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Educating for Democracy: Are We Really Serious About Education?

On a May 9 program on CNN, "Education in America: Don't Fail Me," Dean Kamen, an inventor of the iBOT mobility system, said:

"If we don't generate the next group of innovators, scientists, engineers, and problem solvers, our standard of living, our quality of life, our security, will plummet!"

The notes on the program go on to say: "American students rank 17th in science and 25th in math when compared to other industrialized nations."

In Singapore, however, which is ranked first in many international science competitions, "any child who is unable to attend any national primary school due to any physical or intellectual disability" is exempted from compulsory education, and there are no public schools for such children.

In the United States, "in 2003, approximately 16% of boys and 8% of girls aged 5--17 years had ever had diagnoses of ADHD or LD, according to parental reports" reports the CDC.

If we are going to be serious about education, we have to stop comparing apples with oranges in discussing our "global ranking." The top American students are competitive with those from other countries, only the others select out those lower-achieving students who would otherwise compete in these international tests if they were from the United States.

CNN goes on to say:

"[American students] don't have the skills to take on the high tech jobs of the future. This is because of how and what we teach American kids. It is also because of a culture that values sports and celebrities above all. The United States needs to change the way students are taught math and science, and children need to be encouraged and inspired to take the toughest classes in those subjects. There is a nationwide competition designed to motivate high school students to take those classes, push themselves, and learn more. Students Maria Castro, Brian Whited and Shaan Patel are actively involved in it."

But unlike the Westinghouse and other science-based competitions that encourage students to tackle intellectually challenging scientific problems (like 2007-2008 winner Wen Chyan, Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, Denton, Texas: "Versatile Antimicrobial Coatings from Pulse Plasma Deposited Hydrogels and Hydrogel Composites," or 2006-2007 winner Dmitry Vaintrob, South Eugene High School, Eugene, Oregon: "The string topology BV algebra, Hochschild cohomology and the Goldman bracket on surfaces") the competition featured on CNN consisted of teams of students from schools throughout the country constructing a robotics device that functioned as a scoop for picking up an inflated rubber donut and lifting it on top of a protruding hook! If that is intended to demonstrate the proficiency in science of American students, we are in trouble!

Complete with bells, whistles, cheerleaders and the usual "human interest" stories of some of the contestants in the manner of "Waiting for Superman," the program almost completely trivialized the importance of difficult, studious scientific work by American students like Chyan and Vaintrob, instead focusing on a "who will win?" approach with the very competitive, sports-minded attitude that was criticized in the film. As I have often observed when it comes to my view of competition rather than cooperation in educational objectives: If the Manhattan Project had been a competition, we'd all be speaking German.

Almost hidden, however, in this CNN high-stakes, breathless reportage of failures and successes of the three "teams" covered, was a brief interview with a former governor of Tennessee, Phil Bredesen, who admitted that he "lied" about test scores on statewide education tests, deliberately inflating them to get Race To The Top funding. As further revealed by CNN, almost all of those states that submitted statewide test scores had "lied" about the results to look better in competing for Race To The Top funds. That should have been the focus of the CNN program significantly titled "Don't Fail Us," not the hype that most of it focused on.

On the other hand, when Governor Cuomo recently approved of using the high-stakes standardized tests administered -- it seems constantly -- to grade-school students as 40 percent of the evaluation format for New York State teachers to determine their competence, a group of experts in the field of education sent a letter to the Board of Regents, urging them to reject Cuomo's request to adopt this component since it is demonstrably an invalid way of evaluating teaching skills.

May 15, 2011

To The New York State Board of Regents:
As researchers who have done extensive work in the area of testing and measurement, and the use of value-added methods of analysis, we write to express our concern about the decision pending before the Board of Regents to require the use of state test scores as 40% of the evaluation decision for teachers.

As the enclosed report from the Economic Policy Institute describes, the research literature includes many cautions about the problems of basing teacher evaluations on student test scores. These include problems of attributing student gains to specific teachers; concerns about overemphasis on 'teaching to the test' at the expense of other kinds of learning; and disincentives for teachers to serve high-need students, for example, those who do not yet speak English and those who have special education needs.

Reviews of research on value-added methodologies for estimating teacher 'effects' based on student test scores have concluded that these measures are too unstable and too vulnerable to many sources of error to be used as a major part of teacher evaluation. A report by the RAND Corporation concluded that:

The research base is currently insufficient to support the use of VAM for high-stakes decisions about individual teachers or schools.

Among those who signed the letter were:

Eva Baker, Distinguished Professor, UCLA Graduate School of Education
Director, National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing (CRESST)
Linda Darling-Hammond, Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education, Stanford University
Past President, American Educational Research Association
Edward Haertel, Vida Jacks Professor of Education, Stanford University
Chair, Board on Testing and Assessment, National Research Council
Vice-President, National Academy of Education
Past President, National Council on Measurement in Education

If a committee of doctors urged pharmacists to remove a toxic product from their shelves, if an engineering firm cautioned a construction company that the materials they planned to use to build a bridge would cause the bridge to collapse, if a law firm warned a company that their planned business venture would result in a lawsuit, I doubt that any of them would ignore the advice of these experts. But when a group of distinguished educators presents ample evidence that the planned course of action in relying on totally unreliable tests will not only not help but be harmful to students and teachers, they are ignored, with the exception of one member, by the Board of Regents.

If a "feel good" bread and circuses show on CNN is presented to the public as a "serious" take on our educational system, and if a group of experts warning about the lack of validity of standardized tests can be dismissed practically without comment, just who are we fooling? Other countries are really serious about education; we seem to prefer to pretend we are.

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Joel Shatzky

Joel Shatzky is an early-retired English Professor who taught writing and drama at SUNY-Cortland (1968-2005) and is presently teaching English and writing at King...