy just because we are a long way from where we need to be, not to mention a long way from ever having discussed what it is, much less what it takes to nourish it. But that’s the direction—first and foremost—I want us to head in. That’s the argument I want us to engage in—school by school, community by community, state by state. Hopefully, we will come up with interesting and different answers. Meanwhile, we can also consider how we could go about assessing it down the road.

Here’s a shocking idea along such lines: It’s not mathematicians who need to decide how much and what kind of math we need! We need citizens with many different forms of expertise to weigh in on the kind/level of mathematical problems 18-year-olds should be able to make sense of. Then mathematicians can help us lay out ways to get there. If calculus is more important than statistics, let’s hear the argument.

If we give up on democracy every time it seems inefficient or even absurd (as Churchill put it), there would be no trace of it left on earth.

Yes, NAEP can, as you suggest, Diane, help us in the process by assessing K-12 students in a wide range of ways—and perhaps samples of other citizens of varying occupations—about what they know, make sense of and can demonstrate. To do that well we have to change the way we think of assessment. Instead of using a technology built on ranking, let’s use NAEP’s sampling as a way to provide better understanding of the problems. Having some portions that can be repeated for decades for comparison purposes is wise, but it should not be the be-all-and-end-all. And, as with all tests, we need to consider the ways it can be abused—the dangers—ahead of time. We need information as a tool for informing the public debate, not for enforcing solutions.

Yes, Diane, the Broader, Bolder proposal is a huge step in the right direction.

It’s not only in schooling policy that we face a dangerous fork in the road. Our disrespect for genuine expertise (the absence of any school people in the current policy debates) is mirrored in every field (even in the appointment of a financier to head GM!). So, too, the range of expertise. We confuse the role of citizen vs. expert, but even more dangerously we confuse the role of both in our capitulation to fiscally powerful private interest groups. This goes for policy discourse in many fields—not just education, but health, energy, and on and on.

The emperor wears no clothes—more charters, teachers paid for test results, and a national test are solutions that distract us. Not one of these is backed by “evidence”—even if we agreed that test scores were the purpose of education.

Next week, let’s imagine we could mandate a dozen or fewer books that rarely get read by anyone but teachers and educators but deserve a wider public audience?


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