Closer Than Finland with Less Stormy Weather

As I write this, it is 37°F/3°C and raining in Helsinki, Finland. Fortunately, educators wanting to stay dry and save money on international fact-finding missions need not head for distant stormy weather. Instead they may go to Rockville Centre, New York (49°F/9° and partly sunny), where Diane Ravitch reports that South Side High School, a public high school, has “closed the achievement gap,” or is closing it, between its white and Asian students and its black and Latino students. Moreover, it has done so without tracking and without fund-doping by businessmen’s foundations. Best of all, these improvements, having taken place and been sustained over a number of years, look solid and believable, so unlike the overnight wonders and nocturnal remissions touted by the Instant Solutions balonists[1] in government and among the oh-so-helpful foundations. And, as Ravitch points out, Rockville Centre is “closer than Finland.”

It is against this backdrop of success that Carol Burris, the principal of South Side, wrote an open letter with another principal that has since been signed by over 650 principals from around New York State protesting RAce to the Top (RAT) and value-added learning. Principals protesting! Hardly are the words out when I race down Memory Lane to Mr. Wood, Mr. Bemis, Mr. Miller, Mr. Searles, and Sister St. Joan. Protest? What can have happened between their principalships and now? Readers of these postings will know, but it is one thing to read about a misbegotten policy and another to realize that it is forcing a state’s educators into open opposition.

I don’t think we will see Occupy the Lyndon Baines Johnson DOE Building just yet, but it will be fascinating to see how this disagreement plays out. The Department of Education’s approach attracted a wonderfully pungent comment from Mario Fernandez, a New York principal, who said, “They’re expecting a tornado to go through a junkyard and have a brand new Mercedes pop up.” Pan shot of schoolhouse wreckage with Lena Horne singing “Stormy Weather.” Fade to South Side High School.

* * *

Meanwhile, Rick Roach, a member of the Orange County, Fla. (68°F/20°C), Board of Education decided to sit down to the standardized tests of 10th-grade math and reading mandated in his school district. To his chagrin he got ten math answers right out of 60, and, he thought, those only by guesswork. He scored 62% on the reading test, which makes him barely passable—this though in his main line of work he has a position of responsibility in a large organization for which he has to “make sense of complex data” related to his responsibilities.

He notes with some indignation that the math test is used as part of the basis for counseling students into or away from college preparation (and, I fear, for evaluating teachers’ success in their work). He suggests that the test should have more of the kind of math used in the “real world,” whatever that is; and while I can understand his upset, I think this suggestion is somewhat misguided. More to the point in my mind is his complaint that the tests are being used without accountability. I don’t think he means the accountability of teachers through RAT and other “data” “proving” their high crimes and misdemeanors. Rather, he means an intellectual justification of the tests and of the precise use to which they are actually being put. Readers of this posting of mine may wonder whether that is possible. Readers of this posting, in which Valerie Strauss interviews Mr. Roach, will see that he has some serious and clearly stated objections to the test itself that should be carefully considered by people like those to whom Ms. Burris’s letter is addressed. Who knows that such study and attention won’t be the prelude to some educational climate change?

[1] See the definition of baloney in an extract from my Didact’s Dictionary.


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