Date: Feb 10, 2013 4:10 PM
Author: Jerry P. Becker
Subject: Why schools used to be better

From The Answer Sheet By Valerie Strauss, The
Washington Post, Thursday, January 3, 2013. See
Why schools used to be better

By Valerie Strauss: It's one of the ironies of
education reform that despite wave after wave,
schools are seen by many as in worse shape as
before all the changes. Here's a look at why from
Marion Brady, who was a classroom teacher for
years, has written history and world culture
textbooks (Prentice-Hall), professional books,
numerous nationally distributed columns (many are
available here), and courses of study. His 2011
book "What's Worth Learning" asks and answers
this question: What knowledge is absolutely
essential for every learner? His course of study
for secondary-level students, called Connections:
Investigating Reality, is free for downloading
here. Brady's website is

By Marion Brady

You enter a checkout lane at Walmart, Target, or
other big-box store and put your purchases on the
counter. They're scanned by a device that reads
bar codes and translates them into data fed at
the speed of light through fiber optics cables to
corporate headquarters and distribution centers.

The data produced by the bar code readers keep
track of inventory, determine appropriate
staffing levels, provide feedback about
advertising effectiveness, and much else that
guides decision making.

Those in Washington now shaping education policy
are certain that what data tracking does for
business it can do for education.

But there's a problem. Kids don't come with bar
codes, and teachers don't have scanners. Nancy
Creech, the Michigan kindergarten teacher who
recently told her story here on The Answer Sheet,
summarized a consequence of data-collecting
mandates. Authorities in her state, unwilling to
trust her professional judgment, require her to
give more than 27,000 grades or marks to her 4-
and 5-year-olds. That number, evenly distributed
over the school year, would require her to take a
data-related action every two minutes of every
school day!

This, of course, is ridiculous - almost as
ridiculous as assuming that machine-scored
standardized tests produce important data about
the mental ability and future potential of those
who take them.

As others have pointed out, computer programmers
have an appropriate acronym for irrelevant data:
"GIGO"-"Garbage In, Garbage Out." If data fed
into a computer is nonsense, the data coming out
will be nonsense.

The non-educators now in charge of education have
the teaching profession awash in GIGO.

Scores on tests created by and for the dominant
culture but given to every kid? GIGO. Scores on
tests that can't evaluate original or complex
thought? GIGO. Scores on tests deliberately
designed to produce a pre-determined failure
rate? GIGO. Scores on life-affecting tests that
ignore dozens of variables over which educators
have no control? GIGO. Scores on tests that
Šwell, you get my point.

Put aside for the moment the data produced by
commercially manufactured, machine-scored
standardized tests, and consider this data:

United States: 61,361

Germany: 31,122

China: 19, 826

UK: 8,066

Japan: 6,915

Canada: 6,752

Australia: 6,020

India: 5,552

France: 4,880

South Korea: 4,630

Those are the numbers, by country, of scientific
articles downloaded from the Internet over a 24
hour period on April 12, 2012. Do they suggest
America's educational system is teetering on the
edge of catastrophe? Or do they instead raise
questions about the usefulness and reliability of
test scores that say we're 17th in the world in
science and 25th in math?

The lack of fit between our standardized test
scores and our scientific productivity calls for
explanations. Possibilities: Unlike at least some
other countries, America tests just about every
kid; educational systems differ from country to
country in what's taught to whom, when, making
direct comparisons impossible; an increasing
number of American kids, tired of the guessing
game, no longer take tests seriously.

But perhaps what's most important in
international comparisons is that the published
scores are country averages, and it's not a
country's average kids but its high scorers who
grow up to download scientific papers.

And America has a lot of high scorers.

Surely a more important question, then - one
that's not being asked - is "Why does America
have far more than its share of high scorers?"

Here's a theory: Up until this generation of kids
- before business leaders and politicians took
control of schooling, before No Child Left
Behind, before Race to the Top, before
high-stakes testing, before the drive to
super-standardize, before the not-enough-rigor
hysteria - a usefully descriptive word for
America's system of education was "loose."

In that earlier era, I taught in four high
schools. They differed - rural, urban, rich,
poor, big, small - but on certain measures, they
were alike.

In all four, my professional judgment was
respected. I was free to capitalize on what
educators call "teachable moments," free to make
use of local issues, free to appropriately pace
instruction, free to experiment with alternative
approaches, free to adapt to a class's
distinctive "personality." And probably most
importantly, I was free from mandates directing
me to try to standardize kids. That meant I could
deal differently with them, could, for example,
know who was most likely to be reading scholarly
articles 10, 20, 30 years down the road and steer
them appropriately.

Second, all the schools offered more elective
classes than are now available. Freedom to adapt
their schedules to their interests and abilities
put fewer kids in classes in which they held back
those future readers of scholarly articles.

Third, no test-based, stress-creating fog of fear
permeated the four schools. The usual,
sometimes-stupid policies that came down from
state departments of education (often stemming
from some powerful state legislator's whim),
could be ignored without threatening loss of
professional reputation or job.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that in the
good old days America's schools were great. I've
written whole books about why they weren't, and
what could be done to make them better. I am
saying that before decisions about what's taught
were made in Washington, before the attacks of
the privatizers, before rigor-mania, schools were
better than they now are. System looseness
allowed teachers to teach, and a sufficient
number of them did it well enough to turn out
kids who eventually downloaded those 61,361
scholarly papers.

As the students of that "loose" era retire,
replaced by standardized test-takers and
test-prep teachers, kiss the creativity goose
that laid the golden eggs goodbye.

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244