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Here, it Never Snowed October 24, 2009

Posted by monty in education.
Tags: , , , , , ,


Barack Obama’s embrace of hope and promise of change clearly didn’t extend to his selection of Education Secretary Arne Duncan.  The Secretary – the guy nominally in charge of the nation’s schools, despite the fact that he has no teaching experience himself – recently went on the warpath against schools of education, dubbing them “mediocre” and calling for – you guessed it – more accountability.

On the surface, Duncan sounds like he’s on the right page.  For instance, he’s critical of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act.  The catch, though, is that you have to read a little bit further to discover the true nature of his criticism.  Essentially, he doesn’t believe the current law goes far enough.  He doesn’t like that some schools can be punished even though their students are making steady progress (which is to his credit), but his solution to fixing NCLB?

More standards and more tests.

This is precisely the problem of having someone in a position of power who doesn’t really understand the nature of the job he’s tasked with overseeing.  This is true of Duncan, of the Secretaries of Education who preceded him, of state Departments of Education, and even – in many cases, I’ve found – of school district and individual site administrators.  As soon as you have someone overseeing education who doesn’t have substantial real-world experience in the classroom, he inevitably thinks that the panacea for what ails education lies in the ability to crunch numbers.

One of his proposed solutions to “fix” schools and schools of education?  More specific test data so that a student’s score can be traced back to individual teachers, and then further back to where that teacher was trained.  I have absolutely no problem with accountability, but the problem for me is the notion – which too few people seem willing to challenge – that student success can be accurately and solely determined through standardized tests.  In Duncan’s perfect world, a student’s performance on a test – which can be affected by a wide range of factors, many of which have nothing whatsoever to do with the student’s teacher – can be used to judge whether that teacher is doing a decent job, and whether the school that trained that teacher is worth its salt as an institution of higher learning.  It’s a ridiculous notion.

Let me give you some practical info, based on my own research.  Setting aside the more commonly-known problems with standardized tests (test bias, test anxiety, limitations in assessing critical thought, etc.), the real issue comes down to how accurately the tests assess the standards they purport to be assessing.  I looked at California’s STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) system, given each spring, and which contains subject tests that are supposedly tied directly to the state’s content standards (the state-mandated statements that dictate what students should learn in each grade).

I analyzed the test items that were identified as assessing student knowledge of the Literary Response and Analysis standards (those standards that deal with reading literary texts – novels, poetry, drama, etc.).  At the 9th grade level, only 25% of the questions (4/16) were, in my judgment, accurately evaluating the standard they claimed to be (a thorny issue that I’ll unpack more completely later).  At the 10th grade level, nearly half were acceptable (8/17); a better statistic, to be sure, but not nearly good enough when these are supposed to be bulletproof tests that assess student knowledge and teacher performance.  More troublesome is my finding that nearly a third (30%) of the questions actually assessed a skill other than the identified standard (such as recognizing vocabulary in context), and exactly a third were so flawed that I couldn’t tell what they were assessing.

Do you see the problem here?  For Duncan and his disciples, test data is what drives their evaluation of students, teachers, and schools.  But how can that data be used in good conscience if the tests themselves are only acceptable a third of the time?  I know I examined only one particular subset of questions and standards, but when you take into account other factors, like the fact that the California writing standards are assessed solely through multiple-choice questions – as opposed to, you know, writing – it’s not hard to see that this is a far-from-ideal system to evaluate student performance, let alone teachers and teacher-training programs.

The other issue at play is that of the content standards themselves.  In my analysis of California’s twelve Literary Response and Analysis standards, I found that ten of them were substantially flawed to the point where they were virtually untestable, unteachable, and – most importantly – uninterpretable.  And remember that these are the statements supposedly governing what kids learn.  If we were to pretend for a moment that high-stakes standardized tests were the perfect vehicle to assess students and teachers, how could we reasonably assume the test-makers themselves to construct a valid assessment based on such problematic standards?  The short answer: we couldn’t.

This is why the brand new Common Core standards being developed at the national level should be looked at suspiciously.  Like California’s, they’re being written externally, with little or no actual input from practicing teachers or experts in the relevant fields.  Instead, they’re being developed by three companies – Achieve, Inc., ACT, and College Board – that also play a role in the testing business.  So, to compound the lack of subject-matter expertise, we also have a significant conflict of interest.  It’s good that the National Council of Teachers of English roundly criticized the draft standards in a recent review, but more educators and professional organizations need to push back on these standards, and push back hard.  I’m not anti-standards, but if we’re going to make them, let’s make them right, and have them made by people who actually know what they’re doing.

So this is what’s at the heart of the Arne Duncan Problem.  A man who thinks we can standard and test our way out of whatever educational problems we have, but who doesn’t seem to put much stock in the educators who will be most affected by his mandates.  This is why you don’t put someone who’s never actually been a professional educator in charge of our educational system.

Obama, sadly, has fallen in line.  What was his rhetoric during the campaign?  Reward good teachers and punish the bad ones.  And how do we reward good teachers?  Pay them more, based on their students’ test scores.  The whole thing is a ridiculous mess, and it reflects what I think is the real problem at the root of all this: a general bureaucratic mistrust of the experience and expertise of educators, which robs them of the ability to play a role in creating the very policy that they’re expected to follow.

* NOTE: I have a wealth of data to support the claims I’m making, especially as they pertain to California’s standards and the new Common Core standards.  The data was omitted for the sake of readability.  For anyone interested in learning more about standards and testing than you’ve ever wanted to know, leave a comment and I’ll be happy to chat.


Current listening:

Oasis be here now

Oasis – Be Here Now

Current reading:


Aimee Bender – “Tiger Mending” (in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005, ed. by Dave Eggers)

Last movie seen:


The Stepfather (Nelson McCormick, dir.)



1. organictriffidfarm - October 24, 2009

Agreed! Duncan is further corporatizing education. It’s disgusting.

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