In love with numbers, blind to complexity - Tucson Local Media: Editorials

In love with numbers, blind to complexity

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Posted: Tuesday, June 29, 2010 11:00 pm

Better schools, brought to you by the people who brought you the housing bubble and the financial meltdown.

What could possibly go wrong?

I see a troubling trend in today's education reform movement. It's being led by economists and data crunchers who haven't set foot in a K-12 school since they graduated high school. When they think about education, they see disembodied rows and columns of numbers on pristine spreadsheets. They see mathematical formulae that manipulate data pulled from standardized tests to determine what students are learning.

What they don't see is the complex world of real live children in classrooms taught by real live teachers.

Unfortunately, the number crunchers leading today's education reform movement are the same types who led our economy into its current financial disaster. In both cases, we're talking about people who are so in love with their numbers, they are blinded to the incalculable complexity of the systems they try to analyze. They honestly believe they can boil down the entire economic system, or the entire educational system, to a few variables, then plug their data into a computer and come out with a "sure fire, can't miss" way to boost profits, or boost student achievement.

We saw what happened in the world of housing and financial markets. The economists and mathematicians created financial models guaranteeing huge profits. For years, earnings soared. But their laser focus on making money in the short term destroyed the health and stability of the financial sector in the long term. We're just beginning to climb out of the deep hole they dug us into.

I'm seeing a similarly narrow focus among people who are leading the education reform movement. "Raising test scores" is their version of "making a profit." They are focused like a laser on getting those test numbers up.

The problem is, there are lots of ways to raise test scores without giving the students significant, long-term educational benefits.

Teaching to the test is a surefire way to increase scores. Since the high stakes tests are in reading, writing and math, teachers are told to double and triple their efforts in those areas. If that means ignoring science, history and art, so be it. If it means removing discussion, critical thinking exercises and research from the curriculum, so be it.

And if it means narrowing reading, writing and math instruction to those areas most likely to be tested, you shape the instruction to fit the test.

Teaching "testmanship" is another guaranteed way to boost scores. If students spend class time learning test-taking tricks, they're sure to gain a few extra points.

That's the irony of our obsession with standardized testing. If test scores are the main focus of children's educations, their test scores are likely to go up, not because they're actually learning more but because they're being taught how to ace the test.

The more we "game" the tests and figure out tricks to boost scores, the less those scores actually matter.

Will raised test scores in the short term result in genuine educational gains for students in the long term? The jury is still out, but I'm skeptical. Narrowing education to filling in bubbles on a machine-scored answer sheet isn't likely to result in a more educated generation of adults.

This isn't a criticism of the tests themselves. Standardized tests are one way to see the big picture and answer the general question, "How well are we educating our kids?" But they are a crude measure at best. They can't be relied on as a way to measure how well an individual school or teacher is doing or how much an individual student is learning.

I wish I could say the Obama administration has seen the dangers of putting too much reliance on testing, but unfortunately, that isn't the case. Obama and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, have bought into the testing and data crunching model, so we can expect to see even more of it in the years to come.


Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.


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