01/27/2015 08:29 pm ET Updated Mar 29, 2015

Educating for Democracy: Words and Deeds

Having recently read Governor Cuomo's State of the State address proposals for "education reform" I felt as if I was in an educational time warp. After my two-year absence from writing my blog, "Educating for Democracy," I re-read that last post I wrote on February 5, 2013 and realized that the so-called educational "reformers" were still presenting the same misguided proposals for improving education as if the evidence against their practices did not exist. My blog "What Do Grades Mean?" on the limited effects of grading as motivation in improving student learning could have been written today with the same relevance as it had two years ago. 

In his speech last week the Governor indicated that he would be adding over one billion dollars in state aid to education; IF the teachers would agree to an increase in the weight their standardized test scores would be given: 50%, up from the present 40%. He also proposed other "reforms" that sounded all too familiar: An increase in the number of years required for a teacher to be eligible for tenure; an increase in the number of anti-union charter schools "co-located" with district schools with their often disruptive results; the continual practice of closing "failing" schools whose performance is largely based on the discredited standardized test scores.

But I'm not really that surprised at Governor Cuomo for making things even tougher for teachers than it already is: the teachers unions didn't support him for re-election! Therefore he "Cristified" these unions through political payback, not by closing a bridge, but by closing his mind to the mounting evidence that test scores as presently administered and evaluated  are not a  meaningful measure for learning. In my opinion, these tests promote an industrial model for indoctrinating students into a vocational and intellectual dead end.

In a recent NY Times article critiquing Cuomo's proposals (1/21/2015) noted educator Diane Ravitch directly disputed the validity of Cuomo's "reforms" by using Value Added Model (VAM) to evaluate improvements in learning. "Cuomo's staff evidently did not read the American Statistical Association statement on value-added models. It says, as I wrote in an earlier post: "Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions. Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality." The ASA points out: "This is not saying that teachers have little effect on students, but that variation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher's control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences."

Although I am in general agreement with Ravitch's criticism, I don't believe that Cuomo's staff is ignorant of the studies that show the governor's approach to improving learning is all wrong. I think he may be well aware that he is misleading the public by appearing to try to solve the problems students have in learning by increasing the number of  charter schools and giving a greater reliance on test scores to evaluate teachers. But parents, many of whom do not have the expertise to know what constitutes good learning practices,  respond to numbers as evidence of successful learning.

On the other hand, there are significant problems that need to be addressed if we are serious about meaningful educational reform. As far back as twenty years ago studies on vocabulary fluency have shown that the educational disadvantages of young learners from impoverished homes begin even before they start their formal education. At the time, the study attributed this disadvantage to a deficit of 30 million spoken words in their households compared to children from middle-class families. A more nuanced recent study indicated that the quantity of words was not as important as the way they are spoken as reported in the New York Times:

A study presented . . . at a White House conference on 'bridging the word gap' found that among 2-year-olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words -- the use of shared symbols ("Look, a dog!"); rituals ("Want a bottle after your bath?"); and conversational fluency ("Yes, that is a bus!") -- were a far better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard. But however this deficit is measured, it clearly has an effect on whether or not children are "learning ready" on their first day of school.

Given the evidence in these and other studies that economic disadvantage is the most reliable predictor of poor school performance, it is counterproductive for Cuomo to put even more emphasis on standardized test scores as a measure of teacher competence. But what I believe is the real objective of standardized tests is to exclude the students who are not able to adjust to this narrow way of drilling--I would not call it learning--rather than include them by developing best ways to connect to them so they can want to learn.

The term "grit" has been used recently to differentiate those students who have sufficient motivation to want to learn  compared with those who become indifferent to school learning and drop out of school early. However, the continued repetitious and boring drilling -- frequently used in schools as a method to prepare students for an exercise in disconnected and meaningless questions-- can drive many young learners into alienation and indifference toward  school. This can often happen even if they initially approached education with interest and enthusiasm when first entering a classroom. 

Success in taking standardized tests-- and others that are used to determine students' qualifications for specialized schools and "talented and gifted" programs-- is increasingly more dependent on private coaching and tutoring, often  unaffordable for low wage families, but relatively accessible to middle-class families. But learning to take a test is not the same as learning to understand a subject. The most important skill young learners must begin to master is the technique of "learning how to learn." If they know how to learn independently, then they have the tools needed for innovative and critical thinking so important in this globally competitive world of work. But much of this kind of learning is not necessarily the result of formal education.

Although I think that teachers are a significant influence on student learning, the students themselves, their parents, families, friends and intellectual experiences and values are far more important in fostering good learning, certainly when compared to the destructive effects of standardized testing. However,  in environments where little cultural and intellectual capital is available, primarily due to poverty, teachers have a difficult time trying to compensate for their lack, particularly when educators are ham-strung by such "reforms" as the Cuomo administration mandates.

I believe if the Governor really wants to improve student learning he should address himself to the problems of student living: poverty, unsafe neighborhoods, dysfunctional families.  But, as my mother, a great educator once said: "Some kids are smart enough to pick the right parents." What she really meant is: some kids are lucky enough to be born in an environment where they are stimulated by the many words they hear, books that they read and are read to them, visits to museums, concerts, plays, trips to interesting places they go to with their families, opportunities to develop their interests in the arts; and raised in an environment  without fear for their safety and uncertainty about their future lives. If Governer Cuomo wants to be considered an educational "reformer" in the true sense of the word, he should put the standardized tests where they belong: in the Museum of Failed Ideas.