Monday, May 6, 2013

Testing and the Complexities of Education

Photo by timlewisnm via Flickr
 Last week I was fortunate enough to attend the American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference in San Francisco.  There I presented a paper related to creative Problem-based Learning, ate some amazing food, walked peacefully in the Redwood Forest, and watched with mixed feelings as protestors and scholars alike voiced their thoughts about the complex and sometimes controversial issues of our contemporary education system. I heard some fascinating paper presentations on representations of charter schools in the media, the image and reality of Tinker Bell across the decades, as well as the importance of social justice and needed attention to students who are stuck in perpetual cycles of poverty. What took the cake, though, was my experience watching United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan address the packed ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in downtown. Here is a little video of what it looked like, thanks to my new and somewhat nifty iTouch.

Not only was it packed, but apparently before I arrived in the line (in which I felt like I was in a huge line for a ride at Disney Land or something) there were some protests organized in preparation for Secretary Duncan. Indeed, as I entered the ballroom I received this paper which, as you can see, some folks felt they should raise often throughout the Secretary's speech.

Can you see them holding the signs? There were moments I thought
there might be a hangin' . . . or a public stoning at least.

The Secretary spoke about the importance of testing, but how the current way of doing things is not working. He talked about improving tests rather than abolishing them, and actually mentioned Paul Tough's book (which I reviewed last week) as an indicator that character education is also an important part of what we should be interested. While I don't doubt the integrity of Secretary Duncan's intentions, I am wary of his agenda of testing on the national level with such intensity and focus. I grew up in a time where these kinds of tests were limited, and I will be forever grateful.

Three professors were allowed to ask the Secretary some questions after his speech, and they did so in a pointed, loaded, and--in some regards--disrespectful in tone and nature. However, I can understand to some degree the argument of these individuals and others who want to see this old failed system out of the way. Currently I am reading Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire, by Rafe Esquith, and his insights on testing resonate with me: maybe because he takes a moderate course between where Secretary Duncan stands and where his opponents seem to be.
"Standardized testing has become a nightmare in our schools. Teachers have become so overwhelmed by testing demands that they no longer have enough time to teach their students the subject they are supposed to master . . . I am not opposed to tests. We need to assess how the kids are doing. Accurate, fair, and reasonable examinations can help parents, teachers, and students see what skills are being mastered and what ares need strengthening. Having accurate data is a gift to all parties concerned. But the current system of testing is broken" (p. 73-74). 
I don't have the experience, the context, or the wits to express or argue a coherent perspective on this issue, but Rafe's words seem pretty good to me. The problem is, just like most big and important issues, we can't solve it in one quick swoop of the hand! We all want change, but we just can't seem to agree how, why, and when we need it.

One thing I do know is that booing, blasting Snoop Dog songs on your iPhone, or cat-calling at the Secretary of Education during his speech at a conference is not only unprofessional (especially for an academic conference), but clearly an immature and foolish way to model appropriate methods of protest. It wasn't hard for me to see which party left the conference seeming more the fool and uncontrollable miscreant with major issues. While I disagree with some of the tones and directions of Secretary Duncan, he took the higher road in San Francisco and I hope I will always do the same when engaging in passionate and important discussions about the future of education and our children.

1 comment:

  1. What a great write-up and processing of the conference. I found it most interesting that there were protestors there. It sounds like a great experience.