Data Opinion

More Than One Way to Judge Education

By Deborah Meier — March 07, 2013 6 min read
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Editor’s note: This entry has been updated to correct Michael Paul Goldenberg’s name.

Dear Eric,

I appreciate the clarity of our differences! I hope I can be as clear.

In education—like many other subjects—it’s hard, if not impossible, to separate ends from means. What I think it means to be well-educated will influence the means I use, of course. So turning ends over to the president, Department of Education, and/or Congress is a far more critical act than I think you view it, Eric. Even if I had a far higher opinion of all three bodies. (Do you think more than half a dozen congressmen read the No Child Left Behind Act or the new common standards?)

At one extreme are parents who do not want schools that teach their children to question authority, be critical about the truth as laid out by their church or private beliefs, etc. At the other exteme, those who see schools as preparing the young for the coming revolution. I was always impressed by Jehovah’s Witness families who sent their children to our progressive school. They valued our efforts to respect their beliefs while also respecting our right to expose their children to ours. We made compromises with them (offering alternatives to some books, trips, etc.), but not to the underlying five “habits of mind” which required being open to consider alternate views, for example. But obviously in part they were choosing us because their alternatives were few. But I think we learned a lot by having them in our community—the parents and their children.

We all of us, as parents, have strong reasons to concern ourselves with the “ends,” the “values” that the school is seeking to gently or harshly impose upon children. There is no way to educate or to raise a child without exposing them to particular ways of thinking and believing (values) we view as wrong, and even “dangerous.”

So that’s why I accept the right of parents to home-school and to attend private schools. And why I even accept the idea of limited choices among public schools—among schools that are ultimately accountable to broader public agreements about values. But I’m nervous about it, and in the interests of my own “liberal” beliefs favor finding mutually acceptable compromises that make it possible to build common spaces for sharing different values.

I ask myself, what is fair to assume are the underlying agreements that hold us together as a nation. For example, I think—but maybe this is open to argument—that we are committed to not only a republican form of government but a democratic one. Thus, we have a right to ask what habits of mind are essential to a democracy, and thus conduct our publicly endorsed and funded schools in ways that can be defended as supporting such democratic habits.

I think that’s the discussion we should have and that’s what and who should be held responsible for publicly funded schools. My answer: the parents, teachers, maybe students, plus representatives of the community in which the schools resides. Although, and here’s Rub No. 2, the evidence for our claims can never be proven—but they can be exposed to the light of day. No amount of data can ultimately answer the questions we want to ask. Not even hindsight. And not even if I trusted virtually any of the data we now rest our claims on—test scores, attendance, drop outs, graduation rates, college attendance ... et al. For that reason I prefer a public system that can contain many different nuanced answers to this central question—and that can best be checked out by seeing the school in action. The evidence must be publicly defended, but decisions must rest with parents and local school constituents, and perhaps ultimately with the courts—when issues of health, safety, and civil rights are involved.

Even how we teach math—as Paul Michael Paul Goldenberg argues in his comments on Bridging Differences—is a question that ultimately rests on ends, not just the best means of solving a particular mathematical problem. What problems are most important, which are hardest to learn, and which are fundamentally most critical to nourishing a democratic form of government is controversial, but in my view spending 12 years toward a calculus-defined end is wasted time.

In short, who makes which decisions is a complicated question, and no single set of data can satisfy our answers.

Having said that, I am inclined to ask those who think test scores are a good form of evidence for the basis of this belief! And why when it doesn’t “work"—when scores don’t go up—they continue to push that paradigm even further: more tests with higher and higher stakes. Or when common sense tells us that children in smaller classes get more attention, have an easier time listening and responding and being “known” by their teachers do we ask for “data” to prove that. No private school I’ve run into has class sizes over 15 or so—for obvious reasons.

I think test scores—and the psychometrics that we have pursued for the past century or more—primarily reflect the test-taker’s family background: wealth, education, milieu, etc. If you look at my website under my writings you will notice I’ve spent a lot of time on this subject, including interviewing individual students and groups of students to understand better their right as well as wrong answers. It helped me understand why there was such an amazingly close correlation between standardized test scores and family wealth and socioeconomic status. Some things cannot be standardized. Our system of assessment at Coalition (Coalition of Essential Schools) schools was thus based on a different, equally “rigorous” approach that rested ultimately (as it should) on the collective judgment of several different parties.

If we follow your suggestions (and I appreciate your spelling them out), more and more decisions that I view as of vital importance to democracy will be made at a national level, with all the vast differences in power that this entails accepting. It also, alas, contradicts my view of being well-educated—and requires the kind of teachers who are least likely to show kids what a lively mind is all about.

Second, the more we differentiate by broadening the spectrum, the more we will see the score gap become fixed in stone—with an exception here and there. Yet not doing so, as you note, has consequences, too.

Third. “Objective” outcomes don’t exist—someone had to make decisions about how to select the items, the wording of the answers, and the weight given to each item, etc. Test-makers know ahead of time exactly how each item will play out—thus making it possible for the SAT to have “corrected” for gender bias. The Coalition approach to “objectivity” relies instead on having several different “scorers” and allowing the student and faculty a voice in defending their work.

Fourth. Disaggregation, for all its merits, has under these circumstances the dangerous “outcome” of reinforcing centuries of prejudice based on race, class, social status, ethnicity, etc.

There are lots of conundrums, and more than one way toward better means of judging what constitutes a good education—and I think that’s good as long as we share our outcomes and are able to revise them as we go and they are made in ways that those closest to child and school are central to the process.

I want to be able to look the jury that decides my fate in the eye and defend myself before being judged.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.