The indispensable Iowahawk made a 2003 entry in a "Why am I a Democrat" contest, including this succinct explanation of the welfare state: "I am a Democrat because I believe in helping those in need. All of us, you and I, have an obligation to those less fortunate. You go first, okay? I'm a little short this week."
But he really caught my attention with this quip about a subject that's been worrying me lately: "I am a Democrat because I recognize that education is important. Very, very, extremely very important. We must increase spending on education and enact important education reforms, such as eliminating standardized tests. Because we can never hope to measure this beautiful, elusive, important thing we call education."
He refers, of course, to the problem of "teaching to the test." It's been years since I engaged in a discussion about the public schools here in Texas without hearing at least one person lament the problem of "teaching to the test." I used to ask what it meant, then gave up. It came up again last week, when I was hanging out with the Fiber Women, several of whom home-school. (One does it because her strong religious principles. Our hostess has this in common with her, but has often remarked to me how incomprehensible she finds her friend's religious convictions on the subject of birth control. It seems so obvious to her that a truly moral person would not burden the planet with four children. She literally cannot fathom how her friend views procreation; her friend, of course, is only too familiar with the opposite point of view, but chooses to go her own way and not argue about it. They have other attitudes in common to sustain their friendship.)
But back to schools. Here's what mystifies me: what's wrong with teaching to a test? Why is it so difficult to devise a means to determine whether the kids are learning what we want the schools to impart to them, and to determine whether one school does a better job than another at this task? Do I imagine that a child's entire worth can be summed up in a standardized test? No, of course not. Am I blind to the fact that kids from disadvantaged homes will find many aspects of eduction unusually challenging? Obviously not. But have we really come to the point of arguing that most under-performing students are lost causes as a result of their families or neighborhoods? I don't blame a doctor who can't cure a dead body, but I also don't offer to pay him an annual salary for trying. Similarly, if a condition is impossible to diagnose, then I neither blame the doctor for missing it nor pay him for the effort. The "I'm not to blame for failure" argument is great for answering undeserved withering scorn, but it's not a good reason to keep signing paychecks -- it's a good reason to encourage educators to find a more productive line or work. The task of education isn't hopeless, or we wouldn't keep at it. If it's not hopeless, and we have any idea at all what we're aiming to accomplish, then why is it a bad idea to find a means for judging the results of our efforts?
Once you can accept the idea that it's theoretically possible to devise a test for determining whether each student has benefited from the year he just spent in class, then the question becomes whether the school was doing something to impart that benefit, or if the kid merely soaked it up by osmosis as a result of the inexorable march of the calendar. Presumably if anything about the comfort of the lives of the people employed by the school are going to depend on the results of the test, they will be motivated to see the kids do well on it. This leads to the dread "teaching to the test." But what is the problem with that? To put it another way, if teachers are drilling the kids in something stupid and irrelevant in order to increase their chances of testing well, then isn't the test stupid? And if so, why can't we craft a better one?
This week I decided to read articles objecting to "teaching to the test" until I encountered a sensible idea somewhere, but I gave up. Teaching to the test is bad because it focuses on narrow facts instead of the thrill of learning or "critical thinking skills." The kids are only learningtesting strategies. Education is too complex to be judged by a checklist. The kids spend all their time on reading, writing, and ciphering instead of social studies and "enrichments." The test only measures the socio-economic status of the kids' families. High-stakes tests encouragecheating and undermine self-esteem. Schools should teach cooperative learning skills instead of knowledge. Fine, but can they read, write, and cipher? If not, what are we paying the school for? If the school doesn't know how to judge whether the kids are learning this stuff, how about letting the parents decide, and vote with their feet? Yes, I know that professional educators worry that parents aren't up to the job, but after all, the educators just confessed that they're incapable of making the judgment, too, and someone has to. Otherwise, the teachers devolve into monopolistic baby-sitters with public pensions.
What I'm starting to see now are articles about the shiny new field of "curriculum alignment," which apparently means devising a test that has something to do with what we were hoping the kids would learn. This concept differs from existing tests in a way that continues to mystify me. Whose bright idea was it in the first place to give the kids tests that weren't aligned with the curriculum we wanted them to master?
It's not that I don't value an education system that leaves all its participants with a lifelong thirst for self-instruction, not to mention good citizenship and other sterling qualities, but these are kids, not graduate students. They have to start with the basic knowledge, or all the thirst in the world isn't going to help society much. All those nifty cooperative learning and critical thinking skills are great if they actually produced some learning. There has to be some good reason for these ad valorem taxes, beyond providing a place to park the kids while we're at work, and a secure retirement for the products of teaching colleges.