Assessment Opinion

The Most Shameful Response to an Apparent Crisis

By Deborah Meier — February 18, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Will this period mostly be known for the extraordinarily high levels of everyday corruption and the buying and selling of democracy? We’re growing accustomed to it. We jail folks for smoking pot, while corporations (full-scale citizens, according to the Supreme Court) can’t be jailed for real crimes against others.

Principals and teachers meanwhile are castigated for “cheating” children in ways that seem entirely in keeping with marketplace ideals. For example, teaching to the tests, not teaching what won’t be tested, and providing succor in ways that the rules prohibit (pausing to pat a child on the back, handing out M&Ms, or muttering advice such as “try that again,” etc.). I remember how frustrated I used to be when students would ask: “Will this be on the test?” Now it’s the name of the game.

What is additionally insulting is that the bonuses teachers are offered for getting high test scores are so paltry. If I sell out, at least it should be for something closer to what bank presidents and hedge fund managers get for cooking their books.

One of our readers thinks I’m wrong in claiming that crisis-talk should be eschewed: It’s “‘A Climate of False Crisis?’ Thinking of all the poor/minority youngsters in this country on the short end of the achievement gap coupled with millions of Americans facing the reality of unemployment, foreclosures, bankruptcies, even homelessness appears to border on the insensitive. ....you were one of the last people on the planet I would have suspected of such a felony.”

The current education crisis goes back at least 50 years, to Sputnik. When was it that we humans didn’t face an abundance of poor/minority youngsters, a vastly under-educated majority, homelessness, and on and on? I re-read The Iliad when I feel shocked by torture, rape, and war. It’s disgraceful, but...a crisis?

Reminder: the drive for a 40-hour week was a drive on behalf of democracy. When in crisis-mode, we generally jump onto sound bites uttered by personally convincing authorities. We use metaphors which help us understand complexity and then ignore the flaws inherent in our oversimplifications. Not having internalized the difference between millions, billions, and trillions (just more or fewer zeros), we think about the national budget in ways that are counter-productive. If dimes, hundreds, and thousands were similarly confused, we’d all be in the poor house. In using code words—like “terrorist” for our enemies—we forget our own history of “terrorism” intentionally directed at innocents to achieve political ends. Short cuts are both inevitable and risky. Untangling them takes—time.

The most shameful response to an apparent crisis is to cheat on the data needed to guide policy. Test score data, like dropout and graduation data, are easier to abuse than the financial shenanigans that went on on Wall Street. E.g., we overlook claims of extraordinary graduation rates by ignoring attrition—all those kids who left for “one reason or another.”

It’s the difference between the number who enter 9th grade and those who graduate each year that demands explanation. Some were pushed out, some left because they were badly served, some left to transfer, and some moved. This data is nearly impossible to monitor. Similarly, the myriad ways in which schools skew their demographics are too numerous to detail here. They also have their rationale, sometimes disguised as in a child’s best interest. “Let’s keep the kids who ‘benefit’ from our school.” Then we vent our shock at the schools designed to take the left-overs. Of course, as you point out, Diane, the more data-driven we are (given the nature of our data), the more Campbell’s law takes over.

I’m equally disturbed by what goes on in the name of teaching/learning for vulnerable 3-7-year-olds in the Race to the Top scores. Think what it’s like to be the parent of a child who is slow and deliberate when informed that he isn’t “ready” for 1st grade based on a test score. So much for a kinder garden. Teachers drill children at school to improve scores and send home sheets—see below—so parents can drill at home. Here’s a list of some of the “words” some children must pronounce correctly on a “preschool” test. (See Susan Ohanian’s Web site for more context.)

yiz wan zoc ful mik zum nuf kun ruv fod vep ij op juj sug zuz ov juf ol

They’re not words, of course, but reading has now been redefined in the early grades as making the right sounds. (Scores are calculated using a measuring system called DIBELS.) Studies demonstrate the superiority of this approach to reading in terms of test scores in the early grades. The trouble is—later on, when it gets to real reading—the data gets murkier. And the trade-offs? The gradual elimination of material-rich, talk-rich, music-rich, science-rich “gardens” for young children. The schools I helped create tried instead to make all classrooms more like a good kindergarten—organized as labs, libraries, and workshops. Our youngsters ended up as good readers and writers, but also fascinated by knowledge and ideas.

Finally, Diane, in response to your letter about two styles of leadership, here’s an interesting “third way” described by principal Arnie Landberg (sent to me by Alfie Kohn). “All decisions could be put into one of two boxes, one labeled major and the other minor. My job as principal was to make all minor decisions and one major one: in which box should a particular decision be placed? If I kept a major decision to myself, I would be in violation of the collaborative culture we were trying to create. If I burdened them with minor matters, I would be infringing on their time for their own educational pursuits.”


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