THE BLOG
08/15/2013 11:37 am ET | Updated Oct 15, 2013

Live By the Test, Die By the Test

"Not everything that counts, can be counted. Not everything that can be counted, counts."
--Albert Einstein

New York City's education system, like the rest of America's, has been hijacked by politicians who are eager to tout their success at making much-needed gains.

But since the political class is transient, as elected leaders come and go (except in Albany) due to term limits, we are constantly seeing new programs that deplete our ability to make progress and prepare all kinds of learners to become educated citizens.

Remember "No Child Left Behind?" That was the George W. Bush administration's catchy title for revamping public education in America. That lasted about eight years, and was then replaced by "Race to the Top," another peppy slogan invented by the Obama-land educrats. How did that work? Well, it got a number of states to commit to important reforms to qualify for a lot of federal money.

But are our children better off today in the classroom than they were four years ago? Twelve years ago? Thirty years ago?

No, no and no.

And now comes along another slickly named new idea: "The Common Core." I'm not sure more than 10 people in New York can give you a comprehensive explanation of what Common Core means, but it's now the talk of the town and has emerged as the new hot topic in the mayoral race.

In a nutshell, Common Core means that we are now shifting the way we assess student progress, with a greater emphasis on critical thinking, higher reasoning and strong writing skills. These are, obviously, all worthy goals. Who could argue that this is a long-overdue reform in an ossified education system?

But so many things have been botched...where do I start?

First, by telling an anecdote that sums part of the problem up. Last Spring, my very intelligent 13-year-old daughter came home and told me she took this very hard statewide test. "Daddy, I had to skip eight questions. We didn't even learn that stuff. Why would they test that?" This, from a student, who tested well enough to get into one of New York's most prestigious public high schools.

It was one of those rare moments as a parent when words failed me and I couldn't explain why she was being tested on material she had never seen before.

Why wasn't Common Core phased in? We've known about it since 2009, so why weren't teachers prepared to teach it much earlier and then our kids wouldn't be set up for a test everyone knew the majority would fail. Is making children and their parents frightened about lack of proficiency a political policy to shock the system?

And what about that large segment of students who may not be well-suited for liberal arts educations or high-end professional careers -- shouldn't we be preparing curriculum or tests that play to their relative strengths? Why, in education, do we always fall for the mistaken notion that one size fits all.

Tests are not a substitute for great teaching and real learning. They are a blunt tool that measures progress and proficiency. But we now live in an age where everything must be quantified so we can hold students, parents and teachers accountable.

I think I speak for many parents and a silent majority of concerned citizens: Let's slow down, focus on training great teachers and make sure that our children learn effective communications and basic computational and reasoning skills.

But let's not lurch from one panacea to another -- when we go from "No Child Left Behind" to "Race to the Top" to "Common Core Curriculum," we are just packaging the latest fad in education reform and losing sight of the fundamentals of teaching and learning.

As one pretty poor student named Albert Einstein once famously said: "Not everything that can be counted, counts. And not everything that counts, can be counted."

How true.


Tom Allon, the president of City & State, NY, is a former English teacher at Stuyvesant High School and the father of three teenagers. Comments? Email tallon@cityandstateny.com.