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 www.marionbrady.com.
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
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
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 well, you get my point.
Put aside for the moment the data produced by commercially
manufactured, machine-scored standardized tests, and consider this
United States: 61,361
China: 19, 826
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
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
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
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
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