Monday, March 7, 2011

Education Corner: Be Quiet, Matt Damon!

I've decided to branch out a little bit and occasionally comment about education, which is my chosen field. While not technically related to being green, I think that how we educate our children -- particularly in math, science, literature, and history -- will impact what they ultimately decide to do for the environment.


I am mad at Matt Damon.

No. Not because he said that he's disappointed in Obama. I mean, I'm not really disappointed in Obama, but only because I didn't expect much in the first place.

I'm mad at Matt -- whose politics I usually agree with -- because he's saying lame stuff about education. On Piers Morgan (linked above) he said that he doesn't like Obama's education policy:

The actor particularly slammed education policy that ties teacher salaries to students’ test scores. "That kind of mechanized thinking has nothing to do with higher-order thinking. We're training them, not teaching them," he said. - Politico

When people say things like this, they are spouting an uninformed opinion about testing and teachers' role in it. Here are a few reasons why I disagree with Matt's over-simplified view of testing:

1. The tests we are talking about are what's known as "minimum standards" tests. They test the bare minimum you should know at any grade level. With the exception of one or two states, the tests that count, policy-wise, are not rigorous. If kids can't do well on them, we are not teaching them enough.
2. I've actually experienced having part of my teaching salary (in the form of bonuses) tied to students' test scores - unlike a lot of people, including many teachers, who are jumping into this debate. Again, since these tests aren't particularly rigorous, if my kids weren't able to perform well on them, I didn't deserve a bonus because it meant I didn't teach my kids enough. (Just FYI, I maxed out my bonus every year, while still teaching my kids to write poetry, perform in plays, do Oregon Trail simulations, and hold mock elections. Test prep shouldn't crowd out other types of learning, which brings me to...)
3. Yes, some teachers teach rote and mechanized ways to "game" standardized tests. But if they are doing that, it's not as if they were teaching Shakespeare one day and then turned around and started teaching kids to fill in bubbles. Good teachers teach higher-order thinking no matter what. The LA Times, when it explored quality teaching, found that the teachers who were getting the highest "value-added" scores (a year with these teachers resulted in boosting scores beyond what would be predicted), were teaching kids higher-order thinking skills. Teachers who are trying to game the test probably weren't teaching higher-order thinking before high-stakes testing.

This doesn't mean there aren't problems with the current state of standardized testing. It does take up a lot of time and it does put a lot of pressure on educators. Leaders, in particular, may be tempted to ask their teachers to do weird things because of standardized testing. Yet we have to remember, ten or fifteen years ago, schools were allowed to graduate kids who couldn't read or write, and hide that data in a big ol' stew of averages. Most people weren't noticing that in some schools, minority and low-income students were failing - or put into special ed - while their white, higher-income classmates were excelling. Now EVERYONE knows there's something wrong, and no one can hide anymore.

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