Imagine it's early morning, 20 minutes or so after the school bus was expected. You are waiting with your children when an old yellow clunker -- belching smoke, with its rear emergency door hanging open -- weaves toward you. The driver, a pint of whiskey in one hand, yells out an apology: "Sorry about being late. The damn thing keeps stalling on me." Before you can say anything, he adds, "I know this ain't the prettiest or the safest looking bus, but it's the best we got. Hop right in, kids." Then he grins and says, "Don't worry. You won't be late for school. I'll put the pedal to the metal and get this baby rolling."
Of course you wouldn't let your child board the bus. Instead, you would snap photos with your phone, post them on Facebook, and begin organizing a campaign to fire the drunk driver -- and the leaders who were so cavalier about your child's physical safety. You'd probably organize a boycott of that bus and keep your child home, rather than risk his or her safety.
So then why do parents accept educational practices that put the educational health and safety of their children at risk? I am talking about how schools go about measuring academic progress: how they test.
I can't begin to count the number of conversations I have had with educators over the years about testing, conversations that always seem to begin something like this: "I know about the problems with testing, and I personally hate them, but that's the system -- and we have to have accountability."
The superintendent of a big city system said that to me earlier this week with a slightly different twist: it's the public that is "test score crazy," she said, and, even though we educators know the tests are horribly flawed, we have to give the public what it wants.
In other words, put your kids on that bus...
How is this approach to schooling flawed? Let me count the ways....
1. A narrowed curriculum: Jack Jennings and his Center for Education Policy, among others, have reported on the narrowing of the curriculum, with 'frills' like art, music, journalism et al being eliminated or drastically reduced so that adults could focus on reading and math, the stuff being tested under No Child Left Behind.
2. Goodbye, gifted programs: Early in the reign of NCLB, we reported for PBS Newshour on the shrinking of programs for gifted kids, another response to the drive for higher test scores.
3. Hello, drilling: The 'drive' for better scores often means mind-numbing drills, especially in schools full of low-income children.
4. Wasting time: Educators like to talk about 'time on task,' their term for spending class time on academics. But someone ought to talk about 'time on test' because I am hearing awful stories about how some teachers spend up to 20 percent of their time either preparing for the tests or giving the tests.
Twenty percent! That's one day a week, folks, and it's time that your children don't get back.
5. 'Cheap, cheap, cheap,' said the little bird: Tests aren't bad, but cheap tests are, and our schools rely on cheap tests. In Florida, I am told that the FCAT tests costs about $20 per child. So Florida spends just over $10,000 per pupil and one fifth of one percent of that amount assessing the impact of its investment. How cheap is that? How stupid is that?
Let's compare the way we assess kids to how we test our cars. I drive a used 2002 Toyota 4Runner that cost $12,000 a few years ago, and I spend at least $400 a year assessing it. That's just over three percent, folks, to 'test and measure' my car. (The entire process took just one day of the year, not one day of every week.)
I will bet that every one of you who owns a car spends a like amount, meaning that, on some level, we care more about our cars than our children.
So who's ultimately to blame for the testing mess? Bottom line, who has the power to put their kid on that bus, or not? Isn't it time for parents to demand better for their children, especially since nobody else is willing to challenge a system that almost everyone agrees is inaccurate and damaging?
On a different note, some of you may know that we've been working on a documentary about New Orleans schools after Katrina. We now have a trailer for that documentary online, and you can watch it right here:
Definitely feel free to send it around to friends and colleagues -- for more information on when the doc will be finished and where to see it, join our mailing list.
John's book, The Influence of Teachers, is currently available on Amazon; you can learn more about it at the book's official website, or, if interested in buying copies for your class or discussion group, you can consult this page.