Monday, April 07, 2008

Fixing a Problem That Doesn't Exist

Slate Magazine has been running a 10 part series called "Fixing It" a series aimed a "fixing" the Bush Administration perceived errors (from Slate's point of view). Jim Ryan took on the education issue and namely NCLB. While I can admit that NCLB needs a fair amount of work, this passage near the beginning just sort of irritated me:
Identifying what needs to be fixed in the field of education is easy: the No Child Left Behind Act, currently up for reauthorization but stalled in Congress pending the next election. The elaborate law requires schools to test the bejeezus out of elementary- and middle-school students in reading and math, to test them again in high school, and to sprinkle in a few science tests along the way.
Before continuing with my rant let's take a step back.

To say that fixing NCLB will some how cure all that ails the education system in America displays a stunning naivty for what lies at the heart of our education problems. Will a fix to NCLB help? Maybe in a small way, but it will not, under any circumstances, be a cure all for the myriad problems facing our nation and its schools. Fixing NCLB will not address the achievement gap, it will not recruit and retain high quality teachers, it will not revamp and update curricula or standards, and it most certainly will not end the use of testing to gauge educational achievement.

Now having addressed that pathetic belief about "fixing" NCLB will "fix" our schools, what I would like to know is when did annual testing amount to "testing the bejeezus" out of anyone.

Long before NCLB became law of the land, most states had annual standardized testing of some or all of its students. In fact, I can't think of a single state that didn't. Annual standardized testing was not the invention of the Bush Administration, nor was the concept of punishing schools that failed to perform and idea unique to Bush, Rod Paige or Margaret Spellings. But bashing Bush is so simplisitic and an so once again, NCLB is to be blamed for something that was present before a bipartisan majority passed NCLB. As I have said before, not every educational problem in America begins and ends with NCLB. We cannot lay the blame for our failings as a society upon the mantle of a political document.

Like all laws, NCLB is not perfect and it cannot be perfect. The law is the product not only of legislative changes, but of political compromise, and neither process is going to produce a perfect anything other than a perfect mess.

To his credit, Ryan does not say to scrap testing, but to scrap stupid testing. I really can't agree more. However, Ryan goes on to note:
Reading, math, and science are important, but so are social studies, history, literature, geography, art, and music. Instead of telling us how schools are doing in these other subjects, NCLB is turning them into endangered species by pushing schools—especially those that are struggling—to downplay if not ignore subjects not tested.
So the issue that Ryan has (and a number of others as well) is that we are too narrow in our testing, both in content and format. Fine, but how do you propose to rank schools without ranking their success in teaching students? That would mean you have to think about some evaluation of these other subject areas outside reading and math and a little science. What is that called---um... oh yeah--testing!!!. Ken DeRosa has a better, although not necessarily less snarky, quip: "Because it's always easier to identify and diagnose problems with less feedback, especially when you don't know what you're doing in the first place."

But let us think a little more on the scrap stupid testing idea, as the current testing scheme is fairly subject to criticism. It doesn't take a psychometrician to know that many of the current tests do not reflect the curriculum so the answer to that issue is a) design tests to reflect curriculum (itself a political document that can vary widely) or b) design a curriculum to fit the test (what would probably lead to a dumbing down process). But we are then left with some real financial and therefore, when dealing with public schools, political questions.

If we are to realistically rank schools, as Ryan suggests, we need to make the rankings relevant and at least as comprehensive as possible. So we need new tests, right? Tests that will examine not only English, math and a little science, but history, art, music, literature, georgraphy, social sciences, etc. In short we need to design a test that will examine the students' abilities in all those subject areas, a comprehensive subject test. We also need to make it not multiple choice or at least no rely on multiple guess format exclusively--a multi-format test. And oh yeah, we need to make it happen in such a way as to not break the bank. A cheap test.

We are then left with the classic triangle dilemma, you have three options, comprehensive, multi-format and cheap. You can choose any two attributes. Remember that cost is going to be the biggest factor. Financially, and politically, you can't make Ryan's pipe dream happen without a massive increase in school spending.

The fact is that testing is not America's problem--even stupid testing yeilds some data that is worthwhile. Hardly anyone can reasonably argue that NCLB didn't shed enough light to really quantify taht which everyone knew about--the achievement gap.

The problem is a bit more deeply rooted and may have more do with out inability to innovate in the field of education. As social commentators will point out, the world of today is a vastly more complex world than 50 years ago. Fundamentally, we know more about science, history and mathematics today that we did 50 years ago, and that is not even accounting for the changes in art, literature, other social sciences and our understanding of how children learn. We have created wonderful new things and yet we still teach as if we are stuck in a land of 100 years ago.

Instead of blaming NCLB's testing regime, maybe the indictment should be aimed at the regime of thinking that fails to innovate in education. That isn't something that is unique to the Bush Administration--just look at Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama's plan for education--throw more money at the problem.

To be sure, innovation is not cheap. But if you look just at Ryan's argument, the problem is can be solved by fixing a law. Fixing NCLB is education reform on the cheap and it will actually cheat America more than anything else.

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