Monday, February 01, 2010

Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality

When teachers are forced, against their better judgment, to focus on teaching test content to the exclusion of almost everything else, I can only conclude that the high-stakes testing movement nourishes totalitarian regimes.

If the title did not grab you, I suspect that if you really care about what is happening to American public schools, that quote should get your attention. It is from the introduction to the final book by the late Gerald W. Bracey, taken from us too soon this past October.

This is a book that will give you all the ammunition you need to oppose the so-called reformers who, despite their professed best intentions, are destroying American public education.

The book has an additional subtitle, Transforming the Fire Consuming America's Schools, which makes clear Bracey's opposition to much of what has been happening in the past decade or more. I invite to you come with me on a further exploration of the book, and of Bracey.

This will not be a conventional review. Susan Ohanian has penned a superb review for Education Reviews, which you can read here. Rather, this will be an appreciation by me of Bracey as embodied in this final work.

Jerry was brilliant and acerbic. Let's start with the brilliance. He was first in his class at William & Mary. And you can get a sense of how much of a force of nature he was in this Washington Post obituary by Jay Mathews, for whom Bracey was an ongoing critic, regularly firing off criticisms and corrections of things Jay had published.

I first got to know Jerry online before I decided to become a teacher, when I encountered some of his writing in Phi Delta Kappan, a professional educational journal for whom he wrote a research column for years. One of the highlights would be his annual report on the state of education, which came to be known for its Golden (good) and Rotten (bad) Apple awards in education. Unfortunately, the editors decided the Rotten Apples caused them too much grief, so Jerry had to publish them separately.

He also ran a list serv known as EDDRA, for the Education Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency, through which Bracey and his followers would take apart sloppy education research and reporting. I can guarantee that Jay Mathews was not the only education reporter on the receiving end of a burning email from Jerry pointing out any errors or misinterpretations. Those of us who participated learned that despite what we had in common with Jerry we could also be on the receiving end of his acidic observations should we misinterpret or misrepresent something.

I never met Gerald Bracey face to face. We talked on the phone several times, but although until recently we only lived about 10 miles apart somehow we never found the time to get together. Besides EDDRA, my electronic communications with him were fairly extensive, as he sometimes pointed me at things I needed to learn and understand.

I received Education Hell as soon as it was in print, devoured it, and was so impressed called the publisher to buy several copies to give to members of the House Committee on Education and Labor that I know. Several have told me how impressed they were with what they read, one recently telling me he had found it invaluable.

Somehow as much as I appreciated the book, which was one of the most important things on education I had read in recent years, the press of school and other activities meant that I never got around to properly reviewing it before Jerry passed, and since October I have been regretting that I could not email him to discuss further some of the things in the book.

It is important to know that Bracey directed educational testing efforts at various times in his career, for the Commonwealth of Virginia, and for the Cherry Creek CO school district. He had worked for Educational Testing Service as well. His doctorate was in Developmental Psychology from Stanford, but his interests were extensive, including food and wine - as Mathews notes, Jerry had served as a restaurant reviewer along side his work in education.

It was from Bracey that I learned about Simpson's paradox, a basic problem in statistics, which shows up as we increase the percentage of groups who score lower into test pools. Each sub group can increase its scores, but the overall average drops because more of the testees are from lower scoring groups. He would constantly criticize writers who would lament things like drops in SAT scores caused by the changing makeup of the universe being tested.

I came to Education Hell predisposed to like it, because of my great respect for Jerry. I was blown away. As I look at my copy, there are so many stickies to indicate passages I have marked that it looks like a hedgehog, or an armadillo whose plates have suddenly pivoted at 90 degrees from the skin. His knowledge of the data and the relevant research is mindboggling. And his ability to cut to the heart of the issue is critical. Consider how often we hear lamentations about how our students are not proficient enough in reading. After quoting Bill Clinton's former Chief of Staff and head of the Center for American Progress (CAP) John Podesta lamenting the proficiency of our 4th and 8th graders, Bracey responds like this on pp. 64-65:
While Podesta was finding this situation unconscionable, Richard Rothstein and his colleagues at Columbia Unibversity were releasing a study showing that there is no country in the world that has a majority of its students proficient in reading(Rothstein,Jacbosen & Wilder, 2006). And at the American Institutes for research, former acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, Gary Phillips, was releasing a more extensive tusyd finding that only 5 nations have a majority proficient in math (Singapore, 75%; Korea, 65%; Hong Kong, 64%, Japan, 61%; and Taiwan, 61%). In reading, no country comes close to having a majority proficient. Sweden is tops with 33% (U. S> about 31%; Finland did not take part in this particular study). A mere two nations had a majority of their students proficient in science (Taiwan, 51%; Singapore, 51%) (Phillipa, 2007).

As for proficiency on our own National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), Bracey was long critical of how artificial the levels were. After noting that it is NAEP proficiencies to which Americans most often refer when using the term, Bracey is characteristically blunt:
But the NAEP achievement levles, as we shall see in chapter 3, are essentially meaningless and set a totally unrealistic level. They were Designed by Chester Finn, at the time president of the National Assessment Governing Board, to sustain the sense of crisis established first by Sputnik and more recently by ANAR

(in case you do not recognize ANAR, that is Bracey's abbreviation for A Nation At Risk, the incredibly flawed "report" released early in the Reagan administration alarming American that our economy would crumple before certain Asian nations because our -economy- educational system was so bad. If you think you hear echoes of that kind of rhetoric in much of the current bloviation about our schools, Bracey would rightly be satisfied to remind you that he had criticized the reasoning in the 80s and continued to criticize it to the end of his life.

The book is divided into two sections, with a total of 11 chapters. Part I has four chapters:

1. Pre-Sputnik: No-Test-Based Criticism of Schools

2. Post-Sputnik: Criticisms and the Descent Into Test Mania

3. Tests: Descriptions and Trends - How Do We Measure Up?

4. NO Child Left Behind: "The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves"

Part II has the remaining 7 chapters:

5. Science, Engineering, and Economic Competitiveness

6. The Real Meaning of Competition

7. "Poverty is Poison"

8. A Few Words About Learning - Eureka!

9. The Goals of Public Education

10. The Lost Lessons of the Eight-Year Study

11. Democracy and Education

The final chapter features selections by Richard Gibboney, who served at one point as Vermont's Commissioner of Education; Nel Noddings, now retired from Stanford and whose ethic of caring was the theoretical framework of my now abandoned dissertation; and MacArthur genius winner Deborah Meier.

For those who do not know about it, the Eight Year Study, which ended in 1942, was an effort by the Progressive Education Association, which got 30 schools and systems and several hundred colleges to allow the high schools to certify their students' readiness without requiring them to take admissions examinations. sometimes while having them follow a very non-traditional course of studies. The students were tracked through their collegiate careers, and they did no worse, and usually better, than their collegiate peers who came from more conventional education settings. You can get a sense of the project here

Bracey's presentation of the study, and of the lessons learned, is accessible, and his book earns its value just in this chapter. I have read all 5 volumes of the study, and Bracey's summary and presentation are more than fair. Allow me to offer just a few snips to illustrate some of what can be learned.

Ralph Tyler headed the evaluation staff for the study.
Tyler insisted that teachers be intimately involved in all aspects of developing assessment instruments . . . He called his approach to evaluation "comprehensive appraisal" where instruments were designed to ascertain student development and merely to determine the acquisition of knowledge and factual learning. For him, evaluation should being with teachers discussing "what kinds of changes in its pupils the new educational program was expected to facilitate" (Kridel & Bullough, 2007).

Tyler also did not believe it appropriate to use one instrument to measure all thirty participating schools.

As a classroom teacher, and a strong critic of our current approach to assessment, I feel the material above presents a strong counterweight to the absurdity of our current test-manic approach.

One lesson from the study was that students needed to take some responsibility for what they learn. Consider
The idea that schools should be democratic communities meant that students would need to end their usual roles as passive recipients of instruction. This shift in which students would plan some of their course of study and develop curriculum stunned them.
As it would stun most of our students today! And yet, if our intent is to help them develop the ability to learn independently, why are we not involving them with designing the course of instruction to which we submit them?

Let me offer one more sentence from this chapter that struck me:
Here;s why education can never be a science: education deals with sentient beings and each is different.
Any teacher who is being honest recognizes the wisdom of that sentence, and yet we find ourselves increasingly forced to ignore those differences in the mad rush to cram more and more information (not even knowledge, which would imply some comprehension and ability to apply it in new and previously unknown situations) in order to demonstrate the "rigor" of our course of studies, such rigor being measured by tests that too rarely require higher level thinking.

Bracey is quite willing to give credit to other thinkers. I have already noted that his final chapter, with its focus on Democracy in education, relies on the work of Gibboney, Noddings and Meier. Chapter 9, The Goals of Public Education, introduces to readers to the work of John Goodlad, with the 12 goals he declaimed in his great book, What Schools Re for. Bracey goes through the 12 goals, and offers commentary on each, sometimes with pointed criticism, even as overall he approves of Goodlad's efforts. Let me list the 12 goals (with some ongoing comments by me) and then offer Bracey's brief final commentary at the end of the chapter.

1. Mastery of Basic Skills or Fundamental Processes

2. Career Education-Vocational Education (which I note is disappearing in our mad insistence that every child be prepared for college upon graduation from high school)

3. Intellectual Development

4. Enculturation - Bracey notes that this could be considered simple-minded, except that it becomes broadened in the next goal

5. Interpersonal Relations - yet, in schools with high poverty, such as that written about by Linda Perlstein, students arriving lacking basic skills in this area, and are given no time to work on them because raising test scores - always difficult for poor kids - takes over everything else

6. Autonomy - on this Bracey considers our insisting that all students take Algebra in 8th grade serves either to dumb down algebra, increase the dropout rate, or both. It does little to develop a positive attitude towards learning, which should be an essential building block of developing autonomy

7. Citizenship - here I note, as a teacher of Government to 10th graders, that students now arrive in high school with ever decreasing background in history and related subjects, because they are not tested for Adequate Yearly Progress under NCLB. Goodlad already saw the problem developing in 1979.

8. Creativity and Aesthetic Appreciation

9. Self-Concept

10. Emotional and Physical Well-Being

11. Moral and Ethical Character Bracey is critical of the list of items Goodlad offers under this goal, because he does not see the word Democracy.

Let me offer the complete list of bullet points in the final goal
12. Self-Realization
- Develop an appreciation of the idea that there are many ways to be a good human being
- develop a better self
- Contribute to the development of a better society

And Bracey's final commentary:
Again, this is a list that, while missing some key constructs, stands in stark contrast to the debased "conversation" about the nature of public schooling today.

I hope by now you have a sense of the book, of Bracey's thinking.

Let me end by returning to the beginning, to the introduction. Bracey refers to Fareed Zakharia, who asked the Singapore Minister of Education why the test aces in that small nation faded as they moved into real life while the Americans who trailed them badly outperformed them in almost all aspects of life.
The Singapore Minister of Education responded that there are some parts of the intellect that you cannot test very well. This is where America excels, said the minister. Most of all, he said, American students are willing to challenge the conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. . .
Bracey goes on to quote psychologist and psychometrician Robert Sternberg as noting how our wide-spread use of standardized test
is one of the most effective, if unintentional vehicles this country has created for suppressing creativity
As Bracey points out,
We measure what we can and come to value what is measured over what is not. In doing so we throw away most of education.

He then offers a list of things - "hardly exhaustive" - of personal qualities that we either don't use test to measure or that, for the most part, we can't use tests to measure" and it is with that list I wish to end, hoping that I have convinced you that this final book by Gerald Bracey is more than worthy of your attention, of the money and time to obtain and devour - not just read - it.



Critical thinking

















Sense of Humor




Aaron Schutz said...

This is a great review of what is clearly a great book. What I would like to understand is why apparently intelligent lawmakers don't understand the most basic aspects of this argument (including Obama). Clearly books like these are not making much of an impact. If we understood better what motivated lawmakers, and what motivates them to change, then we would understand better how to influence them (and perhaps the nation) to shift their obsession with standardized tests.

I often think of Reagan's use of the "welfare queen" example (which he knew was completely made up) and the way it provided a tool for getting people to rethink welfare. What kind of simple "message" or "metaphor" would get across to lawmakers and the American people and our president the dangers of the test industrial complex?

At some point, all of this work saying basically the same thing--regardless of how wonderfully Bracey said it--gets annoying. Not that I think we should stop writing about this. But we are not doing research any more, we are just repeating well established facts. And having little or no impact.

I remember chatting with Bob Lin and others who were consulting with the democrats when NCLB (or its predecessor) was developed more than a decade ago. They were unable to get lawmakers to listen to them then.

Again the Einstein quote: doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity (or something like that).

What opponents to the current regime are doing is not working. It has not worked. What else might work? How do we need to change our approach, given the resources we have at our command?

As a coda, let me say that I think the problem is not simply one of power. I think there are plenty of folks with power--e.g., Obama--who really believe they are doing the right thing. These are the people I wonder why we can't reach.

Jonathan said...

posted this on twitter. I am buying it right now!

David B. Cohen said...

Great review, Ken! Your detailed and thoughtful writing - on any topic - always sets the standard. Not that we have to have standards... but, well, you know what I mean!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this thorough and timely review. I will read this.

This message is especially important in light of today's news that the administration hopes to predicate much of Title I funding primarily on student test scores.

High stakes indeed!

The Quizzical Teacher

JH said...

Terrific review of, and reflection on, a most important and useful book. Thank-you.
- Josie

Art said...

Two summers ago a bill was introduced in Congress that would have weakened NCLB's accountability requirements. The nation's civil rights establishment rose promptly and energetically in opposition to the bill. Even after that Bracey likened supporters of NCLB to Naziis and seemingly held on to the absurd idea that George Miller, Ted Kennedy, Bill Taylor, and then Barack Obama just didn't recognize an effort to destroy public education when they say it.

This is all too much.


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