Educating for Democracy: David Brooks' "Race to Insanity"

06/08/2010 02:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In a recent issue of the New York Times, (6/4/10) David Brooks wrote a column titled "Race to Sanity" which praised President Obama's approach to improving the public schools with his "Race to the Top" incentive for states to "reform" their school systems. This has, it's true, energized many states to initiate what they perceive of as "reforms" such as the recent increase in the number of charter schools that can be established in New York State. I believe that such a "reform" might create the illusion of educational progress, but the public perception of its success depends to a large extent on "test scores" which, as many responsible educators continue to argue, do not prove that a child is learning anything more than how to take a test. In Diane Ravitch's excellent analysis of the history of the recent "educational reform movement," The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010), a book I would recommend to anyone truly interested in learning what is going on in the nation's schools, she cites a study by Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University psychometrician, called "Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us" (2008) about the deplorable way in which students are being "test-prepped" to produce higher scores. As a result, the narrowing of the learning process to test taking makes it unlikely that whatever knowledge a student has gained is transferrable to other applications in the same subject. This would explain the discrepancies between the higher state-mandated test scores such as those in New York City and the much lower scores it gets on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) exam, which really is a more reliable indicator of student learning. Ravitch also points out the fallacy of relying on test scores to measure educational effectiveness by citing "Campbell's Law," which she describes as an "aphorism in social science":

"The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more it will be subject to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor. (Ravitch, p. 160)

This is precisely the direction in which the Obama Administration's "Race to the Top" is leading the nation's schools: they will have to continue to compromise any true learning standards--and I question if there is any one way of establishing them--in order to "get results" on tests that, if solely relied upon, will not be a remotely accurate measure of student learning.

Blaming the unions for "rigidity," as Brooks does, is almost a "blame the victim" charge since educators are well aware of the subjective nature of good learning. As I've cited before in my column in the Huffington Post ("Obama Flogs Teachers to Teach Better" (3/9/10), some bad teachers produce good students and some good teachers produce bad students because some students are "ready learners" and others, for many social, economic and psychological reasons, are not. Ravitch cites studies in her book that indicate that the same teachers, as judged by fairly objective standards, can be "good teachers" one year and "bad teachers" the next. It often depends on the mix of students in the classroom. There are certainly bad teachers, but if one were to put only "good teachers" in a school, there would be no guarantee that, given the many circumstances that contribute to a positive learning environment, some of those good teachers wouldn't, at some point or another, be bad teachers.

Certainly, as in any profession, there are teachers who really don't belong in the classroom. I know. I've taught thousands of elementary and secondary education college students and would not rate most of them very highly from my experience based on their often limited writing skills and narrow knowledge base. And yet, I know that some of them I have judged as hopeless found the necessary chemistry to become outstanding teachers, and others that I thought a "perfect fit" for teaching ended up out of the profession in several years.

What I find most objectionable in Brooks' column is his common error of equating education with "widget production" when he says that "in any other job in this country people are measured by whether they produce results." If you are a steel worker and the process of converting raw material into steel might work on a Monday and Thursday, but not on a Tuesday or Wednesday, or an airline pilot that discovers that the controls to his plane are not responding correctly several times a month no matter how much the mechanics work on them, then perhaps you might understand how frustrating it is to be judged by a standard that has often a coincidental connection to what is really going on in the classroom. I've received "thank yous" twenty years after they'd taken my course from students, who had not been very responsive in my class. After all that time they'd finally "got it" and realized the value of what I had been teaching. Most veteran teachers get such letters. On the other hand, I doubt someone would drive a poorly performing car for twenty years and discover that in the twenty-first it "got it" and gave a beautiful ride. People are not "products" and those who think that human beings can be manipulated as easily as stacks of canned goods need to realize that it's just not the same thing.

Moreover, Brooks declares that "'it's nearly impossible to turn around failing schools" and cites Chancellor Joel Klein as a "remarkable local reformer" for closing schools., But he doesn't acknowledge that the result often dislocates willing learners to other schools far from their neighborhoods and has a very negative impact on the local residence in general. Since these "social experiments" have produced little if any noticeable improvement in learning and a great deal of turmoil I realize that Brooks has done little research on the actual effects of such "reforms." If you want to "turn around failing schools," you might consider the Harlem Children Zone approach of Geoffrey Canada, whose overall program I would be more supportive of if he were able to get away from the toxic effects of "test prep" to prove to Mayor Bloomberg that his otherwise comprehensive approach to education is really working. At this point, as he himself concedes, the "jury's still out." The HCZ is also a very expensive school system to operate with a great deal of private investment. I would only hope the public schools could get that level of financial support for all school children.

What is most frustrating about Brooks' column, however, is his failure--it couldn't be ignorance--to acknowledge the kind of reservations that many educators have about the fallacies of using high-stakes testing as a measure of learning. Over and over again educators such as Ravitch write of poverty, poor family background, a lack of a nurturing culture, hopelessness, and inadequate school funding as significant factors that must be addressed if there is to be a true turn-around in our schools. Ignoring these issues as Brooks does and pointing the finger at union intransigence as the root cause of this problem is like a high school principal in a Bible Belt school district insisting that if those teachers just stopped teaching Evolution and stuck to the Truth of the Scriptures and taught Intelligent Design, we'd be more competitive in science in the Global Marketplace.

The Dirty Little Secret is that the private and select public schools in this country are not being besieged by this "standards mania" and are giving their students the culturally enriched, pragmatically taught education that critics like Brooks profess that they want for all students. I would suggest that before he writes another column extolling the virtues of Obama's "Race to the Top," he spend a day at a "high-needs" public school where test prep is emphasized, see what they are learning, and then compare the kind of teaching going on to that in a privileged school. When I visited such a private school several years ago, I asked the principal about NCLB and he simply said: "Oh, we don't bother with that stuff."

The causes of the problems with public education in this country are a reflection of the fundamental problems of an increasingly economically unequal society in which the children of the poor are relegated to second-class citizenship. No test scores, no matter how they are skewed, are going to solve that problem.