Given the recent developments here and the trend over the past several years – see So the Gonski Report on education funding has now been published most recently – the recent article by Diane Ravitch in The New York Review of Books is a real must. Ravitch is the author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (New York: Basic Books, 2010) and The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (New York: Knopf, 2003).
The main mechanism of school reform today is to identify teachers who can raise their students’ test scores every year. If the scores go up, reformers assume, then the students will enroll in college and poverty will eventually disappear. This will happen, the reformers believe, if there is a “great teacher” in every classroom and if more schools are handed over to private managers, even for-profit corporations.
The reformers don’t care that standardized tests are prone to measurement error, sampling error, and other statistical errors.1 They don’t seem to care that experts like Robert L. Linn at the University of Colorado, Linda Darling-Hammond at Stanford, and Helen F. Ladd at Duke, as well as a commission of the National Research Council, have warned about misuse of standardized tests to hold individual teachers accountable with rewards or sanctions. Nor do they see the absurdity of gauging the quality of a teacher by the results of a multiple-choice test given to students on one day of the year.
Testing can provide useful information, showing students and teachers what is and is not being learned, and scores can be used to diagnose learning problems. But bad things happen when tests become too consequential for students, teachers, and schools, such as narrowing the curriculum only to what is tested or cheating or lowering standards to inflate scores. In response to the federal and state pressure to raise test scores, school districts across the nation have been reducing the time available for the arts, physical education, history, civics, and other nontested subjects. This will not improve education and is certain to damage its quality.
No nation in the world has eliminated poverty by firing teachers or by handing its public schools over to private managers; nor does research support either strategy.2 But these inconvenient facts do not reduce the reformers’ zeal…
6. Take note of my late Aunt Beth. She was an Infants teacher of many years standing, and in her time a pioneer of such literacy initiatives as the Hallidayan “Breakthrough to Literacy”. In the last conversation I had with her on the subject – and in fact The Rabbit was present and may recall this – she said, in relation to the way her grandchild was being taught, that it would be a good idea if we stopped all this testing and measuring and got back to teaching… There may well be a clue there for your education revolution.
Back to Diane Ravitch:
Sahlberg recognizes that Finland stands outside what he refers to as the “Global Education Reform Movement,” to which he appends the apt acronym “GERM.”GERM, he notes, is a virus that has infected not only the United States, but the United Kingdom, Australia, and many other nations. President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program are examples of the global education reform movement. Both promote standardized testing as the most reliable measure of success for students, teachers, and schools; privatization in the form of schools being transferred to private management; standardization of curriculum; and test-based accountability such as merit pay for high scores, closing schools with low scores, and firing educators for low scores.
In contrast, the central aim of Finnish education is the development of each child as a thinking, active, creative person, not the attainment of higher test scores, and the primary strategy of Finnish education is cooperation, not competition. I will consider the Teach for America organization—the subject of Wendy Kopp’s A Chance to Make History—in comparison to the Finnish model in a second article.