Accountability Opinion

There Are No Quick Fixes

By Deborah Meier — October 27, 2011 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Dear Diane,

If we could clone you and send you everywhere at once, with a few follow-ups from others, would it matter? Yes. Because we definitely don’t reach as many people with our message as “they” (the Reformers) do with theirs.

Still, as Democrats Abroad France wrote recently in a proposal submitted to the Democratic Party Platform Committee: “We cannot improve education by quick fixes, by handing over our public schools to entrepreneurs, by driving out experienced professionals replacing them with enthusiastic amateurs, or by closing them and firing ... entire staffs. No country in the world follows such strategies.”

We hold the world record in the amount of time devoted to testing—even as we also hold the record for spending less on children’s health and welfare.

The causes of our exceptionalism are myriad. A piece in The New York Times Sunday Review by Alexander Stille suggests that one explanation may be that we’re seeing the impact of two shifts: “one shows a steady march toward democratic inclusion, the other toward a tolerance of economic stratification that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.” He suggests that the end of social mobility is having an impact with side effects we aren’t noticing. Maybe this helps explain, Diane, the irrationality of the current wave of corporate education reform. It’s a distraction from dealing with the real economic crisis. Better to fight about equal test scores than equal family income and wealth.

But after more than two decades of these New Reforms—more and more testing, higher stakes, charters, and mayoral control—we do know some things for sure:

(a) Test scores have not risen, and the test-score gap hasn’t narrowed.
(b) We have moved further away from building a profession that retains and uses its experienced teachers well.
(c) We are witnessing unimaginable hours spent on test-prepping and a narrowing of the rest of the curriculum while cheating is being ignored and teachers are being demoralized. Hardly trivial side effects.

And we know that our immediate bleak economic future will exacerbate all these trends, unless ... How have we gotten to this point? And how might we shift direction?

For a century or more education policy has periodically nurtured nostalgia for a past that never was and encouraged belief in a future crisis that bears no resemblance to reality. It’s not a good combination. Even Al Shanker told me 30 years ago that, while he agreed with me, the public only responds to crises—real or not. We have to go along with turning this into a crisis, appealing to a variety of different audiences’ fears, he said. It’s a difficult legacy.

Why suddenly does the common-sense fact that teachers (and unions) fight for contracts that give them less onerous workloads, more job security, and more pay turn into a crime? Does Wall Street live by another code? (Educators and Wall Street’ers both need to watch Daniel Pink’s chalk talk on motivation to consider his counter-intuitive findings—that rewards are counterproductive when it comes to honesty and doing good work.)

Yes, we’re not always consistent either. We can always shout “gotcha” at each other.

Our “schooling” crisis has been in part real, a symptom of something “new” and wonderful—in post-World War II America, the temporary end of a racist immigration policy that stemmed from World War I, the success of the GI Bill of Rights, the drive for equality that grew out of the War on Poverty and the civil rights and women’s movements in the ‘60s. These all had dramatic effects on education.

A little personal background, much of which you know, Diane. I entered teaching in 1963 during the early civil rights movement and allied myself with a growing new progressivism. Sometimes called “open education,” its advocates were given a warm reception in some places of power for about five years, maybe 10. By 1985, I thought we were on the cutting edge of a transformative movement. I was dead wrong. We were declared to be too slow in showing test success and our vision hard to mandate from the top down. The New Reformers decided on a different path, which they have pursued now for between 20 and 30 years of unprecedented attention and resources.

Maybe the time has come to acknowledge that the changes we need can’t be measured by the tools we’ve been using and that replicating by mandate in an “industry” like education has limits. Those who designed the instruments that measure us as failures admit they never intended them to be used for high-stakes purposes. There will be some schools and kids whose scores go up, some down, and some both or neither. But the whole demographic will remain unchanged unless we ignore cheating or what it means to be truly educated.

Since I began my crusade against this kind of testing in the late 1960s I’ve been told: (1) Something is better than nothing, and (2) we are developing better measurement tools. Bah, humbug. After 45 years of hearing this—literally—I don’t believe it. We know there are both better ways of administering standardized tests that will do less damage: sampling. We know plenty of other ways that we can look at kids’ work to assess their individual progress. I can name several-hundred public and private schools that have done so for decades. But the particulars of their solutions are not replicable because measures of success rest on “values” that need to be openly negotiated, not mandated. That’s an advantage private schools have that could be made public.

Maybe it’s time to encourage new and old reforms alike, while schools are mandated to invent very different ways to track what the public wants to know about the work of their students. Let this be in the hands of each school’s lay and professional community.

We CANNOT afford the existing gross confusion between achievement and test scores. It has led us to promote the kind of education quick fix no one would propose for its “ruling class.” I’ll bet Socrates would agree with me on this.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.