What Kind of Democrat Are You? A Litmus Test

If it’s true that the Democratic party is divided on education, even within the Obama camp (as I have reported), a thing that needs to be sorted out is what exactly the disagreement is over. Paul Tough sliced it this way during his Slate run: One group Broader, Bolder Agenda, he said, emphasizes the role of demographics in determining students’ success, while the other, the Education Equality Project, emphasizes the role of schools. The result is that BBA pushes for adding on antipoverty solutions outside the normal schoolhouse (preK, afterschool, health care), while EEP urges a rejiggering of the schoolhouse (extra hours in school, performance pay). 

That is a good summary. But I’ve heard enough people from each side object to this differentiation — saying either “Hey, but I believe in preK too!” or “Hey, but I believe in a longer school day too!” — to think that there is something else going on in addition to the demographics debate. Many variables come to mind (generation, ideology, one’s relationship with Wendy Kopp and/or the word “relentless”). Here’s one that might be more testable: accountability. I would venture that where a person stands can largely be predicted by whether or not she agrees with the following statement, from one of the teachers blogging at the Times’ new Lesson Plans space, Kenneth Bernstein, aka TeacherKen: 

I increasingly believe that our educational system’s emphasis on testing in the name of improving our schools will have the effect of driving away good and dedicated teachers who refuse to apply practices harmful to the ultimate wellbeing of the students in their care. And the sad truth is that if we continue on our current path, many of our best and most dedicated teachers will leave, to the detriment of our schools and our students. And that would truly be a tragedy.

I know that I am far from alone in my attitude towards all this. I have seen gifted colleagues retire because they no longer could put up with the restrictions that interfered with meaningful teaching. There have been gifted beginning teachers whose idealism was damaged by the demands of our current skewed system of accountability. In our attempts to “improve” our schools we are in fact often destroying what is most valuable: the ability of the individual dedicated teacher to respond to the immediate situation of the student before her. Absent that, one is, in my opinion, perhaps an instructor, but certainly not the kind of teacher who can have a long-term, even lifetime, impact upon students. And isn’t that the kind of teacher we want for all of our children?

The overarching question is accountability — How should districts and education departments diagnose, police, and improve bad teachers and schools? If you agree with Ken that relying mainly on tests is a bad idea, please sign here. Think Ken’s not seeing the data-driven light? This one’s for you.

Yes, I’m simplifying; there are certainly signers of both documents who would prove my theory wrong, or who have more complex middle-ground opinions. But I think it’s still worth highlighting this divide. How each candidate would build his accountability system is probably the No. 1 question on teachers’ minds, not to mention a really big deal for students. Yet it’s also a question neither candidate has fully answered.

~ Guest blogger Elizabeth Green

14 Replies to “What Kind of Democrat Are You? A Litmus Test”

  1. “The operation was a success but the patient died.”

    I have seen too many teachers, who are caring, dedicated, who spend endless hours working with students, and whose kids fail to graduate. Teachers who blame “racist” tests, or a cruel and heartless world, and “only want to teach.”

    On the other hand the Ouchi/Klein schools management approach, alienates teachers and ignores the realities of class and race.

    How do we create a climate the uses assessments to drive instruction, that honors and respects teachers, a system that recognizes that results matter, and results mean graduation rates, and literacy and numeracy.

    Arni Duncan is the only signer of both manifestos … why not ask him?

  2. methinks you are interpreting me a bit simplistically. I see a role for tests, but not to the exclusion of everything else. And as far as accountability within schools, selective testing such as what is done in NAEP should be more than sufficient – we do NOT need to test every student in every subject every year.


  3. I didn’t mean to categorize you Ken or suggest you are anti-testing. I do think, however, that your view is not accepted wisdom in all policy circles. So while many teachers would agree with you on having testing happen at more of a NAEP pace, rather than the NCLB annual regimen, some education advocates and wonks would not. I’d like to know where Obama and McCain fall on that question.

  4. Actually, the diffenrces are even smaller. The question that divides us is whether NCLB-type testing and accountability is viable, and whether there is much of a chance of whether that primitive accountability regime can be salvaged in time for NCLB II. Some, not all of the accountability hawks, even want to move ahead and fire teachers based of tests when they acknowledge to margin of error.

    Testing, even standardized testing, can be benefecial in many situations. In this toxic environment, made so much worse by NCLB, we clearly need to back off, and create more focused, rifleshot systems of accountability.

  5. Not to push too hard for the gray area, but one can believe in accountability without believing in the way in which it is implemented (most of the time) today. Part of the problem is that educators are so used to being held accountable for inputs, that the new emphasis on outputs has driven people to believe that every minute of the day needs to be controlled and standardized. An intense focus on outcomes – and not JUST test scores – should actually free us to spend more time refining and differentiating the often unique inputs that make for great teaching.

  6. The thing is – NCLB does not mandate teaching to the test or any other sort of rigid teaching practices. It only requires that students pass a basic skills test (which in most states, these tests encompass very low standards). For all of the huffing and puffing over the NCLB accountability system, it has pathetically low standards anyway.

    Does NCLB say you have to exclude certain teaching methods or does it prevent teachers from going beyond what’s tested??? How can kids be successful later on if they can’t pass a basic skills test?

  7. Teacher Ken –

    Don’t you teach at a high school which requires ALL students to attain a minimum score on a test in order to gain admission?

  8. Sue – Here is the answer to you question. The main program at Eleanor Roosevelt, where TeacherKen teaches, DOES require passing a test. There is another program (which serves fewer students and is hard to get into – note that the 400 students listed as being in the latter program span grades 7-12, while the former program admits 222-250 PER YEAR) where admission criteria are sketchier. Is TeacherKen a hypocrite? We’ll all have to make our own decisions about that. Has he spoken out against the policy ever? Not to our knowledge.

    But basically, it seems TeacherKen is against having ALL children meet the same kind of standards required for the select group of students at the high school where he chose to teach. Now what does that tell you?

    Here is the information from wikipedia:

    The Science and Technology Center
    The Science and Technology Center is a highly challenging four-year curriculum which provides college level academic experiences in science, math, and technology. The program is offered at three centers – Eleanor Roosevelt High School in northern Prince George’s County, Oxon Hill High School in southern Prince George’s County, and Charles Herbert Flowers High School in central Prince George’s County. Students attend the center that serves their legal residence. Transportation is provided for all students. Admission into the Science & Tech program is contingent upon three criterion, with all criterion weighed equally. The criterion are:
    Grades from four quarters of 7th grade and the first quarter of 8th grade (or four quarters of 8th grade and first quarter of 9th grade) in math, science, English, and social studies
    A standardized verbal test
    A standardized numerical test
    All of these are factored into a final score. Each test is normally 30 minutes in length and has approximately 40 questions. The math test covers arithmetic, basic middle school math skills, and simple algebra. The verbal test consists of analogies. 225-250 students with the top scores are admitted to Roosevelt’s Science and Technology Program. The next 60 students are placed on a waiting list. All interested 8th and 9th grade students who are residents of Prince George’s County are eligible to apply for admission to the Science and Technology Program.
    [edit]The QUEST Program/AOIT
    Quality Education in Science and Technology (QUEST) and the Academy of Information Technology (AOIT) program began in 1991 with a target population of 50 sixth-grade African American males. The program currently serves more than 400 students in grades 7-12. Admission to the QUEST/AOIT Program is highly competitive. More than 250 students apply for 64 seats. Ninth grade students must complete a rigorous two-week summer program to be admitted into the program. A major objective of the program is to provide under-represented groups who have not gained admission into the Science and Technology Center at Eleanor Roosevelt an opportunity to be successful in a rigorous math and science curriculum.

  9. Ahhhh…primary and secondary education. God love it.

    It is the only enterprise in the country where there is no consensus on:

    a) How to measure the quality of the product it produces (the student),

    b) How to measure the quality of the process used to produce the product, and

    c) How to measure the quality of the people applying the process to produce the product.

    Thus, without these measuring tools, how does one ever improve (b) or (c) to produce a better (a)? And, how does one ever know if changing (b) or (c) results in a better (a)?

    But then again, if there was a consensus, what would be left to discuss? I am coming to the conclusion that the seemingly unending, inconclusive discussion of (a), (b) and (c) is not the means to an end. It is the end itself.

  10. Were I asked, I would feel perfectly fine signing both the EEP or the BBA, which renders the debate a little silly. However, I think its worth noting that when debating an aspect of public policy, its best to have proposals in that area of public policy. Both the BBA and the EEP aspire to improve education policy in America. However, the EEP actually addresses education policy, while the BBA, though if instituted would certainly make our youths smarter, doesn’t address education policy. Imagine if, during the debate about the recent bailout, a group was formed to argue for healthcare reform. The credit crisis is bad for the economy, and healthcare reform would be good for the economy, they could argue. Still, that does not make healthcare reform the pertinent public policy solution to that particular debate. Likewise, Broader, Bolder is chalk full of good ideas, just not necessarily a lot of good ideas to improve the American educational system.

  11. In the government arena, hence the sphere of compulsion and coercion, testing becomes arbitrary and has no measurable relation to the well-being of society or of the individual. An education dictator could demand that student X must learn part A of text 2 in such a way, at such a speed, and aim for a particular result- but still would have no means to figure out its social relevance. There is a tremendous amount of demand out there for diverse competencies and this demand is always changing. No dictator or government is capable of organizing to meet its own future demand that it cannot know beforehand, nevermind that of 300m people. Government schools will always foster chaos, suboptimality and maleducation.

  12. I never saw factchecker’s inaccurate remarks in real time. So let me offer this belated correction

    Less than one third of the students at Eleanor Roosevelt High School participate in our Science and Tech program, admission to which is in part by examination. We are one of three such programs in the school system.

    Add together the S&T and Quest kids and you are at a bit less than 40% of our student body.

    Factchecker would have you believe that our student body is highly selective. It is not. I teach a mixture of classes. Three of my six are Advanced Placement, very bright kids taking AP US Government in 10th grade. Many of them are S&T, some are not. My other three classes are kids taking the regular state-required course in Local, State and National Government. All of my students, except those who had already passed it (and are in my LSN class because they failed the course, required for graduation, or are now as junior/seniors taking AP having previously taken LSN) must sit for the state High School Assessment in LSN Government. We require AP students to sit for the AP exam, because they receive a weighted grade for the GPA to account for the increased difficulty of taking the AP course.

    I will not know my pass rate on the HSA for 2009 until later, but I note that in 2008 I had 129 students sit for the HSA exam, of which 126 passed. I do not teach to the test. I think I am titled therefore to make two comments:
    1. I think I have demonstrated I know how to teach my students
    2. My opposition to the testing regimen we currently have is not because i cannot prepare my students.

    In fact, my objection is the time that it takes away from meaningful learning experiences. And the lack of meaningful information that it provides. My students sit for HSAs in May. That leaves several weeks of school after the exams. At least when I grew up in New York our Regents exams were the last week of school. And those were graded in school. These are not, the students do not receive back the scores while they are in the class, the only thing the teacher receives back is a scaled score with no breakout by indicator of how any individual student or the classes as whole did.

    That is the least of the problems. The tests have questions with no correct answers or more than one correct answer. There is no correction for guessing. Remember, I have students in my class who do not have to sit for the test because they have passed it but failed the course. The 126 who passed in 2008 included 10 who had failed my class all four quarters.

    At least in 2008, we still required some writing. As of the test in May 2009, it is now all multiple choice.

    Again, what is the purpose of our current approach to testing. If it is to ascertain how well our educational programs are functioning, we do not need to test every student in every subject every year. If it is to enable testing companies to make money, then of course we do. If it is to give students feedback on how they are doing, that is better accomplished by inschool assessment that can be quickly turned around. If it is to prepare them for life after school, there are few places either in the real world or even in many university settings where life consists of picking one answer out of four or five previously selected for you – in fact, you are supposed to be able to provide your own answer in situations which may not be as clearly defined as a multiple choice item on a test.

    And if it is real world skills such as those employers claim they want, such as teamwork, cooperation, creativity, etc., then our approach to testing which seeks convergent thinking rather than divergent thinking suppresses creativity, and we punish the cooperation and teamwork by calling it cheating.

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