Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Guessing Your Way to a Third (and Fourth) Term as Mayor

Diana Senechal's piece at Gotham - Guessing My Way to Promotion - has caused some comments. Her research shows you could score a level 2 and get promoted merely by guessing. Let's skip all that test prep and just tell kids to choose "c" all the way without bothering to read the exam. Then spend the rest of the year really teaching.

Julie chimes in with:

What the big deal is about Standardized Tests has always eluded me.

When you teach "performance" subjects — in my case music but it holds true for sports, auto shop, sewing, pottery, etc. — you still have to produce something viable at the end of the term.

At a concert, for example, the kids have to start and stop at the same time and do some nice things in the middle. The audience has to be able to hear a tune and a recognizable beat. Failing these, the concert fails: it sounds bad and makes the people listening to it feel uncomfortable. It's nearly the same for auto shop (the engine has to run), home ec (the food's got to be edible and safe, and you have to be able to wear the apron you've just sewn up on the machine), or sports (know your moves, work as a team, play your best).

No one questions that "success" for any of these is measured in effort, attendance, the acquisition of some knowledge, and the achievement of some skills (very dependent on the individual talent/s and brain gifts you're born with). Those who come to the class with more talent, musicality, dexterity, or brainpower are expected — and asked — to push for deeper/higher levels of comprehension, execution, and expression.

A kid does well in these subjects with practice, a good work ethic, and a capacity to focus. These are real skills for an adult world.

High-stakes standardized tests may have their place, especially for entrance exams, licensing and the trades, but passing them off as markers of "success" or "achievement" is just politically driven and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

And this from Arjun, a high school teacher. High school teachers and elementary school teachers seem far apart on the social promotion issue, since I assume teachers in high school blame social promotion for allowing kids reading at the 3rd grade level to reach 11th grade. Not so simple. We find kids who left us in 6th grade reading at say 4th grade (maybe after a year or 2 of being held back) are still reading at not much higher years later. And then there's the research.

Smoke and Mirrors vs. Dealing with Reality

One of the few things some of us credited Michael Bloomberg for was ending routine social promotions. He did this, not by educating the public and building a consensus, in democratic fashion, but simply by firing those on the Board who had objections. This was typical dictatorial CEO tactics, unsustainable and unproductive in the long run, and setting a precedent for future mayors that they could use for the narrowest of ends. Nevertheless, it seemed to finally cut through the Gordian knot of obfuscation that had established mindless social promotion, and had made it into a coverup for serious problems as well as contributor to them.

This is not to say that routine social promotion should be replaced by routine holding back of students who cannot pass a test. The issue is a complex one, and either extreme practice violates both practical common sense and human considerations.

Now it seems that it has all again devolved into smoke and mirrors. Read below. Meanwhile, the city has been trumpeting the "increasing scores" on these tests, and papers like the New York Times are pointing to it as proof of the virtues of mayoral control. The rampant grade inflation that is contributing to that apparent rise is not mentioned.

By the way, the same trend is observable at State level, with many of the Regents' examinations. The Regents' curricula appear increasingly impressive, though incoherent (and unteachable, owing to extent, in the allotted time, especially given students' academic handicaps). But the scoring system for the tests (which incorporates a "curve" that varies from year to year and keeps ballooning in most subjects, often adding twenty or more points to student scores in critical parts of the score distribution) makes all of this an even sadder joke.

The impatient CEO culture in the business world often sought to solve a problem by simply firing the staff in an ailing wing, and hiring fresh talent. (This was before they became preoccupied with inflating stock values and in engaging in, or or fending off, takeovers that squeezed out short-term profits while devastating both the employees and the long-term prospects of the affected industries.)

However, there is another branch of human endeavor that is engaged in nurturing and building up that "talent". This is the business that parents, communities, schools, colleges, and, indeed, entire nations, should be focused on. This is a long-term endeavor, in which there are no easy shortcuts. This country had the luxury of waves of immigrants feeding the engines of industry. These included both highly educated professionals, as well as the millions who benefited from the quality and accessibility of the public schools.

The blot in this picture was the systematic exclusion, in the past, of certain minority communities, especially African Americans. However, many of the members of these communities, beset with generations of chronic unemployment and lack of opportunity as well as community support in the cities, fell into self-perpetuating social pathologies that continue to plague them as well as destroy their local public schools.

In addition, the schools themselves, over time, developed serious structural problems that were never attended to, in part because of wave after wave of misguided "reforms" that created chaos and distracted attention from the real problems.

In more stable communities, the diligence of average students and teachers is able, to a large extent, to ensure that some degree of meaningful teaching and learning proceeds, despite these structural problems. Ways are found around them, extra time and resources are provided, etc.
Teachers and students do not have to deal with frequent, even chronic disruptions that make focus and continuity almost impossible. The majority of students still continue to pay attention and take notes in class, and study and do written homework in non-perfunctory fashion at home.

In more troubled communities, the social pathologies, the lack of respect and focus, added to the pre-existing structural problems (continually aggravated by well-intentioned but increasingly cosmetic drives to "raise standards" at city and state levels) creates a situation akin to hell on earth for those students and teachers who remain sincere. The only survival route is mental disengagement, while proceeding onwards mechanically. Those who dare to question or take initiatives cannot survive.

Arjun 2009 Aug 18th, Brooklyn


  1. I really have to agree with you on Mayor Bloomberg's tactics. I think there has to be a more holistic approach to nurturing and building up talent.

  2. In Massachusetts the names are different, but the issues and problems with high stakes testing are very similar to those in NY. The situation prompted me to produce a documentary about high stakes testing and how it is impacting high school students. You can see the video trailer on the film's website: http://www.childrenleftbehind.com

    I am becoming increasingly convinced that we ought to collaborate across state lines in order to defeat the high stakes testing programs within each state.

    Lou Kruger


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