Sunday, April 26, 2009


Jay Mathews Yields to Persuasion

You have to admire Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews for his openness to persuasion. Unlike so many education commentators, he is willing to budge an inch or two in the face of compelling arguments.

The latest example of this pliability came on Monday, when he responded to a young teacher's concerns about the effect of testing and accountability pressures on teaching and learning. He was willing to concede two problems the young teacher raised:

  1. With its all-or-nothing focus on passing state tests, No Child Left Behind turns a blind eye to much excellent work in schools.
  2. Current accountability policies encourage schools to focus on "bubble kids"--students just under the passing bar. Meanwhile, those schools leave other children behind.

Mathews' instinctive reaction to the "bubble kids" phenomenon is fairly common: "A good principal...would put an end to such nonsense." This response certainly carries genuine emotional weight. Still, it puzzles me that so many DC policy wonks invoke it in defense of No Child Left Behind in its current form.

What, after all, is the point of a policy that creates poor incentives and encourages perverse behavior? If we can rely on everyone to do the right thing regardless of consequences, then we hardly need accountability systems in the first place.

As Mathews realizes, even good principals succumb to pressures to focus on "bubble kids" when the stakes are so high. When he learns that the founder of DC's much-admired Cesar Chavez charter school does it, he concludes that it is "a bigger problem than I thought."

Sure, many schools offer all children rich instruction in the liberal arts and still manage to reach their performance targets on state assessments. This website celebrates many such schools. But is such courage always or even often rewarded? Are impressive achievement gains always recognized in AYP determinations?

Mathews recommends broader, fairer and more accurate measures of school and student success. Like many, he calls for measures that gauge students' academic improvement over time. He also seconds his young teacher's call for a more comprehensive vision of success:

It would be better to credit the school for important successes outside of testing, Fine wrote, such as "when a teacher energizes a reluctant reader to tackle a novel, when a struggling math student starts coming after school for tutoring, when an administrator finally gets a troublemaker to reflect on her actions."


There should also be a way to honor Fine's request for an extra dimension, such as reporting a rise in students doing scientific experiments or writing analytical papers. Some monitoring systems, such as those used by International Baccalaureate programs, do that. It is part of good teaching and should be available to everybody.

Using richer and more accurate measures for accountability purposes won't be easy. But many more people now agree that it's important.

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