I just finished reading “Banding Together,” by David Kirp in the latest issue of the American Educator. It’s all about how schools improve their test scores when labor and management work together, rather than battling each other. Facing, as we are, a “catastrophe”—that “puts United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk” according to a 2012 report published by the Council of Foreign Relations, (led by Joel Klein and Condoleeza Rice)—Kirp has some suggestions to make. Kirp mocks it lightly, with an aside on “physical safety?” but his main point is that the best answer is labor-management collaboration. He highlights the work going on in Union City, N.J. They have made a real turn around in test scores AND college graduation rates, he reports. He focuses on what he calls a “dream team” of 3rd grade teachers in one low-income school with lots of non-English speakers. In 25 years they went from one of the most “wretched” to shining stardom. He visited their school and judged it by his own Golden Rule (which I like), “I’d be happy if my own child went there.” The school as a whole, but the dream team in particular, has, for “year after year” outperformed others on the state achievement test, e.g. 93% in math. I was waiting to learn why these same 3rd graders stopped being at “the top” as fourth graders. Kirp, what happened? “This is a tale of evolution not revolution” Kirp suggests. (Maybe the 4th grade will improve over time?) He then describes how they get there—management and labor together.
The “essentials” he describes are probably on every superintendent and principal’s desk—including “challenging curriculum,” “hands-on help”, “reaching out to parents,” “high expectations,” and “close-grained analyses of student test-scores to diagnose and address problems.” But two are worth noting: preschool and an essentially bilingual approach to second-language learners. Whether these are dependent on labor-management cooperation was not clear. But otherwise the description he gives of what this new collegiality comes down to is mostly hair-raising—hours and hours and hours of filling out forms, making charts and graphs, poring over scores, adjusting and readjusting. The “dream team,” which meets once a week, takes the standardization the furthest—toeing a common line when it comes to almost everything. And everyone tests frequently on a tool designed to correspond to the State’s test.
Kirp is on the side of the angels, and over the years I’ve liked a lot of his work. But his blindness to what stares him in the face is chilling. Is this a fair description of the school he sends his own child or grandchild to? I doubt it. When he describes the 3rd grade math course of study—“understand fractions, know how to convert fractions to their simplest forms, estimate the volume of a rectangle, and use the metric system” I wonder if test scores are sufficient evidence for him that they’ve “got” 93% of it.
In short, I find Kirp does not bring to his observing skills what years of experience has taught him about what constitutes a good education. Nor does he use his understanding of statistics to questions some of the data he reports on. That students in Union City now score at approximately the New Jersey average may or may not be amazing. New Jersey is actually a rich state, with substantial inequality, which suggests that “average” can be deceptive. Nor does he mention anything about their education outside of relentless preparation for math and reading tests when he so confidently claims that these children can now “compete with their suburban cousins.”
In short, Kirp, a decent academic writer on our public school system, reminds me how easily we can ignore what we want to ignore. “Achievement” soon equals “test scores” and on and on. And then ignores telling us so much we need to know. For example, I was eager to hear more about the pre-school program, r whether kids drop out along the way or are often held-over in grade, whether teachers are paid by their students’ test scores, and whether all that energy and time, precious time spent on “data analysis” hasn’t meant the elimination of much of what Kirp and I wanted and got for our own children—art, music, sports, social studies, history and science.
I don’t blame Union City—for trying their best to beat the game, as long as we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that this definition of “well-educated” is a fair one. If we developed a broader vision of what constitutes “good data”—observing children closely for clues to children’s strengths and idiosyncratic styles, interest and oddities, rather than only their testing accuracy—I think that same Dream Team would dream up better things to do with their time together. But partnering well between labor and management has limits when neither one is free to raise serious questions about what it means to be successful.
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