Sometimes chest pounding just gets you bruises

A week ago the New York Times published an article by Trip Gabriel on various scandals across the country involving teacher and administers cheating in order to falsify results of standardized tests given to their students. The article was duly noted here, but the Times rightly decided that that scribbling was hardly worth the eye damage reading it on a flickering screen would inflict. Besides the Times had bitten the ankle of this issue and was not about to let go. Three weeks before its Freakonomics blog had a post on teacher cheating in Australia. The day after the article the Times‘s “Learning Network” blog used the article to try to generate hits from students with a post entitled “Are your teachers under too much pressure?” The blog virtually (get it?) begged for students to agree with the Times and at the same time show how sycophantic to authority they could be (It was as though they were conducting personality tests for prospective Times employees):

Students: Tell us what you think about this story and the opinions expressed in it. Are your teachers under too much pressure? Do you think that most of the pressure comes from high-stakes testing? How fair do you think it is to judge teachers based on their students’ standardized test scores in general?”

Not satisfied that enough bandwidth and newsprint had been sacrificed for this article yet, the Time today had an editorial, with the odd title “That Cheats the Kids” (proof-readers evidently aren’t allowed to touch opinions of the editor).

I have sometimes wondered how the Times decides on editorials and how they go about writing it. Do all the department heads come into the room with the Editor-in-Chief and discuss the subject?  Do all editors get a say? What about Will Shortz? He edits the crossword puzzle. What if he’s out at a puzzle convention or taping a bit for NPR?

However it’s done, this time it was a mostly solid Timesian effort. They noted their belief that “[m]ost educators across the country administer these tests honestly and in good faith” to reassure everyone that they were decidedly not looking for some fundamental change in the way things are done.  Fundamental change is bad for the stock prices of the New York Times Corporation.  They then congratulated themselves for publishing Tripp Gabriel’s article.  They poked their finger in the eye of “those” who blamed high-stake testing for the problem.  “But that’s like blaming the biopsy that turns up evidence of serious disease.”  That’s like a metaphor that Joseph Pulitzer himself might have used.

Then comes the meat of the piece.  “Yearly testing, required by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, is the cornerstone of the school reform effort. … And it is the only way to ensure that poor and minority children are being taught to meet the same standards as their affluent and white counterparts.”

And what we really want (note I can use the King James Version begin-a-sentence-with-a-conjunction-to-show-what-you-are-about-to-say-is-divinely-inspired-and-can’t-be-challenged device just like the Times) is for all students to “meet the same standards.”  That is precisely what’s wrong with education. Kids not meeting the same standards.

Not too long ago (this spring in fact) I challenged a fifth grade teacher about how she marked a supposed science test.  I said that the answer she was looking for incorrectly stated Newton’s Second Law of Motion. I gave her authority to (easily) look up how she got it wrong. When I later asked her why she didn’t respond to my email she said:  “You are probably right; but  I’m just teaching what my instruction leader told me too.” In other words, I am here just to make sure everyone lives up to the same standards, whatever they might be and whoever devises them and for whatever reason. When I followed it up with her “instruction leader” he said: “We don’t teach acceleration” — half of the components of force in Classical Mechanics. (His admission showed that the school only taught Half-Class Mechanics.)

In ABC of Reading (New York; 1960) Ezra Pound says this of teachers (p84):

“No teacher has ever failed from ignorance.
That is empric professional knowledge.
Teachers fail because they cannot ‘handle the class.’
Real education must ultimately be limited to men who INSIST on knowing, the rest is mere sheep-herding.”

And, yes, I do understand that I risk being considered a crank both for quoting Pound on the subject and for pursuing this subject beyond its intrinsic interest.

The Times concludes its piece with a call to arms:

“This is no time to back away from testing. States need to develop clear, well-publicized antifraud policies and act decisively when test-tampering is uncovered.”

A very solid job by the Times.  Predictable, threatening to no one in particular, addressing a problem in the least thoughtful way possible, and proposing a solution that nobody will implement and nobody will dispute the need for.

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