Monday, August 30, 2010

No new post today, but I just created a new feature for this blog-- an overview of No-Excuses charter schools. If you don't know much about No-Excuses charters, or if you already know a lot, but you're curious what I have to say about them, please read up!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Teaching For the Test

I've been slaving over this long enough—I'm just going to post it. More on this to come.

In my last post I outlined the trap in which American education reform is mired: our best hope for improving education—tying incentives to outcomes—has reduced inner-city education to a massive, year-round test-prep regimen. I want to talk about how we could improve the situation, but first we need to look more closely at the phenomenon of test-driven education.

The phrase "teaching to the test" gets thrown around a lot, and I don't want to write facilely about the ills of No Child Left Behind, because that leads to the kind of simplistic ideology I'm trying to avoid. I think that there are serious downsides to NCLB, and I'd like to discuss those in detail, but I'm hindered by the narrowness of my experience. I can talk with great specificity about the impact of NCLB on New York State middle-school mathematics education; but it's hard to be sure how generalizable that analysis would be. At some point, I'd like to conduct a qualitative study of state exams and curricula in a variety of subject-areas, at a variety of grade-levels, from a wide selection of states—but that study will require months of research. Anecdotal evidence from teachers in other states and subject areas, however, suggests that New York State middle-school math is not some wild aberration. What follows, therefore, in lieu of more definitive conclusions, is my analysis-by-extrapolation of the specific mechanisms by which NCLB is undermining education in America.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Measurement, Incentives, and Educational Reform

In my last post, I talked about how the way we assess the quality and effectiveness of education comes to determine the overall quality and effectiveness of our entire education system. I made that argument principally with regard to colleges and universities, but in fact, the relationship between assessments and outcomes is one of the most important questions public education in America today—and it is a discussion many layers deep. In this post, I will peel back another layer of that debate, and disassemble the assumptions behind the arguments in my last post.

If you missed the last post, my point was this: in a system as massive as that of American higher education, educational quality can be maintained only to the extent that educational quality is measured: in the other words, you only get what you test for. Why? Because if we do not measure educational quality, then we cannot know where and when it exists; if we do not know where and when it exists, then we cannot reward anyone—teachers, administrators, and staff—for producing it, nor punish them for failing to do so; and if there are no incentives to produce it, then why should anyone care about educational quality? Now, of course, there is another reason why anyone would care, but I'll get to that a little later.

As obsessively mechanistic as the above argument may sound, it constitutes a fundamental assumption behind contemporary American education policy. What's more, there's evidence that that assumption is at least partly correct. The seminal education act of the past couple decades, No Child Left Behind, nationalized what had been a growing movement at the state level towards high-stakes testing. The principle behind this movement is that you test kids regularly, and you reward or punish teachers and administrators based on students' performance. Why? Because, if you don't, teachers and administrators won't bother educating anyone.