The Horns of a Dilemma?

bull-155411_640Over and over we hear that testing narrows the curriculum, provokes anxiety rather than enthusiasm for learning, drives teachers out of the classroom, all in the name of improving student achievement.

Why do so many educators and politicians persist in an approach whose effectiveness is yet to be validated?  A clearly articulated rationale for annual testing is needed.  One appeared in the New York Times written by a former advisor to the U.S. Department of Education.  It lays out the administration’s rationale.


The article is called “In Defense of Annual School Testing“.  The author is Chad Aldeman. Before his term as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education in 2011, he was with Education Sector, a part of the education think tank: American Institutes for Research (AIR).   There is a blog called: The Quick and the Ed in which Alderman explains the Obama administration’s rationale re: testing, Teach for America, revising teacher pension plans, and ‘take over’ schools that become charters.

The argument he makes is that without testing, struggling students would become ‘invisible’.  Aldeman  provides three reasons why.

  • First, if tests were administered once in elementary, middle and high school, there would be no way to measure annual achievement gains.  This is, of course true, but is it meaningful?  How much student scores increase is mostly determined by factors outside of school.  The administration argues that testing keeps the focus on failing schools that would otherwise be ignored.
  • Second, if only mean scores for individual schools were reported, then scores of high scoring students and low scoring students average out.  Also true.  It is not clear, however, why only school averages would be reported.  Scores for racial/ethnic groups and income levels could still be reported.
  • Finally, he argues that the new tests being developed (for the Common Core) are a significant improvement over current  basic skills tests.  This also may be true at least in part.  Research into better testing and learning exercises using technology may well improve education.  Is it necessary to test every year and all courses to make this happen?  Perhaps not.

Implied in school reform is that schools and teachers lack the vision for needed changes in education.  What would these changes actually look like?  In order to improve teacher quality, Aldeman would:

  • Raise standards for admission to colleges of education.
  • Train teachers in child development and behavior management skills as well as a knowledge of subject matter.
  • Make colleges of education accountable for the effectiveness of their graduates.

Enrollment in teacher education programs, however, is declining.  Alternative ways to recruit teachers already account for about half of the teacher workforce.  More competitive salaries to attract teachers are addressed in How to Raise Teachers’ Salaries in Two Easy Steps.  Salaries, he says, can be raised in a cost neutral way. Since about half of the teachers leave the profession within five years, the amount contributed to retirement systems could be reduced; teachers who remain would benefit overall.  This may be optimistic.

Inadequate funding, it is argued is not the heart of the problem.  Yet, lawsuits across the country question whether school funding is adequate and fair.

  • Schools in low income areas that are dependent upon property tax revenue, for example, will be underfunded compared to those in higher income areas.
  • Equitable funding also means that there is sufficient money for the services at risk children need, not just the same funding per school.

The fact that differences in funding exist is not disputed.  How to address these problems is.  Many students would benefit from more time in school, tutoring, counselors, libraries, and support for disabilities and English language learners. Where does the money come from?

Federal and state governments are turning to the private sector and charters to find ways to save money.  Privately run schools have fewer regulations, and it is easier to reallocate funds.  The result is that teacher salaries and benefits decline, but lack of services and achievement problems remain.  The money saved goes to facility leases and management companies.

Unfortunately, privatization has other costs.  Local control of education is being ceded to charter management companies.   If parents have a grievance, their option is to leave the school.  If students struggle, they are ‘counseled out’.  Management oversight is weak resulting in high closure rates, fraud and abuse.

In the hope that some students may benefit from school choice, the fundamental right of equal access to a free public school system is being challenged. The U.S. Department of Education is on the horns of the dilemma.  Which is the worst option, do something for a few at the expense of others, or do nothing at all?

We can only hope this is a false choice.  The seeds for a better approach are there.  We need to look for them.  I found one in Minneapolis.  Read the article in The Atlantic. There are charters there, but there is also a fundamental sense of equity that makes solutions to problems possible.

Posted in Charter School Management, Charter Schools, Funding, Reform, Teachers, US Government.

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