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An Obsession With Testing

For all the talk about change during the 2008 presidential campaign, one policy area in which the Obama administration differs very little from that of his predecessor is education.

In this morning’s Post, Dana Milbank discusses the similarities between the two.

Unfortunately, his focus is almost entirely on the political consequences, which, as we all know, is far more important than any impact of the policy itself.

Easier to write too since most political analysis these days seems to be based on personal opinion, the louder the better.

Anyway, Milbank does manage to make a few relevant points.

But in education, the Bush-Obama comparison is spot on. If anything, Obama has taken the worst aspect of Bush’s No Child Left Behind education law — an obsession with testing — and amplified it.

Obama has expanded the importance of standardized testing to determine how much teachers will be paid, which educators will be fired and which schools will be closed — despite evidence that such practices are harmful. In the process, he’s offended just about all the liberals involved in or advocating for education without gaining much support from conservatives. (emphasis mine)


There’s nothing wrong with testing*, but when you use tests to determine pay and job security, you inevitably induce teachers to turn children into test-taking automatons, not the creative thinkers that have been the most valuable product of American schools. Test obsession won’t help the bad schools, and it will wreck the good ones. (emphasis mine)

“The curriculum will be narrowed even more than under George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind,” New York University education professor Diane Ravitch, an education official in George H.W. Bush’s administration, wrote of Obama’s education policy in a piece for the Huffington Post. “There will be even less time available for the arts, science, history, civics, foreign language, even physical education. Teachers will teach to the test. There will be more cheating, more gaming the system.” The tests, she said, are “simply not adequate” to separate good teachers and schools from bad.

We can only hope that “Obama’s erstwhile allies” who Milbank claims are now pushing back on his Bush-like education policies are able to alter that all-consuming effort to graduate “test-taking automatons”.

*A more accurate statement would be there’s nothing wrong with assessment.

It’s Not About Time

I really don’t understand the uproar over President Obama’s address to school kids on Tuesday.

Oh, I know exactly why the people behind this latest in a long line of manufactured outrages are stirring up all the crap.

They’re simply interested in making enough political noise to detract from any kind of serious debate over the real problems facing the country.

What I don’t get are the people who are buying this crap. Especially the parents who are so incredibly insecure in their parenting skills that they plan to have their kids skip school to avoid hearing Obama speak.

I guess they believe that one short speech by an inspiring communicator on a somewhat innocuous topic will irreparably alter anything and everything they teach their kids at home.

Is it possible that Bill Maher is right… this is a stupid country? Or at least that, in the words of reporter John Harwood, “in a country of three hundred million people there are a lot of stupid people”?

But then there are those who nobly say they aren’t objecting to showing the address to students on ideological grounds, but instead because it will take time away from formal classroom activities.

Like Jay Mathews in his Class Struggle column.

The speech will take up class time. American children need every available minute for learning. They are not getting it, and watching the president’s speech won’t help.

I know Tuesday will be in many cases the first day of school, where there are traditionally many interruptions. That is part of my point. We have come to accept breaks in the learning day—assemblies, morning announcements, home room periods, parties, early dismissal for sports, even TV news shows. The teachers who have influenced me are convinced they are a waste of time. Why aren’t teachers allowed to start teaching as soon as students arrive, that first day and all days after?

A twenty minute address to students on the topic of studying and doing well in school is taking up too much class time?

This is a wonderful opportunity to engage kids in a genuine discussion of the issues raised by the president, even about the artificial controversy surrounding the speech.

That lesson would be far more valuable than anything – ANYTHING – teachers might have planned for that day.

Mathews writes off all kinds of “traditional” interruptions to the formal learning process that are woven through the school year in most schools by saying we have “come to accept” them while arguing that this teachable moment coming in from the real world should be rejected.

However, if he really wants to discuss the issues surrounding the use of time in American schools, let’s start with our traditional calendar based on a world that no longer exists.

The fact that we shut down school every June (at a cost of days, if not weeks) and then open it up again in September is an incredible waste of time, not to mention human energy, resources and money.

Instead of banning a speech by the president of the United States in the name of preserving the sanctity of classroom time, let’s work on one of the real problems with American education.

Iron Chef Education

I guess we have our official new education buzz phrase to replace “no child left behind”.

Race to the Top

Does anyone else think that sounds like the title of a game show?

Reading news reports from last week’s reveal of Obama’s new education reform proposal reminded me of one of those television cooking contests.

As near as I can tell, the federal government is going to divvy up a huge pot of money among contestants states who take the same secret ingredients and mix them together into an educational stew, one that will like be only slightly different from one plate to the next.

But the pieces of this new educational recipe really aren’t all that new.

On Friday, Obama will officially announce the “Race to the Top,” a competition for $4.35 billion in grants. He wants states to use funds to ease limits on charter schools, tie teacher pay to student achievement and move for the first time toward common academic standards.

Of course the primary method currently used to assess student learning will continue to be the corporate produced and scored multiple choice test, a vehicle which is cheap and easy but offers little or no real information.

Only now we’re going to have a national version of these “assessments”, with student scores linked to the pay of their teachers.

The Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan calls this plan Education reform’s moon shot.

It sounds more like a low-rent cooking show in which the cooks use third-rate ingredients to make the same minimally-acceptable meal.

Don’t Fix The System, Replace It

In President Obama’s weekly video message for this past Independence Day weekend he discussed our current problems in the context of those faced by earlier generations.

And part of that, of course, was drumming up support for his energy, health care, and education proposals.

These are some of the challenges that our generation has been called to meet. And yet, there are those who would have us try what has already failed; who would defend the status quo. They argue that our health care system is fine the way it is and that a clean energy economy can wait. They say we are trying to do too much, that we are moving too quickly, and that we all ought to just take a deep breath and scale back our goals.

Now is the time to lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity. Now is the time to revamp our education system, demand more from teachers, parents, and students alike, and build schools that prepare every child in America to outcompete any worker in the world.

He’s right. Our national policies in these three areas are not “fine” and big changes need to happen now.

However, the actual plans for fixing these three systems, at least the ones currently working their way through Congress, are far less encouraging than the president’s rhetoric.

For example, while the way we provide and pay for health care in this country could use a major overhaul, what is really needed is a whole new approach to the topic.

Instead of putting the vast majority of the resources into fixing problems after they happen, the system should be geared instead to prevention.

Practically any doctor not associated with big pharma knows that some basic national lifestyle changes would dramatically reduce the incidence of heart disease, diabetes and many cancers, the expensive part of the system.

Energy is a similar case. We desperately need new ways of producing energy, but we also need to make some major changes in how we use it.

A good example of that is roads. Around here (and I suspect in other big cities), the most common transportation solutions start and end with building more of them.

What we need instead is more public transport options, not to mention better planning to make putting more cars on those roads less necessary.

And then we come to education, the part of Obama’s big three with which I’m most familiar.

Unfortunately, as is the case in health care and energy, there is very little systemic change being proposed by the president and his secretary of education.

Merit pay for teachers (likely based on student test scores), promoting charter schools, and tweaking No Child Left Behind does nothing to address the basic structural problems of the American education system.

Instead of just tweaking what we already have, the change process needs to start with a serious national discussion on the purpose of school today (not what you remember from 10, 20, 30 years ago) as well as what it means to be well educated.

Education is All About The Feng Shui

So, what’s the biggest problem with No Child Left Behind?

Exactly, it’s all about the name and a bad image.

The Obama administration has made clear that it is putting its own stamp on education reform. That will mean a new name and image for a law that has grown unpopular with many teachers and suburban parents, even though it was enacted with bipartisan support in Congress.

“It’s like the new Coke. This is a rebranding effort,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. “The feng shui people believe you need to take the roof off buildings to allow bad chi to escape. Let’s hope this helps.”

Bad feng shui? Really?

Ok, if there was a really crappy product on the shelves of your local store, and you knew it was really crappy, and the manufacturer gave it a new name and put it in different packaging, would that make the contents any less crappy?

NCLB is built on incredibly flawed concepts and the implementation was a mess from day one.

It needs to be torn down and trashed (just like the cheesy school house representing it at the DOE) instead of slapping on a new label.

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