Debating Testing

Another gem from Jay Mathews of The Washington Post. In this week’s edition of his column (which, inexcusably, is published only online) two public school superintendents (Mike Riley from WA and Bill Cala from NY) face off in a debate over testing.

You should read the whole thing yourself — it’s that good. It inadvertently (or perhaps deliberately) showcases the stridency of the anti-testing camp although, in fairness, Riley is a moderate and doesn’t illustrate the excesses of the pro-testing argument.

A couple of quick notes. As in most educational debates this one features an appeal to Dewey. And, as in most education debates, it’s based on a misreading of Dewey. Cala argues that:

“Politicians and big business have driven the agenda for public schools, not because educators haven’t wanted to do so themselves, but because educators have become subservient to the authority and the omnipresence of the political system. Educators since Dewey have proposed a better, constructivist agenda — to deaf ears.”

Ignore whether this is an accurate characterization what’s driving the demand for school improvement right now. Today, although Dewey would not be firmly in the standards camp, he surely would not be standing with those opposed to it either. Why? Well, in a 1989 essay Richard Rorty (who knows a thing or two about Dewey) put it as well as Eduwonk has ever seen when he wrote:

There is a standard caricature of Dewey’s views that says Dewey thought that kids should learn to multiply or obey the cop on the corner only if they have democratically chosen that lesson for the day, or only if this particular learning experience happens to meet their currently felt needs. This sort of nondirective nonsense was not what Dewey had in mind. It is true, as [E.D.] Hirsch says, that Dewey ‘too hastily rejected “the piling up of information”.’ But I doubt that it ever occurred to Dewey that a day would come when students could graduate from an American high school not knowing who came first, Plato or Shakespeare, Napoleon or Lincoln, Frederick Douglas or Martin Luther King, Jr. Dewey too hastily assumed that nothing would ever stop the schools from piling on the information and that the only problem was to get them to do other things well.

Speaking of Dewey, the other thing that jumps out here is the pragmatism of Riley juxtaposed against the stridency of Cala. That’s an apt illustration of a larger problem for progressives right now.

Here’s Riley on testing today:

Rejecting them [tests] all together is a position hard to defend because these tests do indeed provide valuable information. Further, it is a position that will be easily savaged intellectually by standardized-test zealots, and, much worse, will disappoint even reasonable people, people we need to convince with the sophistication of our arguments.

That’s about right.

Update: Matthew Yglesias says beware of Rorty because he appropriates historical figures for contemporary arguments…not a baseless caution although Rorty is on pretty firm ground here. Yglesias also offers an interesting personal account of progressive education.

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