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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Tax Credits for Education

Back in my university days, a number of us fancied a libertarian concept known as “tax credits for education”. The idea seemed so simple. Parents pay taxes for the public education system; middle- and lower-income parents have little or no money left over to choose the private school option. Why not give them a tax credit, letting them vote their dollars to the school that best achieves their educational goals? But in 2010, nothing is ever so simple …

When we passed out the leaflets on campus, other students scowled at us like we were from Mars. Perhaps we were.

Today. our “idea from Mars” is federal law, as the IRS explains on their Education Credits web page.

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School Voucher Program: As reported by the ACLU Online

The Court rejected an Establishment Clause challenge to Cleveland’s school voucher program. This marks the first time in history that the Court has approved the transfer of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to parochial schools where it will be used for religious education.

That’s not the way we heard it.
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