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In support of Ravitch’s Crusade… (#dianeravitch)

Now that I am between semesters, time for some thoughts related to readings I have encountered over the past several months.

First, some comments on the state of K-12 education reflecting a reading of Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education — as well as some of her speeches and twitter posts over the few weeks that take aim at the movement for reform highlighted in Waiting for Superman….

There is much to be said for performance evaluation as a management tool — but not much to support its use as a tool of public policy.

People often forget that policy and management are not the same, and in a world where there is an obsession with the idea that any problem or issue can be “managed” (at least to the point of containment, if not solution) the confusion is magnified.

Take the current “policies” being pursued to improve or enhance American education. Here we find near perfect examples of how policy goals or objectives — in this case, dedicated to the education of our children — gets lost in translation as the means to achieve that objective develop into — and displace — the ends. This would not be a terrible thing if we knew that there existed a clear and positive association between the general goal and the means, but in the case of education that has never been the case.

The history of education policy in the US is filled with cases of means-transformed-into-ends. Pedagogical approaches emerging from the innovative efforts of classroom-level educators have often been elevated to the level of curriculum policy and effectively overwhelm or push aside questions of content. Once teaching methods become “policy” ends in themselves, the question of what is to be taught is answered by shaping curriculum to fit the pedagogical scheme. With rare exceptions, the Dickensian classroom of Mr. Gridgrind is hardly conducive to teaching creative arts or fostering critical thinking in other subject areas. (Although I must say that I can still recall my multiplication tables — to a point — indicating that it was an effective means to bit of education…)

The latest version of this is found in the adoption of high-stakes performance measures (i.e., student performance) as a policy standard in the education field. Measures of student performance on standardized exams are (in and of themselves) quite useful as a means for assessing educational instruction, including the curriculum, different pedagogical approaches, the learning environment (among other factors) and the teacher. But what has happened is that this means has been extended to a policy that (1) not only eliminates consideration of all other assessment standards, but also (2) places the entire burden for performance outcomes on the “teacher” factor alone. Curriculum is standardized to those things which can be measured; pedagogy is dictated to assure the reliability of the assessment (via a logic of ceteris paribus); and environmental and other extraneous factors that can impact on student performance are discounted, assumed away and/or completely ignored. We then establish high-stakes performance assessment policies based on this formalized creation of an artificial (and unsubstantiated) causal relationship. The end results involved not only an injustice to the teaching profession, but a tragic distortion of the educational process.

Ravitch is on a crusade to point out the destructive nature of this development, and she does so with considerable energy based on a moral purpose that is uncompromising. I am very sympathetic, but I tend to see what is happening in the education policy area as merely the most visible manifestation of a broader development that pervades almost every sector of our society. I have written elsewhere about the obsession with accountability and the false promise of performance (see here and here; contact me for password if required), and I am convinced that defeating the pernicious effects of this obsession is a worthy goal in general. That said, I am please that someone of Ravitch’s intellect and stature is tackling the problem in one very significant sector where the consequences of high-stakes performance assessment poses a threat to our future as we turn-off great teachers and create generations of test-taking intellectual zombies….

December 24th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke, education, education reform, pedagogy | no comments