Monday, April 27, 2009

When Far More Important People Agree With You It's Kinda Weird

"Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Winston Brooks said he now thinks states should be held to a national yardstick when it comes to their student performance. 'States are performing, or not, based upon their own state assessment,' Brooks told members of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties Monday at the Albuquerque Marriott. He said five years ago, he would have opposed such a move. However, with New Mexico seen as a failing state but having standards known for being among the highest in the country, he has changed his tune. The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 only requires all students to be proficient by 2014, which is not realistic, he said. It leaves it up to the individual states to set standards and assessments."
--little blurb/post by reporter Andrea Schoelkopf,, 4.27.09
Golly. That's encouraging. True, Superintendent Brooks has been talking since Day One in ABQ that the 2014 goals are "not realistic". So that's no surprise, especially when one considers that every sane sentient being on this or any other planet has said basically the same thing for years now.

Still, seeing this in "official" print, virtual or otherwise, juxtaposed with comments on the need for nationalized standards/testing is heartening. I wonder what those biz types dining on rubber chicken at the Marriott thought of Brooks' comments. Perhaps reading their feedback would be a bit of a downer.

Better I try to put those thoughts out of my mind, and focus my energies on finishing these "I Love Winston" buttons and bumper stickers. How about a line of "National Yardstick Or No Stick!" t-shirts? Or maybe Super MC Brooks could cut a new mix on an old hip-hop cut with "2-0-1-4 Is A Joke"?

Ok, no bad Public Enemy reference can remain unpunished. Let's close a rare upbeat Burque Babble post with an upbeat tune about poorly performed public services...


steve said...

Yo Chuck. National directives try to correct surgical problems with a hatchet. It seems to me that it was a national program that started this fiasco and looking for "national standards" etc. would only compound the problem. Schools should be under local control and utilize local resources and satisfy the local societal needs and be measured by local standards. If we can't trust ourselves, who can we trust? Flavor says, remember hurricaine Katrina? We need to get out from under the thumb of NCLB and quit thinking it can be reformed. Don't believe the hype--it just doesn't work--boy.

jscotkey said...

Steve: Normally I'd let a few minutes pass before jumping back in, but my whole day's busy and this is the only five minutes or so I've got.

Oh, the perils of federalism. National v. States' Rights v. local control. I hear what you're saying about the "local societal needs" and all, but you're also right in saying NCLB is a national program (stuffed and twisted to fit into a states' rights paradigm).

But having different rules in different states is just plain dumb, imho, especially when its federal dollars guiding this whole debacle.

The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of following an Advanced Placement or ACT/SAT model in testing. One test, one standard, one ring to rule them all.

No more NAEP (obviously), no more A2L, with teacher/school control of things like "short cycle assessments". All leading to a single "high-stakes test" that follows the kid, school, everybody. One big long-ass longitudinal study.

Yes, I know there's problems with such a solution. But if we're going to have testing, we need to do it right, and by doing it right maybe we could open some eyes to see that it hasn't been right to do standardized testing after all.

From a more "meta" perspective...I wonder if I'll be around long enough to see the pendulum swing so far back that we overcommit the other direction and eliminate all standardized testing "forever".

Anonymous said...

A national test means national standards. This has some merit but it does mean that everyone in America will be doing page 47 on Tuesday, etc. I"m personally a fan of the rather random nature of education. Let's have teachers teach that which they really love. In the end, an attentive student will leave with much knowledge, which is quite different from knowing how to bubble in the test.

Michelle Meaders said...

Too bad the US Education Secretary hasn't been publicly criticising NCLB, since that's where federal policy comes from.

Unless the standards are almost non-existent, it's statistically impossible for every child to meet the same standard. It doesn't make sense to punish a school because some of the kids can't pass the test, for reasons beyond the school's control. And that's leaving aside whether the test measures anything worthwhile.

I thought we knew more about the dimensions of intelligence, and what turns out to be useful in everyday life, work, citizenship, or whatever we value in members of society.

jscotkey said...

I see I'm in the minority here, comments-wise, but appreciate both the comments and the sentiment that "standards" are problematic. Very problematic.

I still think they need to be there, much better defined, of course, and much more individualized than currently done, but there.

The anti-NCLB folks seem to fit into two, quite separate, camps: those who oppose NCLB but not some form of standardized testing, and those who oppose both NCLB and standardized testing.

When I'm mad and think it impossible for ANY governmental entity to get any form of standards-based assessment right, I'm in the second camp. When more optimistic and see some possible means to engage in the process, I'm in the former.

Which is, I think, pretty typical for those of us interested in public policy. Many waver between seeing the connections between good ideas and action, and feeling that those connections are never made.

Given that there's seems to be zero chance for a complete repudiation of NCLB and standardized testing, I'd like to see some of my "second camp" brethren consider how we might best alter the broken system.

For others, who more adamantly oppose any sort of standardization/testing regimen, I completely understand your points, but think you're floating away from the debate on a bit of a intellectual ice floe.

As someone who has floated many, many times on such wayward bits of ice, I know just how you feel. I just don't know if I'm feeling quite that detached this time/issue.

By all means, let's keep the dialogue going. I sure would like to see the Union say something, anything about this stuff. Anything. You can't frame a debate if you only react. If anyone is being "left behind" here, it's the voice of teachers and both their single and supposedly unified voices.

Kelsey Atherton said...

@jscotkey as a big fan of federal government and the social sciences, I've got your back. (sort of)

@steve as a faux-New Orleansian, let me say that Katrina was a failure for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which was a federal unwillingness to act. But another big reason was that the problem of flood control had, for decades, been delegated down to the smallest accountable level of government (parish/city), where the need was great but the funds weren't. If the federal government had been more involved in creating a flood protection plan that protected the cities by building outside of their immediate boundaries, it would have worked much better than a series of small, disjoint, and poorly-unified measures.

the college board does quite well coordinating national tests on the same day. It's not only doable; it is frequently done@Michelle Meaders
love and sympathize with the sentiment, but it's for an alternative charter school or a teachers rally, not so much the general public. Not that the public doesn't agree, mind you; it is just very, very hard to enact policy on that premise, and when the public is upset, they want some policy enacted.

So, the actual point:
A national standard is more or less a necessity for national policy. NCLB made it so that schools had to improve by a percentage, but that has been thrown off as a terrible rubric, that could easily be cheated by a poor-performing and poor state to make competency and receive federal monies (lower the standard, do better, retain funding). If we're going to have national funding and national involvement, we'll need one standard.

Whatever the standard is doesn't matter all that much for the first years; we'll have a test, require that schools administer it and students take it, and some problems may become immediately apparent and get some action. Really, though, the first ~5 years are data collection, and after that enough will be known to examine how teachers are doing, how students are doing, how well the test is at analyzing subjects, related factors to all of this, and then gaps in the coverage. With data like that, and scores tracked to bot students throughout their education careers and to teachers via rate of within-a-year student improvement, actual policy can be devised.

What a system cannot do, ever, is withdraw funding. That would change the incentivizing of the program. And it cannot force perpetual improvement, as that's an impossibility. The most effective thing it can do is gather data, and figure out how a national standard would work.

For a program to do any more than that, the US would need another debate about education and federalism; the US Department of Education funds 8% of education within the country, and that's far from a majority shareholder stake, which is what policy implementation would require. If the test, and the data it provides, convince the public that 1) there are tangible problems with public education, 2) the federal government is capable of fixing them, and 3) it's worth trading state education sovereignty for fixing these problems, then we'll see a solution.

I'm actually optimistic about it happening, but that's more because I think for most people the education situation is a meaningful problem, while state sovereignty is less so. I still won't expect anything like this for ~20 years.