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Charter schools, Standardized Tests and the Tianamen Square Effect

Parent facing down the Educational Establishment

Parent facing down the Educational Establishment

Vastleft’s post on the NEA’s response to Obama’s education plans reminded me of piece I had seen in the NYTimes last week just before I went on vacation.  In Dangling Money, Obama Pushes Education Shift, the Obama agenda on education starts to crystallize as an increase in charter schools and an emphasis on standardized tests.

Now, before I get into this further I want to make three things absolutely clear: 1.) I’m no Obama fan because he doesn’t make policy based on principle so what is he up to?  2.) I am a strong supporter of teacher’s *labor* unions.  3.) I don’t like No Child Left Behind for many reasons, the main one being that it seems to be designed to make public education unpalatable so that many of us don’t want to support it anymore.  That being said, Obama’s plans are pretty reasonable as long as they don’t undermine the strength of the teacher’s labor unions and I’ll tell you why.  But first, an antecdote.

During my brief tenure as a school board member (I only ran for one term), my personal mission was to change the curriculum of our school district.  My district is about 10 miles from Princeton but it definitely couldn’t compete with Princeton or the school district I had recently left, West Windsor-Plainsboro, which is where many Princeton people live.  Central Jersey is chock full of high tech, pharmaceutical and academic types.  But what is really interesting is what you will find in graduate level classes at universities like Princeton and Rutgers, especially in the hard sciences.  Almost everyone is asian.  This is not a biased remark.  It is simply reality.  In fact, my brainiac #2 child took a 5 week algebra course at Rutgers Prep this summer and was the only caucasian in the class.

We noticed it at work as well.  In the late 80’s and early 90’s, labs across the state got an influx of Chinese scientists.  I called it the Tianamen Square Effect.  Many of these Chinese students came after the failed uprising.  The lucky ones got out and came to the states to study.  They told us stories about what education is like in China.  It’s grueling.  There are standardized tests, high stakes standardized tests, constantly.  Those tests determine whether you will be able to go to a good school and study or whether you will end up making widgets in a factory somewhere.  It is really important to do well and parents push their children hard.

So, back in my days on the school board, I brought this up to the curriculum supervisors and asked why we weren’t performing at least at the same level as Princeton and West Windsor-Plainsboro where there was much more rigor and a more challenging curriculum in math and science?  The attitude I was met with might be described as, “So what?  They just do “drill and kill”.  Chinese students aren’t creative.  They just imitate everything we do.  We Americans have nothing to worry about.”  (Education propaganda is about as difficult to kill as the stuff that emanates from Rush Limbaugh.)  Educators seem all too willing to believe what other educators tell them but easily dismiss what people who work in the real world tell them.

I’ll tell you why we have to worry.  While their billions of children were clawing their way up the academic ladder, ours were coddled to the point of being completely useless to anyone but the finance industry.  Oh sure, we educate a lot of future accountants and teachers but future researchers of America who can use the scientific method or think rationally?  Not so much.  It is the sheer numbers of well educated Chinese and Indians that should be alarming to us.  Their populations are much bigger than ours, therefore the number of hard science graduates they have is also much bigger.  And those so-called imitative automatons are beating the pants off us in the world of outsourcing.  Why should American companies hire expensive American scientists when Indian PhDs are a dime a dozen in Hyderabad?  And yes, these same American companies don’t think twice about giving those PhD’s the boring, tedious work that *used* to be done by scientists with four year degrees.  So, if the US wants to re-establish its innovative bona fides, we have got to get crackin’ or send our kids to China for 12 years so they’re ready to compete when they get to college. It won’t be long before those Chinese and Indian scientists are inventing the next internet.

So, I was pained to see the NEA come out against charter schools.  I understand it but it still shows that they just don’t get it.  Or they get it but they’re in denial.  There is a HUGE problem with the US education establishment that will become a serious obstacle to any change in policy.  It is not unionization.  It is preparation.  Our teachers are simply not equipped to teach world class math and science.  I think this is part of the resistance to standardized testing.  It is very hard to teach standards which you do not understand.  Most teachers can handle the early grades fairly well.  It’s when children hit the intermediate grades that we have problems.  Here’s how the problem plays out in NJ:

Every child in our school district takes a statewide stadardized test called the NJASK.  A child is ranked partially proficient, proficient and advanced proficient based on the NJASK and is *supposed* to put into a class based on their score.  So, partially proficient kids should get extra help, proficient kids are the vast majority of students.  But what about the advanced proficient kids?  As I said before, in the early grades, teachers can differentiate their curriculum a bit.  But once they hit middle school, the advanced proficients meet the K-8 teacher certification limit.  At this point, teachers aren’t required to teach anything more than algebra I and most aren’t required to do that anyway with the vast majority of students taking pre-algebra.  So, if a kid scores at the top of the advanced proficiency range, there may not be enough room for him/her in the single class of 21 kids that gets the benefit of the single teacher in the school that is qualified to teach them advanced algebra I and geometry.  This is what happened to Brook last year.  She’s at the top of the advanced proficiency range and does very well on her math tests.  But she refused to do her homework. So she ended up repeating pre-algebra. (For some reason, teachers are convinced that every child has to do the same homework, whether they’ve mastered the material or not.  I’d give them homework on stuff they don’t already know but that requires a different curriculum and it’s so much easier to blame the kid and reinforce bad study habits.  Ok, the kid has an attitude problem too but I digress…)

What we do with these advanced proficients who don’t show zealous attention to their homework is we hold them back in 7th and 8th grade.  We slow them down so they don’t peak in algebra too soon, leaving them nothing to do for 2 years.  In the meantime, these kids start hating the subject matter.  It’s goes too slowly and it’s too easy.  They develop poor study habits.  We level them off to the same proficiency as their peers.  Wonderful. But it doesn’t stress the teachers and that seems to be the point.  We can reward teachers for taking continuing education credits and getting masters degrees but these classes seem limited to learning new pedagogy, not content.  And some curriculum supervisors admit that their teachers are afraid of science and math, especially in the lower grades.  They want pre-digested lesson plans and packets that can you can just add water and serve.  Nothing too stressful.

It’s not that these teachers are incapable of learning math and science to world class standards.  It’s just that we don’t make them do it.  We fall victim to the “guide on the side, not sage on the stage”, “drill and kill” and “we shouldn’t be teaching to the test” propaganda, but these memes are just smokescreens.  Take the last one for example.  We are talking about *standardized* tests.  That means that standards were to be taught.  If a teacher’s class hasn’t been learning the standards all year that are expected by local, state, and the national authorities, what the f^*) has the class been learning?  NO teacher should be cramming in the weeks leading up to a test.  The standards are there to be used as guidelines as to what is expected to be learned.  If teachers do not like the standards or are incapable of teaching them, they can always go into finance.  I personally don’t like New Jersey’s standards because they are fuzzy and indistinct, but by golly, the NJASK is a hard test so somebody better know how to teach this stuff.

What frosts my crockies is that many parents like myself and my internationally trained colleagues can’t afford to live in Princeton.  So, we’re stuck in these suburban school districts were “all of the children above average”.  And that’s it.  There is no pushing limits.  Teachers act as gatekeepers to the tiny number of slots in the enriched classes and the selection process appears to be subjective.  Many of my colleagues resort to sending their kids to Saturday Chinese schools or summer programs at local prep schools.  The local schools simply refuse to accommodate accelerated math and science programs for their middle schoolers.  If that’s the case, why shouldn’t we, the taxpayers, choose to allocate some of our hard earned money to a charter school, staffed by union teachers but teaching curriculum at a world class level?  What exactly is the problem?  That diverting some of the money from the general population would be a detriment to the students?  When we expect our children to perform at the level of our Asian counterparts, maybe they will have made a case.  But right now, we ask far too little in order to compete at an international level.  It’s time we asked more of our teachers.  For starters, let’s ask them to stop holding back our best students.

Teachers, educate yourselves.

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