School Reform: Testing and Mistaking the Forest for the Trees

Summary: The struggles in our schools will not be won by resort to more standardized testing, but by a recommitment to the central role of the teacher in the classroom.

The stories of impactful teachers are legion; the myth of teacher as inspiration to the uninspired and guide to the directionless is well integrated into virtually every adult memory in this country. Regardless, in some sense, today teachers are being asked, “What are you doing for us lately?”

Now, under the latest round of historical challenges to American economic wellbeing, we are impelled to bring a much higher percentage of our economically marginal families into the financially sustainable mainstream, and in particular to make our schools a more consistently effective way of preparing the children of these families for ascension to economic viability. Not only is our self-image as a nation of opportunity to the immigrant or the low income at risk, but in the wider global marketplace our economy will lag with the drag of too many poor who cannot compete and contribute on this newly intensive, uptick stage. A specter of national decline slouches at the edge of the conversation.

In the wake of these contemporary realities the image of the teacher has frayed.

So. Reform education. A sticky, complex business. With teachers on their heels, educational leaders have often turned to testing as a primary tool and a research implement to better probe where students individually and collectively have arrived in order to better determine the next day’s instruction.

With mixed results testing has also been used as a bully whip to compel change in those school districts and individual schools where test scores indicate insufficient academic progress. An unintended result has been to subtly undermine the professional authority of teachers in their classroom by dictating from outside and above in the hierarchy its day to day operation.

Testing itself has become controversial. The truth, at least as I see it, is somewhere in the middle. Focused testing, informally done, clearly can guide instruction in more fruitful directions in individual classrooms, and as directed by the teacher. Too much standardized testing, and the time used is time lost to instruction, while learning itself becomes warped in harmful ways. Testing morphs into a liability for the very progress it is designed to promote.

Testing also runs the danger of transforming teacher as guide and inspiration into something of a mechanic. Teach this skill, test that skill, revise instruction, and around again, much as an auto mechanic might fine tune a carburetor. We appreciate our mechanics, but when were we last inspired by them? (Well, yeah, there was the guy that kept my ancient Volvo going…..)

Enter David Brooks, the New York Times columnist of whom I have periodically made use to make one point or another. In his recent piece, “Psychiatrists: Heroes of Uncertainty” (as published in the Seattle Times, May 29), Brooks marks the latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s “Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders” (DSM) with an elegant riff on the gap between the DSM’s attempt at categorizing human angst, and the efforts of psychiatrists (and presumably other therapeutic types) to wade into individual lives, make some sense of them, and alleviate suffering.

Referring to the work of psychiatrists, Brooks writes that “they are heroes of uncertainty, using improvisation, knowledge and artistry to improve people’s lives.” “They are daring adapters, perpetually adjusting in ways more imaginative than scientific rigor.” “The best psychiatrists are not coming up with abstract rules that homogenize treatments. They are combining an awareness of common patterns with an acute attention to the specific circumstances of a unique human being.”

Sounds to me an apt characterization also of a skilled teacher. Improvisation and knowledge, combined with artistry are integral to the toolkit of the best teachers.

Lynne Varner, Seattle Times editorial columnist, almost inadvertently makes the same point with a query in her May 3 op ed column. “How does a teacher create learning projects that include an appropriate level of challenge and inquiry, relevancy, engages each student in the project, and (produces) desirable results — that, is, students actually learning something?”

The mechanics of reading, of writing, of math are the subject matter. But the orchestration of the subject matter in the consciousness of the twenty five students of an elementary classroom, or the 150 for the high school teacher, is in fact as much in the realm of experience, artistry, creativity, and improvisation as a thorough grasp of the mechanics, which do not get conveyed to students unless the teacher finds a way to communicate them, and inspire the necessary attentiveness.

Teacher is part mechanic, yes, but also leader, scientist, artist, muse, communicator, psychologist and the integrals in between.

While there is much lip service in various media to the wonder of teachers and the multiple caps they wear, I am unaware of any thorough going, widespread commitment to a placement of teachers at the center of the educational enterprise to the degree enjoyed by teachers in Finland as described by Pasi Sahlberg in Finnish Lessons. Finnish students, by the way, kick our American butts. (See my previous post for a more extensive discussion.)

The Finns superbly educate their teachers (after years of reform in that process), and give them a reduced case load by our standards, which allows  time to plan curriculum, as well as consult with parents, students and one another. In the process the Finns leave teachers relatively free to be excellent, and draw the best and brightest of secondary graduates into teacher training programs. There is little standardized testing that amounts to scrutiny of teachers’ work; standards seem to be assured by the quality of the candidates drawn to teaching and the rigor of their preparation during their stay in university.

The tendency in our country to reduce teaching to mechanics and testing is understandable. Our schools are siege zones in our cultural anxiety. We look for viable roads out of our wilderness.

The ratings of schools and of teachers via standardized testing gives those in charge of schools, the superintendents and the principals (whose jobs are on the line) the partial illusion that they can reach into classrooms and direct what goes on there without doing harm. This on the narrow gauge assumption that testing provides a measurability akin to natural science, and that the basic skills of reading, writing, and math are the only game in town.                    

Willingness to sympathize with higher ups aside, the current over-emphasis on testing misfires when it diminishes the primary narrative of teacher as a guide to learning. The obsession with standardized testing obscures a more central need for the emancipation, education, empowerment, and professional autonomy of the individuals we allow in the classroom.

Postscript – Teachers in the Seattle schools, centered on Garfield High School, have lately challenged the district hierarchy by refusing to administer the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), with a variety of arguments about the irrelevancy of the test for their classroom purposes. The current superintendent, to his credit, has heard them out and responded with flexibility. Yes, the testing directives were overmuch, but the bigger story in this teacher rebellion is a reassertion of legitimate power on the part of the teachers involved, and the opening of a dialogue with a receptive superintendent about a shared responsibility to do better by the kids of Seattle.


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1 Response to School Reform: Testing and Mistaking the Forest for the Trees

  1. Deb says:

    It’s all good stuff, Bruce. Thanks for writing.

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