Educating for Democracy: Conversation With a Private School Teacher

09/02/2010 11:30 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The recent spate of reports of the inaccuracy, misconceptions, and negative effects of high-stakes testing and their misuse in evaluating teachers and school programs seem to have left no impression on the leaders of the nation's school systems, which have been gearing up for funding from Obama's "Race to the Top" program, and endorsing high-stakes testing. This obstinate ignorance or dismissal of the findings of so many educational authorities would be met quite differently if it were an EPA report on a harmful substance or the need to recall an auto defect. It confirms my long-held suspicions that such "educational reformers" as Mayor Bloomberg in NYC, Michelle Rhee in Washington D.C. and Arne Duncan, head of the Department of Education, know the dirty little secret. Failing schools can be used to excuse the failing economic system which will continue to produce more low-paying jobs for a greater proportion of the work force, driving them from the middle and working class into poverty. At a point not very far in the future, this will become so evident that the rest of the world will acknowledge a reality that politicians would be committing political suicide to admit: that the United States has become the first nation in modern history with the most powerful military in the world, and, proportionate to it the weakest economy for the overwhelming majority of its citizens.

The recent report of the Economic Policy Institute written by major educators such as Linda Darling-Hammond and Diane Ravitch, two nationally noted figures in the field, as well as Eva Baker of the National Center for Evaluation Standards and Student Testing, and Paul Burton, former Director of the Polling Information Center of the Educational Testing Service, indicates skepticism of the present model being used for teacher evaluations through VAM (Value-Added Modeling):

Analyses of VAM results show that they are often unstable across time, classes and tests; thus, test scores, even with the addition of VAM, are not accurate indicators of teacher effectiveness. Student test scores, even with VAM, cannot fully account for the wide range of factors that influence student learning, particularly the backgrounds of students, school supports and the effects of summer learning loss. As a result, teachers who teach students with the greatest educational needs appear to be less effective than they are. Furthermore, VAM does not take into account nonrandom sorting of teachers to students across schools and students to teachers within schools.

In a recent article in the Washington Post , educator Marion Brady describes in some detail the complexity of the learning process which is not taken into account through high-stakes testing:

Teaching, many long-time teachers know, isn't a simple matter of transferring information into a kid's head, but a far more complex, multi-step process. The teacher has to (a) "get inside" that head to figure out what's thought to be true, right, or important, (b) understand the kid's value system well enough to offer ideas sufficiently appealing to warrant taking them seriously and paying attention, (c) choose language or tasks that question old ideas and clarify new ones, (d) get feedback as necessary to decide how to proceed, (e) load the whole process up with enough emotion to carry it past short-term memory, and (f) do this for a roomful of kids, no two of whom are identical.

If that sounds really difficult, it's because it is. If it were easy, all kids would love school because learning is its own reward. If it were easy, young teachers would be successful and stay in the profession. If it were easy, adults wouldn't forget most of what they once supposedly learned. If it were easy, the world would be a much better place.

The EPI report adds:

There are further negative consequences of using test scores to evaluate teacher performance. Teachers who are rewarded on the basis of their students' test scores have an incentive to 'teach to the test,' which narrows the curriculum not just between subject areas, but also within subject areas. Furthermore, creating a system in which teachers are, in effect, competing with each other can reduce the incentive to collaborate within schools-and studies have shown that better schools are marked by teaching staffs that work together. Finally, judging teachers based on test scores that do not genuinely assess students' progress can demoralize teachers, encouraging them to leave the teaching field.

The most concise explanation for the differences in test scores by students has been delivered by Alfie Kohn, an eminent educator and author of the book The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools (Heinemann, 2000) who says:

Break down the test takers by income, measured in $10,000 increments, and without exception the scores rise with each jump in parents' earnings.

If the "educational reformers" were really interested in "following the data," they would take Kohn's research seriously and organize a change in income distribution so every child would live in a financially comfortable family. That would really improve test scores!

From what I can see, the system that is being imposed on the public schools has little to do with education and much to do with deception. The so-called "educators" who are buying into this con game use "numbers" to persuade parents that their children's education is improving, knowing that most of them won't be able to understand that these test scores do not reveal what their children are not learning until it's too late. This is a form of national deception that is being revealed all the time by real educators, but ignored by most of the public, the media, and, certainly, the politicians. Still, there is a group of educators and students who are not bothered by this "standards" ruse: the private institutions that do not participate in high-stakes testing.

A recent discussion I had with a young educator who has taught in a excellent private school in Philadelphia is one more independent confirmation of the folly of the present "reform" in education. When I asked her if and how her school conducted high-stakes testing, she replied that they did not have any because, as she echoed what I have heard from other private school staff: "it hurts the students." When I inquired on the methods she and her fellow teachers used to educate their young learners, she described many of the progressive education techniques in successful schools: collaborative learning, experience-based, flexible instruction in which students are given both the freedom and the discipline to develop, and where young learners have abundant resources with which to learn.

She volunteered to add her observations of the reactions of some of her friends in "Teach for America" at a public school. They were disillusioned and disheartened by the emphasis on "test prep" and, significantly, "behavior modification" models which, when they fail, leave them no alternatives to deal with disruptive students since they can't "counsel them out" to another school--as charter schools can do--and don't have the resources of sufficient specialists to deal with these students' needs. She added that these public school teachers were well aware of the pressure that was being put on them to "raise the test scores" or face a decline in school funding, quite the opposite of what should happen in the case of a "failing" school. I can only wonder why more parents of public school students do not question the persistence of "high stakes" testing crowding out their children's opportunity for a better education while students at private and "special" schools do not have that burden.