Assessment Opinion

Schools with Power to Adapt to Individual Children

By Deborah Meier — June 16, 2011 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

I picked up a nice button in D.C. that reads: “Those who can, TEACH. Those who can’t, pass laws about teaching.”

I, too, once proposed a law: “Any legislative body that mandates a test for K-12 students must first take the test and publicly post their scores.”

Rick Hess and Terry Moe, I suspect, would score at the top of that list. I grew suspicious of this talent for test-taking only when my oldest son, an early and fluent reader, gave wrong answers on a 3rd grade test. While his test failure may have fooled his teacher, it didn’t fool me. But it made me curiouser and curiouser. So I tape-recorded 8-year-olds in Harlem “doing” the test. I discovered that they mostly read OK, but still gave “wrong” answers.

It felt much that way at the recent American Enterprise Institute session in D.C. in which I took part. I had a long list of issues to take up with Terry Moe and, even stretching my time limit, not enough time to get through them. So I felt semi-incoherent. I focused on Moe’s historical amnesia about the rules and regulations imposed on schools and teachers long before teachers’ unions, much less collective bargaining! I hammered away at his use of studies whose conclusions rested entirely on test scores. He denied that was so, but couldn’t recall what else was used. I quoted from some recent prestigious studies that concluded that 10 years of test-based reform has not been good for American education. (Thanks, Diane, for your last letter, which outlines all their conclusions. What powerful ammunition for “our side” from some quite unlikely sources. Add to that my applause for Rick Hess’s attack on U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s proposal to get around the Constitution.)

To my delight the third panelist, Heather Harding of Teach for America, responding to Moe’s attack on “collaboration” with unions, acknowledged she had a soft spot for collaboration, including collaboration with unions

Thanks to one of our readers, chemtchr, I found another deft critique of Moe’s work here.

Where Terry Moe and other AEI-fellow travelers go off course is in thinking (or pretending?) that poverty and social disadvantage are excuses, and that tests measure what happens between 8:30 and 3 p.m. But I don’t want to entirely undermine their argument because in fact society has held these kinds of low expectations for a few thousand years. Neither liberals nor conservatives are innocent. Some of the bias has been based on unmistakable racist and classist assumptions masked as a desire not to unfairly penalize those with naturally inferior capacities. It’s ancient history reaffirmed by modern psychometrics. Their arguments justified, and still do, segregation—for the children’s own good.

When I started teaching it seemed obvious that we had never seriously imagined that all children could learn about subtle and complex topics, and lo and behold, they didn’t. What we need instead is a recognition that poverty and racism undermine the intellectual abilities of human beings, but schools add to this in powerful ways.

Yes, there are children in every community (just more in communities of poverty) who have serious health problems that impede their intelligence, as well as emotional traumas that undermine cognitive skills. But they are not the norm. Complicating their schooling is the fact that poor children, and poor black children above all, live in a bifurcated world. They must simultaneously—at a very young age—try to perceive the world as the “mainstream” sees it while also holding on to the reality they know best. They’ve been wisely warned by those they trust about the sometimes subtle dangers of that “other” world. Many decide silence is the best defense. Some become masters at finding clues in the faces of teachers. But many simply become restless, bored, angry, and eventually humiliated by the experience. They reject their teachers before their teachers can reject them.

When friends from the private Dalton School came to visit our school in Harlem, they left with this comment: “Your children are so much easier to teach than ours.” They explained that what they didn’t find at CPE was what they called “brattiness.” They were right. Fortunately, we started our school with teachers who had many years of experience and were experts at seeing the world through the varied eyes of their students. They assumed a “dumb” (i.e. wrong) answer was likely based on something worth exploring together. It takes work to “see” this way. For one extraordinary year I co-taught with an experienced colleague. We spent hours together after school sharing anecdotes and incipient theories, and then planned together for the next day. I miss you, Howie!

Such practice requires graduate schools, teacher-ed programs, and schools themselves to change—not just kids. It requires schools with the power to adapt to individual children. Not just individually more effective teachers, but a community of adults, including families. It means assuming we belong to what Frank Smith calls the “literacy club,” a club where membership is not exclusive, and doing so before children say, “I don’t want to join your club anyway.”

We can’t overcome the past until we make radical changes in the way too many Americans are forced to live, as well as in our ways of using school. Over years—not months—schools can produce kids who cope with their dual memberships successfully, guess at what’s on “our” mind (or the test-makers’) when we ask right/wrong questions, and still respect their own minds. We need schools that help children, parents, and teachers to be alert to the many other forms of assessment that are both more accurate and reliable. That’s what Ted Sizer challenged us to do. He was called a utopian. But it’s a lot less utopian than thinking that repeating the same old practices under new names with tougher enforcement will produce better results.

Yes, “There oughta be a law.” But passing laws isn’t at the heart of the answer we need.


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