Testing gone mad

Joe Nocera, writing for the New York Times, links us to a report by Marc Tucker on accountability, the reigning buzzword of the current education reform movement. Tucker, the president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, believes that America’s approach to improving academic achievement is all wrong. Nocera:

The main thing that works is treating teaching as a profession, and teachers as professionals. That means that teachers are as well paid as other professionals, that they have a career ladder, that they go to elite schools where they learn their craft, and that they are among the top quartile of college graduates instead of the bottom quartile. When I suggested that American cities couldn’t afford to pay teachers the way we pay engineers or lawyers, Tucker scoffed. With rare exception, he said, the cost per pupil in the places with the best educational systems is less than the American system, even though their teachers are far better paid. “They are not spending more money; they are spending money differently,” he said.

In the report’s executive summary, Tucker tells us:

Other countries have pursued very different policies [than the U.S., which, among other things, relies on “cheap teachers”], with much better results. Although many of them, like the United States to this day, long had policies that treated teachers like blue- collar workers and held them accountable in the ways that blue-collar workers are held accountable for their work, the top performing countries have abandoned those policies for policies designed to compensate, recruit, educate, train and manage their teachers in ways that are very similar to the ways in which they compensate, recruit, educate, train and manage their doctors, accountants, attorneys, architects and other high status professionals. And they are much more likely than we are to hold their teachers accountable in ways similar to the ways in which they hold their high status professionals accountable.

Tucker seems to be describing the Finnish way, which I’ve written about previously (e.g., here). The Finns emphasize teacher training and collegiality among professionals. (But they also support wrap-around social services to promote academic achievement, which are sorely absent in America). Tests are used to diagnose learning deficits and not as bases for teacher accountability.

While I share the objections to testing gone mad, I question Tucker’s ultimate objective in pushing for a more Finn-like reform of America’s schools. He argues that we need better teachers in order to better compete in the global economy. To the contrary, education is all about maximizing the potential of individual students, wherever expressed, from the arts to science to math to music.

Moreover, I reject the premise that American schools are failing. Diane Ravitch takes this accusation head on in her most recent book, Reign of Error, wherein she debunks the more popular education myths. In brief, if students are fully supported economically and socially, they do as well, if not better, than their European and Asian counterparts. The problem with American schools, now more than ever, is inequality. The children of the Haves consistently outperform the children of the Have-nots.

I also object to the implicit argument of Nocera and Tucker (and, for that matter, the Obama administration) that education is the pathway out of poverty, rather than the reverse. Poverty negatively impacts learning. Period.

Nevertheless, heavy emphasis on high-stakes testing dramatically shortchanges children and does nothing to deliver better students or teachers. Politicians and educational reformers (e.g., Bill Gates) who cling to the test-based accountability mantra deserve a big, fat F.

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