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Counting the Guns

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Recently in a TV interview discussing the fall of Ramadi to ISIS and the statement of Secretary of Defense Carter to the effect that the Iraqis did not have the will to fight, General Stanley McChrystal made a comment that resonated with me and which I paraphrase here. “War isn’t math,” he said. “If it was, we’d just add up who has the most men and weapons and nobody would have to actually fight, but that’s not how it works.”

“Wow!” I thought. “If war isn’t math, why are we trying to make education nothing but math?” But that is exactly what is happening. The American public has been convinced that all that matters in education is what we can count. We administer scores of tests mandated by federal, state, and district entities to measure our kids and then use those tests to make decisions that are unwarranted by the types of tests being used because–DATA! DATA is the greatest good! I’m sure there are cultural and historical and social explanations for how we got to this place, but I’m not sure those explanations really matter. Here we are, and our kids are suffering as a result of the overpowering culture of test and test-prep. They are suffering because, as many have aptly said, “Our kids are more than a score!” And we are ignoring all those things we’re not testing in our rush to DATA. (This would be a good place to discuss the reasons so much data is being collected by entities that have no legitimate reason to have it and hope you won’t notice that they do, but we’ll save that for another post.)

General McChrystal was not saying that the number of weapons and men don’t matter, but he was pointing us to the idea that what truly matters is the hearts of the soldiers and the generals who lead them into battle. If that is true for war, how much more is it true for learning. Of course we need a limited amount of appropriate data (emphasis on the words “limited” and “appropriate”) to help us understand where our students are, but what is infinitely more necessary are classrooms where students feel safe enough to fail (because we learn from failure, more than from success). We need teachers who are allowed to design their instruction in such a way that they can ignite the curiosity and the commitment to learning within their students, instead of following numbing mandates and scripts handed down from “on high.” That cannot happen when teachers and students are required to do almost constant test-prep and testing. And, yes, that IS what is going on in many, if not most, schools in 2015.

The solution?
Stop the asinine testing. If your school won’t stop it, opt your children out.
Provide teachers with an adequate wage and safe working conditions. Expensive tests don’t teach kids; teachers do.
Give them adequate resources to work with–maybe it’s technology and maybe it isn’t. And teachers need intensive professional development to figure out which works best in any given situation.
Help teachers and students learn how to collaborate, how to inquire, how to set up and solve problems. These, by the way, are the specific things business leaders have been telling educators they need. Standardized tests cannot assess that, much less teach it.
Teach administrators to be coaches who support what teachers can do and help them to do the things they’re not doing yet, not policemen charged with enforcing the rules. Some administrators know how to do this, but many do not.

If we really want students to make progress in their learning, we will focus on these things, not on tests and the data. Dr. Walter Stroup of UT-Austin concluded from his studies that test results are essentially impervious to instruction and can’t tell us how well students are learning, only that they do or do not know how to take tests. Neither can they tell us how individual teachers are performing, as has been corroborated by multiple statistical studies. Other studies have shown repeatedly that the only reasonable conclusion to draw from these tests is that children who come from wealthier homes do better on them than students who don’t.

Pearson, the largest test publication company in the world, attempted to discredit Dr. Stroup’s research with a media campaign suggesting his research was flawed, rather than conducting a fair and open debate as to its accuracy. Dr. Stroup, a tenured professor, almost lost his job for reporting the results of his research, probably due to Pearson’s financial power at the university where he works. The kind of mean-spirited, deliberate campaign of misinformation and the lack of unbiased research of which Dr. Stroup’s experience is an example, is the normal way of doing business with testing companies and corporatista reformers. There is little evidence they care about the real education of children; the first group are out for bigger and bigger profits, while the second group are egotistical elitists who believe that because they have money, they know how to “fix” education. And we can’t forget the hangers-on who see “education reform through testing” as their path to success.

We must hold legislators who talk out of both sides of their mouths accountable. We must hold administrators who do not follow the law accountable. We must stop paying indecent amounts of money to huge testing corporations who do not want you to know what Dr. Stroup discovered and testified about.

Soldiers may know how to use a rifle, but if all they do is practice shooting, they will lack the confidence to face an equally well equipped enemy. They will not have the will to fight. If our students only know how to take tests, they are not likely to be able to demonstrate how to engage in real life, much less function in a democratic republic which requires collaboration, critical thinking, and real problem solving. Do we really want to keep counting the guns?

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