education, reform, and assessment

I was listening to NPR yesterday on my brief drive to the gym and heard part of the discussion surrounding Obama's selection of Arne Duncan as education secretary. As we know, the crossfire discourse of education pits teacher unions against those who call themselves reformers. The latter group tends to support testing, merit pay for teachers, and similar measures, which the unions generally have opposed. The unions call for increased funding for schools, but opponents say that throwing money at the problem isn't a solution.

The guest on the show, from the "reformer" side, suggested that in the classroom one must balance the interests of the adults and the children, but that in the end we must come down on the side of the kids. The obvious suggestion there is that the union position is self-interested in protecting the adult teachers in the schools whereas reformers are doing it "for the children" (if we could only strike that tired rhetorical ploy from the human conscious!). I would hope NPR listeners are savvy enough to see through that pathetic tactic. This is an ideological conflict.

First of all, you'd have to be fairly dimwitted to think that the "problem" of education is "in the schools." For example, in Onondaga county, when you look at the suburban schools, basically 95% of high school students are passing the state's math regents exam. Go into the Syracuse schools and that number drops below 60%. Do we really think that the teachers in the city schools are that much worse? Is it really a lack of new textbooks or computers or school supplies that are creating this difference? I am not suggesting that we shouldn't do everything we can to make these schools as good as they can be. I just think we are overlooking the obvious broader socio-economic conditions.

Second, I would think that anyone with kids realizes that "teaching to the test" is simply destroying our schools. My kids are in one of these suburban school districts were 90+% of the kids are passing these tests. It seems like they have a high stakes test every year, starting in first grade. My kids rank in the 99th percentile on these tests (yea from them). But they would probably do about the same with zero test-prep. It's difficult to gauge how much time they are wasting sitting in that classroom, but it's a lot.  My daughter does her math at home through an online program from Stanford, and she moves at about triple the speed of the class (and that's spending only 20 minutes a day, five days a week doing it). Sure, maybe there are only 2 or 3 kids in each classroom that are having an experience like this, but on the flipside, there are probably only 4 or 5 kids in the classroom who are in any real danger of not passing the test.

That of course brings me to "merit pay." If it goes through, I will be auctioning off my kids to the highest bidding teacher.

As a professor, I know well enough to not take responsibility for the great successes of my students. I also know not to take responsibility for students who fail. So what exactly is it that teachers do then? When someone can actually map the socio-cultural-cognitive network of learning, I will let you know. I do know that the classroom is not a factory, that students are not products, and that you can't quality-control the classroom-factory by testing the products. Sorry. In a way I wish it was that easy. But on the other hand, as a member of the human race, I'm glad I am not subject to the kind of psychological domination that would be required to make the classroom-factory model really work.

As I stated at the outset, the problems are ideological. Culturally we don't value education; we don't like "smart people;" we don't trust or like teachers; we certainly don't trust or like professors.  Furthermore, as Ken Robinson has suggested, we have a limited view of intelligence and creativity. We conceive of learning as a rational process, when rationality is clearly a poor articulation of how cognition actually works. In terms of these issues, teachers and reformers are equally parts of the problem. 

Addressing the challenges of education will require as large a cultural shift as moving Americans toward a sustainable culture.

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