At the top of a growing list of dysfunctional institutions in America would certainly be our public schools. Among the the most recent and most destructive "reforms" of education -- right up their with the oil & lube coupon/voucher approach -- is the standardized testing regime foisted upon the schools by the widely praised but wrong-headed "No Child Left Behind" law of the George W. Bush years. Today's headlines reveal what has long been obvious to thoughtful observers: No Child Left Behind forces a set of methods and perverse incentives upon teachers and administrators. Evidently, the schools in Atlanta, Georgia led the way in revising students' reported test scores to match the program's ambition goals, a way to keep federal cash flowing in. According Alan Schwarz's story in the NY Times:
"A 413-page report by special investigators for the Georgia governor’s office that was released to the public on July 5 recounted in stunning detail how elementary- and middle-school teachers and administrators throughout the Atlanta public school system manipulated students’ answers on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, Georgia’s method of gauging student achievement and complying with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The most egregious cheating included principals overseeing social gatherings in which answers were erased and corrected. At Toomer, in the residential Kirkwood neighborhood east of downtown, the report claimed that some teachers either told students the answers or suggested them with voice inflection during testing.
The scandal has reignited the larger national debate over the reliance on test results to evaluate educators and the pressure that such emphasis can breed among superintendents and principals. Teacher cheating knows no borders, as developing situations in Philadelphia, Washington and other cities indicate, but Atlanta, as the most thoroughly investigated example, has become symbolic of it."
The best diagnosis I've heard of the fundamental problem in today's forlorn efforts to improve education through standardized testing came from Diane E. Levin, professor of early childhood learning at Wheelock College in Boston.
"The basic premise of No Child Left Behind can be stated very simply," she observed during a conference in New Orleans three years ago. "People say: When the teachers did their job, the children we able to learn. Then the teachers stopped doing their job and the children stopped learning. When we force teachers to do their job, then the children will start learning again."
"The hammer used to apply the force," she continued, "is standardize testing used as a way to allocate educational funding."
Levine argued further that the real problems in the schools have to do with much larger, untreated ills in American society -- poverty, unemployment, urban decay, and the chaos in the social relationships that many children must contend with everyday. Placing the blame on teachers and applying the screws to them merely exacerbates the trouble.
The scandals in Atlanta and elsewhere show the consequences of ill-begotten efforts to put America's schools on track for "excellence." Alas, Obama's modest revision of the Bush program merely tweaks the system of rewards and punishments and leaves the underlying maladies untouched.
In educational systems that have strong integrity, public support and long term success -- Finland's schools, for example -- the basic approach is: 1. Hire some of the most talented people in society as teachers and pay them well for the work they do. 2. Working closely with parents, pay careful attention to what each individual child needs. Of course, this requires a society with a good deal of social solidarity and concern for the well-being of all its members.
Does this sound like today's America? Grab your eraser!