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NCLB: When "Teaching To The Test" Meets Teaching Class

Cover_2 "What schools need is, first, a national standard of what proficiency in reading and math means; second, a curriculum that gets students to that level; and finally, tests tailored specifically to that curriculum," writes Nick Lemann in the latest issue of The Washington Monthly (What NCLB Left Behind). "That way teaching the class and "teaching to the test" are the same thing."

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I’ve always loved Nick Lehman’s work (and I was embarrassed for my profession when professional historians criticized his forays into history), so I don’t want to split hairs. But, if you look closely at Lehman’s words, they are on target. But he misses some bigger points.

Firstly, Lehman wrote, “There isn’t any good way to ENSURE that students have basic skills, which they desperately need in order not to be left behind in the twenty-first-century economy, without testing.” (Emphasis mine) That gets to a root cause of NCLB’s failure. It sought guarantees of utopian results, but with only a fraction of the resources that would be required. If we sought to do a much good as possible for as many children as possible, we could make improvements even with the resources that a readily available. Testing would be a component but only a component.

Lehman then writes accurately, “ But to start with tests is to go at the problem backward. What schools need is, first, a national standard of what proficiency in reading and math means; second, a curriculum that gets students to that level; and finally, tests tailored specifically to THAT curriculum.” (Emphasis mine) Firstly, it aint’ goin happen anytime soon and it wouldn’t be worth the political capital. National Standards are a good idea whose time will come, while a national curriculum would be absurd. Above all, NCLB should focus on poor kids and poor schools, and even the good idea of National Standards is irrelevant to poor schools. If poor schools can’t meet to low bar set by NCLB, how are they going to meet the much higher bar?

As much as I admire Lehman, his next sentence is just weird, “That way teaching the class and ‘teaching to the test’ are the same thing.” How could the author of The Test follow such logic? In the real world that’s never going to happen. Our job is to teach STUDENTS and to teach them to high standards. Tests will never be more than a primitve approximation of parts of that goal. More importantly, tests should never be more than that. Tests are a tool, nothing more, and to make them the ultimate goal is sacrilege.

Surely Lehman is aware of the futility of poor schools trying to test prep their way to SAT and ACT level testing. Can’t he imagine the futility of trying to teach to AP or IB level of tests?

In the next sentence Lehman gets somewhere, but now he’s the one who has it backward, “And the schools with students farthest from proficiency are going to need a lot of extra resources to get them there.” He seems to have bought into the idea that testing is necessary before voters will agree to increasing investments. But that leads to two intertwined scenarios. Honest testing just publicizes failures, getting us to the Catch 22, that we need more capacity before we can raise test scores, but we must raise test scores before we get capacity. So schools repeatedly fail but someday we will make it up on the volume of our failure? So, we flop back and forth like a hog nose snake, and produce good test results. How? By diverting scarce resources to counter-productive “quick fixes” and lying. This is supposed to increase political support for addition capacity during a financial crisis?

No! We can’t afford all the statistical tricks and instructional gimmicks that wasted billions during NCLB I. We have to get back to reality-based solutions.

Lehman’s big idea essay is at its best when addressing the big picture, writing, “As it took Richard Nixon to open diplomatic relations with China, it took George W. Bush to make the federal government a real presence in every public school ... to fulfill what Congress in 2001 took to be the promise of No Child Left Behind, would be a presidential achievement commensurate with civil rights, Medicare, and Social Security. Let’s hope the next president sees it that way.” But in between those two sentences is an awful idea, that the government establish a national curriculum, and a necessary idea, that we set national standards. National standards are not even close, however, to being a necessary AND SUFFICIENT condition for school improvements.

When someone are wise as Lehman advocates something so irrelevant to poor schools, it reinforces two of my emerging beliefs. Firstly, with “The Big Sort,” the schools of poor kids are so foreign to the worlds of educated, good-hearted liberals, that it makes conversation impossible. Just as we need to get poor kids out of their isolated school buildings and into the broader community, we need to get the broader community into the schools. Secondly, we need to bite the bullet and take the political hit as we reject the word “accountability.” We need to be tough-minded and incorporate cost benefit analysis into our education policy. We need to rigorously consider how much capacity-building we can achieve given the resources that we can reasonably expect. Fortunately, that seems to be very consistent with Obama’s policies.

By the way, Alexander, that gets me back to your jab at Obama for not seeking equity for poor schools. Of course, its necessary but would you have swung for the fences on that one? I just don’t see how we have any practical alternative other than incremental improvements. And the chances are we need to compromise and implement policies that raise all boats, helping poor and non-poor districts alike. That strategy is flawed but its better than the beggar thy neighbor, punish low poverty schools to help high poverty schools approach of the Education Trust.

And again, say it ain’t so! How could anyone seriously propose a national curriculum?

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