Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Normal and the Good

I was reading in the Wall Street Journal today about the No Child Left Behind Act, and the way the statistics for "passing rates" were being manipulated to make it appear that the white-black gap in performance was decreasing, when in fact the only thing that was moving was the "passing" standard.

Politics aside, it calls out a problem with evaluating education . . . or evaluating anything, for that matter. We can measure the statistical performance of a group of people, and find the mean or median value, and call that "normal". It is "normal" for children in the eighth grade to read at such-and-such a level. But what does that tell us about how well the should be reading? Not much. Should, the normative standard, is not something you can determine from statistical distribution. No matter how you slice it, all children cannot be above average.

So . . . what should we expect our schools to do? The spirit of "no child left behind" would suggest that there is some minimal standard that nearly everyone, except the most recalcitrant and/or stupid, could readily pass. (Oops. I said it. I said that some people are stupid, or lazy, or otherwise incapable of being educated. Is that really possible? Well, of course it is. The only question is, how many? And can we do something about it?)

So . . . what's going to be our baseline level of high school education? College-readiness? Hardly -- college is not for everyone, and while we want to be sure a certain substantial number of kids are ready to go to college after high school, it's not the standard we apply to everyone.

I think the common-sense expectations most people have for public education are:
  • You should be able to read. That is, read a story from a newspaper or a manual, and be able to answer questions about what it said and what it means. Not literature, not poetry, not even political invective. Just read something basic and factual. And know how to look up words in a dictionary if you don't know them. I would stock the testing rooms with dictionaries.
  • You should be able to write. Again, nothing too complicated here, not even a five-section essay. You should be able to write directions on how to do something that you are familiar with. I don't care if it's instructions on how to sell crack; it's just got to be understandable and reproducible. Spelling would count -- you should be able to spell any word you use in ordinary speech -- but there would be absolutely no penalty for using simple language.
  • You should be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide. You should understand fractions and decimals. No algebra, no trig, no geometry or calculus is required. Just enough to make change, split a check, make a budget.
  • You should be able to use a map. You don't have to pick out countries on a map that isn't labeled -- you just need to be able to look at a map, find a location when asked, and be able to describe a path to get there.
  • History, science, social studies: no requirements. That's all gravy. It's also acquirable if you have the aforementioned skills in reading, writing, arithmetic, and maps.

Why make such a list? Am I trying to dumb down the standards? Is this "the soft bigotry of low expectations?" Nothing of the kind. The problem is that many of the public schools can't even achieve this modest level of education for most of their students. And I think the skills I've described should not take an eternity of standardized testing to deduce. Any employer can figure out in a matter of five or ten minutes whether someone possesses these basic skills. Surely, somewhere in the course of twelve years, someone could apply the same common-sensical tests for an individual student. Once you passed the test, you would never be tested again. If someone didn't agree with the outcome of a ten-minute test, they could appeal to take a more extensive written standardized test. But the majority of good-performing students would not have the continual burden of testing-testing-testing.

Of course, none of this would be necessary if there was a free market in the public education system. If people could decide where to send their kids, and choose better performing schools over poorer ones, then no standardized tests would be needed at all. The parents can figure out for themselves which schools are better or worse. That would be the most rigorous test of all.


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