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John Merrow

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A Modest Proposal to Save Test Prep

Posted: 01/25/2012 7:48 am

If you live in New York, John will be appearing in discussion with former NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein on February 15th. You can purchase tickets here.

When California Governor Jerry Brown recently called for fewer standardized tests and less time on test preparation, he probably expected to be praised by the education community. Instead, his proposal has been greeted with cries of outrage from teachers, administrators, and students.

A typical response came from high school teacher Jon Swift of Redwood City: "For years now I have been spending 15-20 percent of my time on test-prep, and I have it down to a science. Now the Governor wants me to teach instead? For what they are paying me? He must be back on the weed."

Another teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, was even angrier: "Jerry Brown is attacking my livelihood. I use test-prep time to manage my on-line business, selling knitting kits, while my students are practicing filling in the bubbles completely and accurately. If we don't have test prep, when am I supposed to take care of business?"

Superintendent David Wald of Portola Falls defended the time spent preparing for standardized tests. "Sure, there's no real content involved in test prep, but the mental gymnastics are invaluable," Dr. Wald said, "and much more useful than history or science. Kids aren't interested in that stuff anyway."

Students agreed. "They're teaching us how to outsmart the tests, and it's pretty obvious that's going to help us in life," one student said.

"No content and no homework," added another student. "What's not to like about test prep? What could be better than that?"

Policy analysts were stunned by what they perceived to be the governor's tone-deaf approach. "We are desperately trying to bring people into teaching," said Linda Hammond-Darling of Stanford. "One of the recruiting carrots has been the 20 percent down time that test prep offers. The prospect of not having to work really appeals to the kind of people we want teaching our children. If Jerry Brown has his way, we'll never be able to find that caliber of teachers."

The presidents of the two national unions have taken note of the governor's proposal and issued a joint statement: "We stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in California and will work at the national level to maintain, if not increase, the amount of time devoted to test preparation. The job of teaching is hard enough as it is. Governor Brown should try handling a crowded classroom of unruly kids sometime. If he had done that, he would know what teaching is like these days and he would be calling for twice as much test prep, not less."

Teachers in Florida, where about 35 days of the 180-day school year are devoted to testing and test preparation, are on red alert, fearing that Governor Brown's proposals might catch the eye of their governor.

Because spendng on test preparation materials is a multi-million dollar business, testing giants Pearson, McGraw-Hill/CTB and Kaplan have formed an organization to protect their interests and to lobby against Governor Brown's initiative. The non-profit group, formally titled "United to Save Extended Preparation Henceforth," can be found online at USEPreparationH.org.

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Finally, because this is School Choice Week, I wanted to offer up a video we produced for PBS NewsHour back in November, on the current situation with school choice options in Indiana. It's a nuanced piece, produced by my colleague John Tulenko. With Mitch Daniels delivering the SOTU rebuttal last night, it holds even more relevance. Take a look, and feel free to subscribe to the Learning Matters YouTube Channel, where you can find hundreds more of these videos:

 

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