Electric Fence

One more bit of education-related bad commentary from The Washington Post, and then I’ll give up on this topic for a while.1

This particular column comes from executives at a “nonprofit working with education organizations”, which is another way of saying consulting firm in these parts. They’ve been given this space to explain “why Joe Biden shouldn’t give up on public charter schools or standardized testing”.

The Democratic platform calls for the country to finally steer away from the heavy emphasis on standardized testing that kids have been suffering with for almost two decades, saying that the results show “clearly that high-stakes annual testing has not led to enough improvement in outcomes for students or for schools”.

The writers, however, disagree.

The first part is a subjective judgment that leans heavily on the phrase “enough improvement.” Contrary to widespread perception, policies that attempt to hold schools and districts accountable for the academic gains of their students have produced meaningful improvements for students, even in subjects such as science that were not directly included.

But the second clause is the real red flag. Not only have education reforms focused on reading and math scores produced gains overall, but those gains have been concentrated among traditionally underserved student groups precisely because the reforms required schools to focus on the lowest-performing groups of students.

The problem, with both sides on this issue, are the tests themselves. The ones that show either “not enough improvement” or produce “meaningful improvements”. Either way, everything is based on numbers produced by very narrow and arbitrary criteria for measuring student learning.

Most K12 testing programs revolve around the concept that every student in a particular age group will learn to read in the same way and develop those skills at the same pace as everyone around them. Especially in the elementary grades where, any experienced teacher or parent will tell you, all kids rarely progress at the same rate in anything.

In terms of math (more appropriately, arithmetic), the tests assume that all students will grind through the same set of algorithms on demand. Finding answers to meaningless problems that a calculator could produce in seconds. Problems demanding little or no understanding of the concepts behind them.2

Although we are told that teachers should not teach to the test, the curriculum and pedagogy in most states and districts is written to directly “align” to those same tests. Plus student scores from the annual spring testing follies are often used to assess the teachers themselves, offering another incentive to keep on aligning.

It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that often squeezes out every other topic from the classroom that is not on the test, especially for those “underserved student groups” who very often are also part of those “lowest-performing” groups. “High stakes” applies to the school as well, so those kids get extra drills on those same subjects to gets the averages higher. 

As far as charter schools, the platform correctly notes that “research has shown that, on average, charters are no better or worse than traditional public schools”. I don’t know if they also mentioned charters are no more cost effective, frequently corrupt, and rarely involve “innovative” in anything but their marketing materials.

The writers’ rebuttal to this part is also very general, relying on one “national study”.

A national study from 2009 did find that charter schools were no better, on average, than traditional public schools at the time. But when the same researchers looked again in 2013, they found a marked improvement in quality in the charter sector. Today, urban charter schools are among the very best public schools in the country.

Of course, that “marked improvement” is very likely based on the same flawed standardized tests they defend in the first part of the article.

The bottom line is that, as with many of the policies educators are currently saddled with, I would be very happy if (still if, not when) Biden wins the election, he and his new Secretary of Education suspend all mandates for standardized testing and support for charter schools.

Followed by some serious, open and public discussions around why we need a strong public education system, centered on what students should be learning during their time in K12 and how to assess that learning. Ideally with large numbers of actual classroom teachers and students having prominent roles in the process.

Once upon a time, testing was like an electric fence for politicians. They all didn’t want to touch it and supported the concept, even if they had no idea what the scores actually said about our education system and kids in general.

1. At least it’s not from Jay Mathews again.

2. See also The Maths Fix by Conrad Wolfram, a book I’m currently about half way through, in which the noted mathematician lays out a radical new “blueprint” for how math should be taught. BTW, there’s no typo in the title. He’s British and they use the plural form.