"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Friday, August 10, 2007

Perlstein Interviewed

by Greg Toppo in USA Today:
Since 2002, when No Child Left Behind became law, states have spent millions of dollars giving standardized reading and math tests; one estimate puts the total cost above $5 billion through 2008.

The law requires that about half of all students take the tests and that schools improve each spring so they can stay off federal "needs improvement" lists. Many educators say that's turning schools into test-prep factories where history, science and even recess get shortchanged.

Linda Perlstein, a former Washington Post reporter, wanted to see the effects firsthand, so she spent an academic year inside a high-poverty elementary school in Annapolis, Md.

The result is Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade. USA TODAY's Greg Toppo talks with her about testing:

Q: You spent a year getting to know kids at Tyler Heights Elementary School. How did this change your outlook on their education and tests?

A: I don't have a problem with testing children. I have a problem with thinking test results tell you most of what you need to know. They simply don't — these tests are often very narrow instruments. Where reforms have forced educators to notice children who might otherwise have been neglected, I give credit. But I wrote this book because school reforms intended to abolish a two-class system were in some ways exacerbating it. There's one world where students pass the test as a matter of course and get to write poems, and another where children write paragraphs about poems.

Meanwhile, there's supposed to be a movement in American schools to educate each child as an individual. The teachers at Tyler Heights work mightily to do that, but they have to get everybody to the same place in the same amount of time, and follow daily curriculum agendas handed down from above.

Q: President Bush says the "soft bigotry of low expectations" preceded his school reforms, but you say condemning kids to a "rudimentary education" is just as bad. What's so rudimentary about the education at Tyler Heights? And what about similar schools that keep a rich curriculum while doing well on tests?

A: Tyler Heights kids in some ways are very fortunate: Even though many are poor, their well-off district provides them a safe, clean building, plenty of learning tools and a smart, hard-working staff who cares immensely about them. But those educators feel constrained because of rigid curriculum strictures, the low skills of many kids and the pressure to excel on the test.

So a teacher suspects her third-graders might be asked on the test to write a paragraph enumerating the elements of a poem. The kids can't get it right. Does she have them write that paragraph over and over until they do, or does she let them actually write poems? The latter would be more engaging and, in the long run, instructive, but the school might calculate that drilling is the more direct, reliable line between two points. Or that science experiments, since they won't be on the test, aren't the best use of a too-short school day. These aren't choices I agree with, but I understand why they're made. The schools with rich curricula exist here and there, most likely with daring staffs and flexible school districts that give educators plenty of room to innovate.

Q: In one memorable scene, a district supervisor watches kindergartners in gym class waft a parachute into the air and scamper beneath it. She says of the teacher, "I can't see his goal." It seems absurd, but does she have a point?

A: No. The silliest thing I have seen in my decade of education reporting is the insistence that every "learning outcome" be posted — the more jargon, the better. Do 5-year-olds need to know that they are tossing balls onto a parachute and running underneath to "demonstrate ways to send and project an object using a variety of body parts and implements" and "move safely in personal and general space"? Can't they just think they're having fun?

Q: Reading your account of a teacher dropping nonsense words into lessons to prep for their appearance on a vital speed-reading test, I thought about Thoreau's warning against becoming "the tools of our tools." What is wrong with this picture?

A: The teacher wanted her kindergartners to be prepared for their assessment, which makes sense. Kids should learn to sound out letter combinations whether or not they make actual words. But she would have preferred to use that time teaching her kids real vocabulary.

Q: I won't give away the ending, but Tyler Heights seems a different place after the big state test is over — science fairs, creative writing and field trips return. Are tests really calling the shots?

A: After I left Tyler Heights, the principal eased up a bit on her "laser-sharp focus." Activities were spread more evenly throughout the year, third-graders wrote poems, there were more attempts at critical thinking. Compared to the previous year, the percentage of kids passing the state test decreased in more categories than it increased. But I don't think the teachers would tell you the students learned any less.

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