Assessment Opinion

Let’s Slow Down & Consider Our Path Carefully

By Deborah Meier — November 19, 2009 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Someone calling himself “natturner” had a sharp reply to Jay Mathews’ column on closing big high schools. Even though I was part of such an effort many years ago, and still brag about the results, I think natturner made a good rhetorical point in his comment on Mathews’ blog:

“Mr. Mathews, I just can’t figure out why you confine your sagacity to just America’s public education system. Your philosophy seems relevant in so many bigger ways.

For instance, about a year ago the banking system collapsed, proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that it had failed. And rather than the U.S. taxpayer financing a banks turnaround to the tune of $700 billion, they should have, as you recommend for inner-city schools, been terminated! Terminating the banks, has a nice ring to it don’t you think?”

The context, I like to believe, of our effort (pre-Klein/Bloomberg) was different, as were our allies in the work. But I’m uneasy about some of my earlier adventures as I see them turned into something that feels quite different. I wish we would learn from our history rather than rushing from fad to fad at the speed of light. Step One would be making transparent our purposes. Both for education writ large and for the reforms themselves. But I fear you are right, Diane. Many “reformers” have an agenda and will keep churning out “data” to prove their point. Thanks for the counter-data, once again. But meanwhile we have to counter their agenda with our own.

I like the late Ted Sizer’s definition of the purpose of education: “to help young people use their minds well.” He reminded us that this involved developing habits that weren’t easy to sustain in face of the obstacles placed before us by so many powerful distracters right there inside our schools! That’s what Horace’s Compromise intended to demonstrate. Horace was compromised from doing his job by the regularities of the very school he worked in.

If this were the purpose of schools, argued Sizer, then we would need to “measure” our success in ways consistent with our goal. We should ask kids to “show us” their minds at work so that we can judge the claims made on their behalf. Seems simple enough. But then we get into trouble. Somebody (in fact several millions of such) thought Sarah Palin, and George Bush before her, were the kind of leaders they desired. That was a judgment which you and I might question, so how dare we leave ourselves open to such judgments when it comes to what constitutes a good education and a well-educated person? So we generally retreat and seek measurements that compare something, whatever, but not our exercise of intellectual judgment.

I know of no easy answer to this. At CPESS and Mission Hill we tried to construct a different “compromise"—by creating a process that over-weighted professional expertise, but included other voices. We also went to great lengths to make the work of the judges transparent, through an archive that contained both the student’s work and a sampling of videos of the live process itself.

There is plenty of room for measurement error in this process. But is the rate of error any greater than it is using standardized tests? We concluded that it wasn’t, and our view was reaffirmed by a panel of experts selected by N.Y. State Superintendent Mills to judge 35 public high schools that developed similar practices to replace tests and credit hours.

If we are educating young people in the art of exercising judgment, then maybe we have no choice but to measure them through a respectful process that honors judgment. In the process, most important of all, our students come to value what we honored.

I’m not naive enough to think we are about to take that path writ large. But, like you, Diane, I’m hoping that we will slow down a bit and reconsider the one we’re presently pursuing. If Michele Obama weren’t good at standardized testing, and if she sent her children to schools that do not define children in that way—why must “being realistic” (as she argues) mean that we must keep doing it to the kids we send to public institutions?

In Yong Zhao’s new book, Catching up or Leading the Way, he tackles precisely this issue from the standpoint of China’s long obsession with tests. He concludes the book by noting that he has hopefully shown “how the current reform efforts are the result of a history of flawed reasoning based on incomplete information, driven by unfounded fear, and influenced by politics.” He includes a quote from Yogi Berra that sums it up well—"The future ain’t what it used to be.”

Fixing our schools through more deeply embedding an old outworn mechanism designed for a different age and purpose (sorting, ranking) will be a disaster, which we can still avert. I hope we don’t conclude, as the Chinese have, that the roadblock is democracy itself, our ultimate form of accountability. Am I whistling in the dark, Diane?


P.S. How do Klein/Bloomberg explain why large high schools rated by their system of measurement as “A” or “B” be eliminated?

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