It is rare that a pundit (and ardent reformer) lays out clearly and crisply the core assumption driving the past thirty years of school reform. It is not only rare but startling when that insider then questions the assumption, suggesting that it is a hunch, not a fact. That is what Mike Petrilli does in his recent posting, “The Test Score Hypothesis.”
The entire school reform movement is predicated on a hypothesis: boosting student achievement, as measured by standardized tests, will enable greater prosperity, both for individuals and for the country as a whole. More specifically, improving students’ reading, math, and science knowledge and skills will help poor children climb out of poverty, and will help all children prepare for the rigors of college and the workplace. And by building the “human capital” of the American workforce, rising achievement will spur economic growth which will lift all boats.
You do not get more crisp language about what has driven test-driven accountability reforms of the past 30 years than that. Petrilli then asks:
But is this hypothesis correct? Is stronger academic performance related to better life outcomes for kids and better economic outcomes for nations?
He then cites researchers who lay out the evidence of national and international test scores that are highly correlated (note that word) with economic growth and individual lifetime earnings. He accepts that standardized test scores count for something but then asks a question that only policymakers whisper in the dead of night:
So student achievement matters a lot. But does it matter the most?
We might all want schools … to boost “academic achievement” while also developing “moral, cultured, socially-responsible people.” But our policies — especially school-level accountability and test-based teacher evaluations–focus on academic achievement alone.
He elaborates even further and asks:
The nagging question then … is whether other stuff matters more — both to kids’ life chances and to the country’s economic success. What if, for instance, “social and emotional intelligence” — knowing how to relate to others — is more important than many reformers have been willing to acknowledge? What if these interpersonal skills are what help lift poor kids out of poverty and enable economies to succeed? Or other “soft skills” and attributes like grit, perseverance, industriousness, the ability to delay gratification, and so forth?
Then comes the comparison that entrepreneurial reformers, many of whom were educated in private schools and who preach tough love for public schools, might wince at:
The private school sector … is not so conflicted. Every high-end school boasts about its commitment to the “whole child,” to kids’ intellectual, emotional, social, and physical development. These schools would never consider their graduates to be well-educated without an appreciation for the arts, participation in sports, a commitment to community service, and the development of strong character…. Are these non-academic attributes just “extras” — luxuries that schools serving poor or working class kids just can’t afford? Or are they as essential as academics, for everyone?
The answer Petrilli offers comes as a reform insider–note the “we” and “us” in the following quote–who supports charters, performance pay, and the current reform menu of test-based accountability.
Reading, math, and science matter a lot, but they are almost certainly not enough. That is why we must tread carefully when designing next-generation school accountability and teacher evaluation systems. If we accidentally create incentives for schools and teachers to focus solely on academic achievement and ignore the rest, we could be making our children and our nation less competitive, not more so. Let us proceed with care.
To say “tread carefully” and “proceed with care” after three decades of steel-toed boots stomping of public schools, not to mention, the transfer of an audit culture soaked in high tech from the corporate sector to national educational policy is, well, almost funny. It is, at the least, a disappointing end to such a clear laying out of the assumptions embedded in the reigning “tough love” reform ideology in which Mike Petrilli has been a card-carrying member.
The fact is that the arts, humanities, the entire civic mission of schools have been downsized and outsourced to families, churches, and donors. Even before the recent budget cuts, test-driven accountability had narrowed the school curriculum, particularly in urban districts, reallocated time away from music, art, drama, literature, and social studies to math and language arts. Non-profit organizations, often funded by donors, have stepped in to provide arts–think of the Chicago Children’s Choir and civic engagement–think of the recent Civic Mission of Schools report.
Yes, Common Core Standards and test-based accountability are, like all school reform-driven policies, hunches not facts. Far more humility and full disclosure, however, on the part of self-confident reformers that the policies they push are really being alpha-tested on children and teachers for defects would be a victory for truth.