Teaching to the Test

MULTIPLE CHOICE. Dick has 3 Junior Mints and 29 Red Hots. Jane has 17 Junior Mints and 11 Red Hots. Select the best solution below to convince your school officials that Dick and Jane will each end up with equal shares of both Red Hots and Junior Mints. NO ERASURES.

A. Solve for 1/2(x + y) = (10 + 40)
B. Quantities of different candy types have no mutual dependency. Just have Jane give Dick 7 Junior Mints, have Dick give Jane 9 Red Hots, and move on to the next question.
C. Jane gives Dick 1/2 of her Junior Mints and Dick gives Jane 1/2 of his Red Hots.
D. Teach to the test.

Last night I watched the PBS Frontline special “The Education of Michelle Rhee.” Rhee is an educator who rose to national prominence as Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system – a new office created especially for her, which transferred direct power from the board of supervisors to Rhee.

The DC school system was – and probably still is – one of the most challenged in the nation. It shares problems common to many large inner-city school districts: kids from broken and low-income homes, horrible discipline problems, perfunctory attempts to prepare the kids for the next grade level, failing marks in the three R’s, and a demoralized cadre of tenured teachers who aren’t empowered to make meaningful changes within a seemingly hopeless teaching environment.

Rhee’s solution was simple: raise your kids’ test scores, or I’ll fire you. She also got tough on discipline. Essentially, she became the “Tiger Mom,” the dragon lady of the Washington D.C. school system.

Lo and behold, test scores started rising, slowly at first, then dramatically. Scores of tenured teachers found themselves unemployed. A victory for “tough love” teaching methods? Not so fast!

I heard no one actually SAY “teach to the test,” but teachers running scared for their jobs found that to be the only way to produce immediate results. Investigators later found an unusually high incidence of erasures on multiple-choice IBM computer card scoring sheets, though it was never proved who performed the erasures.

Kids were able to raise their test scores, on an average. Teachers were graded not on inspirational or innovative teaching techniques, but on class test scores. There was ideological method in the Rhee madness.

I wasn’t surprised that Rhee also became active in far-right Republican politics. She launched an initiative to fight the recall effort against anti-union Michigan governor Scott Walker. The philosophical dividing line between the Walker mentality and the rest of the world is that of “human capital” versus “human being” rhetoric. We are NOT just commodities, somebody else’s “resource.”

Be that as it may, what I didn’t hear last night were glowing testimonies from the students themselves. I didn’t hear from kids who’d suddenly acquired the learning tools and self-confidence to announce their goal was to continue on to college. I didn’t hear one expression of delight from a kid who finally “got” a difficult principle. I didn’t hear a single kid ask, “how can I find out more about this?”

It seems manifestly true that big changes need to be made in the philosophy and profession of teaching. Scapegoating teachers makes no more sense than scapegoating kids. It accomplishes no more than scapegoating parents: we blame parents, which in education is like embracing the chicken-vs-egg riddle as a viable solution. Since education is so heavily institutionalized, changes in methodology have to come largely from the top, which Rhee understood, but they have to enable students AND teachers to achieve their potential, which Rhee didn’t understand.

To my mind, teaching kids how to pick answers that best satisfy the educator score card is a monstrous perversion of the point and rewards of a rounded education. For demonstrating that we don’t have to accept dysfunctional school systems as inevitable, I’d give Rhee an “A.” For inspiring kids to acquire the one skill that makes all the others possible, that is to say a love of learning, I’d give Rhee an “F.”

And I’d fire her.

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Science Denial and the Texas Board of Education

In another century and simpler time (1999) I wrote my signature article about the Kansas Board of Education (KBOE)  — dissecting our massive modern schism between science and biblical literalism. We didn’t even have the term “science denial” in those comparatively innocent days.

Darwin’s world of science clashes once again with the recidivist views of those who would turn the pages of the world body of knowledge back to the Roman Catholic Inquisition of 1615.  That nearly executed Galileo for  heliocentric blasphemy.

How have we fared since? We deplore all sorts of agenda-driven rhetoric when the source is the Taliban extremism of Mideastern Islamic fatwas.  We somehow condone it as just another opinion if it comes from Christian fundamentalism and Holy Roller biblical literalism.

American regional sectarianism is celebrated with equal parts amusement and proof of our rich cultural tradition of diversity and tolerance, but no one so far has seriously suggested the private religious beliefs of one or more of those regional cults should drive national government policy.

Nor has anyone yet seriously challenged Thomas Jefferson who wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State” [Wikipedia]

Libertarians preach that “this kind of [science-oriented] government interference is intolerable”, yet their evangelical supporters have brought interference in education and dumbing-down of our children to a whole new level.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously  quipped “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” He’s currently enjoying a well-deserved revival.

As commentators in science, media and education note with alarm, we find GOP frontrunner candidates Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann on record as questioning both global warming and evolution itself. Evangelical Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry told a school child on national TV that evolution was a theory that has “got some gaps.” So as to avoid conveying the false impression that Texas encourages the same science education that propelled America into the post-Sputnik Age of the 1950’s, he claims schoolchildren there are taught both “theories” as if both have equal credibility. There’s grave danger that science denial will actually storm through the doors of the White House in 2012.

The respected conservative Dr. Charles Krauthammer (a political commentator and Harvard-trained physician presumably well grounded in science) stated yesterday on Inside Washington that Global Warming has to be looked at seriously, but is still a theory. Qualifying that, he explained that man-made CO2 injection into the atmosphere is geologically unprecedented, but Earth has self-healing counter-mechanisms such as carbon sequestration (all true enough) … so we should look at the phenomenon more carefully before investing trillions in greener energy resources.

“I’m perturbed when I hear Republicans talk about Evolution as a theory like Keynesian economics,” Krauthammer says. Scientists say “it’s so” of global warming and Krauthammer says “it probably is,” but he questions the scientific models predicting the scope and intensity of potential disaster.

That may work in practice, but it won’t hold up in theory.

To the anti-science Republican Party that invented the “if it walks like a duck” theory of fact validation, it would seem the “it’s just a theory” dismissal of global warming would be more plausible if the polar cap were icing over, the Northwest Passage refroze, polar bears were thriving on an ice floe paradise, ocean levels were dropping, air quality was as good as Mauna Kea’s globally, and Phoenix was hitting summertime highs of 86.

In a bizarrely dangerous reversal of separation of church and state, science education is now politicized to a degree that wouldn’t have been tolerated a decade ago or two. Covering this epidemic was this morning’s PBS “Need to Know,” which presented a short section on the herculean effort of the Texas Board of Education (SBOE) to rewrite history and science in the Texas classroom.


Episode #168H Duration: 56:46 STEREO
TEXAS TEXTBOOKS – Despite Governor Perry’s statement that Texas schools teach evolution and creationism, Texas recently voted not to add creationism or intelligent design to its science texts. But the actions of the state’s school board continue to be closely watched by the nation. NTK caught up with the Board last May, as it was considering changes to be made in its social studies curriculum – changes that critics said inserted politics and religious beliefs into textbooks. Shot in Austin, Mt Pleasant and Bryan Texas. Interviews include Don McLeroy (SBOE), Thomas Raitliff (SBOE), and Kathy Miller (TX Freedom Network).

For anyone who has followed science denial for the last decade, there is little new in the theory of revisionism here, but the level of micro-management has escalated in the choice of religiously “correct” science and history and even in the choice of English textbook words used to describe those studies.

For example, SBOE members objected to the frequent textbook use of the word “propaganda” to describe U.S. Government efforts to rally public support for the World War I and II war efforts. To them, “propaganda” only connotes the sort of lies the bad guys promoted in wartime Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union, or anything President Obama says. The SBOE voted to substitute a neutral word like “public information” in Texas history books.

PROPAGANDA: Official government communications to the public that are designed to influence opinion. The information may be true or false, but it is always carefully selected for its political effect. — Dictionary.com

“Propaganda” is also used to educate about the need for rationing, conservation, job creation and other vital public concerns. It is a legitimate dictionary word with a rich historical backdrop. In point of fact, a government information campaign to “Buy War Bonds” is propaganda whether we approve or not.   As for the negative connotation of the word, maybe it hits too close to home. That is exactly what the SBOE is doing, and it must be stopped.

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