Educating for Democracy: Playing the Numbers Game with the Dept. of Ed

09/29/2010 06:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At a meeting of the city council on September 27, Robert Jackson, chair of the education committee, presided over a "numbers game" explanation for the precipitous decline in this year's student test scores when they were "recalibrated" by the state education department.

What upset the council members most was that over 100,000 students who had thought in June that they were being promoted to the next grade were informed late in the summer that they were being left back. It didn't help that the school official responsible for this fiasco, Chancellor Joel Klein, did not even make an appearance at the hearing but sent two lieutenants, including Shale Sharansky, head of the Division of Performance and Accountability.

Through a series of charts, Sharansky skillfully demonstrated that although the scores seemed to be going down, they really were going up if you looked at them in a certain way. He also showed that the failures of the students and, more to the point, the chancellor's and mayor's handling of the school system over the past eight years had shown definite gains or, as Mayor Bloomberg was explaining on MSNBC at its "Education Nation" forum the same day as the hearing: his stewardship was a "resounding success" or words to that effect.

What struck me as the most significant part of the meeting was the sustained criticism of the numbers game being used by the Department of Education to make policies that have torn apart communities, destroyed neighborhood schools, and brought many of the most dedicated and veteran teachers to despair. Many council members agreed that the excessive use of tests and test preps have reduced the quality of the education New York public schools were getting, with Councilman Charles Baron calling for the absent chancellor's resignation. Councilman Lewis Fidler pointed to the real needs of students such as smaller classes and opined that with all the money that was being spent on education, there was no measurable success to match the expense.

Sharansky, himself an experienced educator and former public school teacher, tried to make the best of a bad situation, insisting that he and his team had visited 5000 schools and saw no evidence of "test prep." When he was challenged on this by Councilman Weprin, he explained that there "might be" some schools that were spending too much time on the tests but that this was due to inefficient supervision. All of these numbers are, of course, a dance around the real issues facing a school system that has been "in crisis" as is the nation's schools, since the 1970's: the failure of our economic system to justly and fairly distribute the economic benefits of our growth in wealth over that period.

Another issue, brought up by Councilman Brad Lander, had to do with alternatives to the way in which teachers and schools were being evaluated through the test numbers, the numbers whose reliability have been called into question by the bizarre results of the recent test scores. He suggested that a "balanced accountability" system be used which would include student grades, the expansion of the curriculum to evaluating other subjects besides math and reading, and the greater input of the teachers themselves in developing measures of their own evaluation.

But Sharansky insisted that there must be some "test data" in order to evaluate the progress of students in each school. This desperate need to maintain a "numbers game" in order to justify transforming the teachers in this city into a union-free, low-experience, script-driven, data-addicted workforce flies in the face of the findings of many educators and sociologists that educational progress cannot be meaningfully measured through numbers. Jane Hirschmann, co-chair of the educational reform organization "Time Out From Testing" suggests, as did Lander, that "multiple measures" be used to determine the progress of young learners. These include: class work, teacher observations, homework, class grades, teacher-developed assessments, school-based assessments, projects, portfolios, participation as well as standardized tests. The problem for Sharansky and the Chancellor is that such measurements are hard to quantify and would complicate the business model that is being used to run the schools as if children's learning could be measured in the same way that sales of auto parts or number of purchases of cappuccino at Starbucks are calibrated. How do you "measure" a child's motivation for taking the time, trouble and concentration to embed concepts, facts, methods of learning and other of the innumerable elements that go into "long-term memory" learning rather than the "short-term memory" learning which seems to dominate the testing formats used in schools around the nation? It simply can't be done with numbers.

Unless the educational policy czars in New York City and elsewhere are convinced by informed parents and educators that they are doing the wrong thing at the wrong time with a problem that cannot be effectively addressed without recognizing the true "crisis" this country is facing: rising poverty and declining hope of our young learners, only those students privileged to go to private or "special" schools will be getting the education that the mayor and chancellor has promised for all children in this city.