Monday, September 27, 2010

Remembrances of a product of testing (but not accountability)

I just finished Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System. (See Slate's review for an overview.) This is a more personal approach on the book.

This was a very enlightening and entertaining read and I shared the author's disappointment in the start stop nature of reform and the failure of the promise of testing and choice to reform schools. I agree with the author on many aspects of the book but the final chapter of recommendations left me wanting. Here again were the vague and untested promise that having a national curriculum would 'fix' everything despite the fact that she acknowledges that there is no 'silver bullet'. While not precisely coming out and saying this, a national curriculum forms the basis of the reform that she thinks will work and it is in this sense that I consider this to be another 'silver bullet' approach.

I am also in agreement that using tests for high stakes accountability reduces the test to be the end rather than the means toward continual and continuous improvement. I was never a fan of tests as accountability although like the author I am not against testing per se. After all, we do need to measure something but the act of measurement can reduce us to focusing on the measure rather than the greater goal. Like the author, and as a produce of a fresh water economics program I too was caught up by the excitement of 'market-based reforms' but unlike the movement at the time I never and still do not believe that paying teachers for raising test scores work – haven't we seen the effects of pay-for-performance on Wall Street? The accounting scandals, the back dating of options and the analyst recommendation scandals? Focusing only on test scores and paying districts, schools and teachers by the results of test scores only invites the creation of a nexus of ties to try to manipulate test scores to everybody's advantage.

After all, there are plenty of countries that are not paying their teachers by tests scores and their students are still outperforming U.S. students. As a product of an education system that emphasized testing, drilling, and test-taking skills I empathize with the author about how much learning really goes on. I hated it when I was in it but with the benefit of hindsight I do see the advantages of this system. The system I went through at the time had national testing at what is the U.S. equivalent of 3rd, 5th, and 6th grades. 3rd grade tests were low stakes perhaps to prime us for the onslaught of further tests to come. 5th grade tests were higher stakes with individual results aggregated to the school level and while there was no report card system back then, word-of-mouth was sufficient to tell us which school had a good performance. 6th grade tests determined which secondary school (we didn't have a middle-high school system) we were eligible to go to – so it was also a system were streaming by ability was the norm. In the 9th, 11th and 13th grades there were more testing and considerably higher stakes. The 11th grade (equivalent to the 'O' levels) and the 13th grade (equivalent to the 'A' levels of the British system) were incredibly stressful and it is surprising that the author does not tackle this in her book. In one paragraph she is favorable of the Japanese system yet ignores the same stresses that Japanese high school system puts on its students to get into the best universities.

The results of 9th grade tests pretty much determines whether a student will drop out from high school while failure at the A-and O-levels is not an end all. Some students choose to retake the exams or enroll in private high schools (whose quality at the time was suspect although I think they are much improved now) or vocational schools. In my mind, by the time I was in 10th grade I was already convinced that there was too much testing and looked at the more free-wheeling U.S. high schools with its electives and choice – in this case, choice by students as to what to study. (I recall going through countless 'Add Maths' problems doing integration and differentiation and learning different tricks to do them even though I had very little interest in the subject. It paid off in college however as my math skills were more advanced that most students in my classes.) As I look back on it now of course, I realize that this admiration was na├»ve – high school students in the U.S. barely learned anything by the time they were in high school and these electives was a way out for them.

Over the years as I've thought more about it and as I've watched K1 and K2 go through what I think is a very good school in an IB program whose pedagogy doesn't always enthrall me because I think they need to learn some things quicker than they are being taught – for instance, I think multiplication tables up through 12 really ought to be taught by 4th grade, I realize that there are benefits to teaching to the test, and drills and repetitions. There are basic things that everyone really ought to know.

I think rigor (i.e. drills, rote learning etc.) should emanate from the bottom beginning at around 3rd grade and through 9th grades and good performance should determine whether students get to do some electives (as a reward and as extra classes and not as a way out). I also think that the school year and school day is too short but that's another rant altogether. I also think that the expansion of AP into high schools is a healthy sign that standards are getting higher and that like it or not NAEP has become the de facto national curriculum in math and reading and efforts should be focused on teaching to that test especially at the 3rd and 5th grade levels.

Throughout all this and even now, parents still lament about teachers and schools in Malaysia. While there are private schools there has always been (and is?) a stigma attached to them as schools for failures or dropouts rather than viewing them as second chances. Moreover, what is interesting is that unlike the U.S. the parents there do not view competition or accountability as a solution to the quality of schools. There private tutoring (for those who can afford it and I was in many of these including the lower quality ones) is the answer to the race to the top.Nor do they seem to see streaming as a problem that widens the gulf between the haves and have-nots and as such the U.S. education is more egalitarian.

Unfortunately, the focus is and always has been the teachers and while I realize that other factors do matter I am unsympathetic to the author's view that teachers do not matter as much and this is mostly a result of what I observe in K1 and K2. Unlike them and the author I do not and cannot have a teacher that I can point to who most influenced me when I was in school. They did their jobs and they did them adequately and that is all I remember. I wonder what it could have been had I had such a teacher. It doesn't help the author when the press trumpets items in the news such as 'Teacher of the Year' or when Hollywood makes movies like 'Stand and Deliver'.

In the end, there really is no silver bullet and a more cooperative approach is needed and teachers really need to evaluate themselves and each other to learn what works. Here I think 'data driven' and classroom observations will supplement each other. Special needs students also need to be treated differently and the original vision of charter schools as schools within schools that experiments with different approaches is a vision that I would like see as an outcome (not as a competitive alternative). In fact, charter schools should only be formed to 'treat' slow learners, ELLs and special needs kids.

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