Sunday, April 21, 2013

Go Big or Go Home

The Op-Ed pages of the New York Times are usually a pretty good place to get yourself worked up about education reform, no matter which side you come from. There's a good amount of schilling from both sides, but Jal Metha's recent piece grabbed my attention for its evenhandedness in tone and its comprehensiveness in diagnosis and prescription for what ails American schools.

I happened to read it on the heels of another Times Op-Ed piece from William J. Reese, which mixed an interesting historical perspective with a less engaging rehearsal of the arguments of the great testing wars that have been inflamed once more by increased attention on cheating scandals in Atlanta and D.C. (On that matter, I think Matt Yglesias nails it here.) Trudging through the testing debate, littered as it is with a lot of straw men and hackneyed arguments, always leaves me with a disproportionate sense of frustration.

Metha's Op-Ed, though, helped me see why the testing debate is so dissatisfying. First, discussions over the role of testing rarely veer from their concern with the effect on teachers to discuss the impact on students, except to lament in a hazy way how hard it must be on them to take so many tests. And while we're busy thinking about the pressure such exams put on teachers (to be clear, I'm not dismissing that concern, teachers do important, hard work and deserve methods of support and evaluation that promote a positive work environment), we too often fail to keep in mind just how unacceptable the current achievement levels of students are. As Metha explains:
In 2009, the Program for International Student Assessment, which compares student performance across advanced industrialized countries, ranked American 15-year-olds 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math - trailing their counterparts in Belgium, Estonia and Poland. One-third of entering college students need remedial education. Huge gaps by race and class persist: the average black high school senior's reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress continue to be at the level of the average white eight grader's. Seventeen-year-olds score the same in reading as they did in 1971.
Beyond this crucial oversight, the debate over testing frustrates me because, Metha's analysis reveals, it is such a small part of what is holding back improvements in teacher quality. However, because testing has such salience in the daily work of teachers, it commands disproportionate attention in education reform debates. Metha's vision for professionalizing the teaching profession, though, would overhaul the system for recruiting, training, and evaluating teachers in a much more profound and effective way. From reducing the number and increasing the quality of teacher preparation programs to reducing the proportion of hours teachers spend teaching and increasing the amount of time spent preparing and collaborating to developing a robust set of professional standards that guide licensing.

It is a compelling and comprehensive vision that is well worth your time.

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