Standards Opinion

The Testing Obsession Widens the Gap

By Deborah Meier — May 09, 2013 7 min read
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Deborah Meier responds to Fordham Institute’s Michael J. Petrilli today.

Dear Mike,

The data you present re. the “achievement gap” is consistent with an argument I made against using standardized testing as a barometer 50 years ago. I said (and wrote) that as long as our testing system requires us to rank order we will be tracking income (and wealth), not education. As one becomes less equal, so will the other. Anything else would not meet psychometric standards! The tests are designed by test publishers who, by pre-testing items, can be sure that they’ve got the “right"—reliable and credible—rank order.

Once one concludes, as I did through 50 years of close observation, that the tests are measuring something other than “reading” skill—decoding and restating—our problem looks different. Yes, E.D. Hirsch is right: You can’t measure reading qua reading. I not merely observed but ran little mini-focus groups to understand why some kids got “right” answers and others “wrong” ones. It had little to do with their reading skill.

Read Part 2 of In Schools We Trust and you’ll learn what I discovered was happening. It’s partly a question of vocabulary, but more importantly it is in their “interpretations” that the poor and rich (and probably black and white) differ in significant ways. The same “experience” (whether in the text or life itself) is not “read” the same way. It’s easier to guess the right answer if your perspective is similar to what the test-makers expect it to be, just as their forebears did when they invented IQ tests a century ago. We don’t all have the same “common experience” upon which the tests are normed. Their “wrong” answers, in fact, were often far more logical and sensible than the “right” ones.

These facts also remind me of why teachers can be more powerful than TV or online schools if they use their time to build authentic relationships with their students—and join with rather than dictate to them. It’s for the same reason that studies of how children learn their native language demonstrate that, even if kids spend far more time listening to TV than listening to the talk of adults at home, they will speak like their families. Schools must become second homes.

But where you and I perhaps most clearly differ is in our recipes for turning this situation around. Yours: Focus on vocabulary and a common curriculum that goes with it. I appreciate your emphasis on “curriculum"—subject matter, the stuff itself. But it does NOT require a common curriculum. As with our first language we need to rely on building vocabulary by: (1) having a more diverse student body (racial and class integration); (2) having a lot of adults around to interact with and smaller class sizes (like good private schools do); (3) engaging in studies that require collaboration between students and students, and students and adults—including adult-written texts; (4) encouraging reading in settings that are designed to naturally arouse interest—motivate—or that answer questions youngsters really want to know; and (5) remembering that vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and spelling are most efficiently learned the same way we learn everything else that matters. We learn to drive by driving and to cook by cooking, which means allowing 6- to 12-year-olds to read (and listen to) repetitive and engaging books which do not present too much of a “cognitive” or empathy challenge. These are the years when voracious middle-class readers read boys’ and girls’ adventure series (Nancy Drew?) about people they imagine they could become—and want to become. That’s harder for some kids than others. Boys vs. girls, for example. It always takes a leap of empathy to imagine oneself as the “other,” even more so if one is uncomfortable in the skin of the author’s characters. You can begin to see what I’m getting at? If in doubt, take a look at the biweekly Internet videos of students working in Mission Hill classrooms.

Progressive preschools never rejected a rich reading culture or knowing facts as “developmentally inappropriate.” They just didn’t think you needed direct instruction to kick in this love of reading, of hobbies, of facts, of curiosity, of indefatigable and repetitive practice in subjects and skills they were fascinated by. The kids come to us with curiosity—and our job is to extend it. Progressives understood that the playful mindset that serious learning depends on is too often silenced in school. For example, I frequently step into classrooms where well-meaning teachers are doing as they are told: stopping at the end of every paragraph or page to ask didactic questions that turn great stories into “lessons” with “objectives” that can be “measured.” That’s hardly likely to whet children’s appetite for “more, more.”

Even “guided” discussions—another fad—at best lead the more teacher-pleasing kids to try to read what the teacher wants them to say, rather than discuss, argue, and maybe act out their own interpretations for each other. And indeed, you are also right that it was in low-poverty and “minority” schools like those I got to know so well in Chicago in the 1950s and 60s that the least “progressive” strategies have always been applied—even by educators who thought of themselves as “progressives.” (Richer kids are sometimes getting some of this too now, under pressure to do well on tests.)

They’ve forgotten. Children are BORN experts at learning. Poor and rich. They couldn’t survive a week if they weren’t born intellectuals. They experiment over and over, until they find a pattern that “works.” And then they find out that it’s more complicated than that and start over again! In the first three years of life they are learning at a pace we never again achieve—unless we are, as you note, under so much stress and physical deprivation not typical of most of “the poor.” Statistically, of course, it’s more likely to impact those with the fewest resources—as you acknowledged.

But, Mike, it cannot be fixed by the common core. It can only be fixed by teachers who know how to join the “common core” of the children and the families they first meet, when children are 4 or 5, and use it wisely and creatively ever after.

We need to spend more time teasing this out. Until we tackle this, poor children will leave the best of themselves at the door until they are big enough to be less physically afraid of their teachers or parents, precisely when adults become afraid of them! Neither form of fear is healthy for teachers or kids! Too many families with the best intentions send their children to school with a message: Beware, they don’t respect you or me; Be quiet, behave; Don’t count on me to rescue you; and, Don’t volunteer information.” The message is meant well, and we too often encourage it. It takes time—which we never provide teachers or parents enough of—to build the trust needed between family, teacher, child, and school.

It’s OK to ask: “What if I’m wrong?” As long as one can answer: Then I can change my mind! Ditto for all teachers and schools. Unless they can’t. I want schools (and schools of education) to provide “boot camps” for the development of democratic habits of association (Dewey’s term). Boot camps for adults as well as the young—where serious intellectual inquiry can become a habit. We have only a dozen years or so before these youngsters will make decisions that affect the planet, sit on the juries when I’m on trial (and innocent). We can’t afford to waste time on test prep. We need efficiency, but not machine efficiency. We need to use children’s and families’ strengths efficiently. We need teachers who can think on their feet because they have the right to use their minds well, too. We need to be debating about the habits that underlie democracy—not mandating them. How I’d like young people to witness such debates, and over time, join in. But that can only happen if we are free to say no as well as yes, and learn from our mistakes.

It is our job to use our precious public funds to increase the odds that democracy won’t have to be reinvented. If the poor were less poor, their schools less poor, and bigotry less a part of our culture—it would be easier. But still not inevitable.


P.S. Maybe read Mike Rose’s blog post on Sean Reardon’s New York Times piece “No Rich Child Left Behind”; or, Closing the Opportunity Gap, edited by Prudence Carter and Kevin Welner, or the 2009 issue of Education Next where I debated with Checker Finn on a national curriculum to see where we can take this next.

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