Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Education Put to the Test, Students Be Damned

Here's a story problem for you:  "If the federal government establishes a 500-point system and awards 138 points to states that increase a measure of teacher effectiveness by using student performance as the criteria and pay-incentive, how long will it take teachers to teach the test and not the student?"

My guess is not long. Speaking about the $4 billion "Race to Top" deal U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan puts it crassly."All of this money is voluntary," he says. "If states don't want to apply or compete they have every right not to do that. But I will tell you that when we put billions of dollars on the table, you'll see people more than step up" (National Public Radio, 1/19/10, bold mine).

It would be laughable if it weren't so damnable to quality in our schools, damnable to the educators in their halls, and damnable to the students most of all.  Oh, don't get me wrong. Scores will increase; that much is all but certain. Learning--except how to whiz the test--will not. It will be reduced to skills and facts delivered by clerks and online programs, not educators. In fact, I predict a lot will be lost. If not school systems altogether, then we will lose the following:  Creativity,  productivity, industry, innovation, performance in the arts, entertainment, and sports arenas, and curiosity in the maths and sciences.

Teachers can inspire those talents in students . . . but not with standardized tests.  These are the attributes of America's success and prosperity.  And they are not standardizable--they are as revolutionary as the spirit of 1776. Standardized tests by their very essence are antithetical to the creativity, productivity, industry, artistic performance, entertainment, and sports, and curiousity in the mathematics and sciences. Our citizens have led the world in these pursuits for the past century--despite the fact that our standardized scores have lagged.

As more an more standarized tests are added to the school year, students learn less and less that will be meaningful to their lives, liberty, or happiness, much less to our country's success.  Before a student is graduated from high school, he will have spent more than 180 days devoted to standardized testing; that is, more than a whole year--gone. A year of teachable moments that might have expanded his world with hope and curiosity.  How can we forfeit so much for these tests, now promised in multifolds, and bearing such damage?

According to the bibliographic information giant Bowker, who tracks reading trends, a quarter of our population did not read a book in 2008. And less than half did not read more than one. Do we imagine that standardized tests with their overworked passages and hackneyed, insipid prompts will inspire a love rather a fear and dread of reading and writng? Last year's statistics will seem halcyon when viewed from 2022.

Why do our legislators yearn to standardize and hold our students and teachers accountable to international systems that are arguably inferior to ours?  Ease. Scores are easy. Not terribly meaningful, but easy.  You can publish the results and say "there."  The politician says, "See, now relect me." Though low on meaning, they are high on stakes. If you don't believe it, we'll bribe you. That's another easy answer. Confuse the issue with funding.

Pay teachers more for so-called effectiveness of so-called student achievement and you provide the meanest incentive to the basest gain. Funding for scores that are so limited in their meaningfulnes--that is, save the injury of demeaning communities which don't make the grade and then the insult of not funding them so they go defunct--insults the very professionalism of the discipline. 

As for me personally, I see that, as I head toward retirement pensions based on my salary, I could fatten my wallet by teaching less.  Rather than teaching students, I could teach the test. Rather than working on concepts and skills that will prepare students for their futures yet unimagined, I can work to the bubble test defined for the here and now.  Rather than a career professional who has strived for decades to appeal to the hearts and minds of the next generation, I'll become a clerk and time-keeper. The whole deal is one to be made with the devil.

States are signing on to "Race to the Top" with Faustian panic and expectation. It's a race afterall, not a thoughtful, meaningful process of learning. Governors seek funding in exchange for doing the devil's work. Signing on the dotted line of a moral blank check with the testing companies (and their lobbyists) playing banker. Districts be shamed. Teachers be pressed. Students be damned.

Image:  "Test: Arne Duncan." Created with Obamaconme.

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