What’s Wrong with Our Schools?

April 2009

          Recently Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post, in his article “How Bill Gates Would Repair Our Schools” (Monday, March 30, 2009) explains the answer is: replicate KIPP and more Charters. The trouble is simple, the article explains

Institutions stand in the way. School boards resist the expansion of charter schools. Teachers unions resist measuring and rewarding effectiveness. In fact, Gates said, evidence shows no connection between teaching quality and most of the measures used in contracts to determine pay. Seniority, holding a master’s degree or teacher’s certification, and even, below 10th grade, having deep knowledge of a subject — these all are mostly irrelevant.

The absence of a correlation between good teaching and the teacher’s own education, certification, or deep knowledge appears pretty astounding. Even Teach for America lays its claim to fame, for example, on the value of an Ivy League diploma.

What is intriguing is that neither Gates nor Hiatt stop to wonder if the absence of correlation might indict the tool for measuring the impact of teaching: standardized test scores.  

If I reported on studies showing something similar in the field of health—that seeing a credentialed doctor didn’t prove any more successful than consulting the man on the street—I would face somewhat more skepticism, I suspect. What kind of measuring rod could I be using, would be the first question. Ditto if I argued that you do not apparently need to know how to play an instrument well to teach it well, you might want to know how I defined “well,” and how I measured it.  

But lo and behold, by some measure that passes the sniff test for Gates and company, teachers don’t have to be well-educated people to pass “it” on to kids. He may be right: if tests are “it.” Then what is needed, apparently, are trained drill sergeants that explicitly teach testing skills. When I started teaching this was something that the test companies explicitly called cheating! (Sort of akin to my artificially raising the temperature on the thermometer as a child when I wanted to stay home from school.)

Psychometrics—as a discipline—was built around a different paradigm: prepping, they argued, literally invalidated the results. (On LSATs, Lani Guinier pointed out that there is reverse correlation between high scores and lawyer’s performance of public service. Which do we value more?)

In the new aggressive drive for higher scores—by any means–have we lost something more important? 

Imagine a concern over the driving skills of Americans which focused on the low scores on the standardized bubble-in portion of driving tests. We might conclude that current driving instruction— with it’s focus on the road test—was having no impact on test scores. Shock and surprise. We might then decide that we were wasting money on driving instruction. How about intensive prepping for the test and less driving of the car? Lo and behold neither class size, driving experience or expensive simulations seemed to matter when it came to the paper-and-pencil driving test. Maybe those who preferred to take the old-fashioned driving road test could go to expensive private schools for it. In the name of equity though the cheaper bubble-in test would do as well.  

It wouldn’t take long before some smart sociologist noted that we were ignoring the critical measure: road accidents. In fact, road accidents and driving test scores were having a decreasing correlation. (And alas rich people couldn’t escape being victims of bad drivers too.)  

Unfortunately there is no real life definitions of being “well-educated.” In education we have literally mistaken the test for the real-world measure, and then cut off opportunities for those who didn’t perform well on the test. There is no road experience to fall back on. In fact real experiences with the subject under study is less and less fashionable.  

If we judged musicians on the basis of paper-and-pencil simulations, we wouldn’t need musicians to train future musicians either. That would make school music programs easier. Think how much we could save if we didn’t even need instruments to play on, and could teach music testing skills in a large lecture hall, or via distance learning programs.  

Is there an alternative? Yes. Of course. But it would take teaching intellectual, social and moral habits with the same seriousness as we teach soccer, tennis or the piano—when we want excellence. No other field of endeavor except K-12 education has such absurd ratios of “supervisors/teachers” to pupils, has such little respect for “hands-on” expertise, or cares so little about the side effect of its instruction. We haven’t even stopped “doing” reform for a few hours to ask what the purpose of schooling is, above and beyond incarcerating youth for 12 years and then sorting them out at the end. 

Shame on you, Mr. Gates.  

Shame on you Mr. Hiatt for assuming that Bill Gates is an expert on education.


© 2009 Deborah Meier

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