Education for What?

          March 2006

A few years ago I started speeches by suggesting that the time would soon come when “big schools” were re-discovered. There’s nothing more fickle in the world than the successive reform waves that occur in the field of education. Rereading David Tyack (e.g. Mangers of Virtue and The One Best System) should be a must, alongside Richard Rothstein’s The Way Things Were. I keep the latter on my night table to soothe my sometimes irritated nerves when confronted with another old nostrum in new guise. Fortunately, most of the reforms never really get practiced, we just talk about them.

In part our fickleness is due to a long-term failure to confront the question of “why public education anyhow—especially for 13 plus long years?” Our failure to do so wasn’t so critical when schooling only took up a small part of our lives and when most of the important stuff we learned elsewhere. It’s dangerous today. We settle for asking —“who’s doing best?” and “what works?” Historically our answers were usually based on nostalgic anecdotes; but of late we are getting more and more pseudo-scientific, i.e. we use more numbers. Our answers to both questions–“who is best” and “what works” rest almost exclusively on test scores, which are among the least sensitive tools invented for answering either question. If we’ve defined “success ” and “works” as just doing well on test scores then of course its a tautology—just another way of saying the same thing. But down deep the answers don’t match our desires, and so we’re always open to another cure-all.

To make matters worse, the tests have gotten worse too. Bad as the “old tests” were—with their bell-curved norms in which by definition half had to be scored “below” and half “above grade” level—the new ones, often referred to as criterion referenced tests, are simply embarrassing, with the norms set on the basis of politics rather than statistics.

There’s an old joke which I wish I could tell well. But you probably know it. It’s about the man stumbling around under the street light looking for his keys. A passerby joins him and asks, “Exactly where were you when you lost them?” Our hapless searcher points across the street. “Then why are we looking here?” asks the passerby. “Because this is where the light is.” And that’s pretty much the answer I get when I ask why we are using test scores to find out about student achievement. It’s the stuff we have.

So? Get better stuff, I answer. And in the meantime don’t use test scores as a pseudonym for achievement—it’s not accurate and it’s even ludicrous. It’s only cheap. But getting better stuff requires thinking about what we are trying to get evidence about? For example, in the schools I like best the answers have something to do with the kind of society we hope kids will help us nourish and support when they get out of school—which is not merely a question of finding their own job market niches, but shaping the way we design the future, including world of work, the “economy” as well as the social fabric of our lives, and even the future of the planet. Nourishing democracy, for example, requires activity not just rhetoric. It requires judgment, weighing pros and cons, trade-offs. It requires assuming responsibility for ones ideas and practices. Do our graduates show signs of engaging in such work–now? In the schools I’d like my own kids to go to they’d align their practices to such ends. There are schools out there like that. And if my ends aren’t yours? If you’d put more weight on x instead of y? It’s okay as long as you are willing to look kids in the eye and say: these are our expectations, here’s how and why we arrived at them and here’s how we’ll all know if you’ve met them. Within a wide range of possibilities, let there then be choice. Let us try and persuade each other not just by arguing in a vacuum but by example.

At the very least, there’d be fewer fads if those closest to the action–kids, parents, teachers and communities–had the chance to work year after year connecting means and ends, digging deeper instead of covering our… bases; doing better at what we think matters instead of switching horses every few years.

It’s probably true that closing health and income gaps would be a quicker and easier way to close testing gaps–and maybe even real achievement. There’s some pretty strong statistical evidence for such a claim. But that’s another story that no one these days wants to hear about, we’re too busy designing methods to keep kids’, their parents’ and their teachers’ noses to the grindstone.

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