This morning, there were reports about our Governor and his comments at a public forum on public education. He indicated he supported high-stakes educational testing.
Trudy Knowles, a professor of elementary education at Westfield State and a member of the Readiness Project, spoke strongly on the issue of MCAS testing, which proved to be a favorite topic with the audience.
"The kids have checked out and we need to get them to check back in," Knowles said. "Right now they think the only reason they need to learn is to pass these tests.
"If you want to do something great for teachers, you need to give them back their classrooms so they're not focused on this test prep all the time," she added.
Knowles also commented on Patrick's extended school day idea, saying that she supported a voluntary extended day but "making it mandatory would be disastrous."
Patrick's response was that he supports high-stakes testing, but the question is, "Is the test that we have the test that we need?"
I think that's the wrong answer. Tests are always going to be misleading because they provide an incomplete picture and their scores can be biased more by taking simple-minded approaches to preparing for them than by providing genuine preparation for students to become life-long learners.
In Amherst, we're lucky because most students already come prepared to do well on standardized tests. My heart really goes out to kids who live someplace where schools are compelled to employ brain-damaged strategies like direct instruction. You can find lots of webpages about the wonders of direct instruction. It really works -- if your goal is to improve scores on tests. What it doesn't do is give students the ability to think flexibly about solving problems. As long as you ask students well-structured problems that require only the procedures given, it works great. But give the problems a little twist or wrinkle and you get nonsense. Unless you teach them how to solve *that* problem.
Of course, solving complex, real-world problems is what people do all the time anyway. You start early by trying to figure out how to get mom to let you out of the baby-prison she trapped you in so she could talk on the phone instead of paying attention to you. That's a complex real-world problem. So we all come prepared to do that kind of problem-solving. The trick is to get people to apply that kind of reasoning and effort to the abstract and academic problems presented in school. It's hard.
Last night, we visited a local vocational school. It brought back a lot of strange memories for me -- I realized in the morning that it reminded me a lot of going to school in Vicksburg. Its partly a class thing -- the men who ran all of the machine shops were just like the tradesmen I worked with when I did that kind of work. Most of the kids I went to school with in Vicksburg came from that kind of background. But it also was the focus on working long hours and making a lot of money to buy cars and motorcycles that the people would talk about as the goals that their students lives were organized around. Still, the entire focus of the shop is building community with kids that have common interests in doing real stuff: making things, fixing things, etc.
There's a real disconnect in our society around measurement. The public has been sold a bill-of-good with respect to educational measurement. We really can't measure most of the things that are important about a good education. By driving educational policy by measuring only the stuff that's easy to measure, we twist education into something almost unrecognizable as an authentic human endeavor.