Assessment Opinion

Teachers and the Choices They’ve Always Had

By Deborah Meier — February 07, 2008 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Agreed. It would be foolhardy to dismiss any data out of hand. Agreed also: There is stuff imbedded in these international studies that we can learn from. In fact, on the whole, the data goes against the current wave of top-down test-based reforms.

(On a side note: the potential for data bias that you refer to is not necessarily a reflection of dishonesty on the part of the studies’ designers or implementers—but in the comparability of the data collected, the state of psychometrics, and how the data is publicly reported.)

One thing we can learn from international studies is that it may help if decisions are made closer to those who are affected by them. Not only are all the high-scoring countries much, much smaller than most of our 50 states, much less the US as a whole, but many do NOT have a national curriculum or national exams.

That’s what Linda Darling-Hammond reported to us last weekend at a meeting of the Forum for Education and Democracy! We were all startled, having bought the oft-repeated claim that international studies prove that national exams equal high scores. In some of the “high-scoring” nations, standards are set by districts, and in others by even smaller sub-units. And, none come close to doing as much mandating as we do.

Which nations was Linda referring to? At the top on most of the TIMMS and PISA tests are Finland, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Canada and South Korea. Also usually Switzerland and sometimes Japan. Singapore? That’s a city, not a State, and, after all, virtually all of our cities have had citywide standards for a long time. Some of the list above do and some don’t have “national” standards and tests, and some have standards but no national tests; Japan now does have both—but didn’t when they were ranking highest!

Also, a reminder: Most are highly advanced welfare states, compared with the US. Last year, the US ranked 20th of 21 in UNICEF’s data on the welfare of children and at the bottom of a list of 24 countries in terms of relative poverty. As in the case of test scores, how these figures are calculated is worth learning more about.

But one sentence stuck out in your letter, Diane—the notion that without such a national curriculum teachers “have to engage in guesswork about what students needed to learn.” In fact, as you know, teachers have many other choices—and always have! Their own math education, the textbook being used in their school and/or district, the NCTM standards, and the standards (and tests) set by the locality they teach in. When it comes to any individual class or child, informed “guesswork” is what life’s all about. Like any parent, much of our practice is “guesswork” based on the wisest information available to us. Sometimes (like every minute) parents have to make split-second decisions and fall back on “intuition”, past experience, books we’ve read, or what a neighbor suggested. So too with teachers. If the neighbor is a well-trained math teacher, our intuition has been honed over years of thoughtfully scrutinized teaching experience, we’ve been attentive to research in our field, and we had a good math education when we were young…….then those split-second decisions work more often, too. So good teacher ed pays attention to all of these.

Steve Koss (see your last letter) is right about the dumbness that passes for standards. Cities and states are in a competition to look good, versus “do good.” Someone wrote me recently about how Massachusetts is being touted for the rigorousness of its standards. Proof: that it includes in its 4th grade language arts test a paragraph from Tolstoy! It turns out to be an “urban myth”. However the item on Tolstoy does appear on a test published by NWEA called MAP, and the item is amazingly “easy” if one has been well-prepared on test-taking skills, not on literacy or literature.

To completely change the subject, for a moment. (Although maybe it’s right ON the subject?) I’ve been looking around the country at prekindergarten and kindergarten classrooms. I have noted that all the staples of the classrooms I taught in are now absent. No blocks (or a few old cardboard ones!), no pretend corners, no paint and clay, no sand or water, no cooking and no animals or plants! And since the classroom represents for many parents the model “learning environment” I’ll bet those things are increasingly absent from homes as well. All the ways in which humans have learned about the “real world” have been replaced by virtual realities (and take-out order dinners) carefully fed to passive watchers. I suspect the impact of introducing our young to the world in this manner will not be good. I worry how few of us are focused on this. It worries me far more these days than low scores on advanced math tests and won’t be solved by simply starting school earlier. (See Indefenseofchildhood.org and allianceforchildhood.org)


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