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July 10, 2007

Comments

Bob

Interesting post and follow-up comments. I may be in your generation of teachers, Jan.

Kudos to Brett for describing cautions many people hold, including teachers. And thanks to Diane for bringing up use of electronic technologies in schools.

I find it useful to distinguish between schooling (getting up to speed more rapidly with what other people know than through personal, solo, trial-and-error) and education (social uses and extension of what other people know).

Hopefully, teachers simplify the schooling process and demonstrate our successes, so our income sources may consider if they think we give them fair value.

In any case, thanks for your post.

Brett Pawlowski

Interesting post. I'll offer a counterpoint from the view of the outsiders - the parents, businesspeople, and other community members who have been calling for this kind of accountability.

Why do we want independent assessments? The reason is that we don't trust the education system anymore. We've seen widespread deception (such as can be found in reporting on dropout rates), and we've seen an ongoing increase in the lack of preparedness for college and the workforce at the same time that grade inflation and social promotion are epidemic. Common sense tells you that if one person is responsible for both instruction and assessment, you're dealing with a serious conflict of interest, and you have reason to doubt the results of the assessment.

Let me be clear that I'm not trying to pin this on the teachers: most of the problems in education are not within their control. Deceptive reporting of dropout rates, for example, happens at the state or administrative levels, and social promotion and grade inflation are often caused by administrative pressures (or flat-out overrides) as well. But from the community's point of view, that's irrelevant: the problems remain, and need to be addressed. We want independent information because we don't feel like we're getting the straight scoop from the schools.

As to why we want the particular tests we have, it's partly out of common sense, and partly out of cynicism. Yes, of course we want kids with higher-order skills - but it's silly to propose that they can gain those skills without mastering foundational skills like reading and math, which is what the current tests address. We want to know that kids have mastered core skills - and if they can't be taught that, then what chance do they have of learning more advanced skills? How can we be expected to believe that a kid will be able to construct a sophisticated argument about a book's thesis if he can't read the book?

The cynicism I mentioned comes in questioning the motives of those arguing against assessment of core skills. We think that educators know as well as we do that kids have to master core skills before doing higher-end work. Therefore, the argument that we should stop testing in order to focus on higher-end skills must be disingenous - we think educators are simply trying to avoid accountability completely, since they're against testing on core skills (which can be done) and want to move the discussion to an area that's very difficult to independently assess. To do so would bring us back to square one - no independent assessment, just the same conflict-of-interest laden question of the same people doing the teaching and the assessing.

I'm not trying to pick a fight here - I just wanted to offer a counterpoint that I hear quite often in working with stakeholders, and which gets very little play within the walls of education. If someone can offer a way to independently and reliably assess those higher-order skills that schools want to teach, I think it could move the ball forward significantly.

Mike

Dr. Jan:

Good question. Why do we measure what we measure? Because such measurements are a solution to political problems, not educational problems, and teachers have no power. They are also solutions based almost entirely on a business model, which has virtually no application in education. Thus, our mandatory, high stakes tests produce data sets that provide convenient sound bites for politicians who gleefully use them to smite political enemies (the primary political enemy of some politicians, by the way, is the public schools and particularly teachers). What the data sets cannot and do not do is provide any information useful in the process of education.

Oh yes, we're "accountable." We're accountable for our test scores on tests that are of no use to us beyond telling us how we scored on the tests, and that suggest only how much time we'll have to take away from building problem solving and communications skills in the upcoming school year so that we can raise the scores on the next test so the process can continue to tell us nothing at all that we need to know or can put to use, and so the politicians can crow about how accountable everything is.

We certainly need all the parts of the curriculum, because what we're doing in terms of making kids more effective problem solvers and communicators is building bigger and better brains, and that is done through exercising the brain with math, which uses the brain in ways that reading does not, etc. But as a teacher of English, I know that what our kids need to do more than anything is to read, read and learn to understand what they read, and how to make inferences, how to make connections, how to lead an examined life. The precious time for this is all too often taken away by the need to generate the next data set. Most of the current generation are non-readers. They're great test-takers, but poor readers, thinkers and communicators. That's something we can't afford either way. But of course, that kind of skill and ability isn't easily and quickly measured by business methods or high stakes tests, and there is not a great deal of money to be made in the process of competent, dedicated teachers stimulating daily progress in their students.

diane

Dr. Jan,

I came late to teaching and have always been a bit of an outsider. I am truly puzzled by many teachers' reluctance to try some of the new technologies, if not in the classroom, then in private, on their own time.

I read and admired Greg Farr's "Rebels" but wonder how successful his revolution will be if staff development is top down rather than bottom up. Students are more engaged learners when they take ownership of their learning, and so are teachers. If the faculty members are not convinced of the need for whatever their Administrators plan, no matter how valuable the workshop or conference, then little change will take place.

"Teacher voice" is as important as "student voice."

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